An American war zone: The US may be sliding toward sectarian conflict
When it rains, pieces of glass, pottery, and metal rise through the mud in the hills surrounding my Maryland home. The other day, I walked outside barefoot to fetch one of my kid’s shoes and a pottery shard stabbed me in the heel. Nursing a minor infection, I wondered how long that fragment dated back.
A neighbor of mine found what he said looked like a cartridge case from an old percussion-cap rifle in his pumpkin patch. He told us that the battle of Monocacy had been fought on these grounds in July 1864, with 1,300 Union and 900 Confederate troops killed or wounded here. The stuff that surfaces in my fields when it storms may or may not be battle artifacts, but it does remind me that the past lingers and that modern America was formed in a civil war.
Increasingly, I can’t help thinking about possible new civil wars in this country and the violence we could inflict on each other. Recently, a family member reposted a YouTube video on her Facebook page that supposedly showed an Antifa activist accidentally setting himself on fire (with the 1980s hit “Footloose” playing mockingly in the background). “I’m just going to leave this here,” read her caption. Shortly thereafter she claimed that the “YouTube speech police” had taken it down.
I thought of saying something to her about how, in countries where I’ve worked, ones without a democracy, people celebrate the misery of their opponents. Was that really, I wanted to ask, the kind of country she’d like our children to see us creating? But I decided not to, rather than further divide our family, which has grown ever more apart since Donald Trump took office. In addition, I knew that confronting her would do neither of us any good. Inspired by a president who offers a sterling example of how never to self-police what you do, she would simply have dismissed my comments as the frivolous words of the “politically correct.”
War and Peace
These days, when I watch the news and see clashes among the police, Black Lives Matter protesters, far-right “militias,” and Antifa supporters, I’m often reminded that just because no one’s declared a civil war begun, doesn’t mean we aren’t staring at the makings of an armed conflict.
Our military service members and their families have toiled for endless years now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa under the mantle of establishing democracy and conducting a “war on terror.” They’ve done so to the tune of more than 7,000 of their own lives, a million of their own injuries and illnesses, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in those distant lands, and significantly more than $6 trillion in funding provided by the American taxpayer. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, they now live in a country that’s under-resourced and fractured in ways that are just beginning to resemble, in a modest fashion at least, the very war zones in which they’ve been fighting.
This is both a personal and professional matter to me. As the spouse of a Navy officer who served three tours of duty on nuclear and ballistic missile submarines and one on an aircraft carrier, and the mother of two young children, I bear witness in small but significant ways to the physical, emotional, and financial toll that endless war has had on those who fight. I’m thinking of those long separations from my husband, his (and my) unlimited hours of work, the chronic health issues that go remarkably unaddressed in the Navy, the hazing by war-traumatized commanders, one near-fatal boat crash, the rising frequency of violence and suicides among military families, a recent lack of regard for obvious safety precautions during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the service’s under-resourced healthcare and childcare systems -- and that’s just to begin a far longer list.
As a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project and a therapist who has worked with active-duty troops, veterans, and most recently children and adults who have arrived here as refugees and asylum seekers from the very lands in which the U.S. still fights, I continue to bear witness in my own way to the human costs of war, American-style. As I look up into the forest of oaks and elms in the hills around my home where, once upon a time, Americans undoubtedly sought shelter from bullets fired by their countrymen, it seems ever less far-fetched to me that my family could be asked to take part in an armed conflict on American soil.
Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night with a line from former President Barack Obama’s recent Democratic National Convention speech still in my head: “Do not let them take your democracy.” In my lifetime, I’d never heard a former president refer to a government that’s still supposed to be of, by, and for the people as “them” -- especially a president as prone to understatement as he is. As a military spouse, I wonder where my family will fall in that ever-deepening chasm between “us” and “them.”
Obviously, intimidation and even armed attacks are already realities in American cities. Take, for example, the president’s decision to send federal troops using tear gas to clear away peaceful protesters near the White House so he could pursue a botched photo op. And that only happened after he had declared “war” on a virus whose effects are made worse by the inhalation of that very gas. He and Attorney General William Barr have similarly turned a blind eye to physical violence against, and the intimidation of, protesters by far-right groups whose racism, anti-Semitism, and support for this country’s slave history is obvious. Our commander-in-chief, while threatening but, so far at least, shying away from starting new foreign wars (thank goodness), has used military helicopters to intimidate protesters and allowed Department of Homeland Security agents to kidnap demonstrators from the streets of an American city.
To be sure, the Antifa activist featured in that video my relative posted (if it even was real) could have been part of the same problem, as were those who looted storefronts, vehicles, and public property to make a point (or not) during the protests of these last months. And yet what choices did many of them have? Isn’t our major problem that those with power in a country growing more economically unequal by the month increasingly see themselves not as of the people but only as threatened by the people -- by, that is, us?
More to the point, as Professor Robin Kelley wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times, what kind of society values property over Black lives?
Even journalism, once considered a hallmark of our democracy, has become the target of endless presidential insults and intimidation, including memes like the one in which the president is shown punching an opponent with CNN emblazoned on his head. What’s more, some of the Republican Party’s most vocal leaders all but directly condone racism. Typical of this Trumpian moment, for example, that rising star in the Republican Party Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has called slavery a “necessary evil.” In June, he even urged that the Army’s 101st Airborne Division be sent into the streets to deal with Black Lives Matter protesters.
