Defense industry's goals differ from average Americans and Afghans: US veteran
Published: Aug 30, 2021 11:48 PM
US President Joe Biden (center) attends the dignified transfer of the remains of fallen service members at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, on Sunday. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden (center) attends the dignified transfer of the remains of fallen service members at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Editor's Note:

As the US has accelerated its pace to withdraw from Afghanistan despite its debacle and all the miseries caused to the Afghan people, the Afghan mission may be ending. But the war remains endless for American veterans. In the eyes of veterans, what has the US military action left for Afghanistan as well as the US in the past 20 years? As more American veterans speak out against war, will their collective voices be heard by the US government? Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen talked to Garett Reppenhagen (Reppenhagen), executive director at Veterans for Peace, a US organization dedicated to building a more peaceful world through local and national efforts. Reppenhagen served in the US Army as a Cavalry/Scout Sniper in the 1st Infantry Division, completing a deployment in Kosovo on a nine-month peacekeeping mission and a combat tour in Baquaba, Iraq.

GT: You talked about betrayal on your Twitter account: "That betrayal you are feeling around #Afghanistan is rooted in the fact we have been betrayed a long time ago." Can you elaborate on this?

Yeah, I think all nationalist societies create these myths about who we are, about our cultural identities. And I think that in a large way, at least in the US, we condition people from an early age to support the national identity. It's not always the best for our communities, and for humanity at large. A lot of people want to join the military, because they believe it's the patriotic thing to do. But very rarely do our missions actually co-align with what those values are. Usually, we're driven by political desires, by individuals, by corporate desires, or by military industry. Oftentimes, the culture is kind of dragged along the way by believing this kind of patriotic thought line that is built up on how we see our founding fathers, the way the constitution came about, the way the country emerged, our beliefs on Manifest Destiny, and how we view atrocities to the indigenous people of America. A lot of these are basically comes down to their lives.

So that betrayal about what individuals service members are feeling around what they did and what they were supposed to be doing in Afghanistan, for instance, was ultimately false 20 years ago. They're coming to that realization now through the decision that Biden had made to pull out troops in Afghanistan. But how can we say there was actually some honest interest there for the people of Afghanistan and our actual national security in the US.

A few years ago, The Washington Post newspaper revealed corruption, mismanagement on a strategic and tactical level, and the dependency that was built up by American colonialism in Afghanistan. We are all really exposed. And for some reason, those aren't getting addressed right now in American media. I think it'd be interesting to go back and look at the Afghanistan papers and see what, for instance, the US president right now isn't talking about in relation to all this information we already have about the situation. So service members are feeling betrayed, but I think I hope with some analysis and reflection, a lot of people see that their entire military service, in a way, was a betrayal, not only by our government officials and by American corporations, but our whole civil culture in the US.

GT: How would you compare the Saigon moment and the Kabul moment? Do you think the current chaos in Kabul is a result of the political infighting in Washington? Did the Biden administration ever think of the implementation of the withdrawal?

I was actually born in 1975. It's interesting to connect the two conflicts and withdrawals. The organization "Veterans For Peace" that I'm the executive director of was founded in 1985. Most of the members that founded the organization were Vietnam vets that were involved in a movement called "Vietnam Veterans Against the War." There was heavy activity in protesting anti-militarism all throughout the 1960-70s during the Vietnam War. I think most of our members will tell you that those similar lies that we see playing out in Afghanistan played out in Vietnam as well. A lot of people think the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a false flag operation to drag us further into war, in military engagement in Vietnam.

Similar lies that perpetuated, I think, the war in Afghanistan and in the entire global war on terror. There's a lot of conspiracies about what happened in the 9/11 atrocities in the US. I think that tragic moment was manipulated by a lot of people to perpetuate endless war/forever war for the American people based on revenge.

We hear the same kind of cries now even after the suicide bombing in Kabul the other day. We see this president now, a Democratic president in the US, calling for revenge for the service members that were killed in that bombing.

So we continue to repeat these habits of creating these revenge wars, and then we get into these quagmires of conflict that are impossible to leave, because people are left with the moral conundrum of the negative results of making the decision to pull out. So it becomes political instead of actually thinking about what are the best interests for individuals involved. The political will has never been there to leave Afghanistan. Because individual politicians were afraid that the blowback and what we're seeing play out now in Afghanistan was likely any time during the last 15 years probably. The longer that we're deployed in the location and have military aggression, the more legitimized extremism and radicalism becomes against Western nations and especially the US. The more collaborators are built up for that occupation and justified resistance forces become more violent, the more grievous the backlash is.

