Nan Levinson

Give peace a chance: Imagining a world without war

Nan Levinson: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

Consider just one long-gone date in the world of give-peace-(not-war)-a-chance: January 27, 1973. On that day, the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese rebel forces signed an agreement initiating a cease-fire during which the U.S. would withdraw its troops and dismantle all its bases in the South. On that very same day in this country, the draft was ended, launching what would become America’s all-volunteer military. Richard Nixon was still president then. He had long been convinced, as Andrew Glass wrote at Politico, that “ending the draft could be an effective political weapon against the burgeoning antiwar movement. He believed middle-class youths would lose interest in protesting the war once it became clear that they would not have to fight, and possibly die, in Vietnam.”

Though it was already too late for Nixon to test out that thesis in terms of America’s disastrous war in Vietnam, almost half a century later, it seems as if he was onto something. I was in that “burgeoning antiwar movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s; turned in my draft card in protest; was often in the streets demonstrating against the war; and worked as an antiwar journalist at a time when, among others, both rebellious students and antiwar soldiers demonstrated repeatedly, often in significant numbers, against a first-class horror thousands of miles away.

In this century, we haven’t exactly lacked Vietnam equivalents. After all, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush launched its Global War on Terror and, with it, two fiercely destructive distant conflicts that could have been considered Vietnam-competitive. I’m thinking, of course, of the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The devastating war in Iraq following that invasion continued for years, while the one in Afghanistan only ended (disastrously) in August 2021. And yet here was the odd thing: though there were large antiwar protests in February 2003 against the coming invasion of Iraq and more followed after that war began, unlike in the Vietnam era, they died out all too soon, while this country’s conflicts went grimly on (and on and on).

TomDispatch itself began more than two decades ago as a protest against this country’s disastrous war on terror and never ceased to focus on the conflicts it launched, even when they largely stopped being issues here. As TomDispatch regular Nan Levinson has reported, some active-duty military personnel and veterans did continue to protest them. (She even wrote a book about such protesters: War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built.) However, most Americans seemed to forget about the wars being fought in their name by that all-volunteer military in distant lands. In so many of those years, polls indicated that remarkably few of us even considered war a problem, so perhaps, once upon a time, Richard Nixon did have his finger on the pulse of this nation.

Today, at a moment when peace movements of any sort (including in relation to the war in Ukraine) get little or no attention, Levinson returns to the subject. Let her explain. Tom

Give Peace a Chance: Is There a World Beyond War?

I like to sing and what I like best is to do so at the top of my lungs when I’m all alone. Last summer, taking a walk through the corn fields in New York’s Hudson River Valley with no one around but the barn swallows, I found myself belting out a medley of tunes about peace from my long-ago, summer camp years. That was the late 1950s, when the miseries of World War II were still relatively fresh, the U.N. looked like a promising development, and folk music was just oh-so-cool.

At my well-meaning, often self-righteous, always melodious camp, 110 children used to warble with such sweet promise:

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine
but other lands have sunlight too and clover
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine

It seemed such a sensible, grown-up way to think — like, duh! we can all have the good stuff. That was before I got older and came to realize that grown-ups don’t necessarily think sensibly. So many years later, as I finished the last chorus, I wondered: Who talks, let alone sings, that way about peace anymore? I mean, without irony and with genuine hope?

Since my summer ramble, International Peace Day has come and gone. Meanwhile, militaries are killing civilians (and sometimes vice versa) in places as disparate as Ukraine, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, the West Bank, and Yemen. It just goes on and on, doesn’t it? And that’s not even to mention all the fragile truces, acts of terrorism (and reprisal), quashed uprisings, and barely repressed hostilities on this planet.

Don’t get me started, by the way, on how the language of battle so often pervades our daily lives. Little wonder that the Pope, in his recent Christmas message, bemoaned the world’s “famine of peace.”

Amid all of that, isn’t it hard to imagine that peace stands a chance?

Sing Out!

