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The Safety, Security and Luxury of My Armchair Analysis
Some thoughts, from the comfort of my couch, as to the past, present and future of people occupied, subjugated and humiliated.
I’m sharing this interview I did with The Black Alliance for Peace, not on Israel and Palestine but on Afghanistan. Afghanistan exists in just the latest phase of a decades-old war, where the people live in a shattered and ruined country, cut off from the world, and where starvation, deprivation and immiseration are daily realities for nearly every family. Of course, that description fits Gaza and, to a lesser degree, the West Bank. Afghanistan and Palestine’s modern existence and circumstances are a consequence of the US Empire.
For my thoughts on Israel and Palestine, please see the below podcast from today. In sum, the Palestinians have the right to self-defense, and such an offensive was inevitable, yet what comes from this campaign launched by Hamas on Saturday? I think, tragically, when the spectacle of killing is over, the suffering and ruination of the Gazans will only be deeper and no political change will be possible for at least another generation.
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Likewise, below is a podcast from late last week discussing the Russia-Ukraine war. We’ve all been looking for something to break that war’s stalemate. Did the Democrats, by removing Speaker McCarthy, provide that something? Speculation, and hope in many quarters, where hope seems to be the foundation of strategy, has been on regime change in Kyiv or Moscow being that something to bring about a grand shift in the fortunes of the war, but is that Deus ex Machina going to come in the form of Speaker Jordan?
Here is the interview with The Black Alliance for Peace. The linked interview is edited and condensed considerably. Below, I have pasted my complete response to their questions regarding my career, Afghanistan, the US Empire, veterans’ issues, and my own performance in independent/third-party politics. Be forewarned it’s lengthy, approximately 5,000 words (written mid-August 2023).
If you are unfamiliar with The Black Alliance for Peace, please take some time with their website. Their work and analysis are consistently excellent.
Would you share some of your personal and professional background with the Black Alliance for Peace international reading audience? Where were you born, where have you lived the most in your childhood and adulthood? What are your North Carolina connections? How did you end up in the military and working for the US security state? What were your connections to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? [I will edit these questions and your answers and put some of the information into the introduction rather than the Q&A. I will edit for concision and clarity the entire interview for the newsletter in track changes and run the penultimate version by you for approval.]
I was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey, in 1973 and lived in New Jersey and New York before attending college in Massachusetts. My best friend and then my brother came to North Carolina for college, so I began visiting North Carolina in the early 90s. Later, in 1999, the Marine Corps stationed me at Camp Lejeune for about six months before heading to Okinawa.
I graduated college in 1995 and worked in a publishing company's finance department in Boston. I joined the Marine Corps because I was bored and wanted to do something larger with my life. I thought the Marine Corps was a place I would be challenged and have the opportunity to take part in the larger movements of history. I arrived at Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, VA, in January 1998.
I remained on active duty in the Marine Corps until April 2004. I had spent nearly three years on Okinawa and, in November 2002, was assigned to the personal staff of the Secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon. Among other roles, I was the Marine Corps White House Liaison Officer. In that capacity, I interacted with the families of the Marines killed during the first year of the Iraq war, so the war was very personal to me even before I took part in it. Additionally, from my position in the Secretary of the Navy's office, I saw senior-level decision-making in the months before the invasion of Iraq and during the war's first year.
Due to being in the Pentagon and having friends in various offices when I separated from active duty with the Marine Corps, I was able to take a position as a Department of Defense civilian official in Iraq with the US Embassy. Initially, the position was to do reconstruction work with the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sport. However, that position changed shortly after I arrived in Iraq in May 2004, and I spent a year as a DOD official leading reconstruction and political work in four provinces north of Baghdad.
Following that year in Iraq, I returned to the US as a consultant to the Department of State's Iraq desk in Washington, DC. As I was still a reservist in the Marine Corps, after five months with the State Department, I mobilized with the Reserves and returned to Iraq in command of a company of Marines. This deployment was from September 2006 to April 2007 in Anbar Province.
