President after president, and now even a slew of presidential candidates, promise to end endless wars, yet our troops remain engaged in hot spots like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. What will it take for the United States to finally bring our troops home?
A special thanks to Christopher Preble for the guidance on this episode.
Natalie Dowzicky interviewed; Erik Goepner, Becky Heyse, Jeff Groom, Dan Grazier, Dan Caldwell, and Max Pappas for this episode.
Music by Cellophane Sam.
00:00 Erik Goepner: All war is at it’s most deep and difficult place is similar. So I’m maybe six, seven, eight-years-old. I’m hanging out at my grandparents’ house with my grandfather who fought in World War II and he comes in wearing a sleeveless undershirt, and he points to his bullet wound in his shoulder and he points to the shrapnel wound in his neck and he says, words to the effect of “All war is a darkness.”
00:24 Jeff Groom: Initially, I just thought that the definition of patriotism is just to stay with the herd and do whatever your country’s leaders ask you to do and you don’t ask questions, you don’t worry about the why behind it, you just salute smartly and follow orders because you assume that your leaders have the best interest of your country in mind. I realized that patriotism in a way had been, it’d been hijacked as in the powers that be, if you wanna call it I guess the military industrial congressional media complex, they were responsible for creating the illusion that patriotism only means support for the troops in a time of war, no questions asked.
01:06 Donald Trump: We have spent more than seven trillion dollars in fighting wars in the Middle East.
01:15 Barack Obama: Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue but this war, like all wars, must end.
01:32 Elizabeth Warren: We cannot ask our military to keep solving problems that cannot be solved militarily.
01:40 Elizabeth Warren: We’re not gonna bomb our way to a solution in Afghanistan.
01:46 Donald Trump: By removing Soleimani, we have sent a powerful message to terrorists. If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people.
01:55 Natalie Dowzicky: This is The Pursuit. I’m Natalie Dowzicky. The United States maintains an all-volunteer military force of 1.3 million active duty personnel and 800,000 in the reserves. Our country thrives due to the extraordinary people who are willing to put their lives on the line to ensure the safety and security of everyone here at home. We have interviewed six individuals who are all connected in one way. They have left their families for years at a time to protect us. Some have even served multiple tours of duty in the last few years.
02:38 Becky Heyse: I am Major Becky Heyse. I am a public affairs officer in the US Air Force and I have been in the Air Force for a little over 12 years now. I am a classic example of the growing trend that you see of kind of keeping it in the family when it comes to military service. I joined the military simply because my dad was in the military. So it’s really all I’ve ever known.
03:03 Natalie Dowzicky: Next, we have Erik Goepner, a retired Air Force colonel.
03:07 Erik Goepner: As a young guy, I was a little bit of a rabble rouser but despite being a rabble rouser, I always had an interest or a desire to be a part of something bigger than myself, to serve something beyond my self-interest. So that’s half the story, the other half of the story is my father is an immigrant. At the age of three, my grandparents took him and they escaped from East Germany and then about six years later, he was able to come to the United States. By the time he was 18, he was at MIT and then he went on to have a great 35-year career as an aeronautical engineer and I don’t know of any other country that provides second chances like that so being in the world’s greatest Air Force was a small way to say thank you.
03:46 Natalie Dowzicky: And this is Max Pappas.
03:47 Max Pappas: My name’s Maxwell Pappas. I’m a current active duty Major in the US Army. I’m an infantry officer and I’ve been serving for 13 years.
03:57 Natalie Dowzicky: Becky and Max both deployed to Afghanistan alongside Erik. These individuals were more than willing to talk about their experience on the ground.
04:05 Erik Goepner: So there’s a small village, a buddy of mine is doing operations with the Afghan National Army. I do operations with the Afghan governments and my duties were different than his and at night, they send up illumination rounds and they send them up in a canister that’s roughly like a mortar canister. It gets shot up and they do these little plots to make sure they know where that metal canister is gonna drop because even a metal canister with nothing in it can be lethal.
04:31 Natalie Dowzicky: The US military is in Afghanistan to train the Afghan National Army, who is actively fighting the rebels. The US military runs hundreds of drills and tests each day. During a routine nighttime drill, soldiers ignited an empty metal canister device to verify where it would land but something went horribly wrong.
04:50 Erik Goepner: So they had made a calculation error, and there were two little kids sleeping on the top of their house, because in Afghanistan, nobody has electricity, nobody has air conditioning so the kids are on top of their roof to escape the summer heat. Unbeknownst to them as they sleep, the metal canister comes down and slices through two of the three. There were three kids up there and two died.
05:13 Erik Goepner: So we go out, my friend goes out to do kind of a culturally appropriate interaction with the village elders and I go out there alongside the Afghan government officials and I also bring one of my teammates young lady, because only ladies can go visit with the ladies and so her job that day is going to go and try and console and express in a culturally appropriate way our deep sadness at what has happened.
05:41 Natalie Dowzicky: The female teammate that Erik referenced was Becky.