There’s a limit to how much significance songs can carry, of course, but a successful political movement does need a good soundtrack. (As I found out while reporting then, Rage Against the Machine served that purpose for some post-9/11 antiwar soldiers.) Better yet is an anthem crowds can sing when they gather in solidarity to exert political pressure. After all, it feels good to sing as a group at a moment when it doesn’t even matter if you can carry a tune as long as the lyrics hit home. But a protest song, by definition, isn’t a song of peace — and it turns out that most recent peace songs aren’t so peaceful either.

As many of us of a certain age remember, antiwar songs thrived during the Vietnam War years. There was the iconic “Give Peace a Chance,” recorded by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and pals in a Montreal hotel room in 1969; “War,” first recorded by the Temptations in 1970 (I can still hear that “absolutely nothing!” response to “What Is It Good For?”); Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train,” from 1971; and that’s just to begin a list. But in this century? Most of the ones I came across were about inner peace or making peace with yourself; they are self-care mantras du jour. The few about world or international peace were unnervingly angry and bleak, which also seemed to reflect the tenor of the time.

It’s not as if the word “peace” has been cancelled. The porch of a neighbor of mine sports a faded peace flag; Trader Joe’s keeps me well-supplied with Inner Peas; and peace still gets full commercial treatment sometimes, as on designer T-shirts from the Chinese clothing company Uniqlo. But many of the organizations whose goal is indeed world peace have chosen not to include the word in their names and “peacenik,” pejorative even in its heyday, is now purely passé. So, has peace work just changed its tune or has it evolved in more substantial ways?

Peace 101

Peace is a state of being, even perhaps a state of grace. It can be as internal as individual serenity or as broad as comity among nations. But at best, it’s unstable, eternally in danger of being lost. It needs a verb with it — seek the, pursue the, win the, keep the — to have real impact and, although there have been stretches of time without war in certain regions (post-WW II Europe until recently, for example), that certainly doesn’t seem to be the natural state of all too much of this world of ours.

Most peace workers probably disagree or they wouldn’t be doing what they do. In this century, I first experienced pushback to the idea that war is innate or inevitable in a 2008 phone interview with Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist noted for his work with Vietnam War veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. That was the subject we were talking about when he veered off-topic and asserted his belief that it was indeed possible to end all war.

Most such conflicts, he thought, stemmed from fear and the way not just civilians but the military brass so often “consume” it as entertainment. He urged me to read Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s treatise Perpetual Peace. When I did, I was indeed struck by its echoes over two centuries later. On recurring debates about reinstating the draft, to take one example, consider Kant’s suggestion that standing armies only make it easier for countries to go to war. “They incite the various states to outrival one another in the number of their soldiers,” he wrote then, “and to this number no limit can be set.”

The modern academic field of peace and conflict studies — there are now about 400 such programs around the world — began about 60 years ago. Underpinning peace theory are the concepts of negative and positive peacefirst widely introduced by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung (though Jane Addams and Martin Luther King both used the terms earlier). Negative peace is the absence of immediate violence and armed conflict, the conviction perhaps that you can buy groceries without taking a chance on getting blown to smithereens (as in Ukraine today). Positive peace is a state of sustained harmony within and among nations. That doesn’t mean no one ever disagrees, only that the parties involved deal with any clash of goals nonviolently. And since so many violent clashes arise from underlying social conditions, employing empathy and creativity to heal wounds is essential to the process.

Negative peace aims at avoiding, positive peace at enduring. But negative peace is an immediate necessity because wars are so much easier to start than to stop, which makes Galtung’s position more practical than messianic. “I am not concerned with saving the world,” he wrote. “I am concerned with finding solutions to specific conflicts before they become violent.”

David Cortright, a Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and co-creator of Win Without War, offered me this definition of such work in an email: “To me, the question is not ‘world peace,’ which is dreamy and utopian and too often used to ridicule those of us who believe in and work for peace, but rather how to reduce armed conflict and violence.”

Peace Comes Dropping Slow

Peace movements tend to mobilize around specific wars, swelling and declining as those conflicts do, though sometimes they do remain in our world afterward. Mother’s Day, for instance, grew out of a call for peace after the Civil War. (Women have been at the forefront of peace actions since Lysistrata organized the women of ancient Greece to deny men sex until they ended the Peloponnesian War.) A few still-active antiwar organizations date from before World War I and several arose from the Vietnam War resistance movement and the antinuclear one of the early 1980s. Others are as recent as Dissenters, organized in 2017 by young activists of color.

