activism Maj. Danny

Celebrating Fifty Years of an Individual’s Courage in an Era of Apathy

'Where Have You Gone, Daniel Ellsberg?' Nowhere. Now 90, he’s been here all along, still calling out our government's bullshit.
Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers figure, holds up a copy of “The Senate Watergate Report” as he appears as a panelist at a conference on the Central Intelligence Agency and covert activities on Friday, Sept. 13, 1974 in Washington. (AP Photo/Henry Griffin)

By Maj. Danny Sjursen / AntiWar

He hasn’t gone anywhere, actually. He’s been here all along – poking small holes of decency in sick system, for five-plus decades. At 90, Dan Ellsberg is with us still, and still calling bullshit on a government that couldn’t act right if it tried, to a citizenry that couldn’t care less. Most of it, anyway; reminding me, at least – here at the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers’ publication, and just a month after Dan just dared the Justice Department to indict him for dropping yet another classified truth bomb about US nuclear lunacy – of the indefatigable Tom Joad’s climactic speech from The Grapes of Wrath:

“I’ll be aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere-wherever you look. Wherever there is a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there is a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

If that seems a bit much, a touch hyperbolic, ask yourself: why is it that there are so few Dan Ellsbergs, and so many war-profiting spin-masters, walking around not just Washington, but Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Wichita, Kansas?

One wonders, on such commemorative occasions – amidst two decades-worth of ongoing wars now so (deliberately) abstract as to be almost invisible – what’s appropriate (or left) to say about the whole thing.

My colleague, onetime muse, and – dare I say – friend, Andrew Bacevich was in Vietnam when Ellsberg detonated his tortured truth bomb on a then (relatively) more engaged public. That said, Bacevich – in standard self-deprecating style – admitted in a recent New York Times column that as newly-minted army lieutenant fresh out of West Point, he hadn’t given the Pentagon Papers story much thought. No doubt he had more pressing matters to mull over: like dodging bombs and bullets, whilst maintaining some semblance of “good order and discipline” in one small unit of a big army – which was all-but coming apart there at the tail end of a long war that ought never been fought.

Sometimes talking to Andrew is jarring in it’s own right. He’s four years older than my father, hailing from a whole other spatial and temporal world. Knowing the words to obscure Lovin’ Spoonful songs made me – like comedian John Mulaney – an “off-putting, strange child.” It made Andrew a normal teenager. Normally, we’d otherwise have little in common – probably have no occasion to know, or know of, each other. Yet as fate would have it, we share alma maters, combat stints in worthless wars, and personal paths to eventual doubt and dissent. And just as Andrew once hardly heard the whistles blown about his hopeless war, I’d barely bothered to catch the Cassandra-calls about my own adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Until it was too late.

Daniel Ellsberg.

I think about Bacevich – who I began reading during my senior year at the academy – sometimes, when I worry if my own military past might poison the well of my two sons’ future career choices, or on sleepless nights spent wondering whether fighting the antiwar fight is a futile endeavor. After all, that first Bacevich book I read carried the fitting subtitle: “How Americans Are Seduced By War.” Well, I sure was; seduced, that is, way back in 2005, and probably long before – on account of captivating tales told by Greatest Generation grandfathers, and a few too many John Waynes flicks watched once our family finally clawed it’s way to cable-TV (TBS military marathons!)middle class-status.

Frankly, I’m underselling my own level of intellectual awareness – which makes matters all the worse. As kind of a classic “double-kid,” I secretly read my tail off by night, whilst pretending popularity by day. More informed than most would be an understatement. As such, I knew all about Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers long before being accepted to West Point – probably prior to my first real kiss. Thing is, it never stuck – the crucial conclusions, the real ramifications, I mean. I doubt they ever had a chance. Militarism, the fetishization of all things martial and violent, is supremely subtle in our society. It seeps in sooner than we think, often before we’re conscious of the concept.

If you’ll forgive the brief foray into pessimism and minor-masochism – the latter, the birthright of my mother’s vaguely Irish Catholic people – this discomfiting visceral and experiential knowledge (and how common it seems for a certain sort of citizen), when combined with America’s present post-draft, obligations-free military-service culture, is enough to engender a defeatism of sorts. Toss in a (confusingly-youthful)-curmudgeon’s take on the navel-gazing narcissistic nature of digital tech and social media, and the gloom gathers.

