JUNE 14, 2020
IN HIS ELOQUENT, devastating book, Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of Our Longest War, Erik Edstrom tells the story of how, as a gifted high school student graduating not long after September 11, 2001, he decided the best education he could get would be at West Point. The decision lands him in Afghanistan after he collects his degree.
There, as an infantry lieutenant with the US Army, he quickly sees that his is not the patriotic mission he had imagined. His harrowing job accomplishes nothing more than senseless acts of violence that result in the pointless killing of Afghan civilians, whose deaths are “recategorized” by the military as justifiable.
Memoir and cri de cœur, Edstrom’s narrative is packed with gimlet-eyed analysis — cultural, economic, historical — of how American life came to look the way it does. The impressive-looking military recruiters who roamed the hallways of his high school, for example, were there thanks to provisions in the No Child Left Behind law that require schools to give the military “near-unimpeded access to the personal information of students, including minors,” on pain of loss of federal funding.
“The Department of Defense acknowledges that enlistment propensity ‘declines with age … [and] increasing educational attainment,’” writes Edstrom. “Therefore, it is critical to get kids, especially kids from struggling backgrounds, hooked on military service before the age of consent.” This is sardonically known inside the military as the “Poverty Draft,” and it means that high schools in bad neighborhoods or poor counties become “a de facto recruiting station.”
This state of affairs is enabled by a public hardly ever confronted by the stupid violence committed in its name in nations that most could not find on a map: “If America knew what that death felt like — deep down to our bone marrow — would we still encourage young people looking for direction to join the armed forces?”
Edstrom’s keen observational powers encompass both the physical world and social nuance. For example, when he learns he has gotten into West Point, he jogs home from his aunt’s basement, where he had been getting a haircut:
The streets were sprinkled with Styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups and flimsy, selfish, one-use plastic grocery bags on the side of the road, like flotsam washed up on shore after a shipwreck. Gray, decaying snow melted on the sidewalk next to used-car lots and the newspapered-over glass windows of boarded-up shops in the center of town.
Stoughton, Massachusetts, is an easy-to-overlook satellite suburb on the outskirts of Boston, best known for Ikea; Alex’s, a seedy strip club; and Town Spa, my favorite greasy pizza joint[.] […] It’s hardly the Kibera slums of Nairobi, but there is a sense of economic struggle. […]
Brockton, the next town over, was tougher — then, as it is now. Brockton was ranked in the top 100 most dangerous cities in the United States based on number of violent crimes relative to population size. Meanwhile, in the other direction, if you have money to live closer to the city, is Milton, home of the private high school, Milton Academy — where boarding tuition is $59,560 per year, per rich kid.
When I was a teenager, Stoughton was the fulcrum in the middle of this seesaw. A fifteen-minute drive one way or the other would lead you to an entirely different existence.
The lottery-win feeling of getting into West Point, however, quickly dissipates. “Motivational spirit briefings” include marching to lines like, “I went to the playground where all the kiddies play / I pulled out my Uzi, AND I BEGAN TO SPRAY!” The four years Edstrom spends there sound less like higher education than like joining a mind-numbing cult — one that is rife with and for moral, intellectual, and financial corruption. (“Coincidentally,” writes Edstrom, “the savvy cadet who did a lot of the daily announcements during my Plebe year” would later plead guilty to stealing $700,000 he was supposed to use for state-building in Iraq.)
Edstrom’s insider account of a place that few men — and fewer women — get to see is fascinating, and the grueling details of how he learns not to think critically, weigh the pros and cons of military policies, or even recognize an IED, but rather learns that “the meaning of ‘hearts and minds’” is “two bullets in the heart, one in the mind,” are leavened by Edstrom’s eye for beauty:
I still think fondly of rowing in the predawn darkness of the Hudson River […] Here, golden light would stream across the hilltops and saddles of the Hudson River Valley, dispelling stubborn pockets of shade as our team shouldered the boat at the end of a hard morning practice, panting, exhausted. It felt like we were beating the day before it ever had the chance to start.
In the Dantean schematics of Edstrom’s experiences, his deployment to Afghanistan brings him to a circle of hell. Before he goes, he makes a hospital visit to Sam, a friend from the crew team. In Afghanistan, Sam was caught in an explosion, and, among other injuries, his distinguishing facial features have melted off. His mother is at his side, weeping. This visit marks the beginning of Edstrom’s “education in grief.”
