Andrea Mazzarino

Migration and the shadow of war

Seeking news coverage about the Adriana, the boat crowded with some 700 people migrating to Europe to seek a better life that sank in mid-June off the coast of Greece, I googled “migrant ship” and got 483,000 search results in one second. Most of the people aboard the Adriana had drowned in the Mediterranean, among them about 100 children.

I did a similar search for the Titan submersible which disappeared the same week in the North Atlantic. That kludged-together pseudo-submarine was taking four wealthy men and the 19-year-old son of one of them to view the ruins of the famed passenger ship, the Titanic. They all died when the Titan imploded shortly after it dove. That Google search came up with 79.3 million search results in less than half a second.

Guardian journalist Arwa Mahdawi wrote a powerful column about the different kinds of attention those two boats received. As she astutely pointed out, we in the anglophone world could hardly help but follow the story of the Oceangate submersible’s ill-fated journey. After all, it was the lead news story of the week everywhere and commanded the attention of three national militaries (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars) for at least five days.

The Adriana was quite another story. As Mahdawi pointed out, the Greek Coast Guard seemed preoccupied with whether the migrants on that boat even “wanted” help, ignoring the fact that many of those aboard the small trawler were children trapped in the ship’s hull and that it was visibly in danger.

On the other hand, few, she pointed out, questioned whether the men in the submersible wanted help — even though its hull was ludicrously bolted shut from the outside prior to departure, making rescue especially unlikely. Glued to the coverage like many Americans, I certainly didn’t think they should be ignored, since every life matters.

But why do people care so much about rich men who paid $250,000 apiece to make what any skilled observer would have told them was a treacherous journey, but not hundreds of migrants determined to better their families’ lives, even if they had to risk life itself to reach European shores? Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in the very different reasons those two groups of travelers set out on their journeys and the kinds of things we value in a world long shaped by Western military power.

An American Preoccupation with the Military

I suspect that we Americans are easily drawn to whatever seems vaguely military in nature, even a “submersible” (rather than a submarine) whose rescue efforts marshaled the resources and expertise of so many U.S. and allied naval forces. We found it anything but boring to learn about U.S. Navy underwater rescue ships and how low you can drop before pressure is likely to capsize a boat. The submersible story, in fact, spun down so many military-style rabbit holes that it was easy to forget what even inspired it.

I’m a Navy spouse and my family, which includes my partner, our two young kids, and various pets, has been moving from one military installation to another over the past decade. In the various communities where we’ve lived, during gatherings with new friends and extended family, the overwhelming interest in my spouse’s career is obvious.

Typical questions have included: “What’s a submarine’s hull made out of?” “How deep can you go?” “What’s the plan if you sink?” “What kind of camo do you wear?” And an unforgettable (to me at least) comment from one of our kids: “That blue camo makes you guys look like blueberries. Do you really want to hide if you fall in the water? What if you need to be rescued?”

Meanwhile, my career as a therapist for military and refugee communities and as a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which might offer a strange antiwar complement to my spouse’s world, seldom even makes it into the conversation.

Aside from the power and mystery our military evokes with its fancy equipment, I think many Americans love to express interest in it because it seems like the embodiment of civic virtue at a time when otherwise we can agree on ever less. In fact, after 20 years of America’s war on terror in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, references to our military are remarkably widespread (if you’re paying attention).

In our militarized culture, we seize on the cosmetic parts like the nature of submarines because they’re easier to talk about than the kind of suffering our military has actually caused across a remarkably wide stretch of the planet in this century. Most of us will take fancy toys like subs over exhausted servicemembers, bloodied civilians, and frightened, malnourished migrants all too often fleeing the damage of our war on terror.

Migration During Wartime

We live in an era marked by mass migration, which has increased over the past five decades. In fact, more people are now living in a country other than where they were born than at any other time in the last half-century.

Among the major reasons people leave their homes as migrants are certainly the search for education and job opportunities, but never forget those fleeing from armed conflict and political persecution. And of course, another deeply related and more significant reason is climate change and the ever more frequent and intense national disasters like flooding and drought that it causes or intensifies.

The migrants on the Adriana had left Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Palestine, and Pakistan for a variety of reasons. Some of the Pakistani men, for instance, were seeking jobs that would allow them to house and feed their desperate families. One Syrian teenager, who ended up drowning, had left the war-torn city of Kobani, hoping to someday enter medical school in Germany — a dream that was unlikely to be realized where he lived due to bombed-out schools and hospitals.

In my mind’s eye, however, a very specific shadow loomed over so many of their individual stories: America’s forever wars, the series of military operations that began with our 2001 invasion of Afghanistan (which ended up involving us in air strikes and other military activities in neighboring Pakistan as well) and the similarly disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. It would, in the end, metastasize into fighting, training foreign militaries, and intelligence operations in some 85 countries, including each of the countries the Adriana’s passengers hailed from. All in all, the Costs of War Project estimates that the war on terror has led to the displacement of at least 38 million people, many of whom fled for their lives as fighting consumed their worlds.

The route taken by the Adriana through the central Mediterranean Sea is a particularly common one for refugees fleeing armed conflict and its aftermath. It’s also the most deadly route in the world for migrants — and getting deadlier by the year. Before the Adriana went down, the number of fatalities during the first three months of 2023 had already reached its highest point in six years, at 441 people. And during the first half of this year alone, according to UNICEF, at least 289 children have drowned trying to reach Europe.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned — even if on a distinctly small scale — as a therapist in military and refugee communities, it’s this: a painful history almost invariably precedes anyone’s decision to embark on a journey as dangerous as those the migrants of that ill-fated ship undertook. Though I’m sure many on it would not have said that they were fleeing “war,” it’s hard to disentangle this country’s war on terror from the reasons so many of them made their journeys.

One Syrian father who drowned had been heading for Germany, hoping to help his three-year-old son, who had leukemia and needed a treatment unavailable in his devastated country, an area that the U.S. invasion of Iraq first threw into chaos and where war has now deprived millions of healthcare. Of course, it hardly need be noted that his death only ensures his family’s further impoverishment and his son’s possible death from cancer, not to mention what could happen if he and his mom were forced to make a similar journey to Europe to get care.

Pakistan’s War Story

As many as 350 migrants on the Adriana were from Pakistan where the U.S. had been funding and fighting a counterinsurgency war — via drones and air strikes — against Islamist militant groups since 2004. The war on terror has both directly and indirectly upended and destroyed many lives in Pakistan in this century. That includes tens of thousands of deaths from air strikes, but also the effects of a refugee influx from neighboring Afghanistan that stretched the country’s already limited resources, not to speak of the deterioration of its tourism industry and diminished international investments. All in all, Pakistan has lost more than $150 billion dollars over the past 20 years in that fashion while, for ordinary Pakistanis, the costs of living in an ever more devastated country have only increased. Not surprisingly, the number of jobs per capita decreased.

One young man on the migrant ship was traveling to Europe to seek a job so that he could support his extended family. He had sold 26 buffalo — his main source of income — to pay for the journey and was among the 104 people who were finally rescued by the Greek Coast Guard. After that rescue, he was forced to return to Libya where he had no clear plan for how to make it home. Unlike most of the other Pakistanis on the Adriana, he managed to escape with his life, but his is not necessarily a happy ending. As Zeeshan Usmani, Pakistani activist and founder of the antiwar website Pakistan Body Count, points out, “After you’ve sacrificed so much in search of a better life, you’d likely rather drown than return home. You’ve given all you have.”

Rest Stops in a Militarized World

We certainly learned much about the heady conversations between the Titan’s OceanGate CEO, his staff, and certain estranged colleagues before that submersible embarked on its ill-fated journey, and then about the dim lighting and primitive conditions inside the boat. Barely probed in media coverage of the Adriana, however, was what it was like for those migrants to make the trip itself.

What particularly caught my attention was the place from which they left on their journey to hell and back — Libya. After all, that country has quite a grim history to be the debarkation point for so many migrants. A U.S.-led invasion in 2011 toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi, leaving the country’s remote beaches even less policed than they had been, while Libya itself was divided between two competing governments and a collection of affiliated militias.

In such a chaotic setting, as you might imagine, conditions for migrants transiting through Libya have only continued to deteriorate. Many are kept in warehouses by local authorities for weeks, even months, sometimes without basic needs like blankets and drinking water. Some are even sold into slavery to local residents and those lucky enough to move on toward European shores have to deal with smugglers whose motives and practices, as the Adriana’s story reminds us, are anything but positive (and sometimes terrorizing).

Onward, to the sea itself: When, some 13 hours after the first migrants called for help, the Greek Coast Guard finally responded, it sent a single ship with a crew that included four armed and masked men. The Guard alleges that many of the migrants refused help, waving the men away. Whether or not this was the case, I can imagine their fears that the Greeks, if not smugglers, might at least be allied with them. They also might have feared that the Guard would set them and their children, however young, on rafts to continue drifting at sea, as had happened recently with other migrant ships approached by the Greeks.

If that sounds far-fetched to you, then consider how you would feel if you’d been adrift at sea, hungry, thirsty, and fearful for your life, when men in another boat armed and wearing masks approached you, further rocking a boat that was already threatening to capsize. My guess is: not good.

Uncounted War Deaths

It would be far-fetched to count people like the migrants on the Adriana as “war deaths.” But framing many of their deaths as in some sense war-related should force us to pay attention to ways in which fighting in or around their countries of origin might have impacted their fates. Paying attention to war’s costs would, however, force us Westerners to confront the blood on our hands, as we not only supported (or at least ignored) this country’s wars sufficiently to let them continue for so long, while also backing politicians in both the U.S. and Europe who did relatively little (or far worse) to address the refugee crises that emerged as a result.

To take language used by the Costs of War Project’s Stephanie Savell in her work on what the project calls “indirect war deaths,” migrants like the drowned Syrian teenager seeking an education in Europe could be considered “doubly uncounted” war deaths because they weren’t killed in battle and, as in his case and others like it, their bodies will not be recovered from the Mediterranean’s depths.

When we see stories like his, I think we should all go deeper in our questioning of just what happened, in part by retracing those migrants’ steps to where they began and trying to imagine why they left on such arduous, dangerous journeys. Start with war-gutted economies in countries where millions find slim hope of the kind of decent life that you or I are likely to take for granted, including having a job, a home, health care, and safety from armed violence.

I’ll bet that if you do ask more questions, those migrants will start to seem not just easier to relate to but like the planet’s true adventurers on this planet — and not those billionaires who paid $250,000 apiece for what even I could have told you was an unlikely shot at making it to the ocean floor alive.

Confronting the phantom limbs of America’s foreign wars

Andrea Mazzarino, The Wound of the War on Terror, Up Close and Personal

It couldn’t be stranger when you think about it. This country has been at war nonstop since September 12, 2001. It’s poured our taxpayer dollars — an estimated $8 trillion of them — down the sinkhole of those disastrous wars. The two biggest ones in Afghanistan and Iraq are officially over, though the U.S. still has 2,500 troops in Iraq and hundreds more (as well as private contractors) in neighboring Syria. Still, though we hear far less about it, the war on terror is ongoing. As Nick Turse has been reporting for years, for instance, the U.S. military continues to pour money and effort into war-on-terror-style military campaigns across significant parts of Africa, while terror groups only grow larger and more violent there, and yet who in this country even notices anymore?

Here, I suspect, is the reality of the situation: most Americans not connected to the U.S. military undoubtedly stopped thinking about the war on terror and its toll years ago — except at rare moments like during the disastrous collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government in August 2021 as this country was trying to withdraw its troops after two decades of failed war there. As has been true so often in these years, we generally neither pay significant attention to the damage we’re causing in distant lands nor to the damage we’ve caused ourselves in the process. Otherwise, how could it be possible that, during the recent debt-ceiling crisis, cuts were made to domestic programs, but the Pentagon budget, already larger than those of the next 10 countries combined, only continued to rise?

And yet, don’t think that, in the process, we haven’t damaged ourselves in all sorts of ways. Today, TomDispatch regular, co-founder of the Costs of War Project, therapist, and military spouse Andrea Mazzarino considers just what we did to ourselves in what might be considered a hidden campaign of… yes… self-inflicted terror. Tom

Americans in Pain

Confronting the Phantom Limbs of America’s Foreign Wars

America’s War on Terror, launched in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has had a staggering impact on our world. The Costs of War Project at Brown University, which I helped found, paints as full a picture as possible of the toll of those “forever wars” both in human lives and in dollars. The wars, we estimate, have killed nearly one million people, including close to 400,000 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan alone. Worse yet, they sickened or injured several times more than that — leading to illnesses and injuries that, we estimate, resulted in millions of non-battlefield deaths.

And don’t forget that those figures include dead and wounded Americans, too. Most of us, however, have little awareness of any of this. If you live outside the archipelago of American military bases that extends across this country and the planet — an estimated 750 of them outside the U.S. on every continent except Antarctica — it’s easy enough not to meet stressed-out military service members and their families. It’s easy enough, in fact, not to grasp just how America’s wars of this century rippled out to touch military communities.

In recent times, those bases have become ever more difficult for the public to enter and often aren’t close to the cities where so many of us live. All of this means that, if you’re a civilian, the odds are you haven’t met the grieving spouses of the soldiers who never came home or the shaken children of the ones who did, forever changed, sometimes with amputated limbs or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’m thinking of the ones with those far-off gazes and the pain they have to deal with in their heads, their limbs, their backs.

Personally, I find it overwhelmingly hard to write about such human-shaped holes in our disturbed world. That’s probably why the Costs of War Project has a 35-person (and counting) team of journalists, physicians, social scientists, and other experts to portion out the research and the pain that goes with it as they deal with the fact that the monumental death and injury counts they’ve produced are likely to be underestimates.

As I write this, my chest tightens and my breath gets short, reminding me that some realities are impossible to contemplate without a physical reaction. And I begin to understand why so many Americans, including those not in the military — an estimated 50 million in fact! — experience chronic pain. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is writing a stunning series of pieces reporting on what many in the public-health world term “diseases of despair” like depression, suicidality, and addiction. A significant portion of those Americans don’t have injuries that are detectable via X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, or the like. Often, pain is linked with major depression, other symptoms of PTSD, or anxiety. Something is happening in the minds of Americans that’s not easily traceable in the body because its causes may lie in our wider world.

The Costs of War on the Homefront

Know one thing: in the U.S., so many of us do feel the painful results of our disastrous distant wars of this century, whether we know it or not. For instance, ever more Americans attend crumbling, understaffed schools, drive on roads in disrepair, and go to hospitals and health clinics (not just Veterans Administration ones with their seemingly endless waiting lists!) that don’t have enough doctors and mental-health therapists to meet our needs. Arguably, a major culprit is the war on terror. To take just one example, we could have fully staffed and equipped our whole healthcare system and made it significantly more pandemic resilient had we spent just a fraction of the $8 trillion or more this country put out for our foreign wars.

And the sting of war on our society doesn’t end with decrepit infrastructure, but extends to civil liberties and human rights. For example, our police are armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry and other equipment provided by an overfed Pentagon and in this century have grown more aggressive towards unarmed people here at home.

And believe me, pain from American war-making is felt elsewhere, too, often all too directly in the dozens of countries around the world where the U.S. arms and trains militaries, continues to fight counterinsurgency wars, and runs prisons and intelligence operations. There are the air strikes and shootings, the father or brother who can no longer be the breadwinner because he was collateral damage in a drone strike, the millions of displaced and malnourished people — many of them mothers with children — in countries where Washington has supported authoritarian regimes in questionable counterinsurgency wars.

Pain That Is Difficult to Trace

Given global events since those 9/11 attacks, it shouldn’t be surprising that pain is so frequently experienced by people in our military communities. Somewhere between 31% and 44% of active-duty American soldiers report chronic pain of some sort. That’s significantly higher than in the general population. And no surprise in this either: veterans are about 40% more likely to report chronic pain than non-veterans.

Chronic pain is, in fact, part of a category of neurological conditions that ranks as the fifth most common source of disability for service members treated at on-installation clinics and hospitals. Worse yet, military pain-related diagnoses have been growing. Back pain, neck pain, knee pain, migraines, and chest pain are becoming the norm.

As a military spouse and a therapist who has treated many soldiers and veterans, I’ve all too often observed how such pain, while sometimes untraceable to a visible source, is all too real — real enough, in fact, to immobilize some soldiers, or even keep them from successfully stringing together sentences. (And while I’ve seldom found that commonly recommended medication treatments truly alleviate such pain in a sustainable way, I have watched it subside over time thanks to the sorts of things that also boost mental health — talk therapy, exercise, and deepening friendships.)

Of course, military communities aren’t the only places where such pain is commonplace. It’s also experienced all too often by poor Americans without college degrees, especially women and people of color — in other words, the most vulnerable slices of our American pie.

The portraits in Kristof’s pieces reveal some surprising findings about pain. First, the amount of pain you experience depends not just on the physical injury that may show up on an X-ray or CT scan or, in the case of soldiers, the wound you got, but on what you think and feel. Two-thirds of people with depression have unexplained chronic pain, for example. Doctors have even discovered that some people reporting knee pain have no discernable anatomical problem.

By the same token, the brain has a certain ability to heal or ameliorate pain. In some cases, through the use of “mirror therapy,” people have been able to ease pain from an amputated limb or “phantom limb” by looking repeatedly at the intact one and somehow creating the impression that they’re okay.

Some people, military or not, with chronic depression, anxiety, or PTSD symptoms like exaggerated startle reflexes or sleep problems experience greater sensitivity to pain if they get physically injured again. Their brains, it turns out, have been trained by trauma to believe something’s wrong with their bodies.

Common diagnoses that have seeped into household parlance tend to reinforce this notion for many. Medical categories like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel symptom make pain sound as though it’s related to something tangible, except that all too often, it’s “just” pain.

It’s hardly a surprise anymore that the go-to treatment for pain in America is opioids, and look where that’s left us — with an epidemic of addiction and deaths to the tune of tens of thousands of lives lost yearly. Somehow, that approach to dealing with pain brings me back to the way the U.S. fought “terrorism” after the 9/11 attacks — with our own brand of terror (war!) globally and, indeed, it not only proved all too addictive but so much more costly to us and so many others on this planet than the original blow.

The Phantom Limb of American Society

If this comparison seems kind of out there to you, that’s my point. The problems experienced by Americans in pain are often all too hard to pin down, because at least in part they derive from survival guilt at having watched fellow soldiers getting blown to pieces by improvised explosive devices, or your parents dying from Covid because their jobs as janitors didn’t allow them to quarantine, or intense loneliness in a pandemic that made high school a virtual solo performance for all too many students. And get this: you don’t even need to go through one of those nightmarish scenarios personally to be in pain. Just hearing about economic insecurity in our world can exacerbate whatever aches you have.

This makes me wonder what it was like for so many to watch the recent coverage of Congress reaching the precipice over whether to raise the debt ceiling so that the government could pay its bills. How did it affect already struggling people to contemplate imminent economic catastrophe in the form of potentially soaring interest rates, inflation, job loss, and potential cutoffs in social services like healthcare? As a therapist who relies heavily on state-funded health insurance for my income and whose spouse is a soon-to-be veteran, I can’t help but scoff at congressional representatives who claim to be supporting our military by insisting on raising already astronomic Pentagon funding yet higher, while trying to gut the very systems that would let even a family as privileged as mine make ends meet once a soldier finishes his or her service.

Now look a little farther out if you want to be anxious. Most Americans don’t realize that our forever wars have been funded almost entirely by borrowing. A fundamental reason why we have to talk about a debt ceiling and continue to borrow ever more money to pay bills like those due for Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps is war. One key reason why we need to worry at all about making college graduates start paying their exorbitant loans back again is… yes, our debts from war-making. Notice a theme here?

Of course, war means that the remedies for pain that have proven to be most effective in the long run are not as available to those who experience the most pain. Exercise, certain types of talk therapy, and community are key and yet can be all too sparsely available to those working multiple jobs and struggling to pay their bills, not to mention those being shipped from base to base amid the grinding pace of military life.

In the meantime, military families and veterans are left to pay the costs of war directly via just about every kind of stress and distress imaginable. I remember someone I knew at one military post. A person of color and a veteran of the Vietnam war, he’d often be outside his house in the early mornings and evenings, smoking weed in order to alleviate leg pain that was untraceable to any particular injury. What he did talk about frequently were his painful memories of shooting at rural, dark-skinned villagers in Vietnam who resembled his own farmworker family in the U.S. when he was growing up. Trauma and pain were his frequent travel companions and yet the source of his pain remained unidentifiable in his small, fit body.

As then-President Donald Trump had banned or suspended the entry of people from eight different majority Muslim nations (as well as other refugees) to this country, I knew life wasn’t easy for him. He was, after all, often mistaken for a Muslim, called racial slurs, and told by passersby to go back where he came from. And even so many years later, that veteran and all too many soldiers like him may still not find a healthy part of our country to look at in order to convince themselves that life indeed will be okay.

Yes, there are all too many sick parts of our land, including a shaky social safety net, the hate and violence that continue to spread, and the long lines to get anywhere near a doctor or therapist. Contemplating all of this can be like gazing at a phantom limb that still smarts, even as so many of the original injuries — from 9/11 to our disastrous military response to it — seem all too forgettable to so many of us. Sad to say, but it’s vital that we remember the costs of war not only for ourselves but for those millions of people out there who experienced the — in every sense — wounds we inflicted in the name of an injured America in our nightmarish war on terror. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if we do it again.

How shadowy private armies are gobbling up Americans’ tax dollars

Andrea Mazzarino, The Privatization of War, American-Style

In late March, I was taken aback by a news story about a drone attack on American troops at a joint base with Kurdish forces in Syria. Though five U.S. soldiers were wounded, there was only one death and, as Eric Schmitt reported in the New York Times, that “soldier” was actually a private military contractor. (Weeks after his death, we still have no idea what company he worked for.) Another contractor was also wounded. Consider that a grim reminder of a reality of American war in this century that it’s been all too easy to ignore, one that TomDispatch regular, co-founder of the Costs of War Project, and military spouse Andrea Mazzarino highlights in today’s piece. As large and staggeringly well-funded as the U.S. military is, this country also has a humongous shadow military of private contractors who are a crucial component of its ongoing, if ever less noticed, war on terror.

Let me put this in context. If you remember, President Trump actually tried to withdraw American troops from Syria but failed to do so. Since he left office, it’s regularly been estimated that about 900 of them remain there. But that figure only counts the official military force in place in that devastated land, not the private contractors who provide them with support, some of it armed. Here’s a reality of this American moment: we have no way of knowing how many “troops” are actually in Syria, only that in addition to the official figure, there are at least uncounted hundreds more. At certain moments in this country’s little-noticed war there, there could have been four times as many.

Similarly, two decades after George W. Bush so disastrously invaded Iraq, about 2,500 U.S. troops are still officially stationed there — but again that count doesn’t include who knows how many private contractors. (Back in 2006, when the conflict was at its height, there were an estimated 100,000 of them!) In other words, in this century, a Pentagon funded to the teeth by American taxpayers has developed a new form of privatized war that leaves Americans knowing all too little about what’s actually being done in their name.

With that in mind, let Mazzarino take you into the nightmarish private world that our post-9/11 conflicts have bred. Tom

The Army We Don’t See

The Private Soldiers Who Fight in America’s Name

The way mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his private army have been waging a significant part of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has been well covered in the American media, not least of all because his firm, the Wagner Group, draws most of its men from Russia’s prison system. Wagner offers “freedom” from Putin’s labor camps only to send those released convicts to the front lines of the conflict, often on brutal suicide missions.

At least the Russian president and his state-run media make no secret of his regime’s alliance with Wagner. The American government, on the other hand, seldom acknowledges its own version of the privatization of war — the tens of thousands of private security contractors it’s used in its misguided war on terror, involving military and intelligence operations in a staggering 85 countries.

At least as far back as the Civil War through World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the first Gulf War, “contractors,” as we like to call them, have long been with us. Only recently, however, have they begun playing such a large role in our wars, with an estimated 10% to 20% of them directly involved in combat and intelligence operations.

Contractors have both committed horrific abuses and acted bravely under fire (because they have all too often been under fire). From torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to interrogations at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, from employees of the private security firm Blackwater indiscriminately firing on unarmed Iraqi civilians to contractors defending a U.S. base under attack in Afghanistan, they have been an essential part of the war on terror. And yes, they both killed Afghans and helped some who had worked as support contractors escape from Taliban rule.

The involvement of private companies has allowed Washington to continue to conduct its operations around the globe, even if many Americans think that our war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has ended. I tried looking for any kind of a survey of how many of us realize that it continues in Iraq and elsewhere, but all I could find was pollster Nate Silver’s analysis of “lessons learned” from that global conflict, as if it were part of our history. And unless respondents were caring for a combat-wounded veteran, they tended not to look unfavorably on sending our troops into battle in distant lands — so scratch that as a lesson learned from our forever wars.

None of this surprises me. American troops are no longer getting killed in significant numbers, nor are as many crowding the waitlists at backlogged Veterans Affairs hospitals as would be the case if those troops had been the only ones doing the fighting.

At points during this century’s war on terror, in fact, the U.S. used more civilian contractors in its ongoing wars than uniformed military personnel. In fact, as of 2019, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I co-founded, there were 50% more contractors than troops in the U.S. Central Command region that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, and 18 other countries in the Middle East, as well as Central and South Asia. As recently as December 2022, the Pentagon had about 22,000 contractors deployed throughout that region, with nearly 8,000 concentrated in Iraq and Syria. To be sure, most of those workers were unarmed and providing food service, communications aid, and the like. Even more tellingly, roughly two-thirds of them were citizens of other countries, particularly lower-income ones.

In 2020, retired Army Officer Danny Sjursen offered an interesting explanation for how the war on terror was then becoming ever more privatized: the Covid-19 pandemic had changed the Pentagon’s war-making strategy as the public began to question how much money and how many lives were being expended on war abroad rather than healthcare at home. As a result, Sjursen argued, the U.S. had begun deploying ever more contractors, remote drones, CIA paramilitaries, and (often abusive) local forces in that war on terror while U.S. troops were redeployed to Europe and the Pacific to contain a resurgent Russia and China. In other words, during the pandemic, Washington placed ever more dirty work in corporate and foreign hands.

(Not) Counting Contractors

It’s been a challenge to write about private security contractors because our government does anything but a good job of counting them. Though the Defense Department keeps quarterly records of how many civilian contractors it employs and where, they exclude employees contracted with the Central Intelligence Agency or the State Department.

When Costs of War first tried to count contractor deaths by searching official government sources, we came up short. The spouse of a gravely wounded armed contractor directed me to her blog, where she had started to compile a list of just such deaths based on daily Google searches, even as she worked hard caring for her spouse and managing his disability paperwork. She and I eventually lost touch and it appears that she stopped compiling such numbers long ago. Still, we at the project took a page from her book, while adding reported war deaths among foreign nationals working for the Pentagon to our formula. Costs of War researchers then estimated that 8,000 contractors had been killed in our wars in the Middle East as of 2019, or about 1,000 more than the U.S. troops who died during the same period.

Social scientists Ori Swed and Thomas Crosbie have tried to extrapolate from reported contractor deaths in order to paint a picture of who they were while still alive. They believe that most of them were white veterans in their forties; many were former Special Forces operatives and a number of former officers with college degrees).

Limited Choices for Veterans

How do people of relative racial, economic, and gendered privilege end up in positions that, while well-paid, are even more precarious than being in the armed forces? As a therapist serving military families and as a military spouse, I would say that the path to security contracting reflects a deep cultural divide in our society between military and civilian life. Although veteran unemployment rates are marginally lower than those in the civilian population, many of them tend to seek out what they know best and that means military training, staffing, weapons production — and, for some, combat.

I recently spoke with one Marine infantry veteran who had completed four combat tours. He told me that, after leaving the service, he lacked a community that understood what he had been through. He sought to avoid social isolation by getting a government job. However, after applying for several in law enforcement agencies, he “failed” lie detector tests (owing to the common stress reactions of war-traumatized veterans). Having accidentally stumbled on a veteran-support nonprofit group, he ultimately found connections that led him to decide to return to school and retrain in a new profession. But, as he pointed out, “many of my other friends from the Marines numbed their pain with drugs or by going back to war as security contractors.”

Not everyone views contracting as a strategy of last resort. Still, I find it revealing of the limited sense of possibility such veterans experience that the top five companies employing them are large corporations servicing the Department of Defense through activities like information technology support, weapons production, or offers of personnel, both armed and not.

The Corporate Wounded

And keep in mind that such jobs are anything but easy. Many veterans find themselves facing yet more of the same — quick, successive combat deployments as contractors.

Anyone in this era of insurance mega-corporations who has ever had to battle for coverage is aware that doing so isn’t easy. Private insurers can maximize their profits by holding onto premium payments as long as possible while denying covered services.

A federal law called the Defense Base Act (1941) (DBA) requires that corporations fund workers’ compensation claims for their employees laboring under U.S. contracts, regardless of their nationalities, with the taxpayer footing the bill. The program grew exponentially after the start of the war on terror, but insurance companies have not consistently met their obligations under the law. In 2008, a joint investigation by the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica found that insurers like Chicago-based CAN Financial Corps were earning up to 50% profits on some of their war-zone policies, while many employees of contractors lacked adequate care and compensation for their injuries.

Even after Congress called on the Pentagon and the Department of Labor to better enforce the DBA in 2011, some companies continued to operate with impunity visàvis their own workers, sometimes even failing to purchase insurance for them or refusing to help them file claims as required by law. While insurance companies made tens of millions of dollars in profits during the second decade of the war on terror, between 2009 and 2021, the Department of Labor fined insurers of those contracting corporations a total of only $3,250 for failing to report DBA claims.