Today, a long list of nonprofits, religious groups, NGOs, lobbying campaigns, publications, and scholarly programs are intent on abolishing war. They generally focus their efforts on educating citizens in how to rein in militarism and military funding, while promoting better ways for countries to coexist peacefully or stanch internal conflicts.

Count on one thing, though: it’s never an easy task, not even if you limit yourself to the United States, where militarism is regularly portrayed as patriotism and unbridled spending on murderous weapons as deterrence, while war profiteering has long been a national pastime. True, a signer of the Declaration of Independence later proposed a Peace-Office to be headed by a Secretary of Peace and put on equal footing with the War Department. Such an idea never got further, however, than renaming that War Department as the more neutral-sounding Defense Department in 1949, after the U.N. Charter outlawed wars of aggression. (If only!)

According to a database compiled by the Military Intervention Project, this country has engaged in 392 military interventions since 1776, half of them in the past 70 years. At the moment, this country isn’t directly waging any full-scale conflicts, though U.S. troops are still fighting in Syria and its planes still launching strikes in Somalia, not to speak of the 85 counterterror operations Brown University’s Costs of War Project found the U.S. had engaged in from 2018 to 2020, some of which are undoubtedly ongoing. The Institute for Economics and Peace ranks the U.S. 129th out of 163 countries in its 2022 Global Peace Index. Among the categories we’ve flunked in that reckoning are the size of our jailed population, the number of counterterrorist activities conducted, military expenditures (which leave the rest of the planet in the dust), general militarism, our nuclear arsenal being “modernized” to the tune of almost $2 trillion in the decades to come, the staggering numbers of weapons we send or sell abroad, and the number of conflicts fought. Add to that so many other urgent, interlacing problems and mundane brutalities against this planet and the people on it and it’s easy to believe that pursuing sustained peace isn’t just unrealistic but distinctly un-American.

Except it isn’t. Peace work is all too crucial, if only because a Pentagon budget accounting for at least 53% of this country’s discretionary budget undercuts and sabotages efforts to address a host of crucial social needs. It’s hardly surprising, then, that U.S. peace activists have had to adjust their strategies along with their vocabulary.They now stress the interconnectedness of war and so many other issues, partly as a tactic, but also because “no justice, no peace” is more than a slogan. It’s a precondition for achieving a more peaceful life in this country.

Recognizing the interconnectedness of what plagues us means more than just coaxing other constituencies to add peace to their portfolios. It means embracing and working with other organizations on their issues, too. As Jonathan King, co-chair of Massachusetts Peace Action and professor emeritus at MIT, put it aptly, “You need to go where people are, meet them at their concerns and needs.” So, King, a longtime peace activist, also serves on the coordinating committee of the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, which includes ending “military aggression and war-mongering” on its list of demands, while Veterans For Peace now has an activeClimate Crisis and Militarism Project. David Cortright similarly points to a growing body of peace research, drawing on science and other scholarly fields, including feminist and post-colonial studies, while pushing a radical rethinking of what peace means.

Then there’s the question of how movements accomplish anything through some combination of inside institutional work, general political clout, and public pressure. Yes, maybe someday Congress might finally be persuaded by a lobbying campaign to revoke those outdated Authorizations for Use of Military Force passed in 2001 and 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed. That, at least, would make it harder for a president to deploy U.S. troops in distant conflicts at will. However, getting enough members of Congress to agree to rein in the defense budget would likely require a grassroots campaign of staggering size. All that, in turn, would undoubtedly mean a melding of any peace movement into something far larger, as well as a series of hold-your-nose compromises and relentless fundraising appeals (like a recent plea asking me to “make a down payment on peace”).

The Peace Beat?

This fall, I attended a panel, “Chronicling War and Occupation,” at a student-organized conference on freedom of the press. The four panelists — impressive, experienced, battered war correspondents — spoke thoughtfully about why they do such work, whom they hope to influence, and the dangers they deal with, including the possibility of “normalizing” war. At question time, I asked about coverage of antiwar activity and was met with silence, followed by a half-hearted reference to the suppression of dissent in Russia.

