Erik Edstrom enrolled in West Point in 2004 with the goal to effect positive change in the world through a career in the military. Things didn’t go the way he hoped. His platoon suffered senseless casualties for a senseless, unending war, and in the years since he has examined the War on Terror’s “legal injustices, unforced errors, and gaffes.” Edstrom hopes his book Un-American “can be an antivenom to America’s fetish for war.” Part memoir, part treatise against blind patriotism and war for war’s sake, the book is a must-read for those who believe we should redirect our resources away from endless wars.
The Millions: How did you come to write about your time overseas?
Erik Edstrom: Un-American started not as a book but rather as a combat journal of sorts. In 2009, I began a one-year deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I was 23 years old and leading a platoon of light infantrymen in the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban—a district affectionately known as the heart of darkness. My platoon and I spent a lot of our time playing human minesweeper—either with our tires, or worse, our boots. Roughly 25% of the platoon became casualties.
We lived outside the wire, beyond the relative comfort and security you’d get from being on a large military base, in dilapidated mud shacks. We slept in the dirt and in our vehicles and had little access to satellite phones that would allow us to connect with the world outside. And even when you were at the main base, there wasn’t enough time to speak to everyone you cared about, so I chose to write.
I punched out long emails—about 10 pages per week—and sent them to a thread of about 100 people. After 52 weeks, I realized I had inadvertently created a ream of really emotional, primary source content from the nexus of the “war on terror.” As more time passed, I felt like every life event conspired to tell me that I needed to keep writing. The military provided me, through the medium of the daily news, with a constant stream of atrocities, whipping me to persist.
TM: What broader point are you making in this book about your military experience?
EE: The War on Terror remains one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century, and it’s difficult to recall a time in our past when more was spent to accomplish less.
I want America to reflect on whether we believe in justice, and if so, ask the question: “when do we intend to hold military and political leaders accountable for crimes committed across the Greater Middle East?” In America, justice is subordinate to the military. America’s relationship with its military is creating a slew of unwanted consequences. Patriotism has mutated into blind support for almost anything the military does. Blind support betrays the American soldier, exacerbates problems the military intended to resolve, devastates people we are allegedly trying to help, and threatens all organized human life on this planet, escalating nuclear tensions while simultaneously diverting assets and attention from far larger threats such as climate change.
Our leaders have deliberately chosen to shackle generations of Americans to trillions in war debt to fight low-value, morally dubious conflicts in dusty parts of the world. This should spark sufficient outrage. The message that America needs to take away is that investing in climate change is an investment in national security.
TM: Your book is part memoir, part policy. How did you balance the two?
EE: I was thinking about it as a ghost-of-Christmas-past structure. If it were possible to be visited by three different visions before supporting another bout of American political violence in some other country, what sort of questions would you ask yourself? First, imagine your own death in the specific war you’re being asked to support. If you’re not willing to die in that conflict, then don’t ask anyone else to. The second part stems from my getting a small taste of what war and conflict are like and imagining the other side. If the birth lottery had allowed you to grow up in Iraq or Afghanistan, how would you think about an occupation of your country by people who are aiming guns at you? Third, imagine the opportunity cost. If you’re an able-bodied 25-year-old combat soldier and you look at a map of the world, you’re physically capable of going anywhere. Then imagine what that map would look like with an overlay of disabilities from battlefield amputations.
TM: What role do you think the military should play in the world?
EE: The role of the military is to defend the borders of the national territory and supplement global intervention when it is agreed upon by a governing body. In nine years wearing military uniforms I only trained to fight offensive wars. My training had nothing to do with the defense of American soil. I didn’t prepare to defend Washington D.C., or a protectorate like Costa Rica, or even a US military base plopped down in a foreign country. I was trained to force people in foreign countries to orient themselves towards the will of the U.S. military. If these people chose to defend themselves from us, it was my job to fight and kill them.
Humanity’s greatest problems will not be solved by the military. The military is not a tool for development and I certainly wasn’t issued a “humanitarian aid rifle” that shoots apples and warm blankets to the needy. To build a better world, I believe that we need to grow our capacity for cooperation, not conflict. This involves the reorientation of our patriotic instincts. We must minimize, rather than expand the scope and importance of the military in society and the world.