Nearly 20 years later having occupied this nation, and the results are devastating to Afghans. First, if we never went in, obviously, with military force in Afghanistan, but if we left 15 years ago, the blowback would have been minimized and the fault would have been lessened. The political damage would have been less, I think, for politicians. We saw the same thing in Vietnam as well. There were many Vietnamese who worked in collaboration with the US, including officers, administrators, and interpreters. They were fleeing for their lives.

Now we have the same situation in Afghanistan. So you would think that these lessons would be learned. Maybe they have been. It's just what the results are that some individuals want, like US corporations, like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, these huge military industrial complexes. Their goals are obviously different than the average American and certainly the average Afghans. So they didn't want us to end a military conflict. They're selling bullets and bombs, right? So they're gonna continue to manipulate US politics and continue to try to manipulate the US people and to perpetuate more as long as possible.

GT: US military expenditures rank No.1 in the world, but US politicians often hype up threats from other countries. What do you think of that? What do you think of the US saying China threatens US national security while the US flexes its muscles on China's doorsteps?

I don't think a lot of Americans look at the numbers. We're constantly being manipulated with these fear tactics; that there's all these boogie men out there in the world that are threatening military violence against Americans. It continues to justify the ramping up of the war effort. Even as President Joe Biden says that we're exiting the war in Afghanistan, he is already talking about where we should have a military presence other than Afghanistan.

So it's not a retreat from war, in general. It's not a fatigue of combat. It is repositioning troops in other places in the world to fight other boogie men, like terrorist organizations, like ISIS and other parts of the world. Somalia and lots of places in Africa are listed. And that scares me because if you look at Chinese interest and US interest, there's a lot of overlap. A checkerboard of our nations and other nations being involved in intertwined and even more complex, political and economic situations that could be volatile to explode to a larger conflict.

As we threaten our own citizens that these evil powers, like whatever is, if it's China or Russia or Iran and North Korea, it's almost like a self fulfilling prophecy that we're making it more liable for these large global conflicts to occur in conventional combat to happen. And that's terrifying.

GT: How does the Veterans for Peace express its anti-war demands? How is the fund raised?

We express it with protest. We're an activist organization. We believe using every tactic that our communities and people have to push back against centralized power. Maybe we'll use activist protest, but we'll also use the disobedience, public education, and information. Talking to journalists like a GT reporter is important to us, because that's how we get some of our messages out.

Most of our funds come from individuals donors, a lot of our membership pays dues, and they pay additional money to support the organization and our missions.

So in that way, we're not co-opted by large organizations to push our organization to do things that they want us to do. We're driven by individuals who have focused on personal goals and passion to be involved.

And since 95 percent members of our organization are just military veterans, we feel we have some credibility in the US to talk about issues of war, violence. We do get some funding from peace-driven foundations. But most of the money is self-funded by individuals.

GT: You are son of a Vietnam veteran and grandson of two World War II veterans. You also served in the US Army. Why are you anti-war?

My father died of Agent Orange-related cancer when I was in high school, when I was 13 years old. I was generally trying to avoid military service. We do have an economic draft to the US because we do not provide our citizens healthcare, or college education, university education. Having lost my dad at such a young age, there was very little avenues for me to afford such things like university education.

I was poor and in my 20s. I joined the military because I needed some sort of upward mobility and an opportunity to go to college. And I did not join because of my military family tradition. I did not join because I was a blind patriot of the nation. It was an economic choice and a lot of people joined for that reason in the US. We recruit the US military, and we recruit all over the world to join the US military for opportunities. I served in Kosovo and then I came out and went to Sniper School and then was deployed to Iraq as a sniper. I think I realized almost the first day I arrived in Iraq that we weren't being welcomed as liberators in that country, that we are being seen as occupiers and invaders by most of the people that I met.

The fraudulent causes for that conflict, surrounding weapons of mass destruction and revenge for 9/11 attacks, ultimately just didn't add up.

It's being sent to war and really harming a lot of people as a sniper in the US Army. I was let down this path by obvious lies by my own nation. That fundamentally is what turned me against war in general. It started off specifically about the war that I was serving in, but later, being more woken up to the entire systematic problems that lead a nation like the US to go to war. So it was a long path. There wasn't like one triggering moment that I can define and say that was where I transformed. It was a long awakening that I slowly realized what I was doing was wrong and my involvement in it. It really brought me a lot of shame and moral injury.

