Andrea Mazzarino

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

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“When he first came home, it was tough.” So Aleha, the wife of an airman in Colorado, told me. She was describing her family’s life since her husband, who lives with chronic depression, completed a partial hospitalization program and, in March, along with other members of his unit, entered a pandemic lockdown. He was now spending full days at home with her and their four children, which offered needed family time and rest from the daily rigors of training. Yet the military’s pandemic lockdown had its challenges as well. Aside from weekly online sessions with his therapist (the third the military had assigned him in so many weeks), Aleha was left to provide her husband with needed emotional support, while homeschooling their older children and caring for their toddler.

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Here's what Americans don’t know about military families as our endless wars go on

As each of my husband’s Navy submarine deployments came to an end, local spouses would e-mail me about the ship’s uncertain date of return. They were attempting to sell tickets to a raffle in which the winner would be the first to kiss her returning sailor. When the time came, journalists would hover to capture the image as hundreds of families, many with young children like mine, waited for hours at an empty lot on base, sometimes exposed to rain, wind, or sun reflecting off the pavement.

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