After that deployment, I spent a year working as a contractor for the Department of Defense while working at the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization in DC. I awaited an appointment with the State Department for much of that year. In March 2009, I became a political officer in the Foreign Service. By April 2009, I was in Afghanistan, first posted in Jalalabad and covering four provinces in north-eastern Afghanistan, and then moved to Zabul Province in the south-east to be the senior civilian US official for the province. In September 2009, in protest of the US escalation of the Afghan War, I resigned from my position with the State Department.
When and why did you quit working directly or as a contractor with the government in these capacities? What are you doing now in terms of work and activism? How would you summarize your point of view today on politics, economics, and race? (about 200 words)
When I arrived in Afghanistan in 2009, I was naively clinging to the idea that the US war in Afghanistan was different than the US war in Iraq, mainly that it had meaning and purpose to exchange for the death, suffering and destruction. Quite quickly, I understood the US war in Afghanistan to be fundamentally no different than the war in Iraq. I recognized the escalation of the war that year in Afghanistan was futile, counter-productive, and an act of political theater meant to bolster individual and institutional egos and ideologies.
At that point, I was already intellectually and morally broken from participating in the Iraq war. I could no longer rationalize or lie to myself about continued participation in the wars, so I resigned from my position.
Since 2009 I've worked with a number of foreign policy and anti-war organizations, both formally and informally. I am on several boards and advisory boards, an emeritus senior fellow with the Center for International Policy and am currently the Associate Director for the Eisenhower Media Network.
You are somewhat famous for being one of the first insiders on the imperialist side to say publicly that the 21st century US wars, including on Afghanistan, were based on and sustained by lies. Would you summarize the lies that were the basis of the US/NATO invasion and occupation of and war on Afghanistan? What lies continue to justify US sanctions against Afghans? Why do you think the sanctions continue?
There was certainly no shortage of lies that enabled and supported the war, and I am sure I will leave some out. (Here's a rather lengthy essay detailing the biggest of the lies sustaining the Afghan War I wrote in 2019: https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/02/15/time-for-peace-in-afghanistan-and-an-end-to-the-lies/)
I think the first lie was the Taliban were involved with the 9/11 attacks and that the US had no choice but to invade Afghanistan. This was closely followed by the lie that the Taliban refused to negotiate and would not have surrendered.
Woven into this conventional understanding of the necessity of invasion was a diminishment of the decades-long civil war in Afghanistan, so that Americans and Westerners viewed their involvement in Afghanistan as if they had removed a parasitical Taliban government of outsiders who had no support among the population. That rolled into ignoring and whitewashing those the US put into power in Afghanistan. We redefined men who were war-lords and drug-lords as aspiring democrats and human rights defenders. These initial lies continued throughout the 20-year US occupation and enabled successive US administrations to say there was no choice but to escalate and continue the war.
Other lies that contributed to the sustainment of the war by the US included:
The US military, particularly after President Obama's "Surge," was making progress on the battlefield – "hard-won gains" was the oft-heard rhetoric, even as the Taliban militarily and politically grew stronger every year;
There were great economic, development and human rights successes by the US reconstruction effort, often referring to women's rights and education, despite clear evidence to the contrary;
Afghanistan was a progressing democracy even as each election was more observably fraudulent than the previous;
Corruption was something that was able to be controlled and did not dominate the nature of the Afghan government, although the Afghan government was the very definition of a kleptocracy;
The Taliban had a criminal nexus with narcotics producers and international terrorism when it was the Afghan government and military that dominated the illicit drug trade;
The Taliban were a fringe revolutionary movement without legitimate grievances and constituency, again despite clear evidence to the contrary and annual growth in popular support for the insurgency and resistance;
The Afghan people, especially non-Pashtuns, would never welcome a Taliban return to power but did just that when American money disappeared and the house of cards the US had constructed fell apart. The Afghan people stood aside province after province. They let the Taliban take power as they were often seen as a much better option than the cruel and predatory Afghan security forces.
