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By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War
by Daniel A. Sjursen
(Heyday Publishing, 2020)
Patriotic Dissent is not a big book, but it is an important one. Danny Sjursen is a retired army Major, a West Point graduate, and a former American History instructor at that institution. He is a member of About Face, formerly known as Iraq Veterans Against the War, and he is an advisor to Veterans for Peace and Antiwar.com. Sjursen was granted early retirement from the army due to his ''PTSD,'' a convenient diagnosis after he began to write articles critical of American foreign policy, the military, and the ''forever wars'' in the Middle East and Africa. Hey, to the military, anyone who finds fault with our ''beautiful'' forever wars must be a little bit mentally fucked-up, right? Danny Sjursen's writing has appeared in TomDispatch, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, the Nation, Truthdig, and The Huffington Post. He is also the author of a previous book critical of the war in Iraq, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Sjursen is also co-host on a progressive veterans' podcast, Fortress on a Hill.
Patriotic Dissent starts with a realistic look at American society today. ''Americans today live in an age of vapid overadulation of their soldiers,'' he writes. ''They don't, the vast majority of them, want to actually join the army, the navy, the air force, the marine corps, or even the coast guard. That'd be hard, inconvenient, and, after decades of indeterminate wars, potentially dangerous!'' President George W. Bush is quoted as saying, soon after the 9/11 attacks, that the American citizenry should ''get down to Disney World in Florida… Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.'' What an easy, comfortable approach to expressing ''patriotism!'' About 1% of Americans feel some obligation to join the military, especially as some kind of an act of ''repentance'' for the way Vietnam veterans were treated upon their (our) return, even though Sjursen recognizes that those reports were exaggerated. Others soothe their conscience with the act of enlisting, which they, and society, see as the right or, at least, the requisite thing to do. They have not chosen to avoid service in the all-volunteer military, and are serving as perhaps their ancestors did. When two hundred thousand of these American soldiers were deployed to combat zones at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, income taxes were never raised, the draft was never considered, and instead the volunteer professional ''warriors'' simply served tour after tour in harm's way. ''This,'' Sjursen writes, ''is what generally counts for 'patriotism' these days: 'thank' the troops, 'love' America (or at least its gilded symbols), pay your historically modest (despite the conservative hype) taxes, and – here's the key – keep your mouth shut. Nothing is being asked of you, materially or physically, so just politely champion the soldiers, wave a flag, and support the foreign policies of what's obviously—compared to those evil 'terrorists' over there—a reasonably well-intentioned government.´
Sjursen dared to step outside those lines; he questioned both the necessity of the war and its conduct by the American military leadership. He was called ''hippie,'' ''un-American,'' traitor,'' and ''Russian asset,'' and was told: ''Hey, quit complaining, you volunteered, remember? Finally, outside the army, Danny Sjursen has written Patriotic Dissent not to make excuses for his distinguished military experience, but to challenge each and every American citizen to see the tawdry history of our 20-year war, and all the other wars our troops are waging without the slightest recognition by the news media. Then to think: Is this activity really in America's best interest? Finally, when you are informed and you have reached a conclusion Danny Sjursen expects will be very similar to his, he dares you to speak out about it! Tell your family, your friends, and neighbors, the editor of your local newspaper, your Senators and Congressman. ''Without prompt and widespread citizen action, this cult of vacuous patriotism constitutes, slowly but surely, an existential threat for the health of the republic. In the pages that follow,'' Danny Sjursen writes, ''this middling but not so secretly idealistic soldier-officer will seek to explain why that is, and what can be done to reframe dissent, against empire and endless war, as the truest form of patriotism.'' The book that follows is compact and concise, just 140 pages, but it is powerful, authentic, well-thought-out, and it is patriotic. I came away from it thinking of Danny Sjursen as a modern-day hero! Highly recommended!
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Vietnam, ?and a hard rain fell and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.