This is what it looks like when imperialism comes home
You have to hand it to him—the man has a way with words and he sure knows how to fire up his base. Early in November, President Donald Trump addressed a crowd of supporters in Montana, and he gushed with pride about his recent deployment of active-duty troops to the U.S. border with Mexico. The commander in chief bragged about the job his troops were doing in fending off the “invasion”—that isn’t an invasion at all, of course—from a “caravan” of asylum-seeking Central American migrants who were, at the time, 700 miles away. Regarding recent footage of those troops working on the border, he casually said he “noticed all that beautiful barbed wire going up today. Barbed wire, used properly, can be a beautiful sight.” Beauty, as they say, is certainly in the eye of the beholder.
Now, at least for the next two months, Mr. Trump remains this soldier’s commander in chief, so I won’t remark on him or his general personality. Still, I was more than a little troubled by this astounding comment. It’s not just that these migrants are empirically not an invading force, generally not “armed,” and certainly not infused with “unknown Middle Easterners” (read: terrorists). And it’s not just that the United States is itself at least partially to blame for the refugee crisis infecting Central America. Nor is it that the sight of tear gas fired at women and children—in scenes reminiscent of the Gaza Strip—is more than a little distressing.
As the pre-midterm election rhetoric of refugee demonization ramped up, as the tear gas was fired, it was actually the presence of active-duty soldiers deployed within the U.S. and the act of laying barbed and concertina wire to shut out asylum seekers that jarred this damaged career officer. Sure, the dubious legal status of those troops—arguably in contravention of the 140-year-old Posse Comitatus Act—was also bothersome. That act bars the U.S. military from using its capabilities to enforce domestic order without a specific congressional authorization—only don’t expect Congress or the president to seek one. No, it was all more personal, and the visceral images on my screen abruptly brought back old, shameful memories from my own career: recollections of just how un-beautiful the sight of barbed wire truly is.
Thousands of miles and seven years ago, while serving as the commander of a cavalry reconnaissance troop in Kandahar, Afghanistan, then Capt. Sjursen worked for a doozy of a colonel. In an effort to isolate the nearby village of Charcusa from Taliban intrusion, we’d decided to station a small, rotating squad to live within the nearly abandoned hamlet. That would have been more than enough to secure the space and “protect” the few villagers—mostly women, children and elderly men—from local Taliban fighters. Never mind that most of these fighters were the villagers’ husbands and sons—we hadn’t the time to reflect on that ironic and problematic fact. A war was on and the key was to hold ground and keep the Taliban out of shooting range of our base. It was 2011, I’d already fought a useless war in Iraq, and all I cared about was protecting my soldiers while treating the locals with a degree of decency.
My command, however, didn’t think our troop presence was sufficient. Seeking to replicate the concrete bonanza that had “worked” during the 2007-08 “surge” in Baghdad, the chain of command ordered me to surround the entire village with tall, concrete T-walls. That would not only be an eyesore, I replied, but would block the village’s many irrigation canals and starve the inhabitants of Charcusa.
The colonels took a couple of days to consider the inconvenient fact while I began to hope in vain that I’d won a small victory over the obtuse American idea-fairy. Command ultimately decided that while they’d relent on the T-wall order, I would have to surround this tiny, destitute, mud-hut village with hundreds of spools of triple-strand concertina wire. The powers-that-be made it clear that they’d countenance no questions asked from this known skeptic of a captain. So, like the obedient subaltern I then was, I relented.
My troopers spent days laying the ugly, scary and ultimately unnecessary strands of wire. When the job was done, ancient, war-ravaged Charcusa resembled East Berlin during the Cold War, or, worse, a concentration camp. In a bit of absurd irony, we also installed a swing set inside the wire for the village children. I took strange comfort in that, though I abhorred the swings’ juxtaposition with the barbed-wire barricades. Soon after, my colonel dropped by for a brief visit and uttered the words that triggered me today, so many years later: “Danny, you did a beautiful job!” It was a compliment that cut like a knife. At that moment, I would have preferred to be insulted, threatened or demeaned, as I so often was.
What exactly was “beautiful” about our barbed wire accomplishment? We’d turned a local village into a prison camp and controlled the access of native civilians to their own fields and homes; we’d added a visual blight to an otherwise pristine environment; and, ultimately, we didn’t take a single step toward victory in Afghanistan—whatever that meant anymore. As it turns out, U.S. soldiers only ever truly held ground that they stood upon or had walled off with barbed wire. All fantasies of nation-building, democracy promotion and “counterinsurgency” crumbled continuously before our eyes. In the 18th year of our nation’s longest war, such delusions are crumbling still.
Today, just as my soldiers had isolated themselves with concertina wire, our entire homeland is being barbed-wired off from the rest of the continent. In Afghanistan, we kept the people out of—or within—their own villages. In Arizona and other border states, the U.S. Army has now been ordered to keep what Jesus Christ might have called “the least among us” out of the United States.
No, barbed wire isn’t beautiful. It is ugly, it is militaristic, it cannot unite but only seek to divide our ever-connected human souls. This is what happens when the empire comes home, boomeranging overseas sins back into our own communities.
I’m glad, this time, that it is not me being ordered to lay the hateful wire.
The tragedy is, however, that there are always others ready to step up and do so.