I think the lies that sustain the sanctions in place for the last two years serve as the latest chapter of the war the Afghan people have endured since the 1970s. The sanctions depend on the overall narrative of the US towards Afghanistan over the last twenty-two years, bolstered by many of the lies listed above. Still, the sanctions also depend on the general US narrative that sanctions are necessary to contest "rogue" regimes and help oppressed people. So in this way, the US government presents sanctions, enabled by compliant Western vassals and parroted by a subservient media, that US sanctions are meant to punish bad behavior and induce a change in the targeted government's policies. Failure of the targeted government to change behavior will cause the population to suffer, and the people will then overthrow a government that doesn't serve their interests. That theory is undone by the fact that sanctions hardly ever work, especially US sanctions conducted unilaterally in violation of international law, as detailed by the failure of long-running US sanctions on nations such as Cuba, Iran, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela to achieve policy change or regime change. However, the myth that sanctions are effective and utilized to further international law and human rights is foundational to US foreign policy-making and thinking.
The sanctions continue as punishment for the Taliban's victory over the US. It is a means of saving face for the US and as a rebuke for humiliation.
Given the United States has had a supremacist, racist, settler-colonial impulse from inception, and the continuous history of the same, why should people in other countries listen to US demands and "recommendations"? Put another way, why do you think US policy makers are so confident giving "advice" to other peoples and countries instead of dismantling our own imperialist racist system? How would you summarize the barriers to building our own just society that is people and environment-centered?
People in other countries should not listen to US demands; however, I don't think it is the case that the people in these countries get to make those decisions. For most of the last thirty years, since the end of the Cold War and the establishment of the US as the sole uni-polar power, leaders worldwide saw it to their benefit to side with the US. Not only was the US the only superpower, and there were benefits in alignment, but the US was quick to demonstrate what would happen to nations that failed to fall under the US umbrella. In the 90s, examples were made out of Iraq and Serbia by Presidents Bush and Clinton. President GW Bush further emphasized this with the US occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq and by declaring nations to be either with the US or against it. President Obama extended this form of discipline by vastly expanding the reach of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), most notably in the Libyan, Syrian and Yemeni wars but also through the expansion of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the catastrophic results we are unmistakably seeing now.
The uni-polar world is devolving with the diminishment of the Collective West economies, the rise of the Chinese, Indian and other economies, the formation and growth of organizations such as BRICS, and the three decades plus of US demands on other nations, particularly lesser developed countries, that have been framed and underscored with a sincere and robust flouting of international law, institutions and norms by the US. As other options become available to nations for transnational relationships, they will pursue those as they see greater benefit to themselves and do not trust the US.
US leaders are confident in playing this role of uni-power and giving "advice" to other nations because they feel they are entitled to do so. This is a neo-religious conviction that has evolved from the Church's Doctrine of Discovery and the US' own Manifest Destiny. Once the last Native American tribe was subjected in the early 1890s by the US and the continent conquered, the US Empire focused overseas for acquisitions, quickly taking Hawaii and, a few years later, the conquests of the Spanish-American War. So began, as Time's Henry Luce called it, "The American Century." (Luce being one of the 20th century's pre-eminent proponents of the US Empire).
The US entering and winning the worlds wars, at least according to US history, and emerging from WWII as the sole industrialized power (not only did the US not have to rebuild like nearly every other industrialized nation, but it was much stronger economically than at the start of the war) cemented its role in the post-war period in economic and political terms, but also in moral and historical narratives. This establishes the modern American Exceptionalism ideology, which dominates both major US political parties to the point that countering that ideology is blasphemous, heretical and politically impossible in the contemporary US. From that flows the US foreign policy, which serves the American Empire.
What underlies and underwrites the above is money. Returning to the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny, the desire for land, resources, labor and other forms of enrichment and power led to those great crimes of conquest and genocide. American Exceptionalism is no different. While megalomania and ideology cannot be diminished* the pursuit of money and wealth is the symbiotic twin driver of the American Empire. It is intertwined and inseparable from the megalomania and ideology that drives the US militarized foreign policy and is often indistinguishable.
