Andrea Mazzarino

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 Post op-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.

Homecoming

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 and friends. 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

An American war zone: The US may be sliding toward sectarian conflict

When it rains, pieces of glass, pottery, and metal rise through the mud in the hills surrounding my Maryland home. The other day, I walked outside barefoot to fetch one of my kid’s shoes and a pottery shard stabbed me in the heel. Nursing a minor infection, I wondered how long that fragment dated back.

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