Still, there stands Daniel Ellsberg – and others like him; living and breathing correctives to any temptation towards apathy. Yet, I’ve sensed the fear of that collective passivity in even some of Ellsberg’s recent remarks – which should sound activist alarm bells from Miami to Mendocino.

In an interview profile in The Nation this past March, Ellsberg admitted he worries that despite some 20-years of almost absurdly obvious failure in the Afghanistan War – during which America repeated many of the mistakes and atrocities of the Vietnam debacle – and laments the comparative lack of widespread public opposition to Washington’s current conflicts. Consider his disturbing and concise summary lament on the post-9/11 era:

“If the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan come out, you could change place names and officials’ names, it wouldn’t make any difference. Same story. And we were lied into a war with Iraq. And Trump could have gotten us into a war with Iran. If you look at Obama in Libya, he wasn’t even willing to use the War Powers Act to inform Congress. It was just war from the air.

We’re seeing near-zero curiosity in the American public as to how many Afghans have been killed in this war in the last 20 years. Not an estimate, no hearings. How about Iraq? There are estimates about 10 to 20 times that of the government estimates. The American people don’t care.”

Incidentally, “the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan” did come out – in the Washington Post in fact, and only 15 months earlier. Heck, that was even the title of my analysis column solicited by The Nation – “We Have Just Been Handed the Pentagon Papers of Our Generation.” But Ellsberg’s basically right – the story seemed big, but ultimately lacked real surprise or staying power. This bombshell proved a dud – a minor embarrassment for a military and government that bare blinks at the negligible annoyance. Certainly the revelation of the should-have-been-obvious – “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” confessed Afghan War “Czar” Lieutenant General Douglas Lute – didn’t galvanize any major public outcry or produce a policy pivot. In fact, a dozen American service-members – and who knows how many locals – have died in the admitted Afghan War hopelessness in the subsequent 19 months.

Hope is hardly lost, and we should hardly quit the good-fight even if it were – but it does make one feel merely an anti-militarism mosquito nibbling a military-industrial complex monstrosity.

Which also raises a rather serious question: when the next Ellsberg releases the next version of The Pentagon Papers – will anyone even notice?

[Coda: Consider the query itself an open invitation to be proved welcomely wrong…]

Danny Sjursen
Danny Sjursen

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, ScheerPost, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

10 comments

  1. While I find Sjurgen’s ‘contempt’ of the Pentagon and his adulation of Dan Ellsberg mostly sincere, I also sense a bit of shoulder-shrugging. A typical lack of solutions for ‘fixing’ rampant apathy; the antiwar industry’s Achilles heel ( even proposed solutions) leaves one, yet again, waiting for the other shoe to drop. After the breezy commentary we’re left with no punch line. I cannot personally get too enthused about a guy blasting perpetual war and the public’s lack of interest while wearing the uniform of Empire.
    So many mixed messages.
    The story was supposed to be a celebration of the blockbuster revelations of one of history’s most important whistleblowers. Imagine how many might have benefited by a synopsis of what the Pentagon Papers held. Nope.
    What the author misses here is the propaganda machine FOR WAR since the events of 9/11, the rabbit punch of the Patriot Act and the beefed up NDAA.
    Since the American War in Vietnam- Americans aren’t just apathetic- because of censorship and propaganda they are un- or ill-informed. It is incumbent upon writers with hands on experience like Major Danny, to keep the record straight. Redundancy in these instances is no crime.

    1. Evidently you are unfamiliar with the writings and efforts of Major Danny to bring light to the issues you raise. Check out his work – he’s the real deal. Be well.

    2. I’m British, never been to the US, but I know about the Pentagon papers of Afghanistan. If American people don’t know or are uninformed, it’s because they aren’t interested, don’t want to know, because of apathy. Danny is correct in that. I am I think of average intelligence and if I can see through the propaganda then there’s no reason, indeed no excuse, for American citizens to not see this too. Caitlin Johnstone says repeatedly that whoever controls the narrative controls the world, and change in our world only happens when the people gain consciousness of what’s happening. To summarise, I believe a person has to be willingly blind to not see the agendas of politicians, the military, corporations…..

  2. NYT is patting itself on the back for past glories, but has betrayed the Pentagon Papers precedent and model.

    I sent this to NYT’s ‘Briefings’ on 6/13/2021:

    NYT ‘Briefings’:

    It’s too bad that NYT has fallen so far from the standards of the Pentagon Papers era.

