America's Permanent State of War: Abroad and At Home, In Our Hospitals and In Our Streets
Charged, finally: Theodore Wafer has been charged with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and felony with a firearm. Renisha McBride was 19 years old when he shot her in the face on his front porch in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. The average age of the soldiers who signed up to fight in the Vietnam War was also 19. The lyrics of Paul Hardcastle’s 1985 musical track, "19," repeat this fact.
Those 19-year-old soldiers participated in declared wars that targeted specific lands, nations and peoples under the guise of national security and building a stronger America. There have been many other wars post-Vietnam, including illegal wars like Iraq and "just" wars like Afghanistan. These wars were all declared, all announced to a nation that was expected to support its troops.
Every year we have Veterans Day in honor of those who fought in wars declared in the name of national security and honor. This year, President Obama spoke of warriors and heroes slain on battlefields defending the nation, as is typical of American exceptionalism.
"As more than a million troops return to civilian life, we're going to have to work even harder because the skill, dedication and courage of our troops is unmatched. And when they come home we all benefit from their efforts to build a stronger America and a brighter future for our kids. So to all our veterans on behalf of the entire nation, thank you for everything you've done and continue to do for our country. As your commander in chief I am proud of your service and grateful for your sacrifice. And as long as I'm president I will make it my mission to make sure that America has your back—not just on one day or one weekend, but 365 days per year."
The ritual of honoring veterans is ensured with banners and ceremonies, sports events and TV specials. The focus is especially on the healthy and the handsome soldiers and not everyone who is in a hospital, mentally wrecked on drugs, or severly depressed and suicidal. Jets fly overhead, color guards stand at attention. In these declared wars, resources are invested, training is given and weapons are carried. Coffins with flags draped over them are signifiers of the somber ceremony surrounding the burying of bloodied heroes slain on battlefields for a grateful nation. We use words such as honor, sacrifice and noble struggle.
Because foreign battlefields become domestic ones when wars travel home, with soldiers navigating the minefields of finding healthcare for injuries sustained protecting you and me. These are the remnants of war, fragmented and untold.
On Democracy Now, Amy Goodman did a segment for V-Day that reported on the increasing numbers of soldiers facing high levels of unemployment, committing suicide, and negotiating the landmines of trauma from these declared wars. The numbers were chilling: since 2000, nearly 6000 soldiers have had traumatic amputations; nearly 1 million active service members have been diagnosed with at least one mental disorder, and nearly half of those have been diagnosed with two or more according to the Veterans’ Administration.
Last year more US military personnel died by their own hands than by the hands of others, and on any given night, nearly 63,000 veterans are homeless. Many veterans suffer debilitating chronic problems. During the segment, Goodman spoke with author and photographer Ann Jones about her new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars—The Untold Story, which, in part, documents the profound and sometimes fatal wounds these recent declared wars have produced for many of its soldiers.
What about those fatally wounded in undeclared wars? These are the stories that often stay untold or only get revealed after protests, rallies and outrage. They emerge from neighborhoods transformed into battlefields when black and brown bodies of men and women find themselves in what for them becomes enemy territory. Routine becomes deadly: a call for help turns into a bullet in the face, burying the dreams of a 19-year-old black teenage girl. That girl now lies in a grave marked justifiable homicide, put there by a fellow American citizen.
On Wednesday, November 13, a bond hearing for Marissa Alexander took place. The hearing determined that Alexander will remain in jail. Another hearing is scheduled to take place before the March 31 re-trial of the case that landed the Florida mother with a 20-year jail sentence. Though her initial sentence was overturned, Marissa Alexander, whose warning shot hit no one and hurt no one, remains incarcerated. Meanwhile, Theodore Paul Wafer, who shot Renisha McBride in the face and killed her, walked free for 13 days. Today the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin also walks free.
Due process is its own battle for black and brown bodies because America has a relationship with violence that is at once intimate and contradictory. The nation sanctions violence against such bodies, especially because of the reasons given—it is committed out of fear or in the interest of "neighborhood safety."
Trayvon Martin's jurors were white women for whom the facts of a strange man following a teenaged boy should have rung alarm bells, should have created connection, should have elicited empathy. For any woman being followed by a strange man is cause for fear; for any mother a strange man following a child elicits empathy for that child and fear about that man. That the body being followed was a black male meant that race trumped any empathy or connection the circumstances might have elicited. America's relationship with violence means that black and brown bodies are constantly expected to feed on diets of injustice and to absorb courtroom verdicts that result from white fears masquerading as facts. Fear is a fact of these undeclared wars. This is how our politics of emotionality operates—a nation legitimizes and institutionalizes emotionality around race, fear and black bodies.
There was a time when white fear of black male and female bodies meant a free pass to abuse, maim and kill without repercussions. Now, this history of legitimized injustice gets hidden by the rhetoric of due process and the "fairness" of verdicts delivered by juries composed of "peers." Still, too often, the verdict is the same: black and brown beings become battlefields, their presence in neighborhoods treated as enemy combatants. They have wandered across enemy lines into neighborhoods where their presence is unwelcome, deemed foreign and declared guilty. Their humanity is simply collateral damage. Their weapon is the skin they are wrapped in—their melanin. Undeclared wars make strategic resistance a universal weapon.
The dreams, futures and lives of black and brown young people are being sacrificed for a nation that refuses to go to war with the legacy of the untreated trauma it suffers in relation to race, fear and safety. To be sure, it was that triple whammy that killed Renisha McBride. For McBride, the war was the porch of a fellow American from whom she sought help after a car crash. For Trayvon Martin, the war was responding to a sugar itch and venturing to purchase Skittles and iced tea in his father's gated community. For Marissa Alexander, the war was a hostile courtroom in which a woman's right to defend her body was deemed illegitimate by a jury of her supposed peers.
Sacrifice to institutions waging war against an unresolved racial history has become a routine requirement for black and brown life. These more common, undeclared wars are now an intimate part of the everyday reality for far too many black and brown citizens. What does resistance look like in a war undeclared but so devastatingly real for the citizens in those bodies? How does a nation navigate that resistance when millions of its citizens are asked to survive on such a steady diet of injustice? What does it mean when your black body is a battlefield, a site of undeclared war in this land you call home?