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Should I Get Out of the Military?

A reformed Army officer's exchange with a disillusioned active duty soul in need turns thoughtful.

Then-captain Danny Sjursen (left) pausing during a patrol with his interpreter, “Ali,” in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2011.

I recently had an email exchange with a fellow officer who reached out after reading some of my articles regarding the state of the U.S. Army, the forever wars, and the difficult decision to leave the military mid-career. With the exception of explanatory parentheticals, the following accurately reflects the uncensored language between two unacquainted, but kindred spirits from the same wayward “tribe:”  Such spontaneous exchanges are, for the author, becoming quite common. The passages in intalics are from me, where explanation is necessary). While I of course am out of the military, he is not and his name has been changed for obvious reasons. 

Sir,

As I briefly mentioned on Facebook, I’m transitioning from active duty mid-career after fairly significant time in service. I returned from a miserable deployment recently. I’ll count my blessing as my unit did not lose anyone, however the leadership checked all the blocks for a toxic command; it was a long nine months. To put it into perspective, the unit’s second and third in command were relieved for abusing staff subordinates—including, incidentally, a physical fightover MDMP (powerpoint-based, very time intensive, mission planning) slides. The commander and his sergeant major (the senior enlisted man in the battalion) used awards and evaluations punitively and showed little interest in the advisory mission in favor of more meetings and power point presentations. I’ll leave it at that to not come off as a whiny disgruntled soldier. Bottom line, the commander sucked to work for, he’s a radical right wing West Pointer who seemed to have an inflammatory Blaze article forever up on his NIPR (unclassified) computer, so your “What I Won’t Miss as I Leave the U.S .Army” article really resonated with me since it was released right about the time I was dealing with all this nonsense.

I have a bit of mixed feelings on the way out. I only planned on doing three years and moving on, but I had inspiring leadership in the early part of my career. I truly bought into the idea of service to my country. The army has been good to me in a lot of ways. it paid for my MBA, introduced me to some of my best friends, developed my passion for physical fitness, and allowed me to provide a decent life for my family. Things seem very differently lately. The kind of leaders getting promoted are not the quiet professionals I grew up around. Finally, the army’s priorities are baffling. We’ve been at war for almost 20 years, so why are we on our third dress uniform, second set of BDUs (combat fatigue uniform), and second set of PTs (physical fitness uniform) during that time alone? Is changing the PT (physical fitness exam) test and HRC (human resources command, officer) assignment process paramount right now? 

You’ve been in a lot longer than me; you made it long enough to retire. Is it actually getting worse or has it always been this way and just that the romanticism is just wearing off for me? Why and how did you stick around for so long? What was the straw the broke the camel’s back for you?  Is there any hope on the horizon from your prospective? 

Respectfully,  John Doe.

♦♦♦

 

Hey John Doe,

My apologies for the delay: this “Second Act” life (Fitzgerald was wrong, lol) of mine is far superior to my past, but can get crazy busy—particularly when one adds in time with my 11 and three-year-old boys.

So where were you just deployed (country and region/province/city), if you don’t mind me asking? Thank God you didn’t lose anyone in these now absurdly wasteful, potential die-in-vain wars. That said, I’m increasingly persuaded that toxic command climate can also be PTSD-inducing. Many of my worst recurring nightmares (not shitting you) involve my old sociopath SCO (squadron, or battalion, commander, a lieutenant colonel) calling me in the middle of the night at my Troop outpost in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with some awful snap, unsound, wasteful mission that I must execute that I just know is gonna kill my boys and yet I can’t stop it. Fucking awful. So I’m super sympathetic and sorry to hear about your unit’s leadership.

I totally feel you regarding the mixed take on the army life. Look, I think (especially among my legion of ad hominem detractors) there is a misnomer out there that I hate all things military. Not the case. It’s, well, complicated. I received an excellent undergraduate education, had all my course work up to and including PhD required classes paid-in-full, got to teach at West Point (the best years of my life), and met almost all of my best friends and some wonderful people both in uniform and also locals (Muslims at that, gasp!) overseas. That said, truth be told, my conscience and rational mind (or preferred metaphysics) just couldn’t jive with the absurdity and contradictions in both mission (mostly) and army institution (increasingly) by the end. Add to that a near mental health collapse after a long, slow-burning fuse of suppressed struggle, and I wouldn’t have been much use to the army anymore by the very end.

What you’re describing about HRC, PT, dress uniforms, and other meticulous minutiae nonsense is a subject I’m planning to write about (linking the banal with the big picture military mission and its operational application): you know it as MOP vs. MOE, right? The Army knocks measures of performance (MOP: doing lots) out the old park; Measures of effectiveness (MOE: doing well)…not so much. Failing-at-their-mission bureaucracies, as I’ve learned in my side-interest academic dabbling—civilian (think post-crash Wall Street) and military— tend to turn inward, insular even, and engage in some hardcore navel-gazing and manic furniture-rearranging. It gives the comforting illusion of control. Shit is straight up part of the human condition. But frustrating, sad, and counterproductive—no doubt. And you’re living it, which is no easy matter. That’s what all that crap, though, in my opinion, is mostly about.