To me, that drive for money and the pursuit of profit is one of the chief barriers to building a people- and environment-centered society. Too many people are doing too well, getting along because they are going along to embrace change. Those I described do not just include the wealthy who control our society's political, economic and media aspects. They include a large portion of the middle class who are reluctant to embrace the systemic change we need as a nation and society due to a fear of losing what they have, even though they are incrementally diminished year after year while further exposing themselves to cataclysmic disaster from nuclear war, climate change, pandemics, etc.
*For example, the neo-conservative cabal that has dominated US foreign policy this century is motivated more by the pursuit of power, historical constructs and satiation of ideology than by money. Naturally, the achievement of their aims cannot be accomplished without money and resources, and so a relationship that is difficult to decipher where one element ends and the other begins exists.
You've written about the links between US/NATO wars and proxy wars since the late twentieth century, especially in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and the current war between Russia and Ukraine. Would you explicitly draw the connections for us?
I think one of the first connections to make is that the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria were conducted by the same minds leading the US in its proxy war in Ukraine. The same people in Washington, DC, have been a part of these wars in political and strategic capacities. These are the same people involved with the terrifying prospect of war with China, the always possible war with Iran, the constant desire for Cuban and Venezuelan regime change, the predations of the Global War on Terror, and the creation and growth of AFRICOM.
It's the work of the same relatively small group of people that fill out the political appointments of the executive branch, staff a few dozen offices of Congress and a handful of relevant committees, populate defense funded think-tanks and select universities, and dominate pundit positions in corporate media. This is not unique to foreign policy but is indicative of corporate and regulatory capture of the US government. Looking at US financial and monetary policy, you see the same narrow band of people dominating policy-making and discussion. If you looked at the personalities and institutions involved in healthcare, environmental, agricultural and energy policy-making, I am sure you would see the same phenomenon.
In the case of the US wars in the Muslim World, a fundamental way of understanding those wars is as the expansion and maintenance of the US Empire and the resistance to it. Similarly, in the war in Ukraine, we see a war that has as one of its causes the expansion of NATO (an arm of the American Empire) up to Russian borders. In GWOT, we see internal wars about a balance of inner power; in Ukraine, we see a war between states, including an illegal cross-border invasion by Russia, ultimately about the balance of power in Eastern Europe. In all cases in the GWOT, the US' opponents voiced and stylized their roles and purposes as defensive and protective against foreign invasion and occupation, often with much public support for the more nationalist-orientated resistance (although even the reactionary religious forces emphasized the defensive nature of their actions). In this vein, Russia argues that its invasion is defensive (pointing to NATO wars in Kosovo, Libya and Afghanistan as examples of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect) and also finds itself with a high degree of support from its public and many of the Russian speakers in the "liberated" parts of eastern Ukraine.
There is another aspect of a balance of power that is internal to the national security state of the US. It's no secret many in the US military leadership were unhappy with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the wars deviated from what they saw as their primary missions and conflicted with their force structure and major weapons programs. The Iraq and Afghan wars didn't justify new tank and artillery units for the Army, and those wars certainly don't justify $500 million bombers for the Air Force or $15 billion aircraft carriers for the Navy. As the GWOT wars transitioned to proxy wars under the direction of Special Operations and CIA forces, the services could concentrate on the adversaries they wanted. The Army benefits from having a foe like Russia, as fighting Russia requires a large land army with armor, artillery and mechanized infantry forces.
Meanwhile, for the Navy, China provides an enemy that justifies a larger, newer and more expensive Navy. The Air Force finds a prime role in having both Russia and China as potential opponents and can argue for an even larger budget. It's difficult to imagine arguing for a Space Force without Russia and China. So what you see as the US shifts to hiding its GWOT wars through special operations/CIA forces, drones, contractors and proxies is that the Army, Navy and Air Force are given the opponents they want. Over the last decade, this has led to increased confrontation with China and the war in Ukraine.