So I feel like trying to prevent conflict to make sure that more US men and women don't join the military and don't follow in my path and commit such harm all across the world. This really helps rebuild some of the soul and consciousness that I've lost through my involvement in military service. So it's the right thing to do and it's healing me. So those are two reasons why I turned against militarism.

GT: Thirteen American service members were killed in the latest terror attacks in Afghanistan. When you saw this news, how do you feel about it? What has the US military action left in the past 20 years? What about local reconstruction, US interests, soldiers' rights?

I feel like it's very frustrating and upsetting. Not ultimately because I'm angry at the attackers. I don't like violence one way or another. But it's upsetting because it's so unavoidable. I know ISIS is claiming responsibility for the attack. I know that the vacuum and chaos created by the US occupation and withdrawal is setting up an opportunity for organizations like that to do this. We could have taken Afghans that have been allies to the US out of that country.

During president Trump's presidency, he had very strict immigration policies that stopped a lot of folks that had special visas for coming to America. It's labeled by a lot of Americans that oppose that policy as a Muslim ban. And it was hugely damaging and difficult to get folks that helped the US military out of Afghanistan at that point. That process was slowed. When President Biden came in, there wasn't any sort of urgency to really increase those operations in any new. He headed toward trying to make this withdrawal possible. I feel like that could have been avoidable. And obviously that stems originally from the fact that we shouldn't have been in Afghanistan at all. 

It's frustrating that we entered Afghanistan as revenge for 9/11. It quickly changed between a war in a hunt for Al Qaeda to a war with the Taliban, which wasn't the original reason why we went there. But then we ended up fighting for 17 years against the Taliban. When we finally found Osama bin Laden and he was killed, it didn't encourage an additional withdrawal from the country. So there are critical points that we could have backed out with some sort of political phase. Those were never taken advantage of. And here we are now with more service members dying, and many more Afghans dying and being murdered. American media oftentimes reports US service members that died, but we rarely see how many Afghans have been killed and attacks like this. I think it took longer than 24 hours before I heard any sort of reports in the US of how many Afghans were killed.

It's a shame because the service members died there were trying to help the Afghans. It almost degrades the honor and what they were trying to do there because we're not even recognizing the reason for their sacrifice. So I think it's incredibly upsetting. Obviously, when anybody loses a life, it's upsetting. And I'm no longer a nationalist. So I'm gonna mourn anybody's life as equal, whether it's a US service member, or whether it's an Afghan. It's a tragic loss of human life and that's upsetting, too.

GT: What has 20 years of US military action in Afghanistan left for each country respectively?

The country is gonna be in chaos for a long time. It's gonna take forever to repair the damage that's been done. There's gonna be growing conflict in that country. Who knows how many divisions and how divided the nation's gonna be with different sections fighting for control. Whether it's warlord-driven, whether the Taliban finally get some security, whether it's splinter terrorist groups like ISIS or the reemergence of Al Qaeda, all these groups can continue to fight, and it doesn't leave a lot of hope for the average Afghan in that situation.

I see an increased degradation of infrastructure, professionals, whether it's the medical field or other areas, trying to leave the country, leaving a massive depletion of skill based workers that can help with solutions.

They are gonna be afraid to stay, or they're gonna be killed in the crossfire, in the violence.

It really just is heartbreaking. And I don't see a good, immediate future for Afghanistan. But the importance is that it really is up to the Afghans to decide and it's not up to US or anybody else. But that doesn't mean that the US at this point is gonna turn their back on Afghans. The right thing to do is figure out how to support. The solutions are not military solutions. But there's other ways that I think Americans in the US can support safety and security in Afghanistan. 

We can't have this ethnocentric view on it. And we can't be colonizers, or the thoughts around how we help, which means taking the lead from the Afghan people. Right now, that communication isn't there, there are no systems and channels and networks to help make that happen. So the best we can do, I think right now, is get people out who want to leave as safely as possible and see what kind of help can be done as the dust settles, I suppose.

GT: How about the image of the US after the withdrawal from Afghanistan?