Privatizing Foreign Policy

At its core, the war on terror sought to create an image of the U.S. abroad as a beacon of democracy and the rule of law. Yet there is probably no better evidence of how poorly this worked in practice at home and abroad than the little noted (mis)use of security contractors. Without their ever truly being seen, they prolonged that global set of conflicts, inflicting damage on other societies and being damaged themselves in America’s name. Last month, the Costs of War Project reported that the U.S. is now using subcontractors Bancroft Global Development and Pacific Architects and Engineers to train the Somali National Army in its counterterrorism efforts. Meanwhile, the U.S. intervention there has only helped precipitate a further rise in terrorist attacks in the region.

The global presence created by such contractors also manifests itself in how we respond to threats to their lives. In March 2023, a self-destructing drone exploded at a U.S. maintenance facility on a coalition base in northeastern Syria, killing a contractor employed by the Pentagon and injuring another, while wounding five American soldiers. After that drone was found to be of Iranian origin, President Biden ordered an air strike on facilities in Syria used by Iranian-allied forces. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated, “No group will strike our troops with impunity.” While he later expressed condolences to the family of the contractor who was the only one killed in that attack, his statement could have more explicitly acknowledged that contractors are even more numerous than troops among the dead from our forever wars.

In late December 2019, a contractor working as an interpreter on a U.S. military base in Iraq was killed by rockets fired by an Iranian-backed militia. Shortly afterward, then-President Trump ordered an air strike that killed the commander of an elite Iranian military unit, sparking concern about a dangerous escalation with that country. Trump later tweeted, “Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will.”

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Trump’s tweet was more honest than Austin’s official statement: such contractors are now an essential part of America’s increasingly privatized wars and will continue to be so, in seemingly ever greater numbers. Even though retaliating for attacks on their lives has little to do with effective counterterrorism (as the Costs of War Project has long made clear), bearing witness to war casualties in all their grim diversity is the least the rest of us can do as American citizens. Because how can we know whether — and for whom — our shadowy, shape-shifting wars “work” if we continue to let our leaders wage an increasingly privatized version of them in ways meant to obscure our view of the carnage they’ve caused?

To Hell and back: America's remarkable unwillingness to support its veterans

Andrea Mazzarino: Former Soldiers Without a Future

It’s the military from hell — and, no, I don’t mean the Russian army, though, it certainly qualifies. Few now doubt that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal (and not just because of those Ukrainian children his forces exported to Russia for adoption). Launching a war of aggression is crime enough (for me at least). But here’s the strange thing: despite the recent 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on a total set of fabrications, including that Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, a war that would cause hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths and thousands of American ones, help launch the Islamic State, and create chaos in the region, you would be hard-pressed to find mainstream articles here referring to Bush and his top officials as war criminals.

Cartoonist Rob Rogers, however, managed to catch the essence of this moment recently by drawing a half-naked Vladimir Putin, standing amid bones and blood under a headline that reads: “20 years later: the legacy of the Iraq invasion.” Scrawled on a wall behind the Russian president is a bloody “Mission Accomplished” — the infamous line displayed on a banner behind Bush as, in May 2003, he gave a speech on an aircraft carrier declaring his war a raging success. Putin is saying, “Ukraine had WMD!”

Last year, however inadvertently, even Bush himself admitted to Putinesque behavior. Stumbling in a speech he was giving, he condemned “a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” (He meant Ukraine, of course.)

Today, however, TomDispatch regular, co-founder of the invaluable Costs of War Project, and military spouse Andrea Mazzarino explores a rarely acknowledged aspect of that criminal war of ours. She focuses on how so many of the American military personnel dispatched to fight it and the rest of the disastrous Global War on Terror have suffered until this very day, while this country largely turned its back, leaving them in the lurch. It is, in truth, a tale from hell, but let her explain. Tom

To Hell and Back: America’s Remarkable Unwillingness to Support Its Veterans

Here’s something we seldom focus on when it comes to war, American-style, even during the just-passed 20th anniversary of our disastrous invasion of Iraq: many more soldiers survive armed conflict than die from it. This has been especially so during this country’s twenty-first-century War on Terror, which is still playing out in all too many lands globally.

And here’s something to add to that reality: even though many more soldiers survive, they do so with ever more injuries of various sorts — conditions that the Veterans Affairs (VA) and military doctors euphemistically call polytrauma. For some of this, you can thank ever-more-sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other gems of modern warfare like “smart” suicide bombs that can burn, blind, deafen, or mutilate soldier’s bodies, while traumatizing their brains in myriad ways, some of which will not be evident until months or years later.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s wartime casualty count provides just a glimpse of this disparity between injuries and deaths — about eight wounded for every one killed, according to its figures — because it totes up only those troops and contractors whose deaths and wounds can be traced back to their time in war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere. The Pentagon doesn’t include in its tallies those whose injuries either happened or only became apparent off the battlefields of America’s wars, who, for instance, suffer from breathing problems thanks to the toxic burn pits the Pentagon established to dispose of garbage in Iraq or from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic pain. After all, the suicide rate of veterans is 1.5 times higher than that of the general population.

Such casualty criteria suggest that the U.S. government has many more veterans of its post-9/11 wars to care for than it has ever acknowledged. Those would also include people who have never seen combat but lived through the relentless pace and pressure of deployments or even simply the brutal hazing in many commands in today’s overstretched military.

In short, America’s veterans need all the help they can get and, as yet, there’s no evidence it’s coming their way.

All told today, more than 40% of post-9/11 veterans have some sort of officially recognized disability — compared with less than 25% of those from prior wars. That number is expected to rise to 54% over the course of the next 30 years. Those veterans are also using VA medical services at unprecedented rates, yet they often need to wait weeks to access much-needed care.

The Personal Battles We Don’t See

As a military spouse of 10 years, a clinical social worker serving veterans and active-duty military families, and a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, I’ve spoken to hundreds of veterans and active-duty service members over the years. They regularly describe gaps in the kind of medical care and social support they so desperately need. Often, private charities fill in where state assistance is lacking.

Among the examples I’ve encountered would be the Air Force Reserve officer who relied on donations and food banks to feed his family; the former Marine infantryman who found a physical therapist for his never-ending back pain and mobility issues thanks only to a chance encounter at a farmer’s market; and the Navy ensign, less than honorably discharged with “bad papers,” who got treatment only through a local Alcoholics Anonymous group. And just beyond the frame of such (relatively) happy endings lie significant holes in government support for the health of our veterans.

Also common in military communities are the family members and loved ones who leave their jobs to travel with wounded or ill service members to find help or devote enormous amounts of time to assisting with their daily care. Consider, for instance, the single mother who left her two younger children on their own in California so that she could be with her war-injured son while he recovered at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. Think of the kids who watch television and play video games all afternoon, because their mother needs to drive their war-traumatized father to appointments. Caregivers like them sacrifice more than they should for their loved ones and their country. In return, they are offered next to no recognition, nor even protection from the violence that is not uncommon in such military families.

In most prior major wars, the draft helped ensure the presence of more support personnel for active-duty troops and veterans, while more Americans then knew someone who had served. Twenty-first-century America has settled for a society characterized by less knowledge of — and support for — its veteran community. Civilians (mostly women, of course) often pick up the slack, even as they are expected (along with their husbands) to smoothly reintegrate into civilian life after serving in the armed forces.

The VA Caregiver Program

The government is not entirely indifferent to the plight of family members who give up their livelihoods to care for our wounded. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that set in motion the VA Caregiver Program, a series of supports for families already dealing with the most injured or ill post-9/11 veterans. The program includes a stipend, travel reimbursement, special healthcare services, and training for these caregivers. Over time, it was expanded for veterans of other eras and their loved ones, while the criteria for being a paid caregiver came to include anyone living with a veteran full-time. The establishment of that Caregiver Program crucially recognized the family as an integral part of the echelons of private contractors brought in to support the War on Terror, even if wives, mothers, and relatives were not nearly as handsomely paid as their defense contractor peers.

Unfortunately, good things only last so long! In late 2021, the VA announced that it would conduct an audit of the nearly 20,000 families of post-9/11 veterans receiving stipends and services under the program, based on a new more stringent set of requirements. Those rules stipulated that veterans whose loved ones were enrolled be totally unable to perform at least one of the “tasks of daily living” like getting dressed, bathing, eating, or simply moving around.

While the VA initially projected that about a third of the “legacy” families previously covered by the program would lose their benefits in the new care environment, it soon became clear that many more — nearly 90% of those reviewed — might be found ineligible. After a series of court challenges and interventions by veterans’ groups, the Caregiver Program suspended its audit in early 2022 and agreed to reexamine its rulemaking.

This February, however, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal brought by advocates for veterans challenging the absence of caregiver input in the review process and a lack of attention to the particularities of what each veteran actually needs. In the meantime, as with so many other aspects of military life, all too many veterans and their families who have relied on this support see their futures hanging by a thread.

The War on Terror’s Lasting Human Costs

We Americans tend to look the other way when the government places a relatively small number of us in harm’s way — though we were talking about 170,000 American troops in Iraq alone in 2007! Today, most of us undoubtedly think the War on Terror is over. When President George W. Bush’s administration first received congressional authorization to attack Afghanistan and then Iraq, essentially obtaining blank checks for years to come, generations of Americans, many from lower-income and minority communities, were consigned to endless fighting and — no kidding! — hundreds of thousands of them to futures of injury and social isolation.

Lack of support for such future veterans was seeded into the process from the outset, since the Bush administration never set aside money to cover the long-term expenses of caring for them, nor did Congress ever fully account for such future costs that could, in the end, reach – a Costs of War Project estimate — $2.2 trillion. It’s not clear where that money will come from, let alone how we’ll recruit and train enough healthcare providers and support staff for a pandemic-ravaged medical system.

As a military spouse and mental healthcare provider myself, I face the apathy of our government on a regular basis. My spouse is about to end 20 years in the military and, with some trepidation, I anticipate the long wait times and bureaucratic red tape that I know all too well have been faced by so many others in his position.

My experiences as a therapist do little to counter such realities. More than three months ago, I called the provider services department of the VA’s Community Care Network. It contracts with non-military healthcare givers so that veterans can seek services outside of VA facilities if they choose to do so. After the representative I spoke with confirmed that there was a need for more mental health providers in my region, she took down my name and contact information, telling me that someone would call back to do an “intake” interview with me within 10 days.

More than 100 days and three follow-up phone calls later, I’m still waiting. So is a colleague I know with decades of experience navigating America’s labyrinthine mental-health insurance system. Most major insurance companies do have standardized online forms that can digitally accept “intakes” from credential providers. (Indeed, all that is necessary is less than a page-worth of demographic and tax-related information.) No such entry point exists in my regional VA system — and mind you, I live just a stone’s throw from the Pentagon.

For every VA staff member keeping a seat warm who stands between veterans and those qualified to provide for their care, there is at least one untrained, stressed-out family member forced to work at little or no cost. Believe me, it’s difficult to witness the stress of a loved one facing a momentous transition, while knowing that the policymakers once so prepared to place them in harm’s way are now remarkably unprepared to care for them when they are no longer of direct use.

United We Fall?

You’d like to think — wouldn’t you? — that people are what Americans most want to invest in to secure a livable future for our country, let alone humanity as a whole. Again and again, facing needs ranging from healthcare to hunger to unfettered environmental degradation wrought by our own military and government, our congressional representatives seem ready to commit to little more than ever greater weapons production on a multi-year basis.

Lack of support for veterans is but part of this larger social vacuum. In my family, at least, a fear of far worse lurks all too close at hand (including that our country might end up in a future apocalyptic nuclear tit-for-tat with Vladimir Putin’s maniacal Russian government). Even without such futuristic horror, the living conditions of the vulnerable among us who have survived our own nightmarish wars should serve as a warning that, if we continue to be so unprepared to care for those who tried to serve us, not much worth fighting for will remain.

My spouse and I like to torture ourselves weekly by watching the apocalyptic sci-fi television series The Last of Us in which pandemic-stricken zombies and violence by our own troops reduce this country to a series of military-led quarantine zones reserved for a privileged few. In one scene, a general in charge of one of those zones warns an unruly teenage recruit that her best bet for a decent existence is to become an officer in his government. Spoiler alert: she ends up getting kidnapped by resistance fighters who try to use her to find a cure for the pandemic virus circulating in that world. In the end, she buys into the dream of a decent future made possible by science and acts on it herself. You’ll have to watch to find out more, but her caring decision to pursue what’s best for us all left my spouse and me feeling remarkably upbeat in such a downbeat world.

I suspect that if we do want a better world, the rest of us will have to act like that young heroine who risks life and limb for the good of us all. My version of that dream would start with urging our government to do everything possible to ensure that we invest more in human beings instead of the next round of weaponry, including the world-ending variety of them.

A recent New York Timesop-ed marveled that Americans today don’t seem to fear nuclear weapons as they once did, even though we fear so many other things from viruses to disinformation to climate change. Paradoxically, I suspect that such an oversight is caused, at least in part, by this country’s seemingly never-ending commitment to funding an ever-vaster military and its weaponry instead of education, healthcare, infrastructure, and jobs, not to speak of the veterans we dispatched into that nightmarish war on terror without making a commitment to truly support them.

Isn’t it time that we begin pushing our congressional representatives (small hope, sadly enough!) to set in motion policies that would uplift us all, including those veterans, instead of pouring yet more staggering sums into a military that’s only sent so many of us to hell and back in this century?

The war on terror and the battle for young minds

Andrea Mazzarino: War, American-Style, on the Homefront

By now, you know the routine too well for me to belabor the point. It started, I suppose, with the murders of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and only escalated in this century. Among the school slaughters that followed were the 20 children (and six school staff members) slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut — and sadly, you can count them off since then, including the 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; the 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; the recent murder of four students at the University of Idaho; and the even more recent killing of three students and wounding of five at Michigan State University.

In a country in which there are already significantly more weapons than people, count on one thing: that (incomplete) list is undoubtedly just the beginning of a tragic story that's unlikely to end either soon or well. Keep in mind that the citizenry of the United States is more armed than any other on the planet, while the weaponry available has, with time, only grown more devastating and — yes — militarized (as, not surprisingly, has that of the police).

And count on one other thing: in a nation that went to war globally (and remarkably disastrously) in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, war has come home in a significant fashion. Today, co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project and TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino explores one of those ways, reminding us that it's not only grown-ups but school children who are experiencing the militarization of this country up close and personal (and not just by dying in school slaughters either). Tom

Children of War: The War on Terror and the Battle for Young Minds

During a Veterans Day celebration in my small Maryland community, a teacher clicked through a slideshow of smiling men and women in military uniforms. "Girls and boys, can anyone tell me what courage is?" she asked the crowd, mostly children from local elementary schools, including my two young kids.

A boy raised his hand. "Not being scared?" he asked.

The teacher seized on his response: "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Not being scared." She proceeded to discuss this country's armed forces, highlighting how brave U.S. troops are because they fight to defend our way of life. Servicemembers and veterans in the crowd were encouraged to stand. My own children beamed, knowing that their father is just such a military officer. The veterans and troops present did indeed stand, but most of them stared at the ground. As a counselor who works with children, including those from local military families, I marveled that the teacher was asking the young audience to dismiss one of the most vulnerable emotions there is — fear — in the service of armed violence.

No mention was made of what war can do to those fighting it, not to speak of civilians caught in the crossfire, and how much money has left our country's shores thanks to armed conflict. That's especially true, given the scores of U.S.-led military operations still playing out globally as the Pentagon arms and trains local troops, runs intelligence operations, and conducts military exercises.

That week, my children and others in schools across the county spent hours in their classrooms celebrating Veterans Day through a range of activities meant to honor our armed forces. My kindergartener typically made a paper crown, with six colorful peaks for the six branches of service, that framed her little face. Kids in older grades wrote letters to soldiers thanking them for their service.

I have no doubt that if such schoolchildren were ever shown photos in class of what war actually does to kids their age, including of dead and wounded elementary school students and their parents and grandparents in Afghanistan and Iraq, there would be an uproar. And there would be another, of course, if they were told that "their" troops were more likely to be attacked (as in sexually assaulted) by one of their compatriots than by any imaginable enemy. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the most progressive and highly educated counties in the country and even here, war, American-style, is painted as a sanitized event full of muscular young people, their emotions under control (until, of course, they aren't).

Even here, few parents and teachers dare talk to young children about the atrocities committed by our military in our wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Our Culture of Violence

I suspect that we don't talk about war anymore or consider its still-reverberating consequences exactly because it still remains only half-visible everywhere in our all-American world. Nonetheless, armed violence over the more than two decades since the start of the disastrous post-9/11 "war on terror" has percolated, however indirectly, into what seems like just about every aspect of this country’s being — from violent video games to still-spiking mass shootings to local police forces armed with weapons of war (thanks to the Pentagon!) as if they were being sent on raids to kill Osama bin Laden.

As a society, it seems to me that we've come to view violence rather than other ways of solving problems (including critical thinking and honest conversation) as the new normal, however little we may admit to that reality. Have any of our leaders, for instance, seriously explored alternative responses to Russia's invasion of Ukraine — other, that is, than sending endless billions of dollars in arms to that country? Had we exhibited foresight — Russian designs on Ukraine were known for years — our government could have been working on a green-energy plan to help starve President Vladimir Putin from his post as war-criminal-in-chief long ago.

And mind you, there's no need to look thousands of miles away to find people openly sanctioning fighting as a form of governance. After all, a significant number of Americans thought it was perfectly acceptable to use a violent coup to dispute the outcome of the last presidential election.

As anyone involved in school affairs has noticed by now, you don't have to look far to notice an urge to do violence. It's now remarkably common for school board members and educators to face threats from crazed parents when they try to deal with topics as basic and fundamental to our humanity as gender identities falling outside of cisgender "boy" or "girl," or non-heterosexual relationships.

Just recently, I even found myself normalizing violence in my own fashion. As a friend's transgender teen described a recent LGBTQ+ pride march in his community, that's what immediately came to mind and so I asked, "Were there any angry protesters?" I was, of course, imagining armed militia members and the like, who have indeed appeared at similar marches around the country in recent years.

The kid looked at me with confusion. "You mean bigots?" he asked. I nodded and apologized. When did I start thinking of peaceful self-expression as an automatic provocation to violence? I suspect that violence has become so commonplace in our culture that such assumptions are now second nature for many of us.

The Underbelly of Relentless War

Most of the time though, I do notice that reality because I'm part of a culture that helps normalize it. I'm a military spouse of 10 years and counting and I've enlisted my creativity, time, and money in figuring out how to move every two or three years with my young family as the Pentagon shuttles us from duty station to duty station. And I do, of course, benefit from the financial stability offered by a salary paid by a Department of Defense whose congressional monies go through the roof year after year.

Shortly before I met my husband in 2011, along with a group of social scientists at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, I co-founded the Costs of War Project. A multidisciplinary think tank, it now consists of more than 35 scholars, medical doctors, activists, and journalists who continue to document the never-ending costs of the U.S. decision to respond to the September 11, 2001, attacks by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, while launching a global "war on terror" that spread across South Asia, the Greater Middle East, and Africa, and has yet to end.

While working on that project, I was struck by seldom-noticed ways that the war on terror continued to reverberate here at home. In that not-so-obvious category, for instance, were the things that simply didn't get done here because of the time, energy, and taxpayer dollars (an estimated $8 trillion by the end of 2022) that have been swallowed up by our foreign wars. There were the roads and schools that didn't get repaired or built, the teachers who didn't get hired, and most notably (when I think about schools) the humanities classes that might have been but weren't funded.

Today, when culture wars focused on our education system hit the headlines, it's striking how little we talk about the ways war has altered what we teach our kids. As a start (and don't be shocked!), in the years immediately after 9/11, the Department of Defense (DOD) became the third largest source of funding for research at American universities. The DOD and other military-related agencies like the Department of Homeland Security established laboratories and research centers at staggering numbers of (mostly state) universities to fund research into weapons and armor, military strategy, bioterrorism prevention, and intelligence-gathering.

And such military funding of university research only continues today, often — if you'll excuse my using the word — trumping funding for human service-related fields. For example, the Pentagon invested $130.1 billion in university research centers in 2022. Compare that with the $353 million in funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality for university-based research into developing more equitable and affordable healthcare and you'll know what we as a nation value most. Only $100 million went into university research aimed at improving educational outcomes. In other words, you don't have to dig too deeply to grasp just where our national priorities lie.

Forced Military Coursework for Poor Teens

Still, I was unprepared when I recently read in the New York Times that the Pentagon, in collaboration with public high schools around the country, had started to force thousands of young teens in poor and minority communities into Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) classes without their consent. Those students are required to wear uniforms and obey orders from teachers. In one case, an instructor manhandled a "recruit." Others have been yelled at, and some who didn't want to be in JROTC were intimidated or simply barred from dropping the course.

As the Times reporters discovered, textbooks in these courses focus on ways in which government and military actions have benefited Americans from the dominant culture at the expense of people of color. For example, according to that report, one Marine Corps JROTC textbook discusses the Trail of Tears of the 1830s — the forced relocation of Native-American populations from their lands in the southeastern U.S. all the way across the Mississippi to present-day Oklahoma — without even bothering to mention the thousands of who died along the way.

Of course, such forced enlistment of children in the military is only possible thanks to the lack of resources kids from wealthier communities like my own take for granted. Several schools profiled in the Times enrolled students in JROTC because they couldn't hire enough teachers. One Oklahoma high school, for instance, reported that all freshmen were enrolled in JROTC courses because it didn't have enough physical education teachers. It's a bitter example of how war has come full circle in this country, as students lacking PE teachers are channeled into the same war-making machine that helped cause such deficits in the first place.

To be sure, a couple of teachers I've spoken to who live in heavily military communities view the idea of such mandatory service as an opportunity to build leadership skills, discipline, and good study habits in young people who may otherwise lack structure in their lives. But it says something about our moment that kids can't enroll in programs reminiscent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps as an alternate pathway to public service and ideally (if taxpayers were willing), higher education. To echo the late physician-activist Paul Farmer in his moving profile of a family of Haitian refugees helped to gain their footing here through military enlistment, war eerily creates opportunities for poor and vulnerable families, even if the final prospects may be grim indeed.

The Hidden Costs

The costs of funneling kids into military careers are profound. International human rights law defines the minimum age for recruiting children into armed conflict as 18 and the International Criminal Court goes further, designating the recruitment of kids aged 14 or younger as a war crime. At such an age, the connections between the parts of the brain that feel and think have yet to fully develop, making it more likely that they'll act on fear, excitement, or some other overpowering emotion rather than rationally facing such decisions. (Though if kids learn to acknowledge those very emotions, that can at least help them somewhat in controlling their impulsive reactions.) In turn, trauma, which people who enter the military are more likely to experience than civilians, further stunts the ability to think critically.

Teenagers are also still forming a sense of identity vis-à-vis their peers and adult figures who (ideally) reflect their strengths and preferences back to them via praise, constructive criticism, and encouragement. A militarized curriculum runs counter to such an expansive view of human development.

On that note, I'm proud to say that my local school district is indeed trying to develop children's worldviews in other ways. Recently, for example, our district introduced a modest collection of books to school classrooms and libraries with characters who are nonbinary, queer, transgender, gay, or lesbian. In a similar fashion, it's collaborating with a local Jewish cultural organization to help students deal with both antisemitism and racism.

I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that even my community has witnessed some resistance, however mild, to the LGBTQ+ awareness project. A couple of parents raised their hands at information meetings, asking about the new readings with questions like, "If I had a friend who wanted to opt her kids out of this, could she?" As you may suspect, when it comes to subject matter about inclusion and openness to difference rather than militarism, heterosexuality, and conformity, the answer is still always: yes.

Military food insecurity and our obsession with defense spending

Andrea Mazzarino: The Hunger Wars?

Sometimes a little history is just what the doctor ordered.

It was April 16, 1953, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former supreme commander of allied forces in Europe in World War II, had been president for just 12 weeks. That first great Cold War conflict, the Korean War, was still months away from ending when he addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors at the Statler Hotel in Washington. It was also, as he saw it, his first presidential moment to speak to the American people and the subject he chose was not what you might have expected from the ultimate warrior of the second great conflict of the twentieth century. His focus was peace even as “the shadow of fear again has darkly lengthened across the world.”

At a moment when the Cold War was still ramping up, Eisenhower laid out the global situation in a strikingly grim and memorable fashion. If things didn’t improve, he told those editors, “The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated. The worst is atomic war. The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and labor of all peoples.” And then he added these classic words as a kind of yardstick for measuring his future presidency, perhaps all future ones:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

Eisenhower couldn’t have been more eloquent or on target. As it happened, though, the Cold War and the national security budgets that went with it only grew more excessive during his presidency. Almost eight years later, he would end it with a brief, classic “farewell address” to the American people in which he pointed out that “this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.” He then issued a warning, the heart of his goodbye, and in doing so coined a term that has, for obvious reasons, never left us: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

And sadly, so it has, even decades after Eisenhower’s Cold War, which ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, as TomDispatch regular, co-creator of the Costs of War Project, and military spouse Andrea Mazzarino describes in all-too-devastating detail, a staggeringly over-funded military-industrial complex is, to use Eisenhower’s phrasing, indeed stealing from “those who hunger and are not fed.” And irony of irony, as Mazzarino makes clear today, that’s not just in the society at large but, believe it or not, in the military itself. Tom

What It Means for Hunger to Burn Through the Pentagon’s Ranks: Military Food Insecurity and Our Obsession with Defense Spending

By any standard, the money the United States government pours into its military is simply overwhelming. Take the $858-billion defense spending authorization that President Biden signed into law last month. Not only did that bill pass in an otherwise riven Senate by a bipartisan majority of 83-11, but this year’s budget increase of 4.3% is the second highest in inflation-adjusted terms since World War II. Indeed, the Pentagon has been granted more money than the next 10 largest cabinet agencies combined. And that doesn’t even take into account funding for homeland security or the growing costs of caring for the veterans of this country’s post-9/11 wars. That legislation also includes the largest pay raise in 20 years for active-duty and reserve forces and an expansion of a supplemental “basic needs allowance” to support military families with incomes near the poverty line.

And yet, despite those changes and a Pentagon budget that’s gone through the roof, many U.S. troops and military families will continue to struggle to make ends meet. Take one basic indicator of welfare: whether or not you have enough to eat. Tens of thousands of service members remain “food insecure” or hungry. Put another way, during the past year, members of those families either worried that their food would run out or actually did run out of food.

As a military spouse myself and co-founder of the Costs of War Project, I recently interviewed Tech Sergeant Daniel Faust, a full-time Air Force reserve member responsible for training other airmen. He’s a married father of four who has found himself on the brink of homelessness four times between 2012 and 2019 because he had to choose between necessities like groceries and paying the rent. He managed to make ends meet by seeking assistance from local charities. And sadly enough, that airman has been in all-too-good company for a while now. In 2019, an estimated one in eight military families were considered food insecure. In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, that figure rose to nearly a quarter of them. More recently, one in six military families experienced food insecurity, according to the advocacy group Military Family Advisory Network.

The majority of members of the military largely come from middle-class neighborhoods and, not surprisingly perhaps, their struggles mirror those faced by so many other Americans. Spurred by a multitude of factors, including pandemic-related supply-chain problems and — you guessed it — war, inflation in the U.S. rose by more than 9% in 2022. On average, American wages grew by about 4.5% last year and so failed to keep up with the cost of living. This was no less true in the military.

An Indifferent Public

An abiding support for arming Ukraine suggests that many Americans are at least paying attention to that aspect of U.S. military policy. Yet here’s the strange thing (to me, at least): so many of us in this century seemed to care all too little about the deleterious domestic impacts of our prolonged, disastrous Global War on Terror. The U.S. military’s growing budget and a reach that, in terms of military bases and deployed troops abroad, encompasses dozens of countries, was at least partly responsible for an increasingly divided, ever more radicalized populace here at home, degraded protections for civil liberties and human rights, and ever less access to decent healthcare and food for so many Americans.

That hunger is an issue at all in a military so wildly well-funded by Congress should be a grim reminder of how little attention we pay to so many crucial issues, including how our troops are treated. Americans simply take too much for granted. This is especially sad, since government red tape is significantly responsible for creating the barriers to food security for military families.

When it comes to needless red tape, just consider how the government determines the eligibility of such families for food assistance. Advocacy groups like the National Military Family Association and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger have highlighted the way in which the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), a non-taxable stipend given to military families to help cover housing, is counted as part of military pay in determining the eligibility of families for food assistance. Because of that, all too many families who need such assistance are disqualified.

Debt-Funded Living, Debt-Funded Wars

The BAH issue is but one part of a larger picture of twenty-first-century military life with its torrent of expenses, many of which (like local housing markets) you can’t predict. I know because I’ve been a military spouse for 12 years. As an officer’s wife and a white, cisgender woman from an upper-middle-class background, I’m one of the most privileged military spouses out there. I have two graduate degrees, a job I can do from home, and children without major health issues. Our family has loved ones who, when our finances get tight, support us logistically and financially with everything from childcare to housing expenses to Christmas gifts for our children.

And yet even for us, affording the basics has sometimes proved challenging. During the first few months after any move to a new duty station, a typical uprooting experience for military families, we’ve had to wield our credit cards to get food and other necessities like gas. Add to that take-out and restaurant meals, hotel rooms, and Ubers as we wait weeks for private contractors to arrive with our kitchen supplies, furniture, and the like.

Tag on the cost of hiring babysitters while we wait for affordable childcare centers in the new area to accept our two young children, and then the high cost of childcare when we finally get spots. In 2018, during one of those moves, I discovered that the military had even begun putting relocated families like ours at the back of wait lists for childcare fee assistance — “to give others a chance,” one Pentagon representative told me when I called to complain. In each of the five years before both of our children entered public school, we spent nearly twice as much on childcare as the average junior enlisted military service member gets in total income for his or her family.

Our finances are still struggling to catch up with demands like these, which are the essence of military life.