05:44 Becky Heyse: So we ended up spending a couple hours with this woman and what remained of her family and some of the extended family was there. We were able to render some basic medical support. I think one of the kid’s foot was badly injured, like just a bad wound on it so we were able to clean it all up, get it bandaged all up, leave some medical supplies behind. Just spend some time with this woman and really express our condolences and just spend a lot of time and learned a little bit more about her, a little bit more about her family. Yeah, it was something that was unfortunately very tragic for her but it was something that we tried to do every time that I went into a village.
06:29 Becky Heyse: My role was to try and humanize us a little bit as the US Military and where we would be conducting these operations, I made the intention of sometimes I had a translator with me, sometimes I didn’t but I would go into these homes as other operations were being conducted and using my basic pashto, assalamu alaikum and saying my name is when my pashto name and I would give just a smile and trying to show them, “Hey there’s a female here too.” And we’re not… Putting a little bit more of a human face and so it was something that I did a lot over that year but that experience was one where we were able to spend a couple of hours with her. Obviously, we couldn’t change what had happened and we couldn’t do anything but it was something that we could do, and really tried to express our condolences.
07:18 Natalie Dowzicky: Sometimes Americans forget that when we apply force in war-torn countries, we are not the only ones suffering losses. According to the Washington Post, startling Afghanistan papers, 157,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Over 43,000 of those deaths were Afghan civilians. There is no way to comprehend what the Afghan people have been through as this war has played out in their towns, marketplaces and backyards.
07:48 Erik Goepner: And so no matter which slice you wanna take of that story, everybody suffered moral injury. That woman, her life has been grievously changed forever. If you think about the poor young kid who made the plotting error with that canister, that person’s life has been changed forever and it’s a small… When I say small mistake, it wasn’t done on purpose and it was in the big scheme… The mistake itself, was insignificant but the consequences were catastrophic and that poor young person is gonna have to live with that for the rest of their life.
08:21 Natalie Dowzicky: To this day, they are still wrestling with the ethical questions surrounding their conduct. At the same time they wonder what real impact they had, if any.
08:30 Becky Heyse: I honestly don’t know if it made a strategic impact at all but at a very tactical level, back to the very human to human level, I have to believe that it did. I spent a year of my life there, spent a year of my life, spending time with the Afghans, spending time with the Afghan government officials even and I know how much effort and blood, sweat and tears that I put into those, to really try and bring the humanness of what we were there, being more than just a US military there to get the bad guys. Truly trying to bring more of some of that American culture. I tried to bring that to every interaction I have and I have to believe that it did make a difference. That those did make a difference.
09:14 Becky Heyse: I don’t know if it made a strategic difference but I have to believe that for those one-on-one interactions, that it made a difference. I think that’s my biggest reflection when I look back. I don’t know if I made any big differences. [chuckle] I don’t know if Zabul is any better as a result of the much, much hard work and money and effort that went into it but I know that there are many Afghans that… They did get the best of what the American military had to do in our one-on-one interactions and that was what I could guarantee.
09:54 Erik Goepner: Countries like Afghanistan and a few others that are hot spots right now, if it goes on too long, Afghanistan clearly has, then you should expect that it’s gonna continue a lot longer, that it’s a horrible, vicious cycle, where it reinforces itself in a negative way. Afghans and Iraqis need a period of peace where they can just reconstitute themselves, let a generation grow up that knows something other than constant war and so I just wanna make sure that it’s understood that that’s the derivative point. The main point is, take care of your subjectives but there’s no good argument for how we’re taking care of US objectives now.
10:27 Natalie Dowzicky: All of our service members have a wealth of practical knowledge but in many instances, their pleas fall on the deaf ears of Congress. In fact, at the time of the Vietnam War, three-quarters of the members in Congress were former service members. That ratio has quickly dwindled to 18% for the current Congress. Dan Grazier, was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, he now serves as the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight, also known as POGO. Like many veterans, Grazier believe what he did in Iraq was right in making an actual difference. However, six years later, when he landed in Afghanistan, his outlook drastically changed.
11:07 Dan Grazier: We were just swatting flies where we could and we weren’t really doing much and at that point, I really believed that any good that we had accomplished in Afghanistan, happened 12 years earlier, in 2001. The war on Afghanistan should have been over in December of 2001, basically and so why we were still there was a big mystery and it was a conundrum, I’ll say it that way. I knew why we were there, we were there because we were told to be there. Mostly because no one had the guts to say, “Look, we can’t accomplish anything else.” Nobody here in Washington wanted to be responsible for pulling us out.
11:47 Dan Grazier: The military, it should be prepared to fight the kind of wars that we… To face the kind of threats that we actually face but that’s it, it should be a break glass in time of war tool. It should mostly reside here in the United States and prepare to fight the threats that we actually face. We shouldn’t be scattered all over. The military shouldn’t be scattered all over the world the way it is, it should be a force-in-being should the need arise.
12:22 Natalie Dowzicky: No president wants to be labeled as the one that lost a war but at the same time, why would a president want to be labeled as continuing an endless one? This is Dan Caldwell, a Senior Advisor at Concerned Veterans of America.