Under these circumstances, violence may be the only thing that actually captures the attention of parts of a nation seemingly indifferent to the dehumanization and disenfranchisement of large swathes of this country’s people.
Like Iraq and Afghanistan, which have borne witness to increasing sectarianism and violence, the United States seems to be devolving into its own kind of sectarian conflict. After all, the police, now regularly armed by the Pentagon with weaponry and other equipment sometimes taken from this country’s distant war zones, increasingly wage a kind of proto-counterinsurgency warfare on our streets.
At the heart of today’s crisis lies a grim but simple fact: in this century, America’s power brokers decided to invest staggering sums of taxpayer dollars, manpower, and time in distant and disastrous “forever wars.” As Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford, co-directors of the Costs of War Project, wrote in a recent op-ed, had some of the money this country spent on its post-9/11 wars been invested in healthcare, we would have had the tools to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic so much more effectively. The same might be said of our crumbling infrastructure and cash-starved public schools.
Speaking of public education, as economist Heidi Garrett-Peltier has pointed out, $1 million in federal spending creates nearly twice the number of jobs in public education as it does when “invested” in the Pentagon. If money had been diverted elsewhere from the military-industrial complex, perhaps we would have been able to return to school reasonably safely with enough teachers, staff, and protective equipment to ensure small-group instruction, sanitation, and social distancing. Our inability to deal with the pandemic effectively has, in turn, fed into our children losing the chance for in-person education -- for, that is, reasonably safe interaction with peers and teachers from all walks of life.
Recently, after my kindergartener overheard a conversation about the police killing of Breonna Taylor in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, he asked me whether “they” might be coming to kill us in our home, too. I assured him that they weren’t, but I did mention our (white) privilege in relation to some of his black friends in the preschool that he loved and can’t attend in person this fall.
I then tried to explain how, in this country, the right to life is not evenly shared. He responded simply enough, “Yes, but I don’t see them anymore.” And I couldn’t help but think that precisely this kind of social distancing, where you don’t get to interact with people whose lives and perspectives are different from yours, could be one grim sectarian legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic in a country that looks like it might be starting to come apart at the seams. In these months, the Black Lives Matter activists so often filling our television screens and streets with their righteous rage are among the few who remind my children to care about racial inequality.
In the Footsteps of 9/11?
How did this country reach a point where a significant portion of us -- our president’s most vocal supporters -- are comfortable debasing the humanity of Blacks and liberals or progressives of every sort? Think of it as the road from 9/11, from that moment when, in response to a set of terror attacks by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers, the Bush administration launched what it quickly termed “the Global War on Terror,” invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then... well, you know the rest of the forever-war nightmare that’s never ended. In the process, they turned the Pentagon (and the war industries that go with it) into a sinkhole for our tax dollars and our dreams of the future.
In no small part, we’ve reached this point of unease, sectarianism, and strife due to our reverence for the military as the way to solve what are actually problems of staggering and growing global and American inequality, economic and otherwise. My spouse and I stay up late talking about the upcoming elections. Even if (and that’s a big “if”) the November 3rd vote turns out to be free and fair -- hard to imagine with a pandemic that has further disenfranchised communities of color and given Trump’s shenanigans encouraging double-voting, bad-mouthing mail-in ballots, and seeking to obscure or rewrite national intelligence information about Russian election interference -- who wouldn’t worry about November 4th? Or 5th, or 10th, or whenever all those mail-in votes are finally counted? What uproar will this president stoke among his supporters, including a heavily armed and rogue Department of Homeland Security, if he seems to be losing?
And what about inauguration day? Trump has already threatened not to accept results that don’t please him. My husband feels sure that, if necessary, our military will escort him from the Oval Office and provide a hypothetical President Biden with the nuclear football. This I question, thanks to such acts as Trump’s recent appointment of retired Brigadier General Anthony Tata, a staunch supporter of his, known for his extreme Islamophobia and racist remarks, to the Department of Defense’s number-two policy post over the bipartisan objections of Congress.
That we even have to imagine a military solution to the usual peaceful transition of power is both absurd and 2020’s version of reality. That’s why what its enemies call “political correctness” -- respect for standards of decorum, kindness, and the peaceful mechanisms of democracy -- is vital. If you don’t like what the other side’s nominees say or do, then vote them down at the ballot box. Organize other voters. Write letters and attend town hall meetings. Support evidence-based journalism. But don’t debase the mechanisms that have, for centuries, allowed us to better our union.
War is an indescribable nightmare. I’ve gotten the barest taste of its horror from my work at the Costs of War Project; from photos of bloodied, pain-ravaged children in our war zones; from testimonies I’ve heard from refugees and survivors grieving over the killing, maiming, or rape of loved ones; and from the stories of veterans haunted by having to shoot other people, even armed children, in cold blood.
We can’t let such violence consume us. I don’t want to be left wondering whether someday my family and others like us could find ourselves hiding in the woods to escape a government that might ask us to do the unthinkable and kill or torture fellow Americans. Military families -- most so much more than mine -- have already suffered for far too long without watching our own country become a new war zone.
Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Copyright 2020 Andrea Mazzarino