But don’t worry, even if your spouse isn’t nearby, there are still plenty of social opportunities (often mandated by commanders) for family members to get together with one another, including annual balls for which you’re expected to purchase pricey tickets. In the post-9/11 era, such events have become more common and are frequently seen as obligatory. In this age of the gig economy and the rolling back of workplace benefits and protections, the military is, in its own fashion, leading the way when it comes to “bringing your whole self (money included) to work.”

Now, add the Covid-19 pandemic into this fun mix. The schedules of many military personnel only grew more complicated given pre- and post-deployment quarantine requirements and labor and supply-chain issues that made moving ever less efficient. Military spouse unemployment rates, which had hovered around 24% in the pre-pandemic years, shot up to more than 30% by early 2021. Spouses already used to single parenting during deployments could no longer rely on public schools and daycare centers to free them to go to work. Infection rates in military communities soared because of travel, as well as weak (or even nonexistent) Covid policies. All of this, of course, ensured that absenteeism from work and school would only grow among family members. And to make things worse, as the last Congress ended, the Republicans insisted that an authorization rescinding the requirement for military personnel to get Covid vaccines become part of the Pentagon budget bill. All I can say is that’s a bit more individual freedom than this military spouse can wrap her brain around right now.

Worse yet, this country’s seemingly eternal and disastrous twenty-first-century war on terror, financed almost entirely by national debt, also ensured that members of the military, shuttled all over the planet, would incur ever more of it themselves. It should be no surprise then that many more military families than civilian ones struggle with credit card debt.

And now, as our country seems to be gearing up for possible confrontations not just with terror groups or local rebel outfits in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, but with other great powers, the problems of living in the U.S. military are hardly likely to get easier.

The Fire of War Is Spreading

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has at least publicly acknowledged hunger as a problem in the military and taken modest steps to alleviate the financial stresses on military families. Still, that problem is far larger than the Pentagon is willing to face. According to Abby Leibman, MAZON’s chief executive officer, Pentagon officials and military base commanders commonly deny that hunger exists among their subordinates. Sometimes they even discourage families in need of food assistance from seeking help. Daniel Faust, the sergeant I mentioned earlier, told me that his colleagues and trainees, concerned about seeming needy or not convinced that military services offering help will actually be useful, often won’t ask for assistance — even if their incomes barely support their families. Indeed, a recently released RAND Corporation investigation into military hunger found that some troops worried that seeking food assistance would jeopardize their careers.

I’m lucky that I haven’t had to seek food assistance from the government. However, I’ve heard dozens of officers, enlisted personnel, and family members shrug off such problems by attributing debt among the troops to lack of education, immaturity, or an inability to cope with stress in healthy ways. What you rarely hear is someone in this community complaining that military pay just doesn’t support the basic needs of families.

Ignoring food needs in the military is, in the end, about more than just food. Individual cooking and communal meals can help individuals and families cope in the absence of adequate mental healthcare or… well, so much else. The combat veteran who takes up baking as a tactile way of reminding himself that he’s here in the present and not back in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia or Syria is learning to conquer mental illness. The family that gathers for meals between deployments is seizing an opportunity to connect. In an age when military kids are suffering from widespread mental-health problems, eating together is one way parents can sometimes combat anxiety and depression.

Whatever is life-enhancing and doesn’t require a professional degree is vital in today’s stressed-out military. Heaven only knows, we’ve had enough excitement in the years of the war on terror. Perhaps in its wake you won’t be surprised to learn that military suicide rates have reached an all-time high, while mental healthcare is remarkably inaccessible (especially to families whose kids have disabilities or mental illnesses). And don’t let me get started on sexual assault or child abuse, or the poor school performance of so many military kids, or even the growth of divorce, not to speak of violent crime, in the services in these years.

Yes, problems like these certainly existed in the military before the post-9/11 war on terror began, but they grew as both the scale and scope of our disastrous military engagements and the Pentagon budget exploded. Now, with the war in Ukraine and growing tensions with China over Taiwan, we live in what could prove to be the aftermath from hell. In other words, to quote 1980s star Billy Joel’s famous record title, we did start this fire.

Believe me, what’s truly striking about this year’s Pentagon funding isn’t that modest military pay raise. It’s the way Congress is allowing the Department of Defense to make ever more stunning multi-year spending commitments to corporate arms contractors. For example, the Army has awarded Raytheon Technologies $2 billion in contracts to replace (or even expand) supplies of missile systems that have been sent to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia. So count on one thing: the CEOs of Raytheon and other similar companies will not go hungry (though some of their own workers just might).

Nor are those fat cats even consistently made to account for how they use our taxpayer dollars. To take but one example, between 2013 and 2017, the Pentagon entered into staggering numbers of contracts with corporations that had been indicted, fined, and/or convicted of fraud. The total value of those questionable contracts surpassed $334 billion. Think of how many military childcare centers could have been built with such sums.

Human Welfare, Not Corporate Welfare

Policymakers have grown accustomed to evaluating measures meant to benefit military families in terms of how “mission-ready” such families will become. You would think that access to food was such a fundamental need that anyone would simply view it as a human right. The Pentagon, however, continues to frame food security as an instrument of national security, as if it were another weapon with which to arm expendable service members.

To my mind, here’s the bottom line when it comes to that staggering Pentagon budget: For the military and the rest of us, how could it be that corporate weapons makers are in funding heaven and all too many members of our military in a homegrown version of funding hell? Shouldn’t we be fighting, first and foremost, for a decent life for all of us here at home? Veteran unemployment, the pandemic, the Capitol insurrection — these crises have undermined the very reasons many joined the military in the first place.

If we can’t even feed the fighters (and their families) decently, then who or what exactly are we defending? And if we don’t change course now by investing in alternatives to what we so inaccurately call national defense, I’m afraid that there will indeed be a reckoning.

Those worried about looking soft on national defense by even considering curbing military spending ought to consider at least the security implications of military hunger. We all have daily needs which, if unmet, can lead to desperation. Hunger can and does fuel armed violence, and has helped lead the way to some of the most brutal regimes in history. In an era when uniformed personnel were distinctly overrepresented among the domestic extremists who attacked our Capitol on January 6, 2021, one of the fastest ways to undermine our quality of life may just be to let our troops and their families, hungry and in anguish, turn against their own people.

Facing extremism: How terror came home after September 11th and what to make of it

Andrea Mazzarino: Facing Extremism, Up Close and Personal

Just how extreme is this country? Not quite as bad as many of us feared, it seems. Still, it’s certainly extreme enough, despite the host of election deniers who lost in the recent midterms. And that extremity can’t just be attributed to you-know-who announcing that He (and yes, I meant to capitalize that) was once again running (wildly, madly, sadly) for president, this time with an exclamation point attached to MAGA! In a seemingly never-ending, strangely low-energy address (despite that exclamation point), he assured future voters that, “in order to make America great and glorious again, I am tonight announcing my candidacy for president of the United States.”

Great and glorious indeed! Today, TomDispatch regular, co-founder of the invaluable Costs of War Project, and military spouse Andrea Mazzarino considers how extremism has indeed come home to roost in this country and how the Global War on Terror our leaders launched after the 9/11 attacks and then fought disastrously forever and a day has, in its own strange fashion, also helped lodge terror and divisiveness deep inside this country.

And yes, as she suggests, for part of that terror, you can thank disturbed former soldiers of those failed wars abroad who returned and joined all-too-well-armed extremist paramilitary groups. When it comes to such extremity, however, another factor should be thrown into the painful mix with those Mazzarino mentions: weaponry. After all, in these decades of armed madness abroad, arms have come home big time, too, and in an ever more devastating fashion.

Americans are armed today in a way that was once unimaginable. In fact, this is the only country on Earth where the number of weapons outnumbers the population — 120 guns for every 100 of us. Under those circumstances, you won’t be surprised to learn that the U.S. also has more killings, mass and otherwise, than other wealthy countries. And as a more extreme version of America settled in for the long run during the pandemic years, gun sales only soared. One in every five households purchased a weapon (or weaponry), 20 million guns annually in 2020 and 2021, including AR-15s of the sort used in the slaughter of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. And as Mazzarino also points out, during the war on terror years, the Pentagon would arm our police departments to the teeth with military weaponry and other equipment, more than $7 billion worth by 2021, some directly off this country’s distant battlefields. So today, this increasingly divided land of ours is not only disturbed, but deeply weaponized.

And all of that should be the definition of extreme. Now, let Mazzarino tell you what such a strange version of extremity feels like up close and personal to one military spouse. Tom

How Terror Came Home and What to Make of It: My 10 Years as a Military Spouse in America's Post-9/11 World

Recently, an agent of the Department of Homeland Security called me and started asking questions about a childhood acquaintance being investigated for extremism. I put him off. My feelings about this were, to say the least, complex. As a military spouse of 10 years and someone who has long written about governmental abuses of power, I wanted to cooperate with efforts to root out hate. However, I also feared that my involvement might spark some kind of retaliation.

While I hadn’t seen the person under investigation for years, my memories of him and of some of the things he’d done scared me. For example, when we were young teens, he threatened to bury me alive over a disagreement. He even dug a hole to demonstrate his intent. I knew that if I were to cooperate with this investigation, my testimony would not be anonymous. As a mother of two children living on an isolated farm, that left me with misgivings.

There was also another consideration. A neighbor, herself a retired police officer, suggested that perhaps the investigation could be focused not just on him, but on me, too. “Maybe it’s because of stuff you’ve written,” she suggested, mentioning my deep involvement in Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I co-founded as a way of dealing with this country’s nightmarish wars of this century.

Indeed, the American version of the twenty-first century, marked by our government’s devastating decision to respond to the September 11, 2001, attacks with a Global War on Terror — first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then in other countries across the Middle East — has had its grim effects at home as well. It’s caused us to turn on one another in confusing ways. After all, terror isn’t a place or a people. You can’t eradicate it with your military. Instead, as we learned over the last couple of decades, you end up turning those you don’t like into enemies in the bloodiest of counterinsurgency wars.

I’ve researched for years how those wars of ours also helped deepen our domestic inequalities and political divisions, but after all this time, the dynamics still seem mysterious to me. Nonetheless, I hope I can at least share a bit of what I’ve noticed happening in the conservative, privileged community I grew up in, as well as in the military community I married into.

Around the time I co-founded the Costs of War Project in the early 2010s, I fell in love with a career military officer. Our multitrillion-dollar wars were then in full swing. At home, the names of young Blacks killed by our police forces, ever more ominously armed off the country’s battlefields, were just seeping into wider public consciousness as was a right-wing political backlash against prosecutions of the police. Anti-government extremist militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, some of whom would storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to try to violently block the certification of an elected president, were already seething about the supposed executive overreach of the Obama administration and that Black president’s alleged foreign birth. But back then, those guys all seemed — to me at least — very much a part of America’s fringe.

Back then, I also didn’t imagine that men in uniform would emerge as a central part of the leadership and membership of such extremist groups. Sadly, they did. As journalist Peter Maass pointed out recently, of the 897 individuals indicted so far for their involvement in the January 6th violence, 118 had backgrounds in the U.S. military and a number of them had fought in this country’s war on terror abroad. Nearly 30 police officers from a dozen different departments around the country similarly attended the rally that preceded the Capitol riot and several faced criminal charges.

What also sends chills down my spine is that federal law enforcement agencies turned their backs on the warning signs of all this. Had the FBI acted on information that extremist groups were planning violence on January 6th, it might not have happened.

A Nation Rich in Fear

If one thing captured the spirit of the post-9/11 moment for me, in retrospect, it was the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has defined itself as a “whole-of-society endeavor, from every federal department and agency to every American across the nation.” Expenditures for that new department would total more than $1 trillion from 2002 through 2020, more than six times expenditures for similar activities at various government agencies during the previous 20 years.

With its hundreds of thousands of workers, DHS often seems susceptible to overusing its authority and ignoring real threats. Case in point: of the approximately 450 politically motivated violent attacks taking place on our soil in the past decade, the majority were perpetrated by far-right, homegrown violent extremists. Yet all too tellingly, the DHS has largely remained focused on foreign terrorist groups — and homegrown jihadist groups inspired by them — as the main threats to this country.

Thanks to the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, federal authorities were also empowered to obtain the financial and Internet records of Americans, even if they weren’t part of an authorized investigation. In the process, the government violated the privacy of tens of thousands of citizens and non-citizens. Authorities at government agencies ranging from the FBI to the Pentagon secretly monitored the communications and activities of peace groups like the Quakers and Occupy Wall Street activists. Worse yet, in June 2013, Americans learned that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone records from tens of millions of us based on a secret court order.

Such practices only seemed to legitimate vigilantism on the part of Americans who took seriously the DHS’s mantra, “If you see something, say something.” Incidents of racial profiling directed towards people of Muslim and South Asian background spiked early in the post 9/11 war years and again (I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn!) after Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017.

Sometime before that, a relative visiting me noticed a darker-skinned man, a tourist, taking photos of historic buildings in my community, while speaking on his phone in Arabic. To my shame, she began questioning him, based on “a feeling that something was wrong.” In other words, well before the Donald put “fake news” in the contemporary American lexicon, feelings and not facts all too often seemed to rule the day.

“Is that the Russia?” or Dangers Near and Far

Terrorism was at once everywhere and nowhere for those who were supposed to be fighting that war on terror, including members of the military. In 2013, when my husband was on a months-long deployment at sea, another wife, whom I had texted about having a party for the crew on their return, texted me back a warning. I had, she claimed, jeopardized the safety of my husband and other crew members on his boat. After all, what if some foreign enemy intercepted our exchange and learned about the boat’s plans?

Four years later, in the shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency, it only got worse. A stressed-out, combat-traumatized commander, who took over the vessel to which my spouse was next assigned, emailed us wives weekly warnings against sending messages just like the one I had dispatched years earlier. He also ordered us not to email our husbands anything that could be imagined as negative, even if it reflected the realities of our lives: sick children, struggles with depression, financial troubles when we had to miss workdays to single parent. According to him, to upset our spouses in uniform was to jeopardize the security and wellbeing of the boat and indeed of America. He could read our e-mails and decide which ones made it to our loved ones. It was an extreme atmosphere to find myself in and I started to wonder: was I an asset or a threat to this country? Could my harmless words endanger lives?

One summer evening toward the end of another long deployment at sea, a fellow spouse tasked with disseminating confidential information about the boat our spouses were on arrived at my home unannounced. I was feeding my older toddler at the time. She whispered to me that our husbands’ boat was returning to port soon and swore me to silence because she didn’t want anyone beyond the command to know about the vessel’s movements. It was, she said, a matter of “operational security.” Then she took a glance out the window as though a foreign spy or terrorist might be listening.

“Oh! That’s great!” I replied to her news. Later, I tried to explain to my bewildered child what “operational security,” or keeping information about daddy’s whereabouts away from our country’s enemies, meant. He promptly pointed toward that same window and said, “Is it the Russia? Does the Russia live there?” (He’d overheard too many conversations at home about nuclear geopolitics.) The next day, pointing to a mischievous-looking ceramic garden gnome in a neighbor’s yard, he asked again, “Is that the Russia?”

It was not Russia, I assured him. But six years later, in a weary and anxious country that only recently gave The Donald a true body blow, I still wonder about the dangers of our American world in a way I once didn’t.

The 2020s and the Biggest-Loser-in-Chief

Eventually, my family and I settled into what will hopefully be our final stint of military life — an office job for my spouse and a home in rural Maryland. But somehow, in those Trump years, the once-distant dangers of our world seemed ever closer at hand.

This was the time, after all, when the president felt comfortable posting a meme of himself beating up a CNN journalist, while his Homeland Security officials detained peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon. I soon began to wonder whether returning to something approximating normal civilian life was ever going to happen in this disturbed and disturbing land of ours.

Motorcyclists sporting confederate flags drove by on the rural highway in front of my house. Blue Lives Matter flags fluttered in a nearby town after the police murdered George Floyd. Even years after Trump left office, as the polls leading up to the midterm elections seemed to indicate a coming red wave, I wondered if I had been wrong to imagine that our fellow Americans would choose democracy over… well, who knew what?

As part of that election campaign, I wrote nearly 200 letters to Democratic voters in swing states urging them to get to the polls as I was planning to do. Remembering a trend my friends and I had started on social media in 2020, I considered posting a funny photograph of my sweet, excitable rooster, Windy, sitting next to piles of letters, with the caption, “Windy is vigilant about the state of our democracy! Are you?”

Then I thought twice about it, another sign of our times. It occurred to me that if I did participate in an investigation against an angry person in uniform, the one I had once known, I risked retaliation and — yes, I did think this at the time — what better target was there than our strange outdoor pet? On realizing that it was I who was now starting to think like some fear-crazed maniac, I forced myself to dismiss the thought.

Of course, that predicted red wave turned out to be, at worst, a ripple, while election denialism and voter intimidation seemed to collapse in a post-election heap. None of the most extreme MAGA candidates running for top election positions in swing states won. Was it possible that Americans had started to see the irony, not to say danger, of voting for public officials who attack the basic tenets of our democracy?

In the end, I told the guy investigating my childhood acquaintance that I couldn’t help him, feeling that I had nothing new to add for a crew with such sweeping powers of surveillance. To my relief, he simply wished me the best. The normal tenor of that conversation changed something in my thinking about the government and this moment of ours.

I found myself returning to an older (perhaps saner) view of our times, as well as the military and law enforcement. Yes, our disastrous wars of this century had brought home too many unnerved, disturbed, and damaged soldiers and small numbers of them became all too extreme, while over-armed police forces did indeed create problems for us.

However, it was also worth remembering that the military and the police are not monoliths. They aren’t “blue lives” or “the troops,” but individuals. They are part of all our lives, as fallible as they are potentially capable of helping us form a more perfect union instead of the chaos and cruelty that Donald Trump exemplifies. Were Americans — all of us from all walks of life — more willing to stand up to bigotry and extremism, we might still help change what’s happening here for the better.

Choosing life in a pro-violence society: Why Dobbs is a disaster

Andrea Mazzarino – Why Dobbs Is a Recipe for Disaster in the Military

The other day, a judge lifted a nearly 50-year-old injunction against a 150-year-old Arizona anti-abortion law. It allows that procedure only if a woman’s life is in jeopardy. A doctor who ignores it could face two to five years in jail. And so it goes (and goes and goes) in a country that’s still, in part at least, extremely Trumpian and a Supreme Court that could hardly be more so.

Strange, isn’t it, that the president who went out of his way to put three anti-abortion judges on the Supreme Court claimed in 1999, when he was still a real-estate magnate in New York City, that “I’m very pro-choice”? When running for president as a Republican, he would, of course, emphatically claim that “I am pro-life” (though the only accurate thing he could have said would have been “I am pro-Trump”).

When he began changing his stated beliefs to fit the new Donald Trump he was promoting as a possible president, he had this exchange:

'I know you’re opposed to abortion,’ CNN’s Jake Tapper said to him in a June 2015 interview.
‘Right,’ Trump replied. ‘I’m pro-choice.’
Mr. Tapper furrowed a brow. ‘You’re pro-choice or pro-life?’
‘I’m pro-life,’ Mr. Trump quickly corrected himself. ‘I’m sorry.’

A little more than a year after that, when asked about his thoughts on overturning Roe v. Wade, he assured his interviewer, Chris Wallace of Fox News, that it “will happen, automatically in my opinion,” because he was sure he would have the chance to nominate several justices to the Supreme Court. How sadly right he proved to be.

The three justices he did nominate (two put in place after Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell aborted history to do so) would be crucial to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that would make Roe a matter of history. After news of that decision came out, the former president would insist that “the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation, along with other decisions that have been announced recently, were only made possible because I delivered everything as promised, including nominating and getting three highly respected and strong Constitutionalists confirmed to the United States Supreme Court.” It mattered not at all that, in a CNN poll, 66% of Americans stood against the overturning of Roe (or that Republicans may pay for that decision in the November midterm elections).

Meanwhile, TomDispatch regular and co-founder of the Costs of War Project Andrea Mazzarino gives us a feeling for just what a disaster the Dobbs decision is likely to be for one community of Americans of which she’s a part: military spouses. And while you’re at it, prepare yourself. Given the Supreme Court Donald Trump willed us, there’s so much more to come. Tom

Choosing Life in a Pro-Violence Society: Post-Dobbs Abortion Access for Military Dependents Is in Question

In significant parts of this country, the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade returned Americans to a half-century-old situation in which hundreds of thousands of women, faced with unwanted pregnancies, were once forced to resort to costly, potentially deadly underground abortions. My spouse’s employer, the Pentagon, recently announced that its own abortion policy, which allows military insurance to cover the procedure when a pregnancy results from rape or incest, or poses a threat to the mother’s life, still holds.

Sadly enough, this seems an all-too-hollow reassurance, given the reality that pregnant women in the military are, in many places, likely to face an uphill battle finding providers trained and — here’s the key, of course — willing to perform the procedure. The Supreme Court abortion ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Healthleaves it up to the states to determine whether to allow abortions. In doing so, it ensures that the access of military populations to that procedure will be so much more complicated, especially for spouses who need to seek off-base care, including ones like me who have chosen the military insurance option TRICARE Select that allows us to access almost exclusively civilian providers. America’s 2.6 million military dependents now live in a country where an ever-changing patchwork of state laws can make seeking an abortion costly, risky, and stressful in the extreme.

Any military spouse with young children in tow who’s had to relocate somewhere in this nation’s vast network of military bases can tell you that just caring for another person is challenging in itself. Upon learning you’re pregnant, you practically need a Ph.D. to locate a competent obstetrician who also accepts military insurance.

And even when you do, don’t discount the problems to come. After an ultrasound, my first provider in the military’s TRICARE Select healthcare program told me that my child was missing a foot. (In fact, he was just positioned with his back to the camera.) My second provider almost injured that same child by attempting to apply force during labor when his head was stuck against my hip bone.

And once you’ve actually had the child, you’re likely to find yourself bickering for hours with uninformed military insurance providers simply to get coverage for a breast pump so you can feed your baby and go to work. Your military-approved pediatrician may — or may not! — know anything about local TRICARE Select specialists who can help you address common family problems like deployment-related anxiety in kids. And childcare? This country’s childcare facilities are already stuffed to the gills and that’s even more true of military childcare centers. Typically enough, I fear, I was on wait lists for them for years without the faintest success.

Now, add the devastating Dobbs decision to that military reproductive healthcare landscape. Imagine that you want and need an abortion and rely on TRICARE Select, especially if you and your family are stationed in one of the 13 states that have near or total bans on the procedure. If you’re lucky enough to have the funds and social connections, you may be able to call in your babysitter to watch your older children and let your employer know that you’ve got to travel out of state for a medical procedure — as if they wouldn’t know what kind! Then you’ll spend what disposable income you have, if any — poverty and food insecurity being rampant in today’s military — to head out of state alone in hopes of getting access to an abortion.

You may want your partner to come with you. If he’s not deployed and assuming he supports your choice to seek an abortion, the two of you will face a barrier peculiar to military life: any service member who needs medical leave must request it through a commanding officer. To be sure, the Army and Air Force have issued directives to commanders not requiring soldiers to state why they’re requesting it. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a pro-life commanding officer wouldn’t see right through such a sudden request and deny it. This is one of the many reasons you may find yourself alone on your journey.

And oh, the places you’ll go! The nearest abortion clinic likely won’t be off base over on Main Street. The states with the most restrictive laws governing abortion also have among the highest concentrations of military bases. So military dependents and soldiers whose insurance or health conditions require them to go off base will likely have to travel across state lines (possibly many state lines) to get the services they need and, of course, do so on their own dime. And by the way, the anti-abortion states are also among those with the largest number of per capita troop hometowns, meaning that military personnel from them are unlikely to get access to care if they go home to be with family during a time when they undoubtedly need extra support.

In other words, in the military world, Dobbs is a recipe for disaster.

Military Health Insurance 101

For those unfamiliar with the military’s insurance system, let me make a key distinction. Military family members like myself get to choose between two main types of health insurance. The first, called TRICARE Prime, lets you access care in Department of Defense healthcare facilities military bases or posts. This is how active-duty troops typically get care as well. A case manager refers you to various primary and specialty-care providers as needed. With TRICARE Prime, you’d be using federal facilities, so you might, at least theoretically, have an easier time getting access to an abortion when, under a narrow set of conditions, the federal government is willing to cover such a procedure.

In my experience as a therapist listening to military spouses over the years, to seek healthcare at military facilities almost invariably involves conflicts of interest. Doctors there tend to treat you as though your concerns about your health or that of your children are remarkably insignificant compared to the needs of the troops. They tend to speak to spouses like me as if we were the only ones responsible for the health of our families, in the process essentially dumping such issues (and the services that go with them) onto the unpaid shoulders of us and us alone.

To offer an example, a mother I knew in Washington State was increasingly worried about her toddler’s rapidly declining weight, only to have that phenomenon dismissed by physicians at a military hospital as the result of poor parenting. In the end, her suspicion that her child was gravely ill turned out to be all-too-sadly correct. Another military wife I interviewed went to couples’ therapy on a military base to discuss how an upcoming move might impact their marriage. The counselor they saw, she told me, emphasized her spouse’s service to the country, suggesting that she prioritize his career over hers and complete the move.

Perhaps because of such conflicts of interest and the greater choice offered by civilian-based health plans, most military dependents (72% in 2020) choose the second military-authorized insurance program, TRICARE Select. There, you manage your own care by finding civilian doctors willing to accept the Select plan or you simply pay out of pocket for civilian providers, hoping for some reimbursement sooner or later. With this option, if you were faced with an unwanted pregnancy, you would be subject to any abortion restrictions in your surrounding area.

Keep in mind that specialty care like obstetric services is not likely to be easy to find when you’re looking for military providers in your community. A recent Pentagon evaluation of access to healthcare found that 49% of the people with TRICARE Select could not find a specialist in their community who accepted TRICARE patients, nor could 34% travel the necessary distance to reach an appropriate specialist. Meanwhile, 46% couldn’t access a specialist in a timely manner due to long wait lists. Worse yet, overall access to specialist care within 24 to 48 hours for TRICARE Select beneficiaries decreased significantly between 2016 and 2019 and continued to do so through the first half of 2021.

Lack of access is not an accident. Despite the monstrous size of the Pentagon budget in these years, the Department of Defense actually decreased its health expenditures for all medical programs relative to its overall spending between 2017 and 2020.

New Barriers to Treating Patients and Even Saving Lives

In such an environment, it’s hardly surprising that state abortion bans containing exceptions in cases when pregnancy threatens the parent’s life will not easily result in access to the procedure. For example, Tennessee, home to five military bases and with a per capita troop concentration about 10% greater than the national average, provides exceptions to its ban when a parent’s life is at risk. Here’s the catch: doctors need to be prepared to show evidence that the procedure is necessary to prevent the impairment of a parent’s major bodily functions were the pregnancy to continue — enough evidence that a team of prosecutors with its own expert medical witnesses could not convincingly argue otherwise in court. If not, a doctor could face felony charges and up to 15 years in prison.

Under such circumstances, if you were a doctor considering whether to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy for a patient, would you choose the patient or protect your ability to stay with your own family, avoiding the risk of prison? I’m not sure what I would do in such a situation.

There’s reason to believe that even military dependents not seeking abortions could end up struggling to get the pregnancy care they need because of the restrictions doctors will face when it comes to treating complicated pregnancies. For example, the drugs used to induce abortion by medication, misoprostol and mifepristone, are also the most effective ones for treating patients experiencing miscarriages. At the Cleveland Clinic Emergency Department, under Ohio’s new “heartbeat ban,” which makes it a felony to end a pregnancy after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, women could soon enough have to wait 24 hours before receiving treatment for miscarriages, since anything earlier might qualify as an illegal abortion. Thankfully, for the time being two judges have placed a pause on the ban.

Another troubling fallout from new state abortion bans is the way providers and their patients are now being left to handle exceptions when a pregnancy results from rape. Many abortion bans contain sexual assault reporting requirements that make it all but impossible for doctors to avoid serious liability. For example, Utah’s new abortion law permits the procedure in cases of rape, but for a doctor to perform it without risking criminal charges, he or she would need to report the rape to law enforcement. Similarly, in Wyoming (a state with just one abortion clinic that has two providers), the new exception in cases of rape does not specify how a client should prove that rape occurred, again leaving it up to doctors to decide how to treat patients and protect their own lives from devastating consequences.

The assaulting of civilian women by soldiers is not a widely studied subject, but accounts by activists and journalists suggest that it is a significant problem. What’s more, about 80% of rapes committed by soldiers are never officially reported because victims fear retaliation either from their rapist or others in their communities, including their own or their spouse’s commands. If the rapist happens to be their spouse, reporting the rape in order to obtain an abortion could mean that the family loses its sole source of income, since a convicted rapist would assumedly be discharged from duty. In addition, it’s widely known that people who report sexual assaults often face uninformed responses from law enforcement officers who doubt their stories or blame them for being attacked, only increasing the trauma of the situation.

Pro-Lifers, Their Pro-Violence Society, and a New Approach to Reproductive Rights

The pro-life activists and policies behind those cowardly laws belie the fact that much of what far-right Americans and their elected representatives support undermines human life. Look at the violence and poverty some of the same leaders who advocate abortion bans allow in a country whose politicians generally choose to sanction war and investments in weapons development over better social services. Look at the way a significant minority of the citizenry support elected officials who encourage violence against other Americans of differing political beliefs. Look at the way some of us would support the separating of parents and children at the end of life-saving journeys away from drug wars and poverty in their home countries.

Given such political headwinds, it’s worth remembering that a pregnant person is not a passive receptacle but a worker, whether for nine months or the rest of her life. If anyone should have the power to choose death, she should, because there is always a damn good, heart-wrenching reason for doing so.

I don’t know how many people realize this, but if Roe had not become the law of the land in 1973 to protect abortion rights, a different case might have taken its place. In the early 1970s, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, took up the case of an Air Force nurse in Vietnam named Susan Struck who was told (as was the military’s policy at that time) that she would be discharged if she were to carry her pregnancy to term.