After arriving in Afghanistan, Edstrom quickly sees that the botched practical training he received in the United States has left him and his soldiers woefully unprepared. But first, he is struck by his new surroundings: “I heard my first ‘call to prayer’; I saw dusty mountains that resembled cremation urns spilling their sandstorm ashes, marmalade sunrises, new flora, and a Galeodes arabs (camel spider).”
On the fourth day of his deployment, a homemade mine blows up his vehicle and injures four soldiers. “For the cost of this terrible little incident,” Edstrom writes, in an aside about the cost of American militarism that serves as one of rage-inducing leitmotifs of the book, “we could have sent every single soldier in my platoon to a fully funded, private four-year university, including room and board and living stipend.”
The costs of war, of course, are not only tallied in dollars. “The War on Terror strip-mined my soul,” writes Edstrom, in a chapter titled “Annus Horribilis.” “And, like adding black to a can of paint, every emotional color, in every social interaction, became muted.”
Nonetheless, the more time he spends in Afghanistan, the more Edstrom is moved by the plight of the Afghans, struggling for a hardscrabble existence amid conflicting military forces and ceaseless violence. (This in spite of the indoctrination he underwent at West Point, where he, like others, referred to Middle Easterners as “Haj,” “terrorists,” and “goat fuckers” in his training to become ready to kill.)
He also questions the wisdom of American allegiances. Edstrom is tasked with building rapport with Haji Ghani, a local warlord whose middle name, according to his incongruously American-style business card, is “Death.” A mass murderer and surprisingly amiable host, Ghani happily destroys swaths of poppy fields under his control — thus obliterating farmer families’ sole income — in order to win a US government contract to build a school, which quickly earns the Zoolander-inspired nickname, “The Haji Ghani School for Kids That Can’t Read Good and Want to Do Other Things Good Too.”
Other tasks are even more self-defeating. At one point, Edstrom’s unit is moved to a remote base in order to conduct something his men call “Operation Highway Babysitter” — a Sisyphean attempt to keep a useless stretch of highway free of mines, for no particular reason. “Our mission was infuriating. We soaked up bombs with no one to shoot back at. It was sedentary, eye-wateringly boring, and deadly.” Between outings, Edstrom hears that the unit that has replaced his at their former base, FOB Ramrod, has conducted a series of civilian sport killings, keeping body parts as trophies. The military responds by changing the name of the base.
Edstrom’s eye for absurd detail enlivens an otherwise dark narrative: take, for example, the “farting sound” that follows every American meeting with locals, generated by the travel-sized bottles of hand sanitizer the Americans pull out while still within earshot of the people they are leaving. And, as a “bullshit stew” of military catchphrases reframes the fundamentally stupid approaches to the war, a military satire website becomes a voice of realism: “‘We’re Making Real Progress’ Say Last 17 Commanders in Afghanistan”; “Veteran Misses Simpler Time Fighting Unwinnable War Against Enemy He Unknowingly Helped Create.”
“Blood can’t wash blood,” reads an Afghan proverb that Edstrom takes to heart, as he begins to question the assumption that he is, in fact, one of the good guys. Indeed, when he looks at one prototypical American myth, he quickly concludes that its heroes’ tactics look more like the other side’s. “Similar to the Death Star in Star Wars,” he writes,
America spends billions of dollars on high-tech, super-sexy, super-complex equipment with vulnerabilities that can be easily exploited by ragtag Taliban militants with low-tech, low-cost weaponry. […] [W]e were being foiled by fertilizer, lamp cord, water jugs, and a car battery.
And nobody wins in the end. “I saw the most powerful country on earth obliterating subsistence farmers,” he writes. “However bad we had it, we were war tourists; for them, it remains life.”
With the resignation of Catch-22 and the sadness of All Quiet on the Western Front, Edstrom spends the last part of the book reflecting on the fallout of this war — which, as he points out, has been going on longer than World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. A well-earned anger animates his discussion of the way most Americans treat “war [as] elevator music” and comfortably allow all of this to happen in their name.
Reading Un-American in the time of COVID-19, when headlines are about the “war” being waged on a virus, it is hard not to draw parallels between doctors and nurses going to work without protective equipment and the gross incompetence Edstrom describes as a feature, not a bug, in the war in Afghanistan. What if, instead of spending enough money to string “single $100 bills lengthwise” to the moon and back 12 times, we had invested in a universal health-care system?
Edstrom remains convinced, however, that change is possible. “The story of today’s America is one of avoidable suffering,” he writes. But there is a sliver of hope: voters can still change the national narrative — particularly in an election year.