True, when bullets are flying, it’s not the time to ponder the alternative, but bullets weren’t flying in that auditorium and I wondered whether every panel about war reportage shouldn’t include someone reporting on peace. I doubt it’s even a thought in newsrooms that, along with war reporters, there could also be peace reporters. And what, I wonder, would that beat look like? What might it achieve?

I doubt I ever expected to see peace in our time, not even long ago when we sang those lilting songs. But I have seen wars end and, occasionally, even avoided. I have seen conflicts resolved to the betterment of those involved and I continue to admire the peace workers who had a role in making that happen.

As David Swanson, co-founder and executive director of World Beyond War, reminded me in a recent phone call, you work for peace because “it’s a moral responsibility to oppose the war machine. And as long as there’s a chance and you’re working at what has the best chance of succeeding, you have to do it.”

It’s as simple — and as bedeviling — as that. In other words, we have to give peace a chance.

The anti-war conundrum of Ukraine

Nan Levinson: "I've Seen What Bombs Do"

As we think about the nightmarish war in Ukraine, let me just offer you a few figures: almost a million dead, nearly 400,000 of them civilians; at least 38 million people turned into war refugees or internally displaced; and perhaps $8 trillion in money squandered on that hell on Earth. Oh wait, sorry, that’s what happens when you get old and things start to blur in your mind. Yes, the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is indeed a horror of slaughtered civilians, mind-boggling numbers of refugees and internally displaced Ukrainians, and untold amounts of money already squandered on death and destruction. The figures I just gave you, however, come from the invaluable Costs of War Project’s calculations about what used to be called this country’s “Global War on Terror,” which includes the invasions, occupations of, and disastrous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As we face a Congress that can’t agree to spend any reasonable sums on needy Americans but is racing to raise staggering billions of dollars to arm the Ukrainians (no questions asked), it’s worth remembering that, in this century, when it came to invasions and horrifying wars, our leaders were functionally Vladimir Putins. Now, thanks to him, we’ve suddenly become the “good guys” again, a phenomenon in which Washington is, of course, reveling. If only, as the other major invader nation of this century, we had learned that making peace is so much better than making war and were putting at least some of our efforts into brokering negotiations between the warring parties in Ukraine rather than further revving up the conflict and glorying in doing so.

As far as I’m concerned, TomDispatch regular Nan Levinson embodies the antiwar spirit on this planet. She’s worked for years with American military personnel who, in an up-close-and-personal fashion, turned their backs on war. She even wrote a book about them, War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built. So, as the conflict in Ukraine only intensifies, as the Russians, Americans, Europeans, and Ukrainians pour ever more into the battle there while the very possibility of peace seems to fade from view, let her explore the difficulties the antiwarriors of our world now face dealing with just such a situation. Tom

Ukraine: An Antiwar Dilemma

I’ve been watching this country at war for many years now and, after 9/11, began spending time with American veterans who came to disdain and actively oppose the very conflicts they were sent to fight. The paths they followed to get there and the courage it took to turn their backs on all they had once embraced intrigued and impressed me, so I wrote a book about them. While doing so, I was often struck by a strange reality in that era of American war-making: in a land where there was no longer a draft, most Americans were paying remarkably little attention to our ongoing wars thousands of miles away. I find it even stranger today — and please note that this takes nothing away from the misery of the Ukrainian people or the ruthlessness of Vladimir Putin’s invasion — that the public seems vastly more engaged in a war its country is not officially fighting than in the ones we did fight so brutally and unsuccessfully over the past two decades.

Here, for instance, are just a few notes I took recently while listening to NPR: A woman calls one of its talk shows, feeling guilty about celebrating her daughter’s birthday in style when Ukrainians are suffering so horribly. A panel on a different NPR show discusses why Americans feel so involved and its members consider all-too-uncomfortably the rationale that the Ukrainians “look like us.” The show’s host does note that they don’t actually look like all of us, but no one suggests that decrying atrocities is easier when they’re committed by another country, especially one we never much liked to begin with.

