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Looking at War Across 2,500 Years (Review Essay)

Historians in the News
tags: books, military history, war on terror, war, Afghanistan War



In few areas of human activity is there such a discrepancy between perception and reality as there is with war. There tends to be a huge difference between what people think war is and what it really is, a thought that returned to me repeatedly as I read a stack of new books.

The gap between expectation and reality drives a bitter new memoir by a former United States Army lieutenant. Erik Edstrom went to war in Afghanistan in 2009 pretty much as a true believer, fresh out of West Point, where, at his graduation, he gratefully shook Dick Cheney’s hand. After a year of what he saw as pointless combat in the southern Afghanistan desert, he came to believe that “America is neither good nor great.” The result is his boiling mad UN-AMERICAN: A Soldier’s Reckoning of Our Longest War (Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $28). It amounts to a kind of “Pilgrim’s Progress” in reverse, an account of how he lost his faith in his country.

“The war on terror strip-mined my soul,” Edstrom writes. “It strained my relationships, destroyed my notion of patriotism, eroded my support for American foreign policy, dissolved whatever faith I may have once had in religion or God, and made me deeply sad.” There have been several excellent memoirs by veterans of our current wars, but this is the first one that reminded me of the disillusioned writings of British veterans after World War I, grounded in a deep new distrust of the nation that sent them to war and in the officers who led them in combat.

I don’t agree with much of what Edstrom writes. For example, I think the United States was right to invade Afghanistan after 9/11 (yet wrong to stay any longer than six months). But even as I differed with his words, I was glad to read them. Edstrom is asking hard questions that both the American people and their leaders have sidestepped for years. For example, he calculates that the United States military has killed more than 240,000 civilians in its recent wars, some 80 times more than the number of Americans who died in 9/11. How much is enough? Like him, I feel that over the last two decades our country has drifted from its ideals — for example, by torturing foreign prisoners, by militarizing many of our civilian police forces and by tolerating extreme income inequality, and then by electing a president who embraces all of those things.

Read entire article at New York Times

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