I heard a report today that it's wobbling, and I thought that was a funny way to turn it. It's not great. I think that the credibility of the US in international politics has been depleted pretty heavily in the last 20 years probably. There was a moment after the 9/11 tragedy where the world recognize the attack as sympathy and wanted to help. And almost immediately, George W. Bush saw the opportunity to go to war and use military aggression all over the planet. Ever since that moment, I think there's been damage to how the US had been viewed internationally. 

The amount of resources that have been spent, the amount of harm and injury that have occurred, the war investment, the instability in so many nations, is very apparent because of US foreign policy. I think President Biden is not earning that back right now by continuing to speak about revenge, being hasty, not showing any sort of apparent caution or sorrowfulness about how the withdrawal from Afghanistan was gonna happen. But don't get me wrong, I'm completely in support of the US military withdrawing from Afghanistan, because I never thought that there were military solutions to secure that country and help the Afghan people. But the way it was done was just pretty careless, in my opinion. And I think the world is gonna see that.

So, what do we do to help repair that? I don't know. 

Here we come into COP26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties), the climate meetings, and it'd be good if there are some arenas the US would take the lead on and do a responsible thing. I feel like our two nations, China and the US, are looking at each other to see who's gonna make some real solid commitments first, right? And who lead the way because nobody wants to go alone. Nobody's gonna make these commitments by themselves. We really have to have some mutual efforts. So I'm hoping that there are other things that the US could help with to rebuild some of that credibility. But if the president now, the US, is just gonna pivot and continue war in other areas outside of Afghanistan. It's not gonna help our international image.

GT: Have more retired veterans contacted your organization recently? What are their demands? 

Yes. There are a lot of people, a lot of veterans from Afghanistan, and other post-9/11 era vets, even from other areas of combat that are questioning their service that are looking for answers. They are trying to find a community of veterans that are critically thinking about things. We're seeing folks showing up at our organization, becoming members and asking questions about who we are and what we're trying to do. We're welcoming any veteran who wants to put down a rifle and work toward peace. I think this is very respectable.

GT: Do you think your collective voices can be heard by the US government? Will they ever pay attention to that?  

Once in a while we make them pay attention, but the anti-war movement in the US is definitely declining.  When president Obama took office back in like 2009, I guess that was when there was a deflation of the anti-war movement. I thought things were gonna get settled. We are still in a lot of these conflict zones, whether officially or artificially, whether it's boots on the ground of American troops or whether it's drones, special forces, missiles off the coast. We're still be heavily involved in these places. The CIA is involved. There are other manipulations. Even the places where we say we're not at war, there's US influence in military aggression. 

I think we need to rebuild the anti-war movement in the US. And I think it's intersectional, realizing that issues of racism, of environmental destruction and other things are co-linked to militarism and that it has to all to get looked at in a holistic way. And I'm hoping that movements like the "Black Lives Matter" in the US, with climate action groups like extinction, rebellion and other folks like that, will unite with the anti-militarism message. So we can kind of realize that all these movements are interconnected and we need to push for real transition.

GT: After the crisis in Afghanistan, your organization released a statement. Will there be further actions? 

Yeah, I think we'll continue to calls to action. There's a mobilization in Washington, DC with protests that some Veterans for Peace folks will be at and joining folks there. Organizations like About Face, which is our close allies that came from the Iraq veterans against the war, will be organizing there. And I think that we're trying to organize both the Afghan diaspora to get involved with our veterans who fought in Afghanistan to push for more accountability around Afghanistan conflict. There are still a lot of answers that we want from what was reported from Afghanistan papers. Nobody really in the US is fully addressed. There are people that are individually named in that report who haven't taken accountability or any sort of public message about their role in why this situation has happened. So we'll be demanding accountability from war corporations and from other areas. The short answer is yes, there's more action coming.

GT: What will you say to servicemen about the next war the US will wage?

I do a lot of speaking at high schools and colleges. I talked to kids in a lot of different spaces. So we do have an opportunity to interact with the potential next generation of military veterans. 

Typically, I say: "Look who you're serving as a 'service member,' who you are really serving. If you think that you're serving your neighbors or your family or your friends or your communities, you're not. You are serving US corporations. You're serving US politicians. If you can be proud of that and take another person's life, representing those people, then, by all means, have fun enjoying your college education. But I've been racked with guilt and shame, post-traumatic stress and moral injury from my role in the US military after realizing what I had done and who I have done it for. Please don't make the same mistakes I have. And there are other ways that you can honor yourself, you could find a right passage and you can serve our communities without join the US military."