You are certified by the State of North Carolina as a Peer Support Specialist for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorder among veterans. Are you still doing such work? What problems do/did you and your colleagues mainly see? Are particular groups or areas of the state more likely to suffer from the US imperialist war economy? Related, you have discussed the physical, psychological and moral injuries you and other US participants have suffered in our neverending imperialist wars. Can you discuss these wounds of war and the most effective ways to deal with them? (You can answer this related cluster of questions in any order you like.)
I still do that work informally and rely on others to help me with my struggles.
I see a lot of substance abuse and addiction, including overdoses and a high number of suicides. Of course, at times, it's hard to tell, maybe impossible, to know whether it was suicide or accident*; however, for those left behind, it doesn't seem to matter too much. You see that effect on the families, friends, neighbors and co-workers. So the pain and distress that drives the high number of suicides, overdoses and accidents extend like ripples on water.
We know that veterans are killed by suicide more than their civilian peers. We also know that veterans who have taken part in killing have a much higher suicide rate than veterans who have not. From my own experience, anecdotal experience, and research literature, it is clear that guilt, shame and regret play a principal role in combat veteran suicides.
This is what is called moral injury, a mental, emotional and spiritual affliction that occurs when someone has transgressed deeply held and foundational moral, religious and ethical beliefs. Moral injury can occur from doing or not doing an action, just as it can occur by being an indirect participation (e.g., you don't have to have been the one to have pulled the trigger, however you were a part of the unit, it was your friend who committed the murder, you did nothing to stop it, etc.).
Moral injury may also occur to an individual due to a betrayal where someone or something you trusted and believed in was duplicitous, vengeful or corrupt (e.g., you are sexually assaulted or raped by a senior member of your unit, your chain of command then does not protect you, the military justice system makes you out to be the villain for exposing the assault, etc.).
It's important to note that while a moral injury may seem more likely for a veteran who took part in a war based on lies, we understand and know that moral injuries have always occurred in wars, regardless of nationality or a war's purpose.
In addition to moral injury, many veterans of the wars struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury (TBI), depression and other mental health issues. These are known as the invisible wounds of war.
The prevalence of TBIs demonstrates how violent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, despite the conventional sense that casualties were low. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates over 250,000 veterans of the Afghan and Iraq Wars suffer from TBI, many of them from explosive blast-related TBIs. Due to our body and vehicle armor and modern medical care, many veterans survived explosive attacks that in any previous war would have killed them. Often veterans would survive multiple attacks in one deployment. While the soldier was seemingly fine from the attack, what occurred though was the explosive blasts had effects on the brain that were not understood until many years into the war (these TBIs have a latency so that the symptoms do not manifest for many years, mine did not manifest until seven years after my last explosive exposure). So you see these high numbers of TBIs, which tells you how violent the wars were in a way that the casualty numbers do not. It also makes you realize the violence inflicted on the Afghan and Iraqi people as they did not have the armor or medical care we did.
These invisible wounds can lead to suicide, as discussed; in fact, there is an understood connection between TBI and suicide. They disrupt and burden lives, significantly impacting partners, family members, and co-workers. Relationships are difficult and income is often lost as veterans may find it hard to work full-time or in a capacity commensurate with their skills, education and abilities.
There are also a high number of physical disabilities that hinder life after war, whether they be straightforward combat wounds, orthopedic problems from the gear and equipment worn and carried (I wore and carried about 75lbs of gear in Iraq at times), and wounds such as respiratory disorders and cancers from the toxic effects of wars such as depleted uranium, burn pits and oil well fires (again with an even more devasting and mostly ignored harm to the Afghan and Iraqi people).
The answer to helping war veterans is first to stop making them. That said, the answer is already known and has been done previously. Provide them with the physical and mental health care they need throughout life, compensate them for lost income due to their disabilities, and provide them with education and training to further their lives. This exists on paper, and many veterans, like myself, can point to the very significant and life-saving support we have received from the VA. Unfortunately, with an ever-increasing budget of $300 billion annually, the VA is a cash cow and a lucrative privatization target. As I have seen VA services improve due to increased resources, I have seen other VA services diminish due to privatization.