Captain Struck was a devout Catholic who wanted to keep her job and have that baby. Ginsburg argued that all government attempts to regulate reproduction constituted sex discrimination, whether it involved restricting pregnancies or abortions. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in 1972, but before that could happen, the military changed its policy, rendering the case moot. Had Ginsburg won that case before the Supreme Court, our legal system might have prioritized parents, not the state, as the ultimate decision-makers — heroes no longer navigating a landscape of red tape and indignities.

Last June, right after Roe was overturned, I contacted a fellow military spouse visibly pregnant with her first child. She told me how complicated her feelings were about showing up in Washington, D.C., to advocate for abortion rights just after the draft decision to overturn Roe was leaked this past May. Would people misunderstand her presence at that demonstration? About a year ago, she’d sought emergency care for a miscarriage, which she might not have been able to get had abortion rights already been taken away. Perhaps, in the absence of adequate care, she might have suffered complications that prevented her from becoming pregnant this time around. She did, however, attend that demonstration, convinced that advocacy was as important to self-care as any other act in this country.

Hers is a true pro-life position. It’s the position of someone who has for years moved from one military base to another. Loving both yourself and your baby is a struggle, not a campaign slogan. As a parent myself, I think that parenting is a journey many more pregnant people would happily embrace if the conditions in this country were significantly more humane. Right now, if you truly care about the lives of us all, it’s up to you (and me) to join women like my friend in her post-Roe advocacy.

Capitalism's military marriage is cash rich and people poor

Andrea Mazzarino, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

I still remember my parents singing the World War I-era song:

“You’re in the Army now,
You’re not behind a plough,
You’ll never get rich,
You son of a bitch,
You’re in the Army now.”

My father volunteered for what was then the Army Air Corps right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As is still true, it wasn’t seen as a particularly lucrative or upwardly mobile way of getting ahead, even if it was a patriotic act at the time. These days, however, there’s an exception to that rule about never getting rich in the Army: become a general and the next thing you know — powie! — you’ve retired onto the board of Raytheon or some other giant weapons maker and upped your cash value immeasurably. In other words, you’ve become part of the remarkably lucrative revolving door between the U.S. military and the industrial part of the military-industrial complex and you’re on easy street.

Still, in the twenty-first century, for most troops sent to fight in pointless, losing wars abroad and possibly struggling afterward with PTSD at home, the military hasn’t exactly been a winner, as TomDispatch regular and co-founder of the invaluable Costs of War Project Andrea Mazzarino suggests today.

Behind the plough? Maybe not in 2022. But “in the Army now”? Well, not that either, which couldn’t be more curious — a subject Mazzarino explores — in a military that Congress never stops over-funding in a mind-boggling fashion. Tom

A Military Rich in Dollars, Poor in People – And the Frayed Social Safety Net That Goes With It

The American military is now having trouble recruiting enough soldiers. According to the New York Times, its ranks are short thousands of entry-level troops and it’s on track to face the worst recruitment crisis since the Vietnam War ended, not long after the draft was eliminated.

Mind you, it’s not that the military doesn’t have the resources for recruitment drives. Nearly every political figure in Washington, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, invariably agrees on endlessly adding to the Pentagon’s already staggering budget. In fact, it’s nearly the only thing they seem capable of agreeing on. After all, Congress has already taken nearly a year to pass a social-spending package roughly half the size of this year’s defense budget, even though that bill would mitigate the costs of health care for so many Americans and invest in clean energy for years to come. (Forget about more money for early childhood education.)

Nor is the Pentagon shy about spending from its bloated wallet to woo new recruits. It’s even cold-calling possible candidates and offering enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000.

As it happens, though, its recruiters keep running into some common problems that either prevent young people from enlisting or from even wanting to do so, including the poor physical or mental health of all too many of them, their mistrust of the government (and its wars), and the recent pandemic-related school closures that made it so much harder for recruiters to build relationships with high-school kids. Many of these recruitment issues are also all-American ones, related to the deteriorating quality of life in this country. From a basic standard of living to shared values or even places where we might spend much time together, we seem to have ever-less connecting us to each other. In a nation where friendships across socioeconomic classes are vital to young people's access to new opportunities, this ought to trouble us.

Playing Alone

When I arrived to pick my kids up from camp recently, an elementary school classmate playing basketball with them was yelling “This is for Ukraine!” as he hurled the ball towards the hoop. It promptly bounced off the backboard, landing on a child’s head just as he was distracted by a passing bird. Another mother and I exchanged playful winces. Then we waited a few more minutes while our kids loped back and forth between the hoops, not really communicating, before taking our charges home.

By the time I had gotten my young kids signed up for a camp so that my spouse, an active-duty military officer, and I could continue our work lives this summer, basketball was all that was left. The sun often baked the courts so that less time was spent outside playing and more time talking, while trying to recover from the heat. Though our children were new to group activities, having largely engaged in distance learning during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, they did find a couple of things to talk about with the other kids that reflected our difficult world. “Mommy,” said my seven-year-old when we got home one day, “a kid said Russia could nuclear bomb us. Could they?” On another occasion, he asked, “Is Ukraine losing?”

They know about such subjects because they sometimes listen in on nighttime discussions my spouse and I have. We might typically consider Russian President Vladimir Putin’s elusive nuclear redline and how close the U.S. will dare creep to it in arming Ukrainian forces. As a therapist who works with active-duty military families, I’m all too aware that kids like ours often worry about violence. Similarly, it’s my experience that military kids tend to wonder whether some kind of repeat of the January 6th attack on our Capitol by Trump’s armed mob could, in the future, involve our military in conflicts at home in which our troops might either kill or be killed by their fellow citizens.

Such violence at home and abroad has become routine for daily life in this country and has been absorbed by troubled young minds in a way that left them attracted to video games involving violence. Those can, under the circumstances, seem like a strangely familiar comfort. It’s a way for them to turn the tables and put themselves in control. I recently had a perceptive neighbor’s kid tell me that playing the military game Call of Duty was a way of making war fun instead of worrying about when World War III might break out.

My family is fortunate because we can afford to be home in our spacious yard long enough to let our kids play outside with one another, delighting in nature. I also watch them play “war” with sticks that they reimagine as guns, but that’s about where their militarism ends.

I know that military spouses are expected to encourage their children to join the armed forces. In fact — don’t be shocked — some 30% of young adults who do join these days have a parent in one of the services. But I guess I’m a bit of an odd duck. Yes, I married into the military out of love for the man, but I’ve led a career distinct from his. I even co-founded the Costs of War Project at Brown University, which played a vital role in critiquing this country’s wars in this century. I also became a therapist with a professional, as well as personal, view of the healthcare deficits, internal violence, and exposure to tough work conditions that military life often brings with it.

To take one example, my spouse and I have been waiting for months to get care for a life-threatening condition that those with comparable insurance coverage in the civilian population would often have access to in weeks or less. A host of related health conditions are no less poorly treated in our all-too-well-funded military these days.

As we plan to wind down our family’s stint in the military, it’s hard to ignore how little of our fat military budget with its ever fancier weaponry goes to help Americans in those very services. A line from the new film Top Gun: Maverickcomes to mind, as the title character’s commanding officer warns him: “The future is coming. And you’re not in it.”

Capitalism’s Military Marriage

Thanks in part to growing wealth inequalities in this country and what often seems to be a perpetual stalemate in Congress regarding social spending, the next generation of would-be fighters turn out to be in surprisingly rough shape. It’s no secret that the U.S. military targets low-income communities in its recruitment drives. It has a long record, for instance, of focusing on high schools that have higher proportions of poor students. Recruiters are also reportedly showing up at strip malls, fast-food joints, and even big box stores — the places, that is, where many poor and working-class Americans labor, eat, or shop.

So, too, has the military and the rest of the national security state piggybacked on an American love of screens. The alliance between Hollywood and military recruiters goes all the way back to World War I. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, the government stepped up its efforts to sell this country’s latest wars to the public, presenting them as a ticket to greater opportunities for those who enlisted and, of course, a patriotic fight against terrorism. The smoke had barely cleared from the site of the Twin Towers when Pentagon officials began meeting with Hollywood directors to imagine future war scenarios in which the U.S. might be involved. Present at those meetings were the directors of movies like Delta Force One, Missing in Action, and Fight Club.

It appears that those efforts had an effect. A 2014 social-science study found, for instance, that when it came not to the military directly but to the U.S. intelligence community, 25% of the viewers of either the combat film Argo or Zero Dark Thirty changed their opinions about its actions in the war on terror. Who knew that, with the help of stars like Jessica Chastain, waterboarding and sleep deprivation could be made to look so sexy?

Some kids were more likely than others to pick up such messages. On average, low-income children have more screen time daily than higher-income ones do. And many teens increased their screen time by hours during the pandemic, particularly in poor families, which grew only poorer compared with wealthy ones in those years. As a result, in a country where basic services like school and healthcare have been harder to access due to Covid-19, the few spaces for social interaction available to many vulnerable Americans have remained saturated with violence.

A Frayed Social Safety Net and the Military

In such communities, it turns out that the military might no longer be able to promise opportunities to that many young people anymore. After all, our government has done an increasingly poor job of providing a basic safety net of food security, a decent education, and reasonable healthcare to our poorest citizens and so seems to have delivered many of them to adulthood profoundly unwell and in no condition to join the military.

Annually, the proportion of young people who are mentally and physically healthy has been shrinking. As a result, roughly three-quarters of those between the ages of 17 and 24 are automatically disqualified from serving in the military for obesity, having a criminal record, drug use, or other similar reasons.

To take one example, obesity among kids has skyrocketed in recent years. During the pandemic, in fact, it began rising a stunning five times faster than in previous years. While obesity may not always disqualify young people from serving in the military, it usually does, as do obesity-related diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. While its underlying causes are complicated, two things are clear: it’s far more prevalent among the lower- and middle-income segments of the population and per capita it’s strongly linked to wealth inequality.

Legislation like the Healthy Food Access for All Americans bill, which has the potential to expand access to less fattening foods through tax credits and grants for grocers and food banks, was introduced in the Senate more than a year ago. You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that it has yet to pass.

The casualties of not caring for our own in this way are high. According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 300,000 deaths each year are due to this country’s obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, deadly as such a phenomenon might prove to be, it doesn’t make for the sort of gripping plots that popular movies need.

Similarly, the military’s recruitment efforts suffer because of poor mental health levels among young people. One in five young women and one in 10 young men experience an episode of major depression before turning 25. Meanwhile, the suicide rate in this country is the highest among wealthy nations and now — thanks, in part, to all the weapons flooding this society — it’s also the second-leading cause of death among 10-to-24-year-olds. Worse yet, poor kids are significantly more likely to die by suicide. Globally, wealth- and race-based inequalities are key determinants of mental health, in part because people who sense that the world they live in is deeply unfair are more likely to develop clinical mental health disorders.

A 2019 United Nations report suggested that, in order to improve mental health, governments ought to focus on investing in social programs to support people who have experienced trauma, abuse, and neglect at home or in their neighborhoods. It seems unlikely, though, that our elected representatives are ready for such things.

This Is for Democracy

The human frailties that hinder enlistment are symptoms of something more sinister than a military lacking bodies. The threat that is guaranteed to further undermine any American readiness to face life as it should be faced in this discordant twenty-first century with its ever more feverish summers is the dismantling of our democratic system.

A recent survey ranked the U.S. only 26th globally when it comes to the quality of its democracy. And that’s sad because functional democratic systems are better at creating the conditions in which people can help each other and be involved in public service of all sorts, yes, including in the military.

Democracies are also better at educating people and generally have more efficient healthcare systems in part due to the lesser likelihood of corruption. Ask anyone who has sought care in an autocracy like Russia and they’ll tell you that even being rich doesn’t guarantee you quality care when bribery and political retaliation infuse social life.

Democracies have less criminal violence and less likelihood of civil war. In a true democracy where the peaceful transition of power is a given, the kinds of emergencies that necessitate a strong military and law enforcement response are much less likely, which is why the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol was so ominous. Worse yet, investing in weapons rather than human livelihood is guaranteed to have costs that are not only far-reaching but hard to predict. One thing is certain, though: war and ever greater preparations for more of it do not lay the groundwork for a good democracy.

All this is to say that our government ought to stop using movie screens and strip malls to sell its bloody practices overseas. It ought to stop investing in the national (in)security state and the corporations that support it in a way that has become unimaginable for the rest of society. It ought to develop a truly functional social-support system at home that would include the Americans now not quite filling the Pentagon’s tired ranks.

The cruelty is the point: Donald Trump's merciless abuse of the country has poisoned it with rage

Andrea Mazzarino, The Right-Wing's Attempt to Militarize American Politics

Once upon a time, if you had told me about it, I would have thought you were joking — and I would have considered it among the worst jokes ever told. On my mind is the ad recently posted on Facebook and Twitter by the Republican Senate campaign of former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens (who resigned less than two years after taking office “amid allegations of sexually assaulting and blackmailing a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair”). In it, you see him standing on the front porch of a house, dressed normally but holding a shotgun. Around him are what look like well-armed Special Operations forces. He identifies himself as a former Navy SEAL and then his companions promptly bust down the front door, as explosions go off. Greitens walks into the house, saying, “Today, we’re going RINO hunting… Join the MAGA crew, get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”

RINO, of course, stands for “Republican in name only,” the insulting term for any Republican — think Adam Kinzinger or Liz Cheney on the House January 6th committee — who doesn’t back to the hilt former President Trump and his mad election claims. And MAGA, in case you’ve forgotten, was The Donald’s 2016 election slogan, Make America Great Again — emphasis on that “again.” At the time, it was an American politician’s unique implicit admission that this country was on the decline, a claim that turned out to ring a distinct bell among so many voters.

And keep in mind that, in the America of 2022, Greitens is anything but alone in such a vision of armed madness personified. Consider it a sign of what TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino, co-founder of the invaluable Costs of War Project, calls our “anger problem.” Let her explain. Tom

America’s Anger Problem: Dealing with Trump's Occupation of All Too Many American Hearts and Minds

Increasingly, it seems, Americans have an anger problem. All too many of us now have the urge to use name-calling, violent social-media posts, threats, baseball bats, and guns to do what we once did with persuasion and voting. For example, during the year after Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, threats of violence or even death against lawmakers of both parties increased more than fourfold. And too often, the call to violence seems to come from the top. Recently, defendants in cases involving extremist violence have claimed that an elected leader or pundit “told” them to do it. In a country where a sitting president would lunge at his own security detail in rage, I guess this isn’t so surprising anymore. Emotion rules the American political scene and so many now tend to shoot from the hip without even knowing why.

Increasing numbers of us, however, respond to the growing extremity of the moment by avoiding the latest headlines and civic engagement, fearful that some trauma will befall us, even by witnessing “the news.” As a psychotherapist who works with veterans and military families, I often speak with folks who have decided to limit their news intake or have stopped following the news altogether. Repeated mass shootings in places ranging from schools to houses of worship combined with the increased visibility and influence of militias at theoretically peaceful demonstrations can be more scarring than the wounds soldiers once sustained in combat zones.

I must admit that my family and I have sometimes practiced a similar form of political avoidance. Recently, I considered taking my two young children to the March for Our Lives gun-control event on the National Mall in Washington. However, my spouse, an active-duty servicemember, urged me to reconsider. If extremists showed up, it might prove difficult for me alone to get our children out of danger. I thought better of it and stayed home.

In a country where a Republican senatorial candidate can run an ad featuring himself with an armed military tactical unit on a residential street, urging Americans to hunt “RINOS” — Republicans in Name Only, or those who criticize Trump — without widespread censure from his party, I believe my family’s fears are well-founded.

The question “What if something happens?” at a protest would never have occurred to either my spouse or me when we first met more than a decade ago.

As a human rights activist who spent years working in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I can say that I’m now more afraid of the hair-trigger responses of right-wing Americans than I was of that Kremlin strongman’s far more carefully targeted violence. I guess the memory of the January 6th Capitol riot, insurrection, coup attempt (or any descriptor of your choice) by a mob of angry Trump supporters still weighs heavily on me.

The Devil’s in the Details

These days, it’s the mundane stuff like Republican Party meetings that contain the details we’d do well to notice. Such proceedings reveal a new level of combativeness as party leaders attempt to shape state and local laws and policies to their ever less democratic desires. For instance, Politico recently obtained recordings of Republican National Committee (RNC) operatives training thousands of volunteer poll watchers to disrupt future elections in Democratic districts of swing states like Michigan by actively challenging the eligibility of voters.

The RNC and its affiliates are linking those poll watchers to hotlines and websites that list party-friendly lawyers, police officers, and district attorneys who might be ready to stage real-time interventions during voting and vote counts. For example, district attorneys recruited by the right-wing organization the Amistad Project will be able to start investigations and issue subpoenas ever more quickly.

Of course, the RNC initiative at the polls is rooted in the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. That committee’s identification with such a lie should instantly debunk any idea that such would-be poll watchers could act fairly. The very roles of poll watcher and poll challenger are supposed to be legally different, with only poll challengers authorized to interfere in the voting process in most states, including Michigan – and then only based on facts.

Yet we’re clearly in a world where Republican leaders have begun to treat our polls as war zones. In the spirit of this moment, an RNC election integrity officer for Michigan, Matthew Seifried, described his future poll volunteers and the public officials supporting them this way: “It’s going to be an army.” He added that his party is “going to have more lawyers than we’ve ever recruited, because let’s be honest, that’s where it’s going to be fought, right?”

Seifried and his Michigan colleagues are anything but alone in their combative rhetoric. Such militarized language and imagery are now all-too-regularly part of our political DNA. Only recently, the Texas Republican Party released a statement refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. All too typically, it also called for that state’s Republicans to “go on offense and win the fight for our country!”

In Texas and beyond, individuals expressing such anger (and sometimes a vision of a future white ethnostate as well) are gaining elected office. Surprising numbers of Republican candidates and public officials who share the view that the 2020 election was stolen also regularly echo the white racist Great Replacement Theory. Meanwhile, across the country, multiple electoral bills are being considered by Republican-controlled state legislatures that would, in the future, enable them to overturn elections.

According to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, 45 state legislatures have considered 230 bills that would criminalize the “threat” of violent leftist or Black protests. And sadly enough, far-right activists are anything but a “fringe minority” movement as they challenge the very idea of peaceful elections and public protests (that aren’t theirs).

To be sure, left-wing violence and combative rhetoric is a thing in this country, albeit a small one. The shooting of a Trump supporter by an Antifa protester in Portland, Oregon, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in August 2020 is the lone example of a lethal attack by that left-wing group or other anti-fascists over the past 25 years. Of 450 murders by political extremists during the last decade, approximately 4% of them were committed by left-wing groups and about 75% by right-wing (white supremacist, anti-government) ones.

In my own extended family of parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles, most of whom support Trump, about half have stopped speaking to me, while some have called me “weak” and a “coward” on social media because of the ideas I discuss in essays like this, where I’ve openly criticized the U.S. government and its military. (Of note, my immediate military family and friends accept our differences far more gracefully.)

Saving Democracy

So, what are we to do? As a start, given where the Trumpist movement and much of the Republican Party seem to be heading, we really need to do something — almost anything. As Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, pointed out, facing the growing crisis on the right, “I have seen no significant increase in support from national party leaders than what we experienced in 2018” when party vigilance was significant enough but not nearly what was needed.

A headline of an article in the satirical online newspaper The Onion caught the mood of the moment among progressives: “Left-Wing Group Too Disorganized for FBI Agents to Infiltrate.” In it, a fictional FBI agent says, “These people don’t ever do anything violent — they don’t ever do anything at all.”

Recently, a local Democratic candidate in Maryland knocked on my door seeking my name and contact information as a possible volunteer for his campaign. It turned out, however, he wasn’t even carrying a pen or paper. That seemed to capture the problem I often note in progressive activism these days. I gave him a couple of our first grader’s overdue library slips to write on and a marker we had lying around. And it’s sadly true that Democrats and progressives more generally lack a concerted response to right-wing anger and violence.

Ironically, one government institution that has at least made a nod toward countering right-wing violence is our military. Since the January 6th attacks, the Department of Defense under Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has acknowledged an increase in domestic extremist violence carried out by active-duty or reserve service members. In response, he initiated a multipronged strategy to screen new recruits, educate military personnel about extremism, and begin investigating extremist activity within the ranks.

While I’ve encountered my share of bigoted remarks in the five duty stations where we’ve served, I’ve also met far more people in those military communities than in civilian ones who are willing to form friendships with those of different ideological leanings. When you depend on one another for companionship and even survival, at home or abroad, you can’t be too choosy about the beliefs of your companions.

As partisan rhetoric heats up in this country, I’d say progressives are guilty of focusing too hard on the most politicized identity issues, however valuable, or even whatever asinine behavior ignites our airwaves at a given moment, be it Trump’s QAnon-style conspiracy-mongering or ex-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s groping. The problem is that, as the Trumpists ramp up their anger, if progressives don’t find a unifying message of community and love, and find it soon, the guns already out there may be put to use in unspeakable ways.

Progressives would do well to step back and think about the genuine big-tent issues like how to show everyone from white suburban women to rural farmers to Black single parents that they have so much to lose in life if we don’t have a government willing to continue regulating health care and doing so in a far better fashion. They would gain so much if, in this all-too-angry country of ours, they could refocus our attention on the importance of childcare for every family who needs it.

Above all, if they could focus in an intense way on the ever more dangerous world we’re living in, that would be a positive. Whether or not we agree on what’s causing global warming, it’s hard not to agree right now that we’re living in an ever hotter, ever more drought-stricken, ever more extreme America. Who can’t agree that it’s already damn hot and the summer’s just beginning?

Something needs to be done — and soon — to mitigate the effects of climate change, but no political campaign has yet emerged that captures the urgency and extremity (and for once I’m not thinking about Donald Trump!) of this moment. Most immediately, those of us who favor democracy and a better planet would do well to support the criminal prosecution of former President Trump because if he becomes this country’s leader again, we could find ourselves in trouble too deep to ever get out of.

And yes, on so many issues, many of us may not agree with Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, the top Republican on the House committee investigating the January 6th attacks, or even former Vice President Mike Pence, who risked his own life and his family’s to certify Joe Biden’s victory. But I agree with Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin that they’re among the Republican heroes of this Trumpian moment (who are few and far between). As the Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes right through the human heart.”

Occupying the hearts of many Americans, however, is Donald Trump, a damaged man who personifies our basest instincts. He needs to be identified forcefully by leaders of all stripes as the threat to democracy he is. (Hurry up, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and bring charges against him!)

Meanwhile, we should all seek opportunities to find common ground among ideological opposites. Invite over a neighbor for dinner, even though you know he listens to conservative radio on his way to work. Help another family with childcare even though the political signs on their lawn aren’t ones you agree with. Just try to avoid the angry, armed ones or have them check their guns at the door. They’re the ones who need to change their tactics. Otherwise, judging by the flight of tens of thousands of highly skilled Russian professionals from Vladimir Putin’s war-mongering regime, I’m sure he has a few job openings for them.

If only their hatred had no place here. It’s time to be less angry and far more focused.

Why endless war is the new terrorism

Andrea Mazzarino, The True Costs of War

For more than 20 years, the civilian casualties of the Global War on Terror have, at best, been nameless, faceless victims to most Americans. They’ve been “30 pine nut farm workers” killed in a 2019 drone strike in Afghanistan or “a woman and child” slain in a similar attack a year earlier in Somalia. Rarely do we ever learn their names or anything about their lives.

Four years ago, Adel Al Manthari, a civil servant with the Yemeni government, was driving near the village of Al Uqla when a U.S. missile ripped through his SUV’s roof. Three fellow occupants were killed instantly. Another died days later at a hospital. Al Manthari suffered severe burns to the left side of his body, a fractured hip, and catastrophic damage to his left hand. Those injuries left him unable to walk or work, in debt, and forced his daughters, aged 8 and 14 at the time of the strike, to drop out of school. While two independentinvestigationsfound that the men in the car were civilians, the Pentagon still maintains they were Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “terrorists.”

Al Manthari and his family struggled along until, earlier this year, his injuries flared up and doctors warned him that he was at imminent risk of developing gangrene, losing his legs, and maybe even his life. He desperately needed surgery he couldn’t afford from hospitals that demand payment up front. While Congress set aside $3 million to provide compensation to victims like him, the Pentagon refused to even acknowledge pleas made on his behalf. It took a GoFundMe campaign to provide Al Manthari with the surgery he needed to, hopefully, save his legs. Even if that procedure proves successful, he has an expensive road — including post-surgical treatment and long-term care — ahead.

Those like him wounded by drone strikes, the witnesses to such attacks, and the family members of the victims are bound together by loss and pain, an international, cross-border brother-and-sisterhood forged by American war and cruelty. Today, TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino, co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, shines a light on the civilian suffering so many of us have long ignored and asks that we don’t look away.

Adel Al Manthari has already spent four years living with severe trauma. It will be with him for the rest of his days. For Americans like me who paid the taxes that bought the drone and missile that wounded him and provided the salary for the pilot who fired it, the very least we can do is bear witness to his lasting injuries and confront the suffering we caused him and, as Mazzarino makes clear, so many others. Nick Turse

War as Terrorism: Conflicts We Can't Win, Suffering We Don't See

Anyone who grew up in my generation of 1980s kids remembers G.I. Joe action figures — those green-uniformed plastic soldiers you could use to stage battles in the sandbox in your backyard or, for that matter, your bedroom. In those days, when imagery of bombed-out homes, bloodied civilians, and police violence wasn’t accessible on TV screens or in video games like Call of Duty, war in children’s play took place only between soldiers. No civilians were caught up in it as “collateral damage.”

We kids had no way of faintly grasping that, in its essence, war actually involves civilian deaths galore. And why should we have? In that era when the only foreign conflict most of us knew about was the 1991 U.S. tromping of Iraq, mainly an air-power war from the American point of view, we certainly didn’t think about what we would now call war crimes. It might have been cause for a therapy referral if one of us had taken a G.I. Joe and pretended to shoot a child, whether armed with a suicide bomb or not.

Having lived through more than a century and a half of relative peace in our homeland while fighting endless conflicts abroad, only in the past 20 years of America’s post-9/11 war on terror, waged by U.S. troops in dozens of countries around the world, have some of our children begun to grapple with what it means to kill civilians.

War in a Trumpian (Dis)information Age

As a Navy spouse of more than 10 years and a therapist who specializes in treating military families and those fleeing foreign wars, I believe that the post-9/11 wars have finally begun to come home in a variety of ways, including how we think about violence. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond have reached U.S. shores in all sorts of strange, if often indirect manners, starting with the surplus small arms and tactical equipment (some of it previously used in distant battle zones) that the Pentagon has passed on to local law enforcement departments nationwide in ever-increasing quantities.

Our wars have also come home through the “anti-terror” grants of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), itself a war-on-terror creation, that have funded local law-enforcement purchases of armored vehicles and other gear. Such weaponizing programs have helped embolden police officers to see themselves as warriors and citizens like George Floyd as enemy combatants, which helps explain the increased use of force during police encounters in these years.

Additionally, in the last decade, this country’s wars have come home in the form of more mass shootings by white supremacists and anti-government types targeting minorities and people of color. Meanwhile, the DHS continued to focus disproportionately on the dangers of Islamist extremists, while overlooking the threat posed by far-right groups, despite their easy access to firearms and the reality that many of their members have military backgrounds.

And think of our wars as coming home in one more way: through the January 6th attack on the Capitol by then-President Donald Trump’s small army of coupsters. After all, about 20% of those facing charges in connection with the Capitol riot had served in the military. Consider it a symbol of our embattled moment that the Republican Party leadership would officially sanction that assault as “legitimate political discourse.”

In this age in which armed conflict seems to be everywhere, take my word for it as a therapist and a mother, kids think about violence in a way they once didn’t. After George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation in 2020, caused by pressure from a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, kids in my community have asked me more than once what it feels like to die when someone steps on your neck. Others have asked me what bullets feel like when they enter your body and whether it’s possible to stop the blood when an armed person walks into your school and starts shooting students down.

I was in a military museum on a base where missiles were displayed and overheard a young child ask his parent whether such a weapon would hurt if it landed on you. Some kids, whose fathers or mothers fought in combat zones and returned with injuries or post-traumatic stress syndrome, can intuit what it means to survive a war after they’ve seen their parents hit the ground upon hearing a child scream on a playground.

The Heart of War’s Toll: Civilian Deaths

One imperative has rested at the core of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I helped found in 2011: to account as accurately as possible for how many people have been killed or injured thanks to the decision of President George W. Bush and crew to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with endless military actions across significant parts of this planet. It’s easy to forget how regularly soldiers kill and maim innocent civilians, sometimes deliberately.

According to our count, by 2022, some 387,000 civilians had been killed thanks to war’s violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Civilian deaths similarly occurred in countries like Somalia where President Biden just redeployed hundreds of American troops in another round of the military offensive against the Islamic terror group al-Shabab (which has grown stronger in these years of all-American violence).People living where the U.S. has fought have died in their homes and neighborhoods from bombings, shellings, missile attacks, and shootings. They’ve died while shopping for groceries or walking or driving to school or work. They’ve stepped on mines or cluster bombs while collecting wood or farming their fields. Various parties in our conflicts have kidnapped or assassinated people as they went about their everyday lives. Girls and women have purposely been raped as an attack on their communities. Human Rights Watch has documented how, in Afghanistan, parties on all sides of the war on terror, including troops and police allied with the United States, have raped, kidnapped, shot, or tortured civilians, including children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross defines war crimes as acts that are disproportionate to the military advantage sought, that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, or that fail to take precautions to minimize injuries and loss of life among civilians. It was symbolically apt that the last U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as U.S. troops were withdrawing from our 20-year-old war there, reportedly killed three adults and seven children. And yet most Americans never seemed to take in how much civilians suffered from our war tactics, widely publicized as “surgical” and “precise” in their targeting of Islamic extremists, even as they now take in how the Russians are slaughtering Ukrainian civilians.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that information about the harm to civilians caused by our air wars in particular hasn’t been available for years to those willing to search it out. To take but one example, check out Zeeshan Usmani, Pakistani scholar-activist and founder of Pakistan Body Count. He conducted detailed investigations of the U.S. drone war in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands since 2004. Usmani’s research shows how, in the absence of strong human intelligence on the ground, American drone operators often determined who was a militant based on imprecise and moving targets. For example, some drone strikes were aimed at cell phones that might have changed hands among several people. Such attacks have killed or injured family members and neighbors of the targeted individual, or even first responders rushing to help after an initial attack had taken place. Usmani found that, between 2004 and 2014, 2,604 civilians had died in those borderlands from U.S. drone strikes — or 72% of the victims during that period.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Timesset of investigations into this country’s air wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria analyzed more than 1,300 military reports of airstrikes between 2014 and 2018. Its journalists found that more than half of those strikes, often based on flawed intelligence that caused the Pentagon to target civilians, resulted in thousands of such deaths.

