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What I Learned during the Forever Wars

Issue 266

Many people my age went off to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our paths would cross again when they returned.

Derek Ludovici Sep 10

Day O, Day O, 
Daylight come and we bomb your homes 

Cheers would flood my school bus as these opening lines to this parody of “Banana Boat Song” came on the radio every morning, right before the bus arrived at the high school. The song continued:

Day O, Day O, 
The first Afghan royal air show. 
Hey Mister Taliban hand over bin Laden 
Daylight comes and we bomb your home

This was the Fall of 2001 as the opening stages of the Afghan war were taking place.  I was 15 and a freshman. I felt connected to these kids; we had just witnessed the broadcasts of the Twin Towers falling together a month prior in class. We were small-town school students connected by a global war in which we were on the same side.  I felt that way despite not really knowing the world. I had only crossed the state line a handful of times in my life, mostly to New Jersey.

Freshman year of high school I was bombarded with the casual racism of teachers’ jingoistic statements. In particular, those of my social studies teacher about how the Taliban will be “shooting their little peashooters” as we are dropping bombs from 30,000 feet. He chuckled every time he made this joke.

A year later I would quickly find myself becoming anti-war, a leftist, and going to my first protest with my friend Brie, in Philadelphia to oppose the Iraq war. The green night vision videos of the invasion were broadcasted on network television a week after I turned 17, and soon I would see army recruiters, often older brothers of my peers, tabling in the cafeteria during lunch. Yellow ribbons clung to trees for these young soldiers. This was the early infrastructure of America’s forever wars.

While warmongers attempted to sculpt their legacy at CUNY, some of those they led into war were now trying to figure out their lives as civilians.

I crossed the state line for Rutgers University to major in Middle East Studies and eventually moved to Egypt. At the age of 25 I entered a master’s program at the American University in Cairo amid a revolution. This was the most hopeful time in my life. I was living in one of many countries that brought down an autocrat and witnessing public space taken away from the police state and repurposed for and by ordinary people in an outpouring of hope. It felt like the world was remaking itself, and not due to a policy of regime change carried out by US war machines. The revolution was hopeful until it wasn’t. In 2013 I left for a PhD program in New York as tanks rolled back into Cairo, demonstrating the military was once again firmly in charge. 

Arriving at CUNY with no fellowship and no income I, ironically, found an adjunct job teaching international studies in the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, at City College. A few weeks later, six CUNY students were arrested for opposing David Petraeus’s appointment at Macaulay Honor College that semester. He had been hired to teach two classes for $150,000. I earned $2,918 for the only class I could find that semester. 

While warmongers attempted to sculpt their legacy at CUNY, some of those they led into war were now trying to figure out their lives as civilians. During my first two years of teaching in international studies, I noticed how many veterans were in the department and taking my classes. They were mostly white men in their 20s, like me, but our lives had diverged. All of us had gone halfway around the globe, but for very different purposes and reasons.  

In the lounge of the International Studies program, we would chat about our experiences, and I found that many of these veterans had left their deployments with disillusionment about the military.  One day I asked a group of Army vets I had gotten to know well, what their feelings were towards the Army.  The resounding response was to the effect of “The army sucks!”  

What I found most defining of these students is the lack of purpose they felt leaving the military, an institution that they really had not enjoyed being part of. Not that they were necessarily finding their purpose at CUNY. During a lecture one Summer, where we discussed readings that critiqued NGOs and the notion of “development,” one vet yelled out in a flabbergasted tone, “we were sold on international studies and were told we could have all these international careers, and then all of you professors tell us everything we can do with this degree is evil.” This vet had been in the military marching band. A few months later, while walking across campus together, he confided that he had no idea what he wanted to do. He just wanted to play in ska bands. 

Of course, there were also some gung-ho students who took my class. These were students I could never really form a relationship with, never sure why they were taking my course on social movements in the Middle East. One of them instigated fights with jingoistic statements especially when we talked about current events. He would have learned just as much, and enjoyed much more, listening to that shitty parody of “banana boat” that played on the radio when I was a teen in 2001.

In one instance, an Egyptian-American student, with a very different experience of post-9/11 New York, lost her patience and got into a yelling match with one of these veterans. At this point I don’t remember what the argument was over, just that she was done listening to his misinformed ideas, while he failed to listen to folks with religious, cultural, national, or familial ties to the region.

As America’s twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan comes to a sudden end, most of my students today have no living memory of 9/11 and its aftermath. For them 9/11 is history.  An event with consequences they did not directly experience.  Too young to remember the political debates the led us into wars unleashing so much death and destruction on the peoples we have bombed and invaded. I hope as a nation we don’t forget how quickly our nation set down that course and we can come to truly recon with the consequences American unleashed on the world. 

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