    You write fondly and proudly (and deservedly so):
    “Fifty years ago today, that headline [“Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement”–aj] ran on the front page of The Times as the newspaper published a bombshell scoop that exposed the lies behind the Vietnam War: the Pentagon Papers. The Times knew the government would sue, but as the newspaper’s general counsel at the time said, “the fate of journalism” was on the line.”

    Instead of exposing the lies behind the demonizations of China, Russia, Venezuela, Syria, and other non-compliant states, NYT now uncritically regurgitates propaganda churned out by the all-of-government information operations of the national security state.

    NYT needs to self-reflect on “giving news without fear and favor.” Does the uncritical regurgitation of disinformation from NSA/CIA really constitute news, especially from unnamed intelligence agency sources?…..Or is NYT just providing a vehicle for state propaganda?

    The sad “fate of journalism” at NYT: Manufacture of Consent.

    –Alvin Ja, San Francisco

  3. Danny:

    I’d offer that what you are going through is not just a recent phenomenon, but something found in history, too. I was making an attempt to read Plato, and he wrote how hard it is to find people you can trust and build something with at a time when Athens was factionalized and tearing itself apart. I was impressed that Plato tried to live by example, and teach Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse how to be a just ruler (Plato was briefly sold into slavery as part of his efforts).

    Bill McKibben wrote about how our age is one of hyper-individuality. This emphasis on personal pleasure or achievement, over community wellbeing, is a big part of why groups outside of those that are persecuted, like African or Native Americans, display indifference.

    I suspect as economic and environmental problems escalate, people will be more directly affected and show less apathy. It would help to have the state or wealthy patrons sponsor a fair, unbiased media (difficult as that might be). The Intercept, sponsored by the founder of Ebay, is an example, even though it, too, later fell prey to self-censorship on behalf of the Democratic Party.

    I would offer that we have to be content with the best efforts we can make, and not condemn ourselves based on the outcome. Each of us has to answer “How do I want to live and be in world?”, whatever the universe throws at us, as hard as it is sometimes.

  4. I can’t help but think the absence of response to the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan Papers is caused by the absence of the tension and ambivalence in the middle class that immediately occurs when your children have been drafted. When there’s no skin in the game, the game becomes easily irrelevant. That, and the relentless corporatization of the American mindset. Where in American life – isn’t the corporation? Its cons, its infotainment, its games, its mean values, its legislative lackeys, its real estate, its blood sucking venality and obsession for exclusive claims to money and power at human and community cost?

  5. It’s more than apathy although apathy certainly is a part of it. Another part is ignorance and group think. Another, the endless programming and propaganda that has assaulted the minds of the population starting from birth. Another seems to be the subjugation of empathy and morality, now replaced by greed and the cult of me. This of course has all but erased in the minds of the average citizen all concept of community and unity or the ability to resist.

    The people, set upon each other while the tentacles of the vile vampire squid that is the Corporates, the MIC and the Deep State work feverishly to enslave us forever in an Orwellian Corporate Dystopian Nightmare.

    It really is that bad. I am not optimistic….

    1. JustAMaverick:

      I thought your description of our society was astute. You often end your comments with something like “I am not optimistic …”, and I wanted to respond to that.

      I’ve read an interview between David Suzuki and Paul Watson (founder of Sea Sheperd), in Suzuki’s book “From Naked Ape to Superspecies: Humanity and the Global Eco-crisis” (2004), and Paul was saying that either humanity learns to live within its means or Nature will turn us upside down and put us in our place. He stated he was very optimistic because of this, in the sense that Nature will always recover and try to evolve again. There have been a number of extinction events (humanity can be said to be one now) where up to 95% of complex species were wiped out, on land or the ocean, or both, and yet Nature recovered.

      I have to remind myself evolution starts from first principles: humans evolved in a scarce, sometimes harsh, environment which demands expressions of love and altruism, but also can lead to selfishness and cruelty. As you know, we are far from Angels, and if there is a Heaven on Earth we can create, it probably can only come about after much hardship and loss, and the wisdom gained from that.

  6. I’ve read the comments left on this thread over the last couple of days by B Caracciolo, John R, Margaret O’Brien, Alvin Ja, Cynical Rex, Selina, and JustAMaverick. It strikes me that the level of discussion so far has been above-the-bar: WAY above the bar. Thank you for your very thoughtful participation!

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