In January 2017, for example, the Air Force bombed three Iraqi families thought to house ISIS fighters. The households targeted included civilians with no known connections to that terrorist group. An Iraqi man lost his mother-in-law and three of his children, one of whom died in his arms as he tried to get her to the hospital. (A nearby house for Islamic State fighters was untouched.) The Pentagon didn’t even acknowledge those civilian deaths until years after those bombings. Nor did surviving families affected by this and similar “incidents” receive restitution or access to the kinds of medical care that many needed to live with their disabilities.

War as Terrorism

Honoring troops on national holidays like the Memorial Day just past helps obscure a grim reality of our time — that wars are won (or in the case of this country, it seems, never won) only by making it impossible for the communities we oppose to carry on with their daily lives.

I once helped conduct research compiled by 10 major human rights and humanitarian organizations for the publication Education Under Attack. It showed how armed conflict impacted the lives of students and teachers in more than 93 countries. The most recent 2020 report found that government militaries and sectarian armed groups carried out more than 11,000 attacks globally on schools, school buses, students, and teachers between 2015 and 2019. Fighters and troops bombed and occupied schools, and kidnapped students and teachers, sometimes using them for sex or commandeering them into armies and militias. And many of those attacks were all too deliberate. (For reasons I won’t go into here, unlike the Costs of War Project, Education Under Attack did not specifically investigate war deaths at the hands of the U.S. military, though most of the countries profiled in its report were those our military arms, aids through intelligence, trains, or fights alongside.)

An eight-year-old child in Yemen, a country where an estimated 12,000 civilians have died due to airstrikes in a nightmarish ongoing war, survived when her bus was hit. That strike was carried out by Saudi forces to which the U.S. endlessly sells arms. Here’s how she responded to the experience: “My father says he will buy me toys and get me a new school bag. I hate school bags. I don’t want to go anywhere near a bus. I hate school and I can’t sleep. I see my friends in my dreams begging me to rescue them. So from now on, I’m going to stay home.”

This is suffering that numbers can’t capture, but it should remind us that war is a form of terrorism.

Who Is to Blame?

Our ignorance of the costs of war is cultural and systemic. The Costs of War Project was started exactly because, as America’s war on terror spread, a few of us became ever more aware of how hard it was to find honest, complete accounts of war and what it does to people and communities. Our military certainly hasn’t proved eager to document civilian casualties in a reliable or consistent way. In fact, what the Pentagon has known about them was often actively suppressed. The New York Times investigations of U.S. air wars in the Middle East, for example, found that only a handful of those hundreds of cases in which civilians were harmed were ever made public.

In fact, members of the U.S. armed forces have been intimidated so that they wouldn’t come forward to talk about what they had seen or done. For example, in 2010 when a group of our infantrymen shot an Afghan teenager working alone and unarmed on his family farm (in addition to killing two other unarmed Afghan civilians), the military barred those who allegedly committed the murders from giving interviews. When those men were indeed brought up on charges (rare in itself), one of them stated during an interrogation that he had been threatened with death if he refused to participate in a murder. The Army then placed him in solitary confinement, supposedly to ensure his safety. (The father of this last soldier had alerted the Army to these murders soon after they took place, but that service didn’t intervene until months later.)

Although impunity and lack of accountability are rampant in war, war-crimes trials like Nuremberg after World War II or Kyiv’s recent first trial of a captured Russian soldier who had committed acts of horror are all too rare. And even when they do condemn specific war criminals, they seldom condemn war itself.

I only hope, as the children in my family and my community grow up, they come to understand that war crimes aren’t just a byproduct of recklessness but of an all-too-human decision to “solve” problems through armed conflict rather than the range of alternatives available to us. I also hope that ever more of us accept how important it is to teach younger generations about the horrific suffering of civilians who live through war.

Here’s the truth of it: if we lack empathy for those who suffer in our wars, we endanger humanity’s future. The kids who ask pointed and graphic questions or wake up from nightmares spurred by playing Call of Duty are saner than parents who thank soldiers for their service or celebrate Ukrainian holidays. Purchasing Ukrainian flags is no substitute for trying to investigate the nightmare really underway in that conflict. We should be supporting organizations that protect local journalists. Instead of buying guns ourselves or voting for lawmakers bent on sending our troops all over the world to fight “terror” (and, of course, cause terror), we should be sending money to organizations that document war’s casualties or the humanitarian agencies that aid refugees, displaced people, and survivors of violence.

And it’s time, above all, to ask ourselves what stories we’ve been missing in all these years that our military has been fighting abroad. In such a world, the true costs of war should be endlessly on our minds.

Unnecessary wars 'diverting energy and resources to killing rather than to sustainable development'

It seems like the human way. Once again, we’re at war. Earlier in this century, it was the disastrous U.S. global war on (or, more accurately, of) terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa; if you’re Saudi Arabia, it’s still Yemen as attacks there only rev up, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world; and for all of us today, it’s Ukraine. So, give Vladimir Putin credit. With one disastrous invasion of a neighboring country, he’s brought to the fore the possibility of chemical, biological, or — god save us — nuclear war, while creating a staggering refugee crisis that can’t be ignored in Europe the way the previous ones from the global war on terror and the Syrian nightmare largely were. And as TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino reminds us today, in his own way, the Russian president has brought to the fore another crisis as well, another kind of war. I’m thinking, of course, about the carbonized war that humanity continues to wage so ceaselessly against this planet.

In a single terrible act, he’s taken the worst imaginable set of challenges to our very existence on this planet, rolled them up in a ball, and presented them to us, even as he ensures that we continue to blast ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By now, it should be clear enough that, in this century, war has both distracted us from the deeper climate crisis on this planet and helped, as Mazzarino suggests all too vividly today, to compound it, military conflict being a distinctly carbonized event of the first order.

The saddest thing of all is that, until the invasion of Ukraine brought war close to the heart of Europe and NATO, the attention given to the subject in this country has been less than striking in this century. (Note, for instance, how, unlike Ukraine, the ongoing disaster in Yemen is barely covered in our news.) That’s why the organization that Mazzarino co-founded years ago, the Costs of War Project, should be considered a small miracle on this increasingly desperate planet of ours. After all, it focused in a laser-like way on the devastation caused by the American war on terror — more than 900,000 dead, including almost 400,000 civilians; at least 38 million displaced; and $8 trillion squandered or still to be squandered on it by this country, despite our domestic needs. On this environmentally embattled planet of ours, war couldn’t be more of a disaster, as Mazzarino makes all too clear today. Tom

The Costs of (Another) War When We Could Be Fighting Climate ChangeWhat do a six-year-old in the United States and an 85-year-old in Russia have in common besides being on opposite sides of a war?

They’re both feeling the strain of a warming planet.

“Is the earth going to get so hot that we can’t survive?” my young son asked me last summer as we plodded through the woods behind our Maryland home. I wasn’t certain, I replied hesitantly. (Not exactly the most reassuring answer from a mother to a question I ask myself every day.) We had just left my younger child at home, because she started wheezing when she stepped into that already more than 100-degree July morning.

A few summers earlier, during a visit to a town about 4,500 miles away near St. Petersburg, Russia, an elderly friend of mine said to me, “When did it become so hot?” Like my daughter, she was breathing hard and continually glancing back toward her doorway.

Since the 1990s, as an anthropologist of human rights and war, I’ve traveled to Russia. I was then visiting the farm where my friend grew crops to add to the food she purchased with a government stipend she got as a survivor of the Nazis’ siege of her city during World War II. She gestured towards the apples in her orchard and shook her head. Canned each fall, they provided part of her diet, but fewer of them seemed to be growing each year. Would she die of hunger and heat, I wondered, after surviving a war?

Usually, when I brought up my worries about our warming climate, she would just joke. “We could use a little global warming in Russia,” she would say and gesture at the icicle-laced landscape around her wooden home. I often heard some version of that satirical refrain in cities across Russia where, in winter, the air can grow so cold it stings your lungs.

On that last visit of mine, however, it was clear that both the frost and the heat were becoming ever more severe and unpredictable. Among acquaintances and activist colleagues alike, I found a growing awareness of environmental issues like deforestation and water pollution. But they were careful in what they said, since Russian nongovernmental organizations regularly faced threats and even politically motivated charges that could force them to close.

Still, across Russia, I had also seen examples of local authorities listening to such activists and sometimes making small changes like halting logging projects to protect a community’s food supplies or stopping construction that’s polluting local wells. And increasingly, climate change was growing harder even for Russia’s autocratic president, Vladimir Putin, to ignore, with Siberia recently all too literally on fire and its melting permafrost creating a “methane time bomb” of greenhouse gases that will help drive heating globally in a potentially disastrous way.

The Environmental Costs of War

It seems ironic, though not exactly surprising, that, by invading Ukraine last month, yet another leader who claims to care about humanity’s future started a new war (just what we needed!) on this planet. And that decision has left me haunted by images of climate change at war — the exhaust emanating from the back-to-back traffic of those driving away from Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, as millions of civilians continue to flee the devastating bombardments of the Russian military. Or think of the smoke above the military base in western Ukraine that Russia attacked or the footage of the desperate residents of the besieged port city of Mariupol burning firewood to stay warm.

In 2011, I helped found Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which took on the task of tracking first the human and financial costs of the American global war on terror and now of armed conflicts like the one currently unfolding in Ukraine. As that Russian invasion continues so disastrously, what should be obvious to all of us is that any war will only further exacerbate another killer on this planet — and that killer, of course, is climate change.

We started the Costs of War Project exactly because the true casualties and financial costs of armed conflict are notoriously difficult to calculate, given deliberate government obfuscation, not to speak of the chaos of battle. But there’s another cost that’s becoming all too clear, one we need to recognize. Consider the massive amounts of energy expended to fly fighter jets, or fire missiles, or move and supply soldiers, or send a convoy of tanks toward Kyiv. All of that, devastating in itself, now also becomes part of another war entirely, the human war that’s heating this planet and already affecting ever more of its nearly eight billion inhabitants.

Modern warfare, after all, is disturbingly energy-intensive. Consider just a single mission in 2017 when two U.S. B2-B Stealth Bombers flew about 12,000 miles to strike Islamic State targets in Libya. They alone emitted about 1,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. Consider this as well: we know that the U.S. military’s greenhouse gas emissions annually are larger than those of countries like Denmark, Portugal, and Sweden. And forget the Russians for a moment: the U.S. still has military operations in more than 85 countries (and counting!).

Worse yet, fighting a war means diverting energy and resources to killing rather than to sustainable development. Countries involved, even peripherally, in such conflicts are likely to have a far more limited capacity to deal with that other war, the environmental one. Take, for example, Italy and Germany in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Faced with the need to replace natural gas and other fuel delivered from Russia, Italy now has provisional plans to reopen previously shut coal plants; while Germany, faced with an even greater energy crisis without Russian energy supplies, may now delay plans to close its last coal plants until 2030. Both of those are small climate disasters. Obviously, there’s no way of imagining when Ukraine’s cities will be able to deal with climate change again. The now-destroyed Mariupol is a prime example. Once labeled by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s Green Cities Program as one of the most “engaged” cities for its efforts to invest in renewable energy and clean up water pollution, it’s now in a desperate struggle for its own survival.

Similarly, according to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, since the start of the war between Ukraine’s military and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in 2014, the main power plant there has had to use reserves of low-grade, high-polluting fuel. The higher-grade kind once supplied by the central government of Ukraine is no longer available. Other impacts of this war and wars like it include clear-cutting forests to house refugees and powering camps with gas generators. Makeshift, hazardous methods of waste disposal like U.S. burn pits on military bases in Iraq were another example of the environmentally destructive methods so often sanctioned under war conditions.

The U.S. and Its Climate Inaction

Lately, headlines warning of environmental catastrophe have been thoroughly displaced (to the extent they even existed) by headlines about war. We’re all talking about the possibility of a World War III, but there are far too few conversations about the climate impact of the military buildup already affecting Europe so radically.

Consider it typical of our moment (and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres the exception) that President Biden essentially skipped climate change in his State of the Union address, even as he drew bipartisan applause for calling on Americans to unite in support of Ukraine. A wildly scaled-down version of his Build Back Better spending bill that might once have channeled $3.5 trillion towards investment in social services and clean energy didn’t even muster sufficient votes in his own party to make it through the Senate. (Thank you, coal magnate Joe Manchin!)

Yet just two weeks into the war between Russia and Ukraine, a bipartisan Senate voted 68-31 on a $1.5 trillion government spending bill that authorized $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. The package includes sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops to NATO countries, paying for the $350 million in weaponry this country has already sent to the Ukrainian military, our intelligence aid to that country, and money to help enforce sanctions against Russia. And it’s clear that the spigot has just been turned on. The Biden administration added another $800 million in weapons and protective gear for Ukraine’s military by week three of the war. Most recently, it committed $1 billion more to assist European countries in accepting Ukrainian refugees, while vowing to admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to U.S. soil.

The human costs of war, of course, continue to unfold day by day as parts of Ukraine are destroyed and thousands of people on both sides are killed in the fighting, though estimates of the numbers vary widely. That’s part of the problem. Calculating war’s true costs takes many years, while even before the smoke clears another war, an environmental one whose casualties will, in the long run, be staggering, is gearing up, barely noticed by so many.

Environmental Carnage, Then and Now

Climate change is affecting people's health, the natural environment, and our infrastructure everywhere. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, these effects, including intensifying extreme weather, a greater frequency and spread of diseases, severe future water shortages for roughly half the global population annually, and more frequent flooding and droughts, were intensifying even before the latest war began.

Scientists say that, given the world’s current rate of energy consumption and the temperature change that accompanies it, we should by 2100 expect outcomes of this sort: a five-fold increase in extreme weather events like flooding or wildfires; a leap in the percentage of the global population exposed to deadly heat stress from 48% to 76%; more than a billion coastal inhabitants adversely affected by rising seas and other climate risks by mid-century; and 183 million additional malnourished people by then.

Somewhere in this flood of bad climate news, however, there may prove to be a strange silver lining: such a range of potential climate crises that pay no attention to borders should ultimately have the potential to connect us to our geopolitical enemies (though this seems even less likely than it did when the Ukraine war began, now that Putin’s climate envoy has resigned in protest). The development of climate diplomacy has never been more urgent, since without collective action aimed at creating a carbon-neutral world by 2050, we’ll all lose this fight.

In 2010, I took a four-day train trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to the Krasnodar region near Ukraine, for a friend’s wedding. The heat that July was already stifling. Drought had led to wildfires that were sweeping across European Russia, blanketing Moscow in putrid smoke and reportedly resulting in tens of thousands of excess deaths from various causes related to heat, pollution, and the fires themselves.

Like me, other passengers opened the windows of our sleeper cars for a breeze only to find the air so smoky it covered our faces in soot within minutes. At one point, a group of new Russian army recruits, skinny adolescents with acne cratering their faces, boarded my car. They joked about how the air made them feel like they’d been smoking all day, when they were trying not to so that they could carry out whatever mission lay ahead of them in Russia’s conflict-ridden borderlands. (Putin’s crew was then fighting a counterinsurgency war in nearby Chechnya.) The soldiers scraped together their spare change and insisted on preparing meals for us all to share from goods purchased in outdoor markets where the train made stops.

During that trip 12 years ago, it already felt as though something was changing in terms of Russia’s relationship to the world. It was becoming harder for journalists to write critically about the government, particularly its military. Luxury restaurants, car dealerships, and cosmetics stores were popping up, yet ordinary Russians were still struggling to make ends meet.

As that train stopped in small towns, grandmothers and children holding paper trays of homemade chicken cutlets and cucumbers for passengers to buy looked so much more wind-worn and soot-covered than we did. At one stop, a policeman in his fifties, with his wife and two kids, heading home to Chechnya, joined me in my cabin. They’d been on vacation in Crimea, which Ukraine still controlled then. “Did you know that it had once belonged to Russia?” he asked me. It was easier, he added, for his family to go there when he was a kid and Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union, but it was beautiful and I should visit. He and his wife took turns wiping their children’s sooty faces with wet washcloths. “My God, when did this heat get so bad?” he asked not exactly me, but the air, the planet.

And it’s true, I’ve never forgotten the heat that enveloped us all then and my early sense of our shared humanity in the face of a changing climate. Of course, as anyone in the American West who experienced the record fires, heat domes, and megadrought of the last year knows, it’s only been getting worse.

As different as our all-too-fragile democracy still thankfully is from Russia’s autocracy, what we do have in common is short-sightedness. It causes the political class in both countries to focus on military solutions — remember the disastrous Global War on Terror? — to geopolitical problems with deep historical roots. What if we had marshaled the support of intermediaries like Finland or Israel back when Volodymyr Zelensky first reached out to Putin upon taking office as Ukraine’s president in 2019? What if long ago Washington had declared that Ukraine would never be a candidate for membership in NATO? Perhaps today its president wouldn’t be pleading for a NATO no-fly zone that could take the world to the existential edge of nuclear war.

What might still make a difference would be nonviolent, diplomatic steps to protect the victims of this war, paving the way for diplomacy to triumph over militarism and sustainable development over destruction. It makes me sick to my stomach that the window to act is closing for the people I love, near and far. Not just the horrific killing and destruction of the moment, but the long-term suffering likely to come from the environmental damage we’re causing should impel us all to call for a major diplomatic push to end the nightmare in Ukraine now. After all, if the world’s great powers don’t pull together soon on climate action, we’re in trouble deep.

Violent extremism at the DHS: How our 'second Pentagon' failed to avert the most threatening attack on US democracy in centuries

A relative of mine, who works for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) compiling data on foreigners entering the United States, recently posted a curious logo on his Facebook profile: a white Roman numeral three on a black background surrounded by 13 white stars. For those who don’t know what this symbol stands for, it represents the “Three Percenters,” a group that the Anti-Defamation League has identified as an anti-government militia. Its members have a record of violent criminal attacks and strikingly partisan activity, including arrests and guilty pleas in connection with the bombing of a Minnesota mosque in 2017 and appearances as “guards,” carrying assault-style weaponry, at several pro-Trump rallies. Six of its members have been charged with plotting to assault the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

When my husband, a Naval officer of nearly 20 years, saw this symbol on a family member’s Facebook page, he pointed out to me that, despite the Hatch Act, created to ensure nonpartisanship among federal workers, DHS employees are not always held accountable for exercising “free speech” that would violate that law. The Three Percenters claim that they’re protesting government tyranny. The roman numeral itself refers to a debunked claim that only 3% of Americans in the original 13 colonies took up arms against the British in the Revolutionary War.

What does it mean that an employee of the Department of — yes! — Homeland Security can openly and proudly promote a homegrown militia whose members have threatened and attacked American lawmakers and police? Sadly enough, this fits all too well an agency that national security expert Erik Dahl of the Costs of War Project recently described as looking the other way in the face of rising far-right extremism. That includes anti-government, white-supremacist, and anti-Semitic groups, armed and otherwise. Such right-wing militias and extremist outfits, as Dahl makes clear, have killed an increasing number of people in this country since the 9/11 attacks, significantly more than groups inspired by foreign Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda. And yet, in both its public statements and policies, the domestic agency created after the 9/11 attacks to keep this country “secure” has consistently focused on the latter, while underestimating and often ignoring the former.

How U.S. Security Changed after 9/11

The Department of Homeland Security was quite literally a product of 9/11 and so was formed in a political climate of nearly unwavering support for anything Congress or the White House proposed to combat extremist violence. It officially arrived on the scene just weeks after the 9/11 attacks as the Office of Homeland Security” when President George W. Bush appointed former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as its first director. By 2002, now a “department,” it would bring together 22 different government agencies, including the Transportation and Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Its mission, as stated in a proposal by President Bush, was to “protect our homeland… against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons.” In the end, that new department would represent the largest reorganization of government since World War II. Though few here think of it that way, it would prove to be a second Pentagon and, over the years, would be funded in a similarly profligate fashion.

Under such circumstances, you won’t be surprised to learn that its creation also led to a striking amount of redundancy in the national security establishment. In 2004, Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to provide the president with an overview of all intelligence efforts. According to Dahl, the director of national intelligence and the organizations he or she oversees are supposed to stand on the front lines of combating violent attacks on U.S. soil. Law enforcement groups like the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (under the FBI) have, in fact, thwarted the largest number of potential terrorist attacks since 9/11 and, at the moment, seem to be focused on the most significant threats to this country, which are all too internal. For example, a January 2022 joint statement by senior FBI and Justice Department officials warned that “the threat posed by domestic violent extremism and hate crimes is on the rise” and that FBI investigations of suspected domestic violent extremists have more than doubled since the spring of 2020.

In February 2020, even Christopher Wray, President Trump’s FBI director, testified before the House Judiciary Committee that violent extremists targeting people based on their race or ethnicity “were the primary source of ideologically-motivated lethal incidents and violence in 2018 and 2019, and have been considered the most lethal of all domestic extremist movements since 2001.” Of the 16 (unsuccessful) terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2020, 14 were prevented by police or most often FBI agents or those from Joint Terrorism Task Forces. For example, in March 2020, the FBI shot and killed a man in Missouri while attempting to arrest him. He was under investigation for planning to bomb a hospital to protest his city’s Covid-19 lockdown measures.

To be sure, there have also been threats from foreign terrorist organizations and those who act at their behest. Take, for example, the December 6, 2019, attack of a Saudi-born military trainee directed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He managed to kill three sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. According to Dahl, since 9/11, there have been 146 thwarted attacks planned by foreign terrorist groups or those inspired by them here. The vast majority were prevented by law enforcement sting operations or tips from the public.

Meanwhile, DHS is often not focused on threats of violence at all, but on responding to allegations of mistreatment by its own officers toward people in their custody or toward one another. A list of 2019 and 2020 congressional testimony by DHS officials typically included topics like monitoring reports on terrible conditions in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, on the mistreatment and deaths of immigrant children in Customs and Border Patrol custody, or on harassment and bullying within the Coast Guard.

When it came to terrorism, prior to the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, DHS officials were primarily focused on their roles as gatekeepers for those entering or traveling within the U.S. In testimony they gave, there was no mention at all about the rise of domestic extremists and the risk they might pose to American lives and property. Typically, in public remarks at American University in March 2019, then DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stated that Islamist militants pose the primary terrorist threat to the U.S.

On January 5, the day before the Capitol uprising, DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis published a summary account that oh-so-presciently stated: “Nothing significant to report.” Never mind that law enforcement figures had recently been sharing numerous tips on the subject of domestic terrorism, including from soon-to-be protesters exchanging maps of the Capitol’s interior on social media.

Dangers Ahead

While some amount of redundancy is certainly to be expected in government, the level introduced by the Department of Homeland Security should raise issues that go beyond the logistical problem of too many cooks in the kitchen. After all, what does it say about a department created to make this country more secure that just about all those “cooks” focus on only one potential danger, while ignoring the main and all-too-obvious “security” threat to American lives right now?

It’s simple really. Though the word in its name is “homeland,” as in “domestic,” its focus is almost solely on those who come from outside our borders, both jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS that might indeed plot to launch or at least promote terror attacks here and — a particular emphasis of the Trump years — immigrants illegally crossing our border with Mexico.

Even more sinister, when it comes to redundancy, our government now has a second armed entity that can direct its force in an arbitrary way. Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the forever-war and new-Cold-War-focused Pentagon is, of course, staggeringly over-funded, even if its rank and file are — take my word for it as a military spouse — ever more depleted from our endless wars abroad, the pandemic ravaging this country, and relentless training. Meanwhile, since 9/11, we’ve overfunded what quickly became a second Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, capable of focusing on whatever it considers to be most politically expedient.

During the Trump administration, DHS suppressed those populations the president and his advisers deemed the greatest threats to this country, even if that meant young children whose families were seized at the southern border. No less chillingly, during the Trump presidency, DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli acknowledged that the agency had sent its employees to monitor and suppress protests in Portland, Oregon, against the police killing of George Floyd. DHS officers began patrolling that city’s streets in unmarked vehicles and detaining protesters allegedly without even telling them why in order, according to Cuccinelli, to “move them to a safe location for questioning.” However, a November 2020 report issued by the DHS’s own inspector general concluded that the people deployed to Portland had no authority (or training) to act as law enforcement officers and had engaged in unconstitutional, violent attacks on protesters, journalists, members of watchdog groups, and bystanders.

All of this should be a reminder of what life in another Trump (or Trumpist) presidency in these (dis)United States could be like for a DHS that already ignores the real potential terrorists in this country. Count on one thing: any regard for civil liberties and human rights would undoubtedly go out the window.

If such a president were to use the bully pulpit to denigrate anyone who disagreed with him or whose way of life differed from his own, then imagine what a Department of Homeland Security that, even now, ignores the deepest security threat to this country, might be like. In a New Yorkerarticle in 2020, journalist Masha Gessen pointed out that “homeland” was, from the start, “an anxious, combative word: it denotes a place under assault, in need of aggressive defense from shape-shifting dangers.” She argued that its sudden use by our government, post-9/11, suggested a move from defending ourselves against other militaries towards defending ourselves against individuals who might, in the end, threaten a leader’s power. And this, Gessen pointed out, is the premise on which secret police forces are built.

Before entering the mental-health field, I spent years living and working as an activist in Russia. Its Federal Security Service, or FSB, has used intimidation, detention without charge, and extra-judicial execution to show everyone from opposition figures to feminist rock bands the might of President Vladimir Putin. Its focus has been on keeping people from challenging the status quo of a patriarchal nation expected to show unquestioning loyalty to its strongman ruler.

The terror that many Russians feel about their internal police is, of course, rooted in history. The FSB’s predecessor, the Soviet Union’s notorious KGB, wielded similar violence against many whose free expression was deemed to threaten state power. Most friends and acquaintances of mine in Russia have relatives in older generations who were taken away, never to be seen again, for reasons as subjective as publishing a poem or talking to the wrong neighbor on the street.

As I reflect on how far state oppression can go, I only hope that the U.S. will never again see a leader who allows federal power to be used in such an arbitrary way. Yet, thanks in part to the Department of Homeland Security, I’m all too aware that this country is remarkably well set up for just such a figure.

National (In)Security?

It should be baffling to us all that the organization tasked with protecting our homeland was unable to avert the most threatening violent attack on our democratically elected government since Confederate troops advanced on Washington, late in the Civil War.

A friend and Park Police officer who was stationed at the Capitol on January 6th recalls being more scared than she had ever been in her 20 years of service. She and some 150 colleagues who specialize in crowd control around national infrastructure lacked a memorandum of understanding with the Capitol Police that would have allowed them to help defend Congress. She said that, as far as she could see, January 6th was a failure of leadership more than anything else because capable people had not been given permission to act.

If we and our lawmakers don’t hold the Department of Homeland Security — a creation of this country’s disastrous war on terror — to account for its actions (or lack of them) and question not just what it does but why it even exists, then I fear for our future. After all, what 9/11 really left us with was not just those destroyed towers in New York and a damaged Pentagon, but our own second Pentagon, a “defense” department capable of being aimed in the worst way possible at the American people. The problem is that the enemy of the future for DHS may very well be the American people — and not just the terrorists among us either.

And, in truth, none of us should be surprised. After all, the original proposal for that agency called for the targeting of invisible enemies capable of striking the “homeland.” In other words, the enemy could be anyone. It could, in fact, be the Department of Homeland Security. And that should concern us all.

The Pentagon budget exposes Manchin and Sinema's hypocrisy

As a Navy spouse of 10 years and counting, my life offers an up-close view of our country's priorities when it comes to infrastructure and government spending.

Recently, my husband, a naval officer currently serving with the Department of Energy, spent a week with colleagues touring a former nuclear testing site about 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1957, the U.S. conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests in those 680 square miles of desert and only stopped when scientists began urging that the tests be halted because of soaring cancer rates among the downwind residents of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

My spouse's trip was a kind of ritual Department of Energy personnel undertake to learn about nuclear weapons as they maintain our country's vast and still wildly expanding arsenal.

Meanwhile, unable to afford to take time off from my job as a therapist, I found myself once again working double shifts. After all, I was also watching our two young children (ages four and six), shuttling them to appointments and activities along the narrow roads of our rural town, handling a sudden school shutdown due to flooded roads that halted school buses, while working. And mine is really the usual story for so many of the partners of this country's 1.3 million active-duty military personnel when they are sent elsewhere on assignment.

My six-year-old typically woke me at night to ask whether his dad was shooting at people and started throwing the sort of tantrums that had become uncharacteristic since his father stopped serving months-long deployments on submarines. Once recently, he even conned his already overworked bus driver — our county, one of the richest in the country, has a deficit of such drivers, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic — into taking him home rather than to his after-school program. He let himself into our house and appeared at my office door to "make sure you haven't left, too."