You know, in answer to your last few questions:

1) It is hard to say, but I’m afraid matters [in the army] are getting worse. We’re in uncharted territory as a military (and as a nation)—literally no one knows how either social system will (or has) handled the stress of forever war, or, what sort of inapparent damage (consider it internal bleeding) has already been done. My sense, call it an educated hunch, is that a military now entirely populated and led by folks who’ve known nothing but endless war—and defeat or stalemate only, at that—is, indeed, going to (already is) suffer cultural, professional, and competence deterioration. It will then, as I suspect you’re seeing, lash out at civil society, “unfriendly” political leaders, and lash “in” at its own skeptics, dissenters…heck, even intellectuals of any sort. This is, and will, be driven by a deeply imbued sense of institutional insecurity, because: for all their unlimited tax-payer cash, vapid public adulation, and technological savvy, the various branches of the military aren’t quite sure what they’re for any longer. Certainly not, as their institutional mission statements claim: to “fight and win the nation’s wars” – at this point.

2) The “why stay for so long” question is a tough one for me, but I do almost dark stand-up-comedy-style catharsis on the topic pretty regularly whenever someone offers a stage and hands me a microphone. Suffice it to say, my (ultimately cowardly, I fear) decisions to repeatedly stay on evolved, sequentially, from: 

  1. A belief I could change the system from the“inside;” 
  2. Enjoying the verbal and written “gold stars” bandied about by leaders I (sometimes) respected who told me the army “needed” “good” officers, like me, to stay in; 
  3. A contract I’d made with myself in 2011: “ok, if you get chosen to go back to teach at West Point after Afghanistan then stay, if not you’ll go;” 
  4. Finally, pure compensation/stability nihilism—military socialism (for officers, at least), as you know well, gets relatively lucrative with each promotion.

I’m not very proud of any of the above, by the way…but it’s real and must be grappled with.

3) I wish I could point to one straw upon the broke-ass camel’s back moment that changed my view, my life, and military career calculus. It just wasn’t that simple, I suppose. There were lots of pivot and waypoints to dissent. 

I guess that massive, repeated observation of (mostly civilian) death; losing several boys under my direct command; voraciously reading and educating myself until I knew/understood (forgive the potential arrogance) more about these countries, wars, histories, cultures, than most of the damn obtuse generals I served under; widening my lens, perspective, and experience during a brief spell in civilian grad school; working for a literal (must have been clinically so) sociopath who literally killed my kids (young soldiers) and broke bodies and minds to further his own career-promotion-addiction with the breezy nonchalance of my toddler exploring the toy aisle at Walmart….was some of it, and all of that contributed.  

But, if forced to put my finger on one moment: well, it was probably the day, just before delivering a memorial ceremony speech (again) for a kid I hardly knew (a replacement soldier), when it struck me that if faced—and God how I spinelessly prayed I could somehow avoid it— his young wife and mother, there was no way I could look either of them in the eye and explain just what their loved one had had his legs blown off, and then bled to death, for.  It was, more than just that, the realization that I was, by then, sure as fuck past lying to them any longer.  

Now, here’s the awkward rub: that was back in 2011…I didn’t retire until February 2019. You do the math. So, yea I’ve got lots of explaining to do…maybe all this, “the work,” the countless public talks, the “movement” that I’m now all but common-law-married to, is my lapsed-Catholic version of penance.

Suffice it to say that everything I just typed feels vaguely, but quite decidedly, incomplete and inadequate. Maybe even self-righteous in spots. Who knows?  Still, I hope against hope that something I said mattered or resonated with you, because I’m flattered whenever vets and active-duty (if unacquainted) brethren reach out to me —and because my soul literally aches for your situation, which was once my own, and for that of so many others.

I’ll end with a cursory, and indecisive answer to your final query: Is there “hope on the horizon?” My brainy and bookish, bitter-side says hell no! That part of me, “Shawshank Redemption” style, has long been a “Red” (Morgan Freeman) man; to wit: “Hope is a dangerous thing my friend, it can kill a man…”

But, then again, every day I find a reason to get up, sometimes even with some irrational excitement. And, when I get a great question from a college student in the audience or share a laugh with an old hippie at a rally, I do feel, that maybe, you know, as John Lennon (perhaps naively) sang some 50-years ago, that “I’m not the only one,” so to speak. And that side, the Romantic (versus pure Enlightenment) part of me also understands and sympathizes with Andy’s (Tim Robbins’) response letter to Red in the movie: “Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Sure, if this were Vegas, I wouldn’t bet my last dollar on romance. But pure reason often takes me to dark, near nihilistic, places…and, you know, even in Vegas, the house doesn’t always win.

Shit, even the famed, if misunderstood absurdist-existentialist philosopher, Albert Camus, concluded, after a long-ass description of perhaps the most hopeless (Greek) mythological life-situation of all (perennially sentenced to roll a boulder forever up a mountain without end or hope of task completion) that: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” So on, I suppose, we must go…

Well, friend: no one has ever accused me of brevity – but that’s my first crack at all you asked.

Your brother (in arms and spirit),

Danny

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and a regular contributor to the American Conservative. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

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