12:35 Dan Caldwell: It actually dishonors veterans when we pursue a bad foreign policy and it was really responding of folks who were saying that we need to stay in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria forever, to honor the sacrifice of those that gave their lives in those countries for the United States and we just wanted to rebut that and turn that whole idea on it’s head because cannily, it’s absurd and it’s insulting to those that gave their lives whether you agree with the war or not, they were there in service of the country. They were giving their lives in many cases for the men and women on the right and left and to use them as an excuse to pursue a bad foreign policy, to us was just… It was insulting and you enlist in the military for many reasons but the military ultimately exists to provide safety and security for the United States so we can have liberty here at home.
13:32 Dan Caldwell: And that is why we need people to enlist in the military and if we’re gonna pursue something that isn’t making us safer, that isn’t preserving our prosperity, then we’re dis-honoring the sacrifice. We’re dishonoring the fact that we’ve had people step up and volunteer to serve in these wars and we just think it’s ridiculous that this argument keeps getting made that oh we need to stay there forever and if we pull out, all these folks died for nothing, and it’s just absurd.
14:04 Natalie Dowzicky: After nearly two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, we should all be asking ourselves. Is this really the best we can do to bring our service members home? Quite a few of our interviewees expressed concern that the general public has no clue what the military does. This is Jeff Groom, a former officer in the Marine Corps and a former naval pilot.
14:23 Jeff Groom: So the thing that I didn’t really expect to see was just how dysfunctional the military actually was and is at just doing the basic things right, not even in war time but just in peacetime, just putting our time and energy where it needs to be in order to maintain readiness to fix our airplanes, to do all those things that the military is expected to do from the Congress and the American people. That was my biggest disappointment or… And the way it changed from reality, where my expectation was, was that the military is definitely not a well oiled machine that is just continuously on top of it’s game and nothing could be further from the truth.
15:04 Natalie Dowzicky: According to the Afghanistan papers, the government not only deliberately tried to hide the facts about the war from the American public but they also knowingly made false public statements to gain continued support for the war. Sadly, this is not the first time, nor will it be the last that the government omits the truth about what our military does. You can’t run a successful organization without holding people accountable for their actions. Yet in the last few decades, our leaders have strategically manipulated public opinion to make their decisions appear favorable and honestly, as a fellow patriot, I’m concerned that not enough people care that we have been led astray.
15:46 Max Pappas: The American people should have a very good understanding because any person that… Even soldiers have commented they’ve hurt or killed, it’s in the name of the American people and so, right or wrong if I’m right or wrong, why don’t we do that stuff when we use violence? It’s in the name of the American people, they should have a pretty good vote and I don’t necessarily know that I think a lot of it is isolated. I think the use of a small, very professionalized active duty force in order to do that means that they… The American people don’t end up with the vote, they don’t really understand, getting a good understanding.
16:23 Jeff Groom: The average civilian thinks that their military only wants to be comfortable like they are, or some of them want to be. But really, what you join the military for is not to be completely comfortable, it’s to be broken off, it’s to sacrifice. It’s actually to put something on the altar of sacrifice, so to speak. Even people that say, thanks for your service, I’ve never gotten into it with any of them but I try to challenge them to think a little harder, dig and see and I’d say probably half the time if I start digging and say well, thanks for the support. I appreciate it, but tell me honestly, what do you really think about the war on terrorism? Do you understand it? What are we doing? What’s the strategic goal? Or do you understand and why?
17:06 Becky Heyse: And we also are experiencing unprecedented support for being in the military. We are so lucky that the US population so greatly supports the US military but it also seems, from my perspective, that we’re put on a little bit of a pedestal and so what does that tell us? What do we need to just continue to understand about that relationship when the percentage of people that are serving us, continuing to get stronger but the support… Is it appropriate what we’re receiving? A cop-out for not having to serve themselves and I don’t know but it’s something that I’m kind of wrestling with just as I’m serving, I think I’m happy to serve, I’m proud to serve but at the same time, as we’re getting this… Oh this thank you and this oh military discounts and military recognition, I’m like “I don’t know if that’s appropriate.”
18:00 Jeff Groom: My personal perspective, I think that there should be a lot more questioning of what the military is doing and why, just because that’s what keeps everybody honest. The American people, it’s like you’re not a patriot if you don’t support the troops. I think you’re a patriot if you support the ideals of the country and that’s really how that should work. If military campaigns or decisions that are being made don’t support the ideals or the values of the country, you’re not a patriot if you don’t stand up against that. I think that’s the bigger… That’s the thing.
18:34 Jeff Groom: There’s a little bit of idolatry that goes along with the military worship in the United States. I think that in itself is pervasive. Well, it’s corrosive in the long-term. Just because it doesn’t help make sure that it doesn’t hold anybody accountable for making sure that what we do is in line with the values that we say that we support. I mean nothing’s perfect, no system’s perfect if there’s no check-ups on it.
19:05 Natalie Dowzicky: Thanks for listening to The Pursuit. If you like The Pursuit, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcast. The Pursuit is a project of libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. Music by Cellophane Sam. If you’d like to learn about libertarianism, visit us at libertarianism.org.