It was hard to miss the irony of being overstretched at home by poor infrastructure and gaps in care (even as I went into debt to pay for the most affordable childcare center in the area) at a moment when the government was perfectly happy to fund my spouse to tour a mothballed nuclear testing site. His trip came on the heels of two 14-hour days he spent at the Capitol displaying a collection of model warheads to members of Congress. They then chatted with one another and him in a rare bipartisan moment that we as a couple witnessed.

At that time, members of the House of Representatives had yet to even vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to fund our country's roads, bridges, buses, and electric grid, which to our relief would pass two weeks later. And when it comes to President Biden's shrinking Build Back Better bill, who knows if it will ever be passed?

It's about time! was all I could think when I heard that the first bill was about to be signed into law. I couldn't help imagining how useful so much of what's packed into both of them would be for people like me — not least of all things in the Build Back Better plan like universal pre-K and some paid family leave, four weeks of which I could have used over the past two months of my husband's military travels and my own late nights. And mind you, as someone with a great job and a relatively high family income, I have it much better than the vast majority of Americans, military or not.

20 Years of War

Meanwhile, as I'm sure you know, Congress has been blindly supporting wars and counterterror operations in dozens of countries globally from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and beyond for two decades now. Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and other congressional representatives in the House and Senate have been quibbling for months over whether to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices or pay for dental and vision benefits on the premise that such expenditures might add to our high national debt.

Yet they've voted repeatedly and without quibble or question to fund a Pentagon that has run a failing $8 trillion (and counting!) war on terror financed on just such debt. In fact, both of our recent infrastructure bills could have been paid for at their original higher funding levels with money to spare, had we not decided to go to war after 9/11 in a big-time fashion or even stopped the fighting after killing Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Finally — can you hear my sigh of relief? — President Biden actually cited the more than $2 trillion cost of the Afghan War in his defense of his administration's decision to pull out of that country. That the cost of such a failed war wasn't common knowledge, even then, should be (but isn't) notable.

How could that be when "a trillion dollars" for infrastructure work here at home is a commonplace figure in debates everywhere, regardless of which side you're on? How can the cost of that bill be labeled as the "communist takeover of America" by Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and resisted tooth and nail by so many others like her when they say nothing about the costs of war?

The good news is that, whether you know those war figures or not, the difficult legwork of tracking down where those trillions of federal dollars have gone has actually been done and is available to anyone. In 2010, I was one of about two-dozen people — including social scientists, an Iraqi medical doctor, a journalist, and two human-rights lawyers — who started the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. We were nearly a decade into the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, initiated in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks by President George W. Bush and being carried on at the time by President Barack Obama. Anthropologist Catherine Lutz, political scientist Neta Crawford, and I were then concerned that Americans weren't paying enough attention to what those wars were costing in lives and dollars.

Nor was the government helping. Costs of War economist Winslow Wheeler found that the Pentagon frequently failed to keep track of the money it spent, while its officials often entered made-up numbers in logs supposedly tracking supplies (like weaponry) to make budgets balance more comfortably and so influence future congressional funding. As we were soon to discover, the Department of Defense routinely failed even to keep track of whom it owed money to, no less how much.

What's more, congressional funding for additional expenses unrelated to overseas wars, while stuffed into the Pentagon base budget, was regularly justified by this thing called "terrorism" that was everywhere (and nowhere) at once. Those terror wars of ours increased that base budget by at least $884 billion from 2001 to 2022.

We relied on all kinds of sources from government watchdog agencies like the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to local doctors and journalists in the distant lands our country was disrupting to fill in our gaps in knowledge until we gained a clearer picture of just how much those wars of ours had cost.

Some 10 years after the Costs of War Project's initial launch, the project, now led by Stephanie Savell, Catherine Lutz, and Neta Crawford, is 50-people strong and has tracked so many things, including the more than 929,000 people killed in those wars of ours, almost half of them civilians, and the $8 trillion spent on them. That figure, however, doesn't even include future interest payments on war borrowing, which we have estimated may total $6.5 trillion by the 2050s.

Yep, you got it! The interest alone that this country will fork over for those wars would have undoubtedly been more than enough to fund both infrastructure bills in their original forms.

Spent on America?

But it's all for a good purpose, right? After all, in a Congress in which the two parties are now eternally at each other's throats, the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act managed to pass in January by an overwhelming margin of 377-48 in the House and 86-8 in the Senate. That act authorized $731.6 billion, including $635.5 billion for the Department of Defense, $26.6 billion for Department of Energy national security programs (which presumably includes pilgrimages to ancient nuclear testing sites), $69 billion for overseas military operations, and $494 million for other "defense-related" activities. Included in that bill, to be sure, were some modest increases in military health care for families, including a few hours of "respite care" for military family members supporting someone with a developmental disability. But essentially none of that money went to improving the American quality of life. Want to guess if Senators Manchin and Sinema supported it? No need to even ask, is there?

Under the circumstances, I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that the Pentagon's total assets, as measured by its ships, aircraft, buildings, vehicles, computers, and weapons, have risen steadily since 2000 even as government investment in non-military infrastructure continued at a paltry rate — unchanged since the 1970s. Of course, those hundreds of billions of dollars "invested" in military infrastructure during just the first decade of the war on terror would have led to strikingly greater capital improvements if invested in education, health care, and green energy at home.

If you take a closer look at how our money has been spent on infrastructure in these years, everything just gets uglier and uglier. For example, more than half of the money the U.S. government spent on what were called "reconstruction efforts" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan actually went to funding and arming local security forces. In Afghanistan, we recently saw just how well that turned out.

Beyond that, examples abound of so-called development money poorly spent or not accounted for. As a 2011 SIGAR report made all too clear, for example, one federally funded project in Afghanistan, the Commander's Emergency Response Program, was tasked with building roads in that country. The investigation found that of 11 road projects surveyed, nine lacked plans or resources for future maintenance.

Similarly, according to a paper by Costs of War Project co-director Lutz and grassroots organizer Sujaya Desai, a 2012 SIGAR report revealed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not account for 95% of the materials it purchased that year to construct roads and other infrastructure in Iraq, including, for example, $1.3 billion in fuel that it had theoretically paid for. In 2011, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated that $31 billion to $60 billion were squandered in both war zones in incidents of waste, fraud, and abuse. Even the lower estimate would have covered about a year of paid family leave for working Americans.

Nor has all of this war spending made us safer. Stephanie Savell, for instance, did a case study of the U.S. war on terror security assistance to the African country of Burkina Faso. What she showed was how our ongoing security operations in the name of counterterrorism actually tend to do just the opposite of keeping us or anyone else safe. According to Savell, security assistance to foreign governments in just 36 of the 79 countries where we've recently conducted such operations cost the U.S. a total of $125 billion between 2002 and 2016. Yet the effect of such assistance, as she made all-too-vividly clear in one country, has been to bolster an authoritarian government, repress minority groups through violence, and facilitate war profiteering, while failing to provide needed humanitarian aid of any sort in the contested areas.

$8 Trillion (And Counting)

Our problem in this country, folks, isn't lack of funds, no matter what the Republicans, Manchin, and Sinema may claim. Our problem is that we're not paying attention to where our money actually goes or truly thinking about how it might be better spent.

As Pentagon experts William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger explained recently, even an exceedingly modest reduction in Pentagon spending of $1 trillion, or 15% of total current expenditures over the next decade (as recommended recently by the Congressional Budget Office), would still leave the Pentagon with a staggering $6.3 trillion to spend in those same years. Unfortunately, everything's moving in the other direction. As those two authors remind us, only recently the Biden administration requested $750 billion for the next Pentagon budget and for nuclear weapons development at the Department of Energy. The Democratic-controlled House promptly responded (with, of course, strong support from the Republicans there) by voting to add $25 billion to that already stunning sum, even as the arguments only continued about how little to spend on us here at home.

If there's one thing that's reminiscent of overseas adversaries like Russia from which we theoretically seek to defend ourselves, it's a tendency to spend increasing amounts of money on military assets at the expense of the general population, while demonizing those who would dare challenge that way of cutting up the national pie.

Every American should check out the Costs of War Project website to see how much money we're still spending on military operations and decide for themselves whether it might not be better spent domestically. And if you think it might, Hartung and Smithberger's article on cutting fat from the Pentagon budget is an excellent place to start. Send it to your elected representatives and ask them why we've spent $8 trillion on these endlessly failing wars of ours when we could have been building a social safety net here at home instead.

In the meantime, let me tiptoe into my son's bedroom and make sure he's truly sound asleep and then catch a few winks myself.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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.

The rise of the American surveillance state

I know what it means to be watched all too carefully, a phenomenon that's only grown worse in the war-on-terror years. I'm a strange combination, I suspect, being both a military spouse and an anti-war-on-terror activist. As I've discovered, the two sit uncomfortably in what still passes for one life. In this country in these years, having eyes on you has, sadly enough, become a common and widespread phenomenon. When it's the government doing it, it's called "surveillance." When it's your peers or those above you in the world of the military spouse, there's no word for it at all.

Now, be patient with me while I start my little exploration of such an American state at the most personal level before moving on to the way in which we now live in ever more of a — yes — surveillance state.

A Navy Wife's Perspective on Military Life, Post-9/11

"The military sounds like the mafia. Your husband's rank determines how powerful you are." That was a good friend's response, a decade or so ago, when a more experienced Navy wife shamed me for revealing via text message that my husband's nuclear submarine would soon return to port. Her spouse had been assigned to the same boat for a year longer than mine and she headed up the associated Family Readiness Group, or FRG.

Such FRGs, led by officers' wives, are all-volunteer outfits that are supposed to support the families of the troops assigned to any boat. In a moment of thoughtless excitement, I had indeed texted another spouse, offering a hand in celebrating our husbands' imminent return, the sort of party that, as the same woman had told me, "All wives help with to thank our guys for what they do for us. It's key to command morale."

She had described the signs other wives had been making under the direction of both the captain's wife's and hers, as well as the phone chain they had set up to let us know the moment the boat would arrive so that we could rush to the base to greet it. In response to my message, she'd replied in visibly angry form (that is, in all capital letters), "NEVER, EVER INDICATE IN ANY WAY OVER TEXT THAT THE BOAT WILL BE RETURNING SOON. YOU ARE ENDANGERING THEIR LIVES." She added that I would be excluded from all boat activities if I ever again so much as hinted that such a return was imminent.

Alone in my apartment in a sparsely populated town near the local military base, my heart raced with the threat of further isolation. What would happen because of what I'd done?

And yes, I'd blundered, but not, as became apparent to me, in any way that truly mattered or actually endangered anything or anyone at all — nothing, in other words, that couldn't have been dealt with in a kinder, less Orwellian fashion, given that this was a supposedly volunteer group.

It was my first little introduction to being watched and the pressure that goes with such surveillance in the world of the military spouse. Years later, when my husband was assigned to another submarine, an officer's wife at the same naval base had burst into tears telling me about the surprise visit she'd just been paid by three women married to officers of higher rank on other boats stationed at that base.

Sitting across from her in their designer dresses, they insisted she wasn't doing enough to raise raffle money to pay for a military child's future education. Am I really responsible for sending another kid to college? That was her desperate question to me. Unable to keep a job, given her husband's multiple reassignments, she had struggled simply to save enough for the education of her own children. And mind you, she was already providing weekly free childcare to fellow spouses unable to locate affordable services in that town, while counseling some wives who had become suicidal during their husbands' long deployments.

I could, of course, multiply such examples, but you get the idea. In the war-on-terror-era military, eyes are always on you.

Married to the Military (or the Terror Within)

On paper, the American military strives to "recognize the support and sacrifice" of the 2.6 million spouses and children of active-duty troops. And there are indeed gestures in the right direction — from partnerships with employers who have committed to hiring military spouses to short-term-crisis mental-health support.

Talk to just about any spouse and she'll — and yes, we are talking about women here — tell you that the most effective and reliable support comes from other wives who volunteer their unpaid time to run FRGs and similar activities. Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 era, as anthropologists Jean Scandlyn and Sarah Hautzinger have pointed out, ever more aspects of military family life, once thought of as "volunteer," have become "voluntold" — as in, we're watching you and you're expected to do it. Otherwise, your husband's career won't advance.

Worse yet, all such voluntold activities tend to sweep you into a world of informal surveillance geared not just toward making sure you don't spill the beans on classified troop movements, but averting possible PR crises over looming military realities like family violence and the rising suicide rates among the troops. After the birth of our second child, a woman with zero mental-health training typically called me weekly to "check in." She wanted to make sure, she insisted, that I was caring properly for our baby. If I refused to talk with her — and I found her oppressive indeed — she threatened to call in child protective services. I was in graduate school studying to become a clinical social worker, I told her, and knew perfectly well that she had no basis to report me. I wondered, though, what spouses with fewer resources went through when they received such "surveillance" calls.

Believe me, national security has gained a new meaning in such an atmosphere. Once, for instance, my husband was confronted by another officer because I'd written a post on an anonymous blog about military life I was then authoring — my identity had just been discovered — describing the unhealthy diet that officers were forced to eat on his submarine. Even this was considered a threat to national security, because I was "undermining morale."

Sometimes, it seemed as if those tasked with waging this country's never-ending war on terror had a deep urge to create yet more problems of every sort, while validating the assumption that we all lived in a world of ever-present danger. Just a week after my husband and I moved to a new duty station with our toddler, for instance, he approached me one evening in our still empty house after a 16-hour shift on base. His face was pale when, with fists clenched, he said, "I have a favor I need to ask of you." His new commanding officer wanted me to come by one night so that he and a group of senior officers and their wives could discuss what was "appropriate behavior" in spouses' groups. Apparently, the spouse of an officer leaving the command had not gotten along with the other officers' wives. Because my husband's rank was the same as the departing officer's, I was to be preemptively warned based on nothing more than the rank of the man I'd chosen to marry.

"Yeah, I'll talk to him," I said. "But I have some things I'd like him to consider, too." If I was going to attend such a meeting, I had my own set of topics to discuss — among them, that families shouldn't be expected to pay $50 a ticket to attend the annual ball and that new mothers shouldn't be called weekly by the command ombudsman and asked about their parenting skills.

The next day, my husband told me his commanding officer felt "like you're forcing his hand." His nerves frayed, he took a breath and then whispered (so our toddler couldn't hear him), "Look, he said if you don't just come to his house, anything could happen to our family. Anything."

I never did visit that captain's house, nor participate much during the two years we were at that base. And yet the captain's ambiguous threat to our family hung over our home the whole time. There were moments at night when I jumped at every noise outside our windows. At a moment when I was alone with our toddler and once again very pregnant, our house was indeed broken into and I even briefly wondered whether the captain was to blame (before quickly dismissing the thought). I started to feel as though the terror of that period was coming from within the military itself.

No one attacked my family, but it would prove to be a difficult two years. For example, one evening shortly after my husband returned from a grueling deployment in which his sub had collided with a civilian ship, he shared a text from the captain voicing disappointment that spouses like me had not chosen to go to more events, including the Navy ball. Thanks to families like ours, the captain insisted, command morale was paying a price. We were, he implied, being watched and not only was my husband's career at risk, but the recent life-threatening crash at sea from which we were all reeling had somehow been caused, at least in part, by lack of spousal participation back here at home. Despite my best feminist efforts to dismiss such a ludicrous suggestion, I felt watched, crushed by guilt, powerless to reverse what seemed like an endless string of negative events affecting our family. Most of all, I felt increasingly lonely.

And as it turns out, I was anything but alone in that sense of constant surveillance and my reaction to it. According to a 2021 independent survey conducted by fellow military spouse Jennifer Barnhill, more than a third of spouses felt direct pressure from commanders or indirect pressure of other sorts to participate in spousal group activities. And yet, a majority of spouses surveyed sensed that they had little influence over the way the military actually ran. In other words, spousal groups often provided not much more than a veneer of legitimacy for the claims of military leaders that they cared about families.

My Personal War on Terror

Terrorism can be anywhere. That's the message repeatedly conveyed to me by my military community since the war on terror began. In these years, a chilling, if unspoken, corollary to that thought developed: anyone whose lifestyle and viewpoint the military did not agree with or approve of was a danger.

Over the last decade, I've felt as if the tiny community of discontented, activist-minded spouses I've associated with and the mob-like structures of the military conformists who eternally try to rope us in or dismiss us seemed to recreate post-9/11 America in a microcosm. A deep and ever-present fear of whistleblowers and dissent was increasingly pervasive in our world. It was typical of those years that, in 2010, Army Private Chelsea Manning was convicted — by a military judge — of 17 charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, and sent to jail after she provided more than 700,000 classified military documents to Wikileaks. Among other things, they detailed evidence of American military leaders failing to investigate hundreds of cases of rape, torture, and abuse by the Iraqi police; a 2007 U.S. Army helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed two Reuters journalists; and secret counterterrorism operations in Yemen that, in my opinion, Americans should have been informed about.

In 2013, I watched in similar horror the attack on whistleblower Edward Snowden for leaking classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) on its staggering global and national surveillance activities. He also revealed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's order for Verizon and other major telephone companies to provide the NSA with the phone records of ordinary Americans on a daily basis.

This was not the country I had ever imagined myself living in or my husband defending. Snowden found himself stranded in Russia in the face of a possible lifetime behind bars here for revealing the true nature of the national security state's version of post-9/11 America.

I had, by then, helped co-found Brown University's Costs of War Project to offer a more accurate picture than most Americans then had of the nature and price (financial and human) of this country's never-ending war on terror. My colleagues and I were working, among other things, to raise awareness here that we were increasingly subject to an all-encompassing kind of surveillance that would undoubtedly have impressed some of our favorite foreign authoritarian leaders — maybe even Vladimir Putin himself.

After all, the dust had barely settled around the collapsed Twin Towers in New York City when the administration of President George W. Bush began conducting electronic surveillance of a growing range of Americans without a warrant in sight. In 2008, Congress would allow that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve such programs without any prior indication of individual wrongdoing. As of this year, according to the Costs of War Project, the U.S. government has more Americans under electronic surveillance through wiretapping and the bulk collection of communications without probable cause than it does through wiretaps based on likely involvement in criminal activity (the standard for such surveillance prior to 9/11).

In the war-on-terror years, the FBI's powers to secretly compel the release of information on individual bank and Internet use have dramatically expanded (no individualized suspicion necessary). The FBI also sweeps information from tens of thousands of people — citizens and non-citizens alike — into its databases, which then becomes available to tens of thousands of government employees, potentially marking a person for life as a suspected terrorist.

Similar developments are taking place at the state and local levels. Some police departments, for instance, have adopted tactics resembling those of a police state. Since 9/11, the New York City Police Department, the largest in the country, has typically used facial-recognition and license-plate-reader cameras to monitor heavily trafficked areas on a constant basis, in the process effectively gaining information on Americans protesting in public.

For instance, the New York Times reports that, based on a recent Amnesty International analysis, a person participating in a protest in part of downtown Manhattan "would be captured on the Police Department's array of Argus video cameras for about 80% of that march." The Department also uses software to sweep social media sites and store information on individuals without a warrant. In Minneapolis, according to former FBI agent Terry Albury, now serving prison time for leaking classified information, FBI agents mobilized local citizens of Somali background, along with local law enforcement, into "Shared Responsibility Committees." These were ostensibly to help ensure neighborhood security by identifying young people at risk of radicalizing, while actually encouraging committee members to report on one another.

Of course, American Muslims have been disproportionately affected by the government's dramatic increase in surveillance. According to the New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials estimated that "anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 Al-Qaeda terrorists" in the United States had come under FBI surveillance in the year after the September 11th attacks, based overwhelmingly on their ethnic and religious identities. Such individual investigations almost invariably led nowhere.

The unease I felt that first time I got a critical text from a higher-ranking military wife wasn't faintly comparable to what a Muslim-American husband might have felt when the FBI knocked on his door and took him away for interrogation. Still, believe me, it does feel awful to be alienated from the community you've spent much of your life trying to contribute to — both as a wife, a human-rights activist, and a therapist.

At one of the first "homecomings" for a boat on which my husband was stationed, a young military spouse approached me. She'd been placed on suicide watch by an officer's wife as that sub's deployment began. By then, word had gotten out that I was the author of an anonymous blog on military life. (Not long after, under enormous social pressure, I shut it down.) Staring at the approaching boat, she said in a hushed voice, "My dad sent me your blog. He thought I'd feel less alone. Someone told me the writer was you." Then she promptly moved away from me.

While tears came to my eyes, I also felt less alone, thanks to her small revelation. If people like us can manage, however modestly, to express our solidarity in a place where this has become so much more difficult and dangerous over these years of never-ending war, then others can perhaps begin to think about calling out leaders of all sorts who abuse their power in the name of fighting terror.

Given that being marked as dangerous can forever alter your life in a world in which surveillance is the order of the day, shouldn't we all be holding to task leaders who abuse their power, including the leaders of the U.S. military?

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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.

The sole opponent of the Afghanistan War in Congress foresaw what it would become

Sometimes, as I consider America's never-ending wars of this century, I can't help thinking of those lyrics from the Edwin Starr song, "(War, huh) Yeah! (What is it good for?) Absolutely nothing!" I mean, remind me, what good have those disastrous, failed, still largely ongoing conflicts done for this country? Or for you? Or for me?

For years and years, what came to be known as America's "war on terror" (and later just its "forever wars") enjoyed remarkable bipartisan support in Congress, not to say the country at large. Over nearly two decades, four presidents from both parties haven't hesitated to exercise their power to involve our military in all sorts of ways in at least 85 countries around the world in the name of defeating "terrorism" or "violent extremism." Such interventions have included air strikes against armed groups in seven countries, direct combat against such groups in 12 countries, military exercises in 41 countries, and training or assistance to local military, police, or border patrol units in 79 countries. And that's not even to mention the staggering number of U.S. military bases around the world where counterterrorism operations can be conducted, the massive arms sales to foreign governments, or all the additional deployments of this country's Special Operations forces.

Providing the thinnest of legal foundations for all of this have been two ancient acts of Congress. The first was the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that allowed the president to act against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." It led, of course, to the disastrous war in Afghanistan. It was passed in the week after those attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. That bill's lone opponent in the House, Representative Barbara Lee (D–CA), faced death threats from the public for her vote, though she stood by it, fearing all too correctly that such a law would sanction endless wars abroad (as, of course, it did).

The second AUMF passed on October 15, 2002, by a 77-23 vote in the Senate. Under the false rationale that Saddam Hussein's Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction (it didn't), that AUMF gave President George W. Bush and his crew a green light to invade Iraq and topple its regime. Last month, the House finally voted 268-161 (including 49 Republican yes votes) to repeal the second of those authorizations.

Thinking back to when America's "forever wars" first began, it's hard to imagine how we could still be fighting in Iraq and Syria under the same loose justification of a war on terror almost two decades later or that the 2001 AUMF, untouched by Congress, still stands, providing the fourth president since the war on terror began with an excuse for actions of all sorts.

I remember watching in March 2003 from my home in northern California as news stations broadcast bombs going off over Baghdad. I'd previously attended protests around San Francisco, shouting my lungs out about the potentially disastrous consequences of invading a country based on what, even then, seemed like an obvious lie. Meanwhile, little did I know that the Afghan War authorization I had indeed supported, as a way to liberate the women of that country and create a democracy from an abusive state, would still be disastrously ongoing nearly 20 years later.

Nor did I imagine that, in 2011, having grasped my mistake when it came to the Afghan War, I would co-found Brown University's Costs of War Project; nor that, about a decade into that war, I would be treating war-traumatized veterans and their families as a psychotherapist, even as I became the spouse of a Navy submariner. I would spend the second decade of the war on terror shepherding my husband and our two young children through four military moves and countless deployments, our lives breathless and harried by the outlandish pace of the disastrous forever (and increasingly wherever) wars that had come to define America's global presence in the twenty-first century.

Amid all the talk about Joe Biden's Afghan withdrawal decision which came "from the gut," according to an official close to the president, it's easy to forget that this country continues to fight some of those very same wars.

What Keeps Us Safe?

Take, for example, late last month when President Biden ordered "defensive" airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against reportedly Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups. Those groups were thought to be responsible for a series of at least five drone attacks on weapons storage and operational bases used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. The June American air strikes supposedly killed four militia members, though there have been reports that one hit a housing complex, killing a child and wounding three other civilians (something that has yet to be verified). An unnamed "senior administration official" explained: "We have a responsibility to demonstrate that attacking Americans carries consequences, and that is true whether or not those attacks inflict casualties." He did not, however, explain what those American troops were doing in the first place at bases in Iraq and Syria.

Note that such an act was taken on presidential authority alone, with Congress thoroughly sidelined as it has been since it passed those AUMFs so long ago. To be sure, some Americans still argue that such preemptive attacks — and really, any military buildups whatsoever — are precisely what keep Americans safe.

My husband, a Navy officer, has served on three nuclear and ballistic submarines and one battleship. He's also built a nearly 20-year career on the philosophy that the best instrument of peace, should either of the other two great powers on this planet step out of line, is the concept of mutually-assured destruction — the possibility, that is, that a president would order not airstrikes in Syria, but nuclear strikes somewhere.

He and I argue about this regularly. How, I ask him, can any weapons, no less nuclear ones, ever be seen as instruments of safety? (Though living in the country with the most armed citizens on the planet, I know that this isn't exactly a winning argument domestically.) I mean, consider the four years we've just lived through! Consider the hands our nuclear arsenal was in from 2017 to 2020!

My husband always simply looks at me as if he knows so much more than I do about this. Yet the mere hint of a plan for "peace" based on a world-ending possibility doesn't exactly put me at ease, nor does a world in which an American president can order air strikes more or less anywhere on the planet without the backing of anyone else, Congress included.

Every time my husband leaves home to go to some bunker or office where he would be among the first to be sheltered from a nuclear attack, my gut clenches. I feel the hopelessness of what would happen if we ever reached that point of no return where the only option might be to strike back because we ourselves were about to die. It would be a "solution" in which just those in power might remain safe. Meanwhile, our more modest preemptive attacks against other militaries and armed groups in distant lands exact a seldom-recognized toll in blood and treasure.

Every time I hear about preemptive strikes like those President Biden ordered last month in countries we're not even officially at war with, attacks that were then sanctioned across most of the political spectrum in Washington from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, I wonder: How many people died in those attacks? Whose lives in those target areas were destroyed by uncertainty, fear, and the prospect of long-term anxiety?

In addition, given my work as a therapist with vets, I always wonder how the people who carried out such strikes are feeling right now. I know from experience that just following such life-ending orders can create a sense of internal distress that changes you in ways almost as consequential as losing a limb or taking a bullet.

How Our Wars Kill at Home

For years now, my colleagues and I at the Costs of War Project have struggled to describe and quantify the human costs of America's never-ending twenty-first-century wars. All told, we've estimated that more than 801,000 people died in fighting among U.S., allied, and opposing troops and police forces. And that doesn't include indirect deaths due to wrecked healthcare systems, malnutrition, the uprooting of populations, and the violence that continues to plague traumatized families in those war zones (and here at home as well).

According to a stunning new report by Boston University's Ben Suitt, the big killer of Americans engaged in the war on terror has not, in fact, been combat, but suicide, which has so far claimed the lives of 30,177 veterans and active servicemembers. Suicide rates among post-9/11 war veterans are higher than for any cohort of veterans since before World War II. Among those aged 18 to 35 (the oldest of whom weren't even of voting age when we first started those never-ending wars and the youngest of whom weren't yet born), the rate has increased by a whopping 76% since 2005.

And if you think that those most injured from their service are the ones coming home after Iraq and Afghanistan, consider this: over the past two decades, suicide rates have increased most sharply among those who have never even been deployed to a combat zone or have been deployed just once.

It's hard to say why even those who don't fight are killing themselves so far from America's distant battlefields. As a psychotherapist who has seen my share of veterans who attempted to kill or — later — succeeded in killing themselves, I can say that two key predictors of that final, desperate act are hopelessness and a sense that you have no legitimate contribution to make to others.

As Suitt points out, about 42% of Americans are now either unaware of the fact that their country is still fighting wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa or think that the war on terror is over. Consider that for a moment. What does it mean to be fighting wars for a country in which a near majority of the population is unaware that you're even doing so?

As a military spouse whose partner has not been deployed to a combat zone, the burdens of America's forever wars are still shared by us in concrete ways: more frequent and longer deployments with shorter breaks, more abusive and all-encompassing command structures, and very little clear sense of what it is this country could possibly be fighting for anymore or what the end game might be.

If strikes like the ones President Biden authorized last month reflect anything, it's that there are few ways — certainly not Congress — of reining in our commander in chief from sending Americans to harm and be harmed.

"Are Soldiers Killers?"

I recall lying awake in 1991, at age 12, my stomach in knots, thinking about the first display of pyrotechnics I can remember, when President George H.W. Bush authorized strikes against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in what became known as the First Gulf War. I told my father then, "I can't sleep because I think that something bad is going to happen!" I didn't know what, but those balls of fire falling on Baghdad on my New Jersey TV screen seemed consequential indeed.

Where were they landing? On whom? What was going to happen to our country? My father, who used a minor college football injury to dodge the Vietnam draft and has supported every war since then, shrugged, patted me on the back, and said he didn't know, but that I shouldn't worry too much about it.

As a parent myself now, I can still remember what it was like to first consider that people might kill others. As a result, I try to keep a conversation going with my own children as they start to grapple with the existence of evil.

Recently, our six-year-old son, excited to practice his newfound reading skills, came across a World War II military history book in my husband's office and found photos of both Nazi soldiers and Jewish concentration camp prisoners. He stared at the gaunt bodies and haunted eyes of those prisoners. After a first-grade-level conversation about war and hatred, he suddenly pointed at Nazi soldiers in one photo and asked, "Are soldiers killers?" My husband and I flinched. And then he asked: "Why do people kill?"

Over and over, as such questions arise, I tell my son that people die in wars because so many of us turn our backs on what's going on in the world we live in. I'm all too aware that we stop paying attention to what elected officials do because we've decided we like them (or hate them but can't be bothered by them). I tell him that we're going to keep reading the news and talking about it, because my little family, whatever our arguments, agrees that Americans don't care enough about what war does to the bodies and minds of those who live through it.