That leads to the question about the economy. In brief, what we have seen successful with veterans: providing healthcare, ensuring a safety net, equipping them with education and skills, etc., are some of the most important solutions we need to implement in our society at large. Too many of our neighbors struggle with the overhead costs in their lives from healthcare and education, and so either neglect those things or are plunged into overwhelming debt. Providing universal healthcare and higher education to all people is a necessary first step in addressing our historic and mass economic inequality and bringing relief to struggling and increasingly desperate families across the state.
*If someone dies from a motorcycle or automobile crash into a stationary object like a tree or a bridge, who is to know whether it was intentional?
Thousands of North Carolina residents signed a petition to get you on the ballot as a federal Senate candidate for the Green Party in 2022 and were approached in tricky ways to remove their names from the petition. How and why did you decide to run? What three or four lessons or insights did you take away about the process and about North Carolina politics in retrospect? Would you consider running again for a state or federal office again? Why or why not?
I was approached by the North Carolina Green Party to run for US Senate in the summer of 2021. After some thought, I accepted. I had three goals in running.
I saw and admired the great organizing that had been done and the tremendous number of people who were out supporting Occupy, Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter (more than 20 million people marching on the streets nationwide in the summer of 2020!) but that resulted in limited political success, particularly on the federal level. I wanted to play my part in helping to develop a political arm for the Left. By helping get the Green Party on the ballot in NC and running a state-wide campaign, I wanted to bring more people into independent and third-party politics and help build a left-wing political infrastructure and network. While the goal of ballot access was immediate, building an independent left-wing political infrastructure and network was meant to be extended past the campaign.
We successfully got ballot access, including victories in US District Court, Federal Appeals Court and NC State Court, but the larger goal of building infrastructure and networks is a longer and more complex challenge.
With my second goal, I had hoped that by being on the ballot, our campaign's presence would force issues into the race that would otherwise be ignored. In particular, I had hoped our messaging on healthcare, housing and ending the war on drugs would force a conversation that the Democratic and Republican campaigns refused to have. When we canvassed and appeared at public events, we heard these issues repeatedly across the state. Forcing a conversation on these issues failed to happen as both my campaign as a Green and Shannon Bray's Libertarian campaign were nearly universally ignored by NC media (as one NC journalist candidly said to me: you guys aren't going to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars advertising on my station, why are we going to interview you?).
Even though we raised more money than any other campaign in the country in the 2022 midterm cycle outside the Democratic and Republican parties, the amount we raised, $200,000, was nowhere near the amount we needed to get, literally, life and death issues important to NC voters and their families into the race.
My third goal in running for US Senate was related to my beliefs in multi-party democracy and the need to reform and amend our electoral and political systems. I would ultimately like to see proportional representation used in NC and the US; however, as a first step, I would like to see NC and the US adopt ranked choice voting. I felt that if myself and the Libertarian candidate could earn enough votes to disrupt the US Senate race in a carefully constructed two corporate choices-only political race, legislators in Raleigh might take a harder look at implementing ranked-choice voting. The idea is that follow on races by Greens, Libertarians and other third-party candidates (it is extremely difficult to run as an independent in NC due to ballot access restrictions) would similarly disrupt Democratic and GOP plans in gubernatorial, presidential, congressional and state legislative elections in 2024 would further increase pressure to move towards ranked choice voting and other electoral reforms.
We did put the fear of this disruption into the Democratic Party, as they attempted to keep us off the ballot through a number of means, including court action. Still, we didn't garner anywhere near enough votes to have the desired effect.
This strategy of disruption may still come to fruition, as there may be six or seven parties with ballot access in NC for the 2024 election (Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, and Republicans have ballot access, while the Constitution, Forward and No Labels parties are conducting ballot access campaigns).
For various reasons, including health issues, I don't see myself running for either a state or federal office.
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