Here's the truth of it: we shouldn't be spending this much time, money, and blood on conflicts whose end games are left to the discretion of whoever our increasingly shaky electoral system places in this country's highest office. Until we pressure lawmakers to repeal that 2001 AUMF and end the forever conflicts that have gone with it, America's wars will ensure that our democracy and the rule of law as we know it will make any promises of peace, self-defense, and justice ring hollow.

Don't doubt it for a second. War is a cancer on our democracy.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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.

The military has a massive sexual assault crisis — but Congress is actually on course to address it

Given the more than 60 Democratic and Republican votes lined up, the Senate is poised to move forward with a new bill that would change the way the military handles sexual assault and other felony crimes by service members. Sponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), the new law would assign decision-making on sexual-assault cases and a host of other felonies, including some hate crimes, to a specially trained team of uniformed prosecutors. While the bill will indeed inch the military away from its antiquated practice of allowing commanders to decide whether to prosecute their own officers and soldiers on sexual-assault allegations, if baffles me that it's still allowed to handle its own violent crimes rather than having them dealt with through our criminal justice system.

Why should our troops enjoy such protected status, as though they exist in a separate reality from the rest of society? Arguably, in these years, the face of America has indeed been militarized, whether we like it or not. After all, we've just lived through two decades of endless war, American-style, in the process wasting significantly more than $6.4 trillion dollars, more than 7,000 uniformed lives, and scores of health- and safety-related opportunity costs.

Meanwhile, it's taken years for the public and members of Congress to begin to recognize that it matters how the military treats its own — and the civilians with whom they interact. (After all, many felonies committed by such personnel against civilians, at home and abroad, are prosecuted within the military-justice system.) That Congress has taken so long to support even such a timid bill in a bipartisan fashion and that few think to question whether felonies committed by American soldiers should be prosecuted within the military, suggests one thing: that we're a long, long way from taking responsibility for those who kill, maim, and rape in all our names.

I'm a military spouse. My husband has been a U.S. Navy officer for 18 years. During the decade we've been together, he's served on two different submarines and in three Department of Defense and other federal staff jobs in Washington.

In many ways, our family has been very fortunate. We have dual incomes that offer us privileges the majority of Americans, let alone military families, don't have, including being able to seek healthcare providers outside the military's decrepit health system. All this is just my way of saying that when I critique the military and my experiences in it, keep in mind that others have suffered so much more than my family.

The Military Criminal Justice System

Let me also say that I do understand why the military needs its own system for dealing with infractions specific to its mission (when, for instance, troops desert, defy orders, or make gross errors in judgment). The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is federal law enacted by Congress. Analogous to our civilian legal system, it is of no small importance, given the potential cost to our nation's security should the deadly equipment the military owns not be operated with the utmost sobriety and discretion.

In such cases, the standards listed in the UCMJ are implemented according to procedures outlined in another document, the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM). Essentially, the MCM provides a framework for trying alleged offenses of various kinds within the military, laying out the maximum penalties that may be imposed for each of them.

Included in this are procedures for nonjudicial punishments in which a commanding officer, rather than a court-martial judge and a panel of other personnel (functionally, a jury), determines what penalties are to be imposed on a service member accused of a crime. Crucially, the results of such nonjudicial punishment do not appear on an officer's criminal record.

Among other things what this means is that a commanding officer can decide that a soldier accused of sexual assault will be subjected to nonjudicial punishment rather than a military trial. In that case, the public will have no way of knowing that he committed such an act. No less crucially, the MCM leaves it entirely up to the commanding officer of a soldier's unit whether or not such allegations will be dealt with at all, no matter the format. That's why the Senate bill under consideration is of importance. At least it will remove the decision-making process on prosecuting reported assault cases from officers who may have a vested interest in covering up such assaults.

Because here's the grim reality, folks: sexual assault in the military is a pandemic all its own. According to a 2018 Defense Department survey across five branches of the armed services (the most recent such document we have), 20,500 assaults occurred that year against active duty women and men. Yet fewer than half of those alleged crimes were reported within the military's justice system and just 108 convictions resulted.

What this tells us is that commanding officers exercise a stunning decision-making power over whether allegations of rape get tried at all — and generally use it to suppress such charges. Consider, for example, that, of the 2,339 formally reported sexual assaults that military investigators recommended for arbitration in 2019, commanders took action in only 1,629 of those cases. In other words, they left about a third of them unexamined.

Of the ones brought to the military justice system, fewer than half were actually tried in front of a judge through the court-martial system. At worst, the remainder of the accused received nonjudicial punishments from commanders — extra duties, reductions in pay or rank — or were simply discharged from the service. And all this happened entirely at the discretion of commanding officers.

Those same commanders, who have the power to try (or not try) allegations of violence, generally have a vested interest in covering up such accusations, lest they reflect badly on them. And while you might think that sexual-assault survivors would have a say in command culture, as it happens their "anonymous" contributions to such reports sometimes turn out not to be anonymous at all. In smaller units, commanders can sometimes figure out who has reported such incidents of violence and misconduct, since such reports regularly include the gender and rank of those who have come forward.

All of this explains why the Gillibrand-Ernst bill is a welcome departure from a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse. At least those with less of a conflict of interest and (hopefully) more than just a token amount of training when it comes to sexual assault, harassment, and other forms of violence will be assigned the job of deciding whether or not to try alleged felonies.

Let's Take This Further

And yet, while that bill is far better than nothing, it's distinctly a case of too little, too late. The real problem is that Americans generally view the military just as the military views itself — an island apart from the general populace, deserving of special allowances, even when it comes to sexual crimes.

I recently spoke with a young female Air Force recruit who saw the military as her sole means of paying for a four-year university without carrying crippling debt into middle age. What struck me, however, was how much more she feared attacks by male airmen than the possibility that she might ever be wounded or killed in a combat zone. And in that ordering of fears, she couldn't be more on target, as the stats on combat deaths and reported sexual assault bear out.

In addition, these days, new recruits like her enter the military in the shadow of the bone-chilling murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old Army soldier. She went missing in April 2020 from Fort Hood, Texas, shortly after reporting that a superior officer had sexually solicited her, repeatedly made an example of her after she refused him, and finally approached her while she was taking care of her personal hygiene. Her dismembered body was later found in a box on the base. Her alleged killers included a soldier who had been accused of sexual harassment in a separate case and his civilian girlfriend. An Army report on Guillen's murder and the events that led to it concluded that none of her supervisors had taken appropriate action in response to her allegations of sexual harassment.

The murder sparked public outrage, including among women in the armed services who quickly coined the Twitter hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, and went public with their own accounts of being assaulted while in the military. Her case would, in fact, be a major catalyst driving the Senate bill, which has attracted support from a striking range of sponsors, including Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Though I never thought I'd find myself quoting Ted Cruz, let me echo his reaction to the bill: "It's about damn time."

A Small Start

Yet Guillen's murder and the legislation it sparked begs this question: If it took the death of a young woman who reported sexual harassment to launch such a relatively timid bill, what will it take to move the judging of violent crimes entirely off military bases and into the regular court system? I shudder to think about the answer to that question.

The morning I went into labor with my daughter, my husband was on a military base a few minutes away, carrying out his duties as executive officer on a ballistic missile submarine. As the pains grew stronger with each passing hour, I phoned the base to let him know that I was in labor. I was eager to reach him in time to be taken to the hospital before a pending snow storm made driving through the foothills of the Cascade Mountains treacherous.

His colleagues repeatedly insisted that he was unavailable, even to them. Finally, I said to one of them between gasps, "Oh for Christ's sake, just tell him I'm in labor and I need him to drive me to the hospital!"

Four hours later, having heard nothing from the base, I watched my husband, looking beleaguered and sad, walk through the door. No one had even bothered to give him my message. As I sat up on the floor where I was trying to cope with the pain, he slumped momentarily on the couch in his blue camo uniform and told me that he'd been called upon to assist in the hearing of a sexual-abuse and possible rape case involving the daughter of one of his sailors. I listened, while he prepared to take me to the hospital, as he described what he had dealt with. I could see the stress on his face, the drawn look that came from hours of listening to human suffering.

At least, that case was heard. However, another point is no less important: that a group of men — my husband and other commanding officers with, assumedly, zero knowledge about sexual assault — had been placed in charge of hearing a case on the possible rape of a child.

In scores of other cases I've heard about in my years as a military spouse and as a therapist for veterans and military families, I've been similarly struck by the ways in which male commanders without training have treated the survivors of such assaults and women more generally. I've seen some of those same men joke about how women's behavior and moods, even abilities, change depending on their "time of the month" or pregnancy status. I've heard some make sexist or homophobic jokes about female and gay service members or heard about them threatening to "rip them another asshole" when fellow shipmates failed to meet expectations. Within the military, violence is the first thing you notice.

That day, trembling with the pangs of late-stage labor as my husband rushed me through the falling snow to the hospital with our daughter about to be born, I thought: Where will she be safe in this world? Who's responsible for protecting her? For protecting us? I hugged my belly tighter and resolved to try to do my part.

And today, years later, I still wonder whether anyone beyond a group of senators and military advocates will show an interest in holding service members accountable for respecting the dignity of the rest of us.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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.

The military's failing war against Covid-19

Herd immunity? Don't count on it. Not if that "herd" is the U.S. military.

According to news reports, at least a third of active-duty military personnel or those in the National Guard have opted out of getting the coronavirus vaccine. That figure, by the way, doesn't even include American troops stationed around the world, many of whom have yet to be offered the chance to be vaccinated. As a Navy spouse whose husband has moved to five separate U.S. duty stations in the decade we've been together, one thing is hard for me to imagine: an administration pledging to do everything it can to beat this pandemic has stopped short of using its executive powers to ensure that our 2.3 million armed forces members are all vaccinated.

From the point of view of those in the military refusing the vaccine, there's a simple reality (or perhaps I mean surreality) to this situation. There's so much disinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccination programs meant to deal with it floating around, particularly in the world of social media, that no one should be surprised that a third of the military here has flatly refused the shots. Even public efforts of the armed forces to dispel myths about the vaccine have not made a dent in these figures. For example, the decision of Army commanders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to develop a local podcast on the subject and create what they call "vaccine ambassadors" in their own ranks have still left them facing an uphill battle. (Vaccine acceptance at that base was, as of February, below 50%.)

And note as well that vaccination rates are lowest among young soldiers. Sadly enough, in the midst of this country's incipient fourth wave of the disease, it's younger people who are increasingly catching it. Keep in mind that the military is disproportionately made up of evangelical Christians, a population among whom vaccine skepticism and resistance are already rampant. And take my word for it, much of the toxic rhetoric floating around American social media on such subjects is already seeping into the military's command culture as well.

In the communities where my husband and I have worked since the pandemic hit these shores, for example, I've met one commander who believes that God, not a vaccine, will decide whether he lives or dies. Another young officer I ran into believes that the risk of side effects from such vaccines outweighs any risk from the virus itself. Such attitudes are also sweeping into the larger military community, which is why a military spouse and mother assured me that our immune system is capable of beating the virus, no vaccine needed.

Reactions like theirs suggest how hard it will be, not just in the military, but in the country at large, to achieve "herd immunity." Sadly, despite the quarantining of those who test positive for the coronavirus, there has been far less action within the military (as in American society at large) to contain those who could become vectors for the disease than would be desirable, though it's long been known that asymptomatic spread is a significant contributor to the pandemic.

What stuns me as a military spouse is how little the Pentagon — a distinctly top-down organization that operates by command, not wish — is doing about the problem of troops opting out of being vaccinated. Why isn't Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin more forcefully denouncing those within the military community who discourage vaccination and don't get vaccinated themselves? What better use of his public position than to protect the lives of those troops being offered the vaccine, as well as those military personnel and their families who, as yet, have no access to such shots, and civilians still vulnerable to the virus in military communities around the world? Why isn't every commander photographing himself or herself getting a needle in the arm?

It's true that the military can't order troops to be vaccinated (as with many other vaccines) because the Federal Drug Administration has not yet officially "approved" any of the Covid-19 vaccines except under an "emergency-use authorization." And despite calls to do so by some Democratic lawmakers, President Biden has not made such shots mandatory for all military members and seems reluctant to do so in the future.

However, as Nation journalist Andrew McCormick has explained, there are many things the military could still do (but isn't doing) until such a moment arrives. These include offering paid time off, financial bonuses, and upgrades in military healthcare plans as incentives to those willing to get vaccinated. So far, there's no evidence that the Pentagon (which I reached out to on the subject without response) is willing to move in such a direction. Sadly, it seems that the health of our military, their families, and the communities they live and serve in just isn't the foremost concern of either the high command or an administration that in other areas has been impressive in its response to the pandemic.

Vaccine Passports? Not in This Military

Under such circumstances, the U.S. military, whose members have already sustained hundreds of thousands of cases of Covid-19, poses an ongoing threat not just to its own communities or Americans more generally, but to the world. It could lend a hand elsewhere in spreading a deadly virus that has to date killed more than 560,000 Americans and 2.9 million other people around the world.

Lack of testing and contact tracing make it impossible to tell just how big a role the military already plays in spreading the virus, but hundreds of thousands of service members and those associated with them, including family members and contractors, have gotten it. By one count, despite the youth and health of the military, about 0.9% of total recorded U.S. coronavirus cases to date are among its members, its contractors, or its dependent family members — a military community that comprises roughly .7% of the population. That means it's definitely pulling its weight when it comes to contributing to recorded cases around the country.

Such cases and deaths among the troops (and those associated with them) have been due in no small part to the Department of Defense's negligence in keeping its own personnel safe from the virus. For that, you can blame, at least in part, sloppy, piecemeal safety protocols and the continued circulation of troops from one station to another around the country and the world. It's not even clear whether the 3,000 military personnel assigned to vaccinate American civilians at hundreds of sites globally have themselves received the vaccine.

Consider it an irony, then, that the military's insistence on training its troops to fill a variety of roles — in other words, on rotating them through various garrisons and jobs during their careers — is meant to prepare them for a situation in which national security threats might not allow that sort of circulation to continue. With more than half a million Americans already dead from an easy-to-spread disease (more than the dead from both world wars, Vietnam, and the 9/11 attacks combined), what better moment than this to make sure that the troops stay put for a while? Why not order that each member of the armed forces assigned to rotate among duty stations have a vaccine passport? But no such luck. Not in this military. Not now.

And that's not all. In many cases, there is no vaccine available even for service members stationed at bases overseas who actually want to be vaccinated. For example, at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where nearly 60,000 troops and their families are currently stationed, only key personnel like medical workers and food staff have received vaccinations so far. In some cases, even where first doses have been administered, second doses are simply not available. Only about 20% of the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, a country known for its successful management of the virus, had been vaccinated by mid-March.

At a time when the United States has achieved an average rate of three million inoculations daily and more than a third of U.S. adults have already received at least one shot, lack of military access should be (but isn't) considered shameful.

And keep in mind that the dangers of a significantly unvaccinated military are high. Given their jobs and the proximity of their homes to U.S. military installations, a striking number of people have little choice but to come in contact with American military personnel. I'm thinking now of the hundreds of millions of civilians living in the many countries where the United States military now operates, often from significant-sized military bases. When it comes to the dangers of Covid-19 spreading, add in Americans living in close proximity to the 440 military bases in this country.

In nations where the virus remains uncontained, unvaccinated American troops are both threatened and threatening. Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States has been at war for the better part of two decades, are no exceptions. As elsewhere, it's unclear how many of the approximately 6,000 U.S. troops (and thousands of American contractors attached to that military) still stationed in those countries are vaccinated.

My Life in Pandemic America

Now, let me turn to my own family. My husband is a naval officer and we're privileged. We have three graduate degrees between us and dual incomes. I can do most of my job as a clinical social worker serving people from the armed forces and war-afflicted countries at home. My husband recently transferred from a remarkably pandemic-exposed Pentagon to a civilian agency post where he can also largely work from home (except — sigh — when someone from the Pentagon must be greeted in person). We've been lucky to be able to juggle the work and childcare demands of this pandemic period largely from the safety of our rural home. We're both vaccinated as well.

And yet, we're worried. For his job, my husband has had to calculate the risk to life of countless real and potential military catastrophes. He's also focused professionally on damage control when war-traumatized troops drive drunk, beat their wives, or abuse their children. He carries with him memories and fears of violence, most of it from within the armed forces. Given the unnecessary threats to life and limb he's witnessed through his work, he's vigilant about our family not being exposed any more than necessary to the threat of Covid-19.

All of this means that we've remained relatively isolated in our new home. In this pandemic year-plus, we haven't attended events in the community, eaten in restaurants, gone to friends' houses for dinner, or traveled at all. And yes, we're lucky because we're so untypical of most of our military. With so much at stake, its leadership needs to focus on containing the virus within its ranks in a way it simply hasn't, particularly with more contagious variants of the disease spreading rapidly.

I wish that President Biden would listen to the small group of lawmakers currently pressing his administration for greater safety within the military and for him to use his executive powers to mandate vaccinations among the troops. I wish he would devote as much effort and time to ensuring that military bases carried out their vaccination efforts in a competent and accountable manner, as his administration has in so many civilian locales throughout this country.

Imagine what it would mean for troops and families to pose no more than a negligible risk when it comes to the transmission of this virus. At least that would allow us to check off one major risk to health and life on the list of our mounting human rights abuses as a country and to go back to the long project of reckoning with the costs of endless armed conflict around the world.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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.

America goes to war with itself

"Are you okay?" asked a friend and military spouse in the voicemail she left me on the afternoon the mob of Trump supporters breached the Capitol so violently. At home with a new baby, her Navy reservist husband stationed in Germany, the thoughts running through her head that day would prove remarkably similar to mine. As she said when we spoke, "It's as if the U.S. has become a war zone."

Do a Google search and you'll find very little suggesting that the January 6th attack on the Capitol in any way resembled a war. A notable exception: a Washington Postop-ed by former Missouri secretary of state and Afghanistan combat veteran Jason Kander. He saw that day's violence for the combat it was and urged congressional representatives and others who bore the brunt of those "armed insurrectionists" to seek help (as, to his regret, he hadn't done after his tours of duty in combat zones).

Now, take a look back at that "riot" and tell me how it differs from a military attack: President Trump asked his supporters to "fight like hell" or "you're not going to have a country anymore." He swore he would go with them, though he didn't, of course, just as those who launched and continued our "forever wars" of the last almost 20 years sent Americans to fight abroad without ever doing so themselves. Trump's small army destroyed property with their metal baseball bats and other implements of aggression, in one case even planted pipe bombs near Republican and Democratic party headquarters (that didn't go off), and looted congressional chambers, including carrying away House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's lectern.

The rioters used intimidation against those in the Capitol. Some screamed insults like "traitor" and the n-word (reserved, of course, for the black police officers protecting Congress). One rioter wore a sweatshirt emblazed with the words "Camp Auschwitz," a reference to the Nazi death camp. Make no mistake: the America these rioters envisioned was one full of hate and disdain for difference.

In their disregard for pandemic safety protocols, they employed the equivalent of biological warfare against lawmakers and the Capitol police, breaking into the building, screaming and largely unmasked during a pandemic, forcing lawmakers to jam into enclosed spaces to save (but also endanger) their own lives. The rioters smeared blood on walls and on the busts of former presidents. Their purpose was clear: to overturn democratic processes by brute force in the name of what they saw as an existential threat to their country, the certification of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president.

Among those aggressors were veterans and some active-duty personnel from elite U.S. combat forces (as well as from police departments) who brought years of expertise to bear on orchestrating an attempted takeover of our government, based — much like the costliest of our still-ongoing wars, the one in Iraq — on lies told by their commander in chief ("Stop the steal!").

My Own Personal War

To fight wars, you need to summon a mix of rage, adrenaline, and disregard for the humanity of those whose project you seek to annihilate. That seemed evident in the mob of the supposedly pro-law-and-order president that attacked Congress, their acts leading to five deaths – including that of Capitol Hill police officer Brian Sicknick, a former New Jersey Air National Guard member. More than 140 police officers who tried to protect lawmakers sustained injuries: Some, who were not given helmets prior to that day, are now living with brain injuries (which, as a therapist, I can assure are likely to come with debilitating lifelong implications). Another officer has two cracked ribs and smashed spinal disks. Yet another was stabbed by a rioter with a metal fence stake. Still another lost his eye.

These deaths and injuries will have ripple effects for the spouses, children, friends, employers, and others in the communities where those officers live. And they do not include the countless invisible injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) that result from such war-like scenarios. In this respect, the cost of armed violence to human life is incalculable.

While that attack on the Capitol was underway, at the tiny community mental health clinic where I work as a therapist, I was speaking to clients who had migrated here from countries plagued by armed conflict. I listened to concerns that the far-right nationalist attack on the Capitol would, sooner or later, inspire violence against their own families. After all, those storming the Capitol backed a president who had referred to immigrants as "animals" and whose administration had put the children of undocumented migrants in cages – or sub-prison like conditions with zero-provision for their care. In the days after the attack, an acquaintance of mine, an African American man, was indeed pursued by a carful of people wearing Trump hats and shouting racial slurs. (They slowed their vehicle and followed him down the road towards his Maryland apartment.)

The day of the riots, I arrived home from my job to find my husband, a Naval officer, in front of the television news, tears in his eyes and sweat dripping down his face. My children, unprepared for bed (as they should have been), were staring at him in confusion. That night, he and I bolted awake at every sound, as we had in the weeks after Trump was first elected.

Of course, given our incomes and our home in the countryside outside Washington, D.C., we were about as far from danger as one could imagine. Still, our sense of distress was acute. After the riot was over, my husband, gritting his teeth, wondered: "Why aren't the Capitol floors covered in rioters in zip ties right now?" We noted that, if there had been Black Lives Matter slogans and black fists on the flags and banners those rioters were carrying, the National Guard would have arrived quickly.

As time wore on, my husband and I attempted to comfort each another and explain those televised scenes of violence to our two children, four and five, who had been stunned both by glimpses of what grownups could do and by how visibly upset their father had become. And we weren't alone. I soon found myself scrolling through texts and voicemails from other military spouses with similar fears who wanted to know if my husband and I were okay and if the violence in the Capitol had made it anywhere near our home.

In our minds, fearful scenarios were playing out about what January 6th might mean for military families like ours — and little wonder, since in those tense two weeks before Joe Biden's inauguration, the military still answered to a commander in chief who had visibly incited the possible takeover of our government. What would the military members of our families be asked to do in the days to come, we wondered, and by whom? What would have happened if those rioters had actually succeeded in hanging Mike Pence or slaughtering other members of Congress?

Preparing for War

In truth, in Donald Trump's America, my spouse and I had been conjuring up scenarios of violence for months. We had found ourselves obsessed with the fears of rising political violence in what, during wartime, used to be known as the home front in the country with the most heavily armed civilian population on Earth. (I had even written about that very subject in those very months.) No wonder then that, before November 3rd, I was so focused not just on dispelling Trumpian disinformation about the election to come, but on helping voters locate their polling stations and finding transportation to them.

As it happens, my husband's jobs in recent years have often involved anticipating war and what our military would do if Americans ever faced it on our own soil. He's served as an officer on a battleship and three nuclear and ballistic-missile armed submarines. He's had to collect intelligence under the leadership of presidents with very different levels of impulse control. Most recently, he's worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff thinking through scenarios in which the United States might be engaged in nuclear war — and what the costs might be.

Together, we have been amazed at how few Americans, other than our fellow military families, have been preoccupied with the violence beginning to unfold on our nation's streets and the way, in some strange fashion, America's distant, never-ending wars of these last nearly 20 years were threatening to come home.

One lesson of these years, in an America with an "all-volunteer" military, is that wars essentially don't exist unless you're directly or indirectly involved in fighting them. At no time did that seem more evident to me than on January 6th, in the divergent responses of my own family and those we know who aren't in the military. If you're interested (as I am as a co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project) in how, during these years, voters and their representatives have justified (or simply ignored) the decision to "solve" our global problems with unending war, then you might frame what happened on January 6th in these terms: some 74 million Americans voted for a president who portrayed those who disagreed with him as existential threats to America.

In the meantime, for almost two decades our government has invested staggering, almost unimaginable sums in this country's military machine (and the war-making industries linked to it), while diverting funds from key social services, ranging from healthcare to domestic job creation. Meanwhile, it has consistently "retired" military-grade weaponry from our war zones into the hands of police departments across the country and so onto our city streets. I mean, given such a formula, what could possibly go wrong? Why would anyone connected to the military be worried?

Of course, why wouldn't we worry, since we — or our loved ones — are the people who are ordered to participate when wars of any kind happen?

The Isolation of Military Service

There are about two million Americans who serve in the U.S. military and 2.6 million more who are military spouses and dependents. Altogether that's just a little more than 1% of our entire population. We are, believe me, in another world of fears and worries than the rest of you. We've been involved, directly or indirectly, in fighting those godforsaken wars launched after 9/11 for almost two decades now. You haven't. You've generally thanked us religiously for our "service" and otherwise forgotten about those wars and gone about your business. We haven't. Our sense of the world, our fears, are different than yours.

We military spouses are charged with comforting and caring for those who serve, especially (but not exclusively) when they are sent to one of the many countries where that never-ending "war on terror" continues to be fought into the Biden years. Caring for those who serve is no small task in a country where the very act of trying to get mental-health care could be a career-ending move for a soldier. Families are often their only recourse.

Military spouses also care for children in mourning, temporarily or in some cases permanently, over the loss of a parent. In an anemic military healthcare system, we are often left to marshal the necessary care for ourselves and our children, even as many of us struggle with depression, anxiety, and trauma thanks to the multiple, often unpredictable deployments of those very loved ones and being left alone to imagine what they're going through. According to a recent op-ed by my colleague and military spouse Aleha Landry, approximately 25% of us are unemployed in this Covid-19 moment. On average, we also earn 27% less than our counterparts in the civilian world, not least of all because the burden of childcare and frequent redeployments prevent us from moving up in our chosen fields of work.

In this pandemic-stricken, distinctly over-armed world of ours, in which nationalist militia groups (often with veterans among them) backing the former president continue to talk about war right here in what, after 9/11, we came to call "the homeland," it's not surprising how increasingly anxious people like me have come to feel. Personally, what January 6th brought home was this: as a military spouse, I was living in a community that didn't know my family, while my husband, in his own personal hell of hypothetical nuclear wars, could be called upon at any time to represent a president who had incited an assault on the Capitol, leaving my children and me alone. And that, believe me, was scary.

I was struck, for instance, that a military spouse I became friends with and who occupied a very different part of the political spectrum from me nonetheless feared that, in the event of conflict, she would be vulnerable — and it wasn't just foreign conflicts that she was worrying about after Trump was elected. At one point, her husband had told her, "If you see a flash in the sky, then take the kids and drive in this direction," indicating a spot on the map where he felt, based on wind patterns, nuclear fallout was less likely to blow. After the Charlottesville Unite the Right riot of 2017, she stocked up on food, water, and extra gas so she could head for Canada if armed conflict broke out among Americans. "We'd be alone," she told me, "because obviously, he'd be gone."

Stopping Our Endless Wars

These, then, are the sorts of fears that arise in my militarized world on this careening planet of ours. Yes, Joe Biden is now president, but this country is still on edge. And the military that's been fighting those hopeless, bloody wars in distant lands for so long is on edge, too. After all, military personnel were present in significant numbers in that mob on January 6th. Almost one in five members of Trump's invading crew were reportedly veterans or active military personnel.

Sometimes, the people I feel closest to (when I do my work for the Costs of War Project) are the women who must mother and maintain households in the places my country has had such a hand in turning into constant war zones. Right now, there exist millions of people living in just such places where the anticipation of air raids, drone attacks, suicide bombings, snipers, or sophisticated roadside IEDs is a daily reality. Already, over 335,000 civilians (and counting) have been killed in those foreign war zones of ours. Mothers and their children in such lands are often cut off from hospitals, reliable food, clean water, or the infrastructure that would help them get to school, work, or the doctor. Unlike most Americans, they don't have the luxury of forgetting about war. Their spouses and children are in constant danger.

Democrat or Republican, the presidents of the past 20 years are responsible for the violence that continues in those war zones and for the (not unrelated) violence that has begun to unfold at home — and even, thank you very much, for my own family's fears and fantasies about war, up close and personal. It's about time that all of us in this disturbed country of ours at least bear witness to what such violence means for those living it and start thinking about what the United States should do to stop it. It can't just be the most vulnerable and directly involved among us who lose sleep — not to speak of lives, limbs, mental stability, and livelihoods — due to the cloistered decisions of our public leaders.

Believe this at least: if we can't stop fighting those wars across significant parts of the planet, this country won't remain immune to them either. It hasn't, in fact. It's just that so many of us have yet to fully take that in.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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.

The massive and unseen costs of America’s post-9/11 wars

"I got out of the Marines and within a few years, 15 of my buddies had killed themselves," one veteran rifleman who served two tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2011 said to me recently. "One minute they belonged and the next, they were out, and they couldn't fit in. They had nowhere to work, no one who related to them. And they had these PTSD symptoms that made them react in ways other Americans didn't."

This veteran's remark may seem striking to many Americans who watched this country's post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere unfold in an early display of pyrotechnic air raids and lines of troops and tanks moving through desert landscapes, and then essentially stopped paying attention. As a co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project, as well as a military spouse who has written about and lived in a reasonably up-close-and-personal way through the costs of almost two decades of war in the Greater Middle East and Africa, my Marine acquaintance's comments didn't surprise me.

Quite the opposite. In the sort of bitter terms I'm used to, they only confirmed what I already knew: that most of war's suffering doesn't happen in the moment of combat amid the bullets, bombs, and ever-more-sophisticated IEDs on America's foreign battlefields. Most of it, whether for soldiers or civilians, happens indirectly, thanks to the way war destroys people's minds, its wear and tear on their bodies, and what it does to the delicate systems that uphold society's functioning like hospitals, roads, schools, and most of all, families and communities that must survive amid so much loss.

Combat Deaths: The Tip of the Iceberg

A major task of the Costs of War Project has been to document the death toll among uniformed American troops from our post-9/11 wars, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. Compared to the 400,000 American deaths (and still climbing) from Covid-19 in less than a year, the approximately 7,000 American military deaths from those wars over almost two decades seem, if anything, small indeed (though, of course, that total doesn't include thousands of military contractors who also fought and died on the American side). Even for me, as an activist and also a psychotherapist who bears witness to human suffering on a fairly regular basis, it's easy enough to grow desensitized to the words "more than 7,000," since my life hasn't been threatened by combat daily.

Indeed, 7,000 is a small number compared not just to Covid-19 deaths here but to the 335,000-plus deaths of civilians in our war zones since 2001. It doesn't even measure up to the 110,000 (and counting) Iraqi, Afghan, and other allied soldiers and police killed in our wars. However, 7,000 isn't so small when you think about what the loss of one life in combat means to the larger circle of people in that person's community.

To focus only on the numbers of American combat deaths ignores two key issues. First, every single combat death in Iraq and Afghanistan has ripple effects here at home. As the wife of a submarine officer who has completed four sea tours and who, as a Pentagon staffer, has had to deal with war's carnage in detail, I've been intimately involved in numerous communities grieving over military deaths and sustaining wounds years after the bodies have been buried. Parents, spouses, children, siblings, and friends of soldiers who have been killed in action live with survivor's guilt, depression, anxiety, and sometimes addiction to alcohol or drugs.

Families, many with young children, struggle to pay the rent, purchase food, or cover healthcare premiums and copays after losing the person who was often the sole source of family income. Communities have lost workers, volunteers, and neighbors at a time of mass illness and unrest just when we need those who can sustain intense pressure, problem solve, and work across class, party, and racial lines – in other words, our soldiers. (And yes, while the storming of the Capitol earlier this month included military veterans, I have no doubt that the majority of U.S. troops and veterans would prefer to be shot before getting involved in such a nightmare.)

Second, as the testimony of the former Marine I interviewed suggests, many people suffer and die long after the battles they fought in are over. Social scientists still know very little about the magnitude of deaths because of — but not in — war's battles. Still, a 2008 study by the Geneva Declaration Secretariat estimated that indirect deaths from war are at least four times as high as deaths sustained in combat.

At the Costs of War Project, we've started to examine the effects of war on human health and mortality, particularly in America's war zones. There, people die in childbirth because hospitals or clinics have been destroyed. They die because there are no longer the doctors or the necessary equipment to detect cancer early enough or even more common problems like infections. They die because roads have been bombed or are unsafe to travel on. They die from malnutrition because farms, factories, and the infrastructure to transport food have all been reduced to rubble. They die because the only things available and affordable to anesthetize them from emotional and physical pain may be opioids, alcohol, or other dangerous substances. They die because the healthcare workers who might have treated them for, or immunized them against, once obsolete illnesses like polio have been intimidated from doing their work. And of course, as is evident from our own skyrocketing military suicide rates, they die by their own hands.

It's very hard to count up such deaths, but as a therapist who works with U.S. military families and people who have emigrated from dozens of often war-torn countries around the world, the mechanisms by which war creates indirect death seem all too clear to me: you find that, in the post-war moment, you can't sleep, let alone get through your day, without debris on the highway, a strange look from someone, or an unexpected loud noise outside sparking terror.

If the stress hormones coursing through your body don't wreak their own havoc in the form of painful chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia or mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, then the methods you use to cope like overeating, reckless driving, or substance abuse, very well might. If you are a child or the spouse of someone who has lived through repeated deployments to America's twenty-first-century wars, then there's a significant chance you'll be on the receiving end of physical violence from someone who lacks the tools and self-control to deal peacefully. We aren't counting or even describing such injuries and the deaths that can sometimes result from them, but we do need to find a way.

A Gaping Hole in Our Knowledge

My colleagues and I have started to examine the indirect costs of war through interviews with people who have born witness to war or lived through it, as has the U.S. government through its own limited collection of statistics. For example, in 2018, some 18 American active-duty military personnel or veterans died by suicide each day. (Yes, daily.) But all we really know so far is this: self-inflicted deaths from violence, car accidents, substance abuse, and chronic stress that can be traced back to this country's post-9/11 wars are problems that plague military communities, and they didn't exist at this magnitude before Washington decided to respond to the 9/11 attacks by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Still, we have remarkably little information about the scope and nature of such problems. I'll tell you what I do know with certainty, though: the only consistent and cohesive institutions sustaining troops home from America's battle zones are the "families," formal and informal, of servicemembers and the communities in which they live — not just their spouses and children, but also extended families, neighbors, and friends. When it comes to the more formal support structures — Veterans Affairs hospitals and outpatient clinics, providers that accept military insurance, small nonprofits that provide recreational and other forms of support and the like — there just aren't enough of them.

It's common knowledge in my community that referral processes and wait times for such aid are often long and stressful. If you're a veteran seeking help, it's likely that you'll find yourself having to switch doctors more than once a year, rather than getting the continuity of care you might need to treat complex physical and emotional trauma. Meanwhile, childcare and other kinds of supportive caregiving that might help control neglect and abuse are laughably sparse.

As the upper-middle-class wife of an officer in a family that enjoys the benefit of dual incomes, I can still offer examples from my own life and community that should raise questions about how someone with fewer resources and already under the stress that accompanies multiple "tours" of America's battle zones can survive. My husband and I had to pull years' worth of retirement savings from our bank account to afford a lifesaving prenatal treatment for me that military insurance would not then fund (though it would indeed be covered later) — a problem that could have been avoided had the customer service representatives of the Department of Defense's health and medical program, Tricare, been appropriately funded and trained.

The wife of an officer we know whose son has autism had to go through months of letter-writing and advocacy to receive care both for that boy and her other young child so she could apply for jobs and travel to her own medical appointments during her husband's multiple deployments. (Tricare would only fund care for one child, leaving her watching the other.) Active-duty and veteran servicemembers I know regularly drink and use drugs heavily each night to calm their anxieties and post-traumatic stress symptoms sufficiently to sit through family dinners, watch our ever-more-distressing news, or get a few hours of sleep.

Many fear seeking mental-health treatment because of the real threat that, in the military, exposure for doing so will result in professional demotion. We live in an era where so much depends on competent, trustworthy security to shield us from the dual threats of a deadly pandemic and domestic terrorism and yet our security forces often lead lives that are problematic indeed. The toll in such lives — what might be thought of as indirect deaths from combat — that we've endorsed by failing to welcome home and provide adequately for the some two million servicemembers who have fought in "our" wars should be a focus of our attention and yet is largely unnoticed.

A Defense Bill That Defends Little

With such human costs of war in mind, it's a wonder to me that the only bipartisan bill passed by Congress over a presidential veto in the Trump years was the recent monumentally funded $740 billion "defense" bill. It included spending for yet more weapons production, as well as salary raises, among other measures that were meant to shore up the fighting power of our active-duty troops (after 19-plus years of unsuccessful wars abroad).

Most striking to me, however, amid its massive support for the military-industrial complex, is how little that bill does to expand social support for military families. There is indeed a modest increase in daycare assistance for troops' family members with disabilities, as well as limits to increased copays for those who use their military insurance in their communities. Missing totally, however, are key structural changes like protections for soldiers who seek mental healthcare, more robust job-training programs for those desiring to transition into the civilian workforce, greater accountability for Tricare when it comes to providing accurate information on services available in the community, and expanded childcare support for military families.

Indeed, what's most notable about that bill's very existence is how the leaders of both political parties keep funding war spending above all else, especially given that our foreign wars of this century have accomplished little of discernible value beyond making a mess that may never be cleaned up. To me, what that bill truly represented was the massive and unseen costs of America's post-9/11 wars at home and abroad.

It seems that we Americans still care more about waging war in distant lands than about protecting our own people right here at home. Indirect deaths from our conflicts are a reality, however little noticed they may be. Isn't it time to begin weaving a genuine safety net, allowing vulnerable Americans who fought in those very wars to be better supported so that, no longer committing senseless violence against others, they don't commit it on themselves?

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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.

Stop 'thanking' the troops — here's what military members and their families really need

By the end of this year, the White House will reportedly have finally brought home a third of the 7,500 troops still stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq (against the advice of President Trump's own military leaders). While there have been stories galore about the global security implications of this plan, there has been almost no discussion at all about where those 2,700 or so troops who have served in this country's endless wars will settle once their feet touch U.S. soil (assuming, that is, that they aren't just moved to less controversial garrisons elsewhere in the Greater Middle East), no less who's likely to provide them with badly needed financial, logistical, and emotional support as they age.

When it comes to honoring active-duty troops and veterans of this country's forever wars, we Americans have proven big on symbolic gestures, but small on action. Former First Lady Michelle Obama's organization, Joining Forces, was a short-lived but notable exception: its advocacy and awareness-raising led dozens of companies to commit to hiring more veterans. Unfortunately, those efforts proved limited in scope and didn't last long.

Zoom out to the rest of America and you'll find yellow-ribbon bumper stickers on gas-guzzling SUVs galore; tons of "support our troops" Facebook memes on both Veterans Day and Memorial Day regularly featuring (at least before the pandemic struck big time) young, attractive heterosexual families hugging at reunions; and there is invariably a chorus of "thank you for your service" when a veteran or active-duty soldier appears in public.

In practical terms, though, this adds up to nothing. Bumper stickers don't watch soldiers' kids while they're gone, nor do they transport those troops to competent, affordable specialists to meet their health and vocational needs when they return from battle. Memes don't power vets through decades of rehabilitation from traumatic brain injuries, limbs blown off by homemade explosives, depression, anxiety, and grief for comrades lost.

I'm the spouse of a U.S. naval officer. My husband has served on two different submarines and in three military policymaking positions over the course of our decade together. We've had to move around the country four times (an exceedingly modest number compared with most military families we know). We have dual incomes, as well as extended family and friends with the means to support us with care for our two young children and help us with the extra expenses when that uprooting moment arrives every two or three years. We have self-advocacy skills and the resources necessary to find the best possible health providers to help us weather the strain that goes with the relentless pace of post-9/11 military life.

And yet I feel I can speak for other military families who have so much less for one reason: I've dedicated much of my career to research and advocacy on behalf of people affected by the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I've focused my attention, in particular, on the vast loss of life, both abroad and at home, caused by those wars, on decimated and depleted healthcare systems (including our own), and on the burdens borne by the families of soldiers who have to struggle to deal with the needs of those who return.

Troops from our current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa are, in certain ways, unique compared to earlier generations of American military personnel. More than half of them have deployed more than once to those battle zones -- often numerous times. Over a million of them now have disability claims with the Veterans Affairs Department and far more disabled veterans than in the past have chronic injuries and illnesses that they will live with, not die from. Among troops like my spouse who, as a naval officer, has never deployed to Iraqi or Afghan soil, days have grown longer and more stressful due to a distinctly overstretched military that often lacks the up-to-date equipment to work safely.

And mind you, the costs of caring for the soldiers who have been deployed in our never-ending wars won't peak for another 30 to 40 years, as they age, and the government isn't faintly ready to meet the expenses that will be involved.


And mind you, the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs are even less prepared to care for the families of their troops and veterans, those most likely to be tasked with their round-the-clock care.

Among the many grim possibilities from my own experience and the stories I've been told as an advocate over the years by military veterans, military spouses, and military children, let me try to paint just one picture of what it's like when a member of that military returns home from deployment: Imagine your spouse suddenly walking through the door after months away. His face is a greenish hue from fatigue and fear. He may tell you some horror story about some set of incidents that occurred while he was deployed and indicate that he fears, given his state, he might even be out of a job soon. You think about the work you cut back on in the months since he left because you couldn't handle the 24/7 demands of caring for confused children who had stopped sleeping. What will you do to support the family if his worst fears come to pass?

You need to remind him that, while he's been rattling on, there are children present whom he has yet to greet. He hugs them now, his face a combination of love and lack-of-recognition (given how they've grown in the months since he's been gone). The kids' facial expressions are a mirror image of his.

You do your best to catch him up on the changes that have taken place in his absence: the kids' latest developments, your new work schedule, the need for more childcare support, and the problems of your extended family (including the terminal illness of a family member).

Family or friends want to swoop in and take the kids so the two of you can get away, yet after months of his silence, you're feeling too confused to want that yet. What's more, your own hard-earned role as head of the household is suddenly about to be subsumed by his needs. (After all, he's used to telling others what to do.)

You try to call other spouses who were your lifeline while all your husbands were deployed together, but they're as stressed out and preoccupied as you are. Even the other commanders' wives are, like you, up far too often at night as their spouses accept calls about drunk driving, partner violence, suicide threats, and child abuse within the stressed-out command.

Your unnerved husband is helping deal with such events, counseling those still on duty, and you're counseling him. One night, he tells you that part of the reason for his stress is the things he was asked to do by his war-traumatized commander while he was deployed. These stories keep you awake at night.

You suggest he see a mental health professional. After all, the base has licensed psychologists and psychiatrists on staff, ready to help. He reminds you that the decision to seek care is not private in the military and the stigma among those handling his promotions could cost him his career.

So you look for mental-health assistance yourself to deal with the stress and grief over your changed relationship with your spouse. The lone practitioner within 45 miles who accepts military insurance tells you that, to receive care, you must sign a contract accepting that you can be hospitalized at his discretion "because military spouses go psychotic during their husband's deployments." You walk away.

Childcare support of some kind is needed more than ever now that your spouse is in such distress. Because you moved posts recently by military order, the Navy tells you that you're at the back of the local line for financial childcare assistance. You're in your own hell on earth and in that you're typical of so many other military spouses.

Perspectives on Service From a Coastal Elite

And you also turn your gaze to the citizenry of this country that, in the world of the "All Volunteer" military, generally ignores us. Before I became a military spouse, I grew up in an affluent part of New Jersey. I remember how war veterans were ignored or even mocked (including by me). In the 1990s, I used to vacation at the Jersey shore and sometimes, from the front porch of our house, my family and I would catch a glimpse of a middle-aged man in military uniform, marching like a metronome up and down the island's main boulevard. The glazed, far-off look on his face with its telltale ruddiness signaled, I know now, someone who probably drank too much, too often. Back then, we would just refer to him as "the soldier" when he passed and laugh at him, once safely out of earshot.

Of course, he was undoubtedly suffering from some form of mental illness without the sort of care that might have helped him make sense of things. My family and I had no idea that it was normal for war-traumatized soldiers to have difficulty distinguishing the past from the present, that it wouldn't have been strange for him to see lines of summertime beach traffic and think "convoy" or hear a car engine backfire and think "sniper!"

Later, when I was living in San Francisco, a friend who worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development told me about a veteran of the Afghan War, on leave between deployments, who called their office to request that a military tent village be set up in a popular city park to house homeless and mentally ill veterans like himself. My friend and I laughed about that over drinks, imagining the eyesore of an instant military base suddenly arising in the middle of a popular San Francisco tourist destination.

Some 15 years later, I think: how appropriate it would have been to remind Americans having fun of just what they were invariably missing -- their military and the forever wars that go with them that all of us pay for endlessly but ignore. Maybe it finally is time to create spaces meant for U.S. troops and veterans right in the middle of everything.

A Task List

President-elect Biden, I'm hoping against hope that you'll read these thoughts of mine and take steps to support such priorities when you take office, so that our soldiers and our veterans don't find themselves in ever deeper holes as their service ends:

1. Give those who serve and military veterans, as well as their families, real choices about where to go to get healthcare, whether primary care, physical therapy, specialized surgery, psychological therapy, or dental care. The Veterans Choice Program, first rolled out in 2014, should have been a decent start in expanding that sort of access, but in practice few providers have received authorization to participate because of low reimbursement rates and excessive wait times for approval and reimbursement. Anything your administration could do, including ensuring that there's just one less form to fill out or a few more dollars in reimbursement, would make a difference.

2. Sponsor large-scale studies on the health of military spouses and children. Evidence of the effects of military life on such families is scattered at best, but doesn't look good, particularly during and immediately after deployments. The needs of spouses and children who deal with veterans for healthcare, vocational training, and protection from family violence appear high and badly unmet.

3. Advocate making training on the issues faced by our troops and their families central to continuing education requirements among healthcare providers and the staff supporting them, especially the military insurance contractors who are the gatekeepers to care. Urge such providers to place veterans and their families first in line. Make sure therapists, including those focused on children and adolescents, know about the special challenges faced by military kids after parents return. Fund and support off-base family therapy for soldiers and their families, since Department of Defense therapists too often prioritize the needs of the soldier or of the mission above the needs of the family.

4. Teach everyone to stop "thanking" the troops for their service, which effectively ends any conversation instead of beginning one. Teach them instead to ask about what service in the U.S. military in the forever-war era is really like. Believe me, that would start a conversation that wouldn't end soon.

5. Remove needless barriers to military families receiving childcare, whether they're active duty and awaiting their next assignment or settling for good in communities where they'll begin their lives as civilians.

Nothing About Us Without Us

In all such things, take your cues from soldiers, veterans, and their families. Nationally, what about creating a presidential commission that represents such groups in equal measure and in as diverse a way as possible? Let it investigate violations of the rights of military personnel and their families when it comes to health and safety in military commands and on bases across the country and around the world.

Often when I talk about changes like these, I'm met with skeptical looks from family members andfriends. Where will we get the money for such changes, since we're already reimbursing providers at higher rates for accepting military insurance?

The striking thing is that there's no ceiling when it comes to putting money into disastrous weapons systems, the U.S. nuclear arsenal, or the Pentagon generally. But when it comes to putting money into us, it's another matter entirely.

How about, as a start, cutting down on waste and fraud? Money that could have done us some good has disappeared into gas stations in the middle of nowhere and other corrupt construction projects in our distant war zones. Tens of millions of dollars or more have been lost to waste and fraud in some of those unfinished foreign reconstruction projects. As economist Heidi Garrett-Peltier has pointed out, U.S. federal defense spending accounts for more than half of all of our government's discretionary spending, with piles of taxpayer dollars going to expensive contractors who provide services like cleaning, meals, and security guards on bases in those same war zones. Instead of spending $100 more on a single bag of laundry in Iraq, how about spending it on a therapy session for a veteran struggling with postwar trauma here at home?

It's long past time to end America's fruitless post-9/11 wars. But if we don't start re-examining our basic priorities, bringing our troops "home" will just create a new crisis, involving what, in the long run, will be millions of sick, grieving, and injured Americans who will lack the safety net of adequate healthcare.

Please remember, President-elect Biden: war, even failed war, shouldn't be about sacrifice by the military alone but by all of us.

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.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since Worl War II.

Copyright 2022 Andrea Mazzarino

The war Trump started at home

It was July 2017, a few weeks before the "Unite the Right" Charlottesville riots, when white men marched through the streets of that Virginia city protesting the planned takedown of a confederate statue and chanting, "Jews will not replace us." I was sitting at a coffee shop in my quiet town of Poulsbo in Washington State. I had set aside an hour away from my kids to do some necessary writing, while my husband, then second-in-command on a Navy ballistic missile submarine, sat suspended somewhere in the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

Our toddler and infant were home with a babysitter, offering me a rare chance to write, peacefully, amid the stressors of my life. I had a clinical social-work internship then, counseling war-traumatized veterans, and had spent months single-mothering while my spouse was at sea. To my surprise, I was suddenly jolted from my daydreams by chanting men. Glancing out the window at the usually placid waterfront of our town, I caught sight of a group of surprisingly large white men wearing animal skin loincloths, vests, and horned hats. They were also holding torches and -- I kid you not -- spears. They were loudly chanting, "Poulsbo! Poulsbo! Poulsbo!" And that was when I suddenly remembered that this was our annual Viking Fest in which groups of Washington residents from near and far celebrated the town's Norwegian founders.

Cars parked more than a mile down our modest streets suggested that such gatherings were anything but local. This would be my second Viking Fest and I would be struck once again by how little I learned about how the town was actually founded, the values it stood for, and which of them might have survived to today. Poulsbo, after all, now existed in a largely militarized area, including a local submarine base, with white, privileged officer families -- those fortunate enough, at least, to be dual-income ones like mine or have trust funds -- purchasing and reselling homes every few years as the U.S. military moved them around the country and the world.

Even in 2017, longtime residents were starting to move away to escape the smoke that snaked into the community earlier each year from ever-fiercer wildfires in ever-longer fire seasons, part of our new climate-changed reality. Meanwhile, Poulsbo's picturesque gingerbread house-style buildings were being replaced by larger condo complexes, as developers moved ever deeper into the town's hillside forests that would undoubtedly someday burn.

Viking Fest, with its spectacle of white men banging spears and shouting aggressively, set my heart racing with an unnamed fear. It was, after all, a moment when the recently elected Donald Trump was already demonstrating that practically no behavior, including in Charlottesville soon ("You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides"), should be considered beyond bounds. Later, talking with another military wife, a rare woman of color visiting that town, about the Viking shout-a-thon, amid an almost all-white crowd of officers and their families watching the event, she said, "It's like there's no point. It's like a celebration of white people!"

Who Are They and What Do They Stand For?

Looking back now, it's hard not to see that evening's loud and prideful display of white masculinity, which merely disturbed the peace for stressed-out moms like me, as a harbinger of more sinister things to come. Shouting male nationalist groups like the Proud Boys that President Trump told to "stand by" at his first debate with Joe Biden and the Wolverine Watchmen, some of whom have allegedly been linked to a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, are increasingly commonplace in the news.

As a military wife who has made five different moves over the last 10 years, I'm particularly aware of how racially and ethnically diverse this country and its military actually are. Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that much of white America lacks any understanding of just how threatening displays like Viking Fest must look to the rare person of color who happens upon them.

It should certainly be obvious in October 2020 how destructive to our democracy fraternal, pro-Trump groups have become during Donald Trump's presidency. Take those Proud Boys. Among the founding principles their website offers are a vague set of notions that include "reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism," "anti-political correctness," "venerating the housewife," "pro-gun rights" (in a pandemic-ridden country where, between March and July alone, an estimated three million more guns were purchased than usual), and -- get this -- "anti-racism." For the Proud Boys to say that they reject racism and venerate housewives did little more than provide them with a veneer of social acceptability, even as they planned armed counter-rallies in progressive cities like Providence and Portland with the explicit purpose of inciting violence among Black Lives Matter protesters and their allies.

Other influences, like the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, are even more direct. For example, that site urged its followers to cyber-bully American University's first black female student government president, Taylor Dumpson after nooses began appearing on that school's campus in 2017. In April 2016, its founder Andrew Anglin had written, "Jews, Blacks, and lesbians will be leaving America if Trump gets elected -- and he's happy about it. This alone is enough reason to put your entire heart and soul into supporting this man."

One thing is certain: all that matters as markers of humanity to the man who inspires and, however implicitly, endorses such groups, President Donald Trump, is white skin and political support. The other night at his town hall with NBC's Savannah Guthrie, a would-be supporter presented herself as the granddaughter of immigrants who had fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe. She asked the president about his plans to protect DACA recipients from having to return to their countries. The president responded: "DACA is somewhat different from Dreamers. You understand that... Where do you come from, by the way, originally? Where?" After the woman responded that her grandparents came from Russia and Poland, he stated, "That's very good." He then went on to discuss his border wall with Mexico; that is, keeping the wrong kind of immigrants out.

The Military as a Recruiting Ground for the Far Right

If there is any concept that these groups threatening to disrupt our democracy stand for, it's a version of individual freedom -- like not wearing masks -- that's akin to driving drunk and without putting on a seat belt, rather than waiting for a sober friend to drive you home. Yes, it's more comfortable not to wear a mask or a seatbelt. The short-term benefits, like physical comfort, are tangible, as is perhaps the exhilarating sense that you can do anything you want with your body. (Ask most anti-maskers about abortion rights, however, and you'll get quite a different perspective on the degree to which our bodies should be our own.)

Yet the most current scientific evidence is that if all Americans wore masks (and social-distanced) right now, it would potentially save tens of thousands of lives. In the age of Covid-19, however, concerns over public health restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, including lockdowns of gyms, bars, and other public facilities, have become political firestorms. Such mandated lockdowns were the main reason various gunmen collaborated with the Wolverine Watchmen in a plot -- fortunately foiled -- to kidnap the governor of Michigan and considered a similar plot against Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia.

Perhaps not coincidentally, people of color -- Blacks and Latinos -- die from Covid-19 at a rate about a third higher than their share of the population. In other words, it couldn't be clearer whose bodily freedoms are really considered at stake in these far-right struggles and whose are expendable.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these groups is that they take a significant part of their manpower and know-how from the United States military with the tacit support of a Republican Senate. As a military spouse as well as the co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project, it's been no secret to me that our military's support for bigotry of all kinds is endemic. Racist and sexist remarks are commonplace both on the boats where my husband has served and in gatherings with officer colleagues and their families. Little more than brief reprimands (if that) are handed out in return.

In a country where gun ownership and firearms training are seen by the far right as inalienable, all-American freedoms, the military is a ripe breeding ground for disaffected men looking for individual empowerment, a sense of belonging, and just such training. In fact, a recent New York Times investigation claims that veterans and active-duty military members make up more than a fifth of the membership of America's 300 anti-government, pro-Trump "militia" groups. According to a 2019 survey by the Military Times, about a quarter of active-duty service members reported witnessing signs of white nationalist ideology among their fellow soldiers, including racist and anti-Semitic slurs and homemade explosives shaped like swastikas.

Nothing is more disturbing, when it comes to white nationalist-style hate, than the way the Republicans in Congress have implicitly sanctioned it. In 2019, after the Democratic-controlled House introduced a clause into the Defense Authorization Act to have recruits screened for white nationalist ideology, the Republican Senate nixed the provision. What more need be said?

How did an institution that should be about service to the nation become a petri dish for people who stand for nothing of collective significance? Even one of the favorite and abiding principles of far-right actors (and many Republicans in Congress), the right to bear arms, seems eerily decontextualized from history in a country that leads the world by far in armed citizens (many with distinctly military-style weaponry).

Let's remember that this right was grounded in the idea of organizing the revolutionary army against a colonial power that taxed people without representing them and forcibly billeted its military in their homes. The colonists, while rife with their own history of human-rights violations, were not a bunch of disaffected, irrationally angry individual crusaders with an urge to use weapons to threaten civilians.

Two and a half centuries later, the party that regularly signals its support for the far right's armed tactics still controls the presidency, the upper chamber of Congress, and will soon control the Supreme Court as well. And yet it and its right-wing supporters eternally act as if they were the victims in our world and, from that position of victimization, are now threatening others (and not just Gretchen Whitmer either.)

Many among them still see themselves as subjugated by this country's ruling elite, which may represent a kind of projection or, psychologically speaking, seeing in others the thoughts and feelings one actually harbors in oneself. And as a therapist who has worked with significant numbers of veterans and military service members, I can warn them: don't do it. As I know from some military service members who have told me of their time in distant lands, when they used guns against civilians, it shook to the core their belief in the principle of service to country, leaving them distrustful of the homeland they had been fighting for.

Of course, an increasingly armed far right has responded by creating a world of symbols that are deeply comforting to them. Yet do they really stand for anything?

I was recently appalled by a bumper sticker on a minivan featuring two large guns and three smaller ones aligned together like those stickers that show heterosexual nuclear families. Its tagline: "My guns are my family." At the wheel was a young woman with several children. I balk similarly at pictures on people's lawns that feature Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" flag -- how did he get a separate flag? -- and the word "Jesus" in all-capital letters.

Guns and small children? A separate Trump state and Jesus? Never before has sociologist Émile Durkheim's idea that religious groups are less in need of a cohesive ideology than symbols to which they can all bow down in unison made more sense to me. Amid such incoherence (and symbolic violence), such an inability to justify their place in this democracy, it might be fairest to say that, as this election campaign heads toward its chaotic climax, Trump and the far right worship little more than one another.

"At Least He Hasn't Started Another War"

In October, the United States passed its 19-year mark in its second Afghan War of the last four decades. In many ways, that war and the dregs of the conflict in Iraq, which the U.S. invaded in the spring of 2003, have become as empty as the war that far-right groups wage in the United States. The hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, the flourishing of terrorist groups far deadlier and angrier than those the U.S. originally sought to defeat, the degradation of basic human rights including the rights to life and health -- the carnage has been significant indeed. As these wars enter or near their third decade, I often hear friends say about President Trump, "At least he hasn't started another war."

Oh, but he has! This time, though, the war is at home. Even the Wolverine Watchmen and their co-collaborators in recent kidnapping plots saw themselves as initiating a civil war, or a boogaloo (to use far-right terminology). Not since the Jim Crow South years have we had to worry about people's physical safety as they approach the polls to cast their vote -- and the "Four More Years" folks and other gun-toting Trump supporters have, I fear, just gotten started. Never would it have been thinkable for a sitting president to overlook, or even implicitly endorse, plots to kidnap and possibly kill elected officials, but Trump has even gone so far as to respond to his supporters at a recent rally in Michigan chanting "Lock her up!" by saying "Lock them all up!" (a play both on his Hillary Clinton chants in the last election and on Governor Whitmer's pandemic lockdown orders).

Twenty years later, our healthcare resources (never sufficient) are further depleted. A pandemic is again spiking across the country. Those who run for office and try to govern with dignity are being challenged in all too threatening ways. Think of it, whether in political or health terms, as our new war zone. I hope that those who appear to vote in person under pandemic conditions and increasing threats of voter intimidation will not come under attack next by far-right groups. To anyone who is listening in elected office anywhere in America: I hope you have a plan for a peaceful transition of power, since the "law-and-order" president is, of course, anything but that when it comes to sustaining our democracy, rather than his presidency.

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.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrea Mazzarino

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