Need more? Scott Simon, a popular NPR host, concludes an opinion piece about a 91-year-old Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust and died during the siege of Mariupol this way: “Whether in Bosnia, Rwanda, Xinjiang, Bucha, Kharkiv, or Mariupol, ‘Never Again’ seems to happen again and again.” Note the absence from that list of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen.

And what about that people-like-us biz? “We are all Americans,” Le Monde declared after the 9/11 attacks. Are we all Ukrainians now? And does that explain the amnesia and whitewashing of American war policy in this century — or the implicit racism of it all? There’s something odiously revealing about our tendency to divide people caught in this planet’s wars into worthy and unworthy victims, the first deserving our sympathy (of course!), the second evidently deserving their fate.

So What’s Our Problem?

I don’t mean to dump on NPR. It hasn’t been beating the drums of war any more rhythmically than most other U.S. news outlets in these last weeks. It’s also true that, despite the inherent dangers, journalists have greater access to the conflict in Ukraine than they ever did to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thanks to Ukraine’s proximity to established news bureaus, its communication infrastructure, and the flow of refugees to neighboring countries, the coverage there has been more like the U.S. war in Vietnam of the previous century than like the coverage of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That connection wasn’t lost on Pat Scanlon who worked in military intelligence in Vietnam. As he followed reports of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing and missiling of civilian targets in Ukraine, his post-traumatic stress disorder flared up badly. “I’ve seen what bombs do,” he told me. A member of Veterans for Peace (VFP), Scanlon is a long-standing antiwar and environmental activist. “This feels very different,” he said and, in response, he joined a local demonstration supporting Ukraine, even getting funding from his VFP chapter to contribute to humanitarian organizations there.

I, too, find myself appalled and saddened by the situation and frightened by the looming dangers. I, too, want to meet the needs of those more than six million refugees. And I, too, am susceptible to the way both Washington and the media are playing on my sympathies: the child with contact information written on her back in case she gets lost as her family flees Kyiv; President Zelensky in that hoodie resolutely staying put; and besieged Ukrainian soldiers flipping off Russian demands to surrender.

After all, this mix of horror and heroism catches what war is, not the gauzy all-American version with supposedly super-accurate, super-bloodless drones and those celebratory homecomings Americans were fed for 20 years. The extensive and vivid reporting on the nightmarish nature of the war in Ukraine has certainly helped bolster NATO’s sense of purpose and common cause, even as it’s drawn our fractured country closer together on at least one issue.

So why am I complaining?

I just wish our compassion had been more capacious and had kicked in for the Afghans and Iraqis when our military invaded their countries, bombed their cities, and terrorized their people. I wanted Americans to pay attention then because I held out hope that public pressure could end those wars much sooner. I wanted American feelings of empathy for the terrorized to translate into the gift of peace, and now, I want some of our resources to be made available to rebuild the places and lives we destroyed in those countries over so many years.

Instead, just as in the previous two decades, America’s involvement in war, this time with Russia, is above all a bonanza for war profiteers and our military-industrial-congressional complex.

Spoils of war

A shrewd and inspiring communicator, Zelensky has made it clear that any American commitment to Ukraine must include military equipment and lots of it. The U.S. has obliged: it pledged close to $5 billion in such assistance in the first 10 weeks of the war and President Biden asked Congress for another $20.4 billion for weapons and security measures on April 28th. (The House then upped that to a $40 billion package of humanitarian and military aid and the Senate is soon likely to follow suit.) That same day, Congress voted to resurrect the World War II-era Lend-Lease program, the Senate unanimously, the House 417 to 10. On signing the original Lend-Lease legislation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “And so our country is going to be what our people have proclaimed it must be — the arsenal of democracy.” Indeed.

Between the Ukraine war and the demand it’s created to replenish the weapons supply at home — $8.7 billion of the new package — it looks like a good year for those defense contractors and their many benefactors in Congress. The investigative news outlet Sludge counted a dozen members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, who, in 2019, reported holding at least $50,000 worth of investments in top arms manufacturers (and I doubt it’s gotten better since).

One of the problems with lavishing weapons on Ukraine is that the arms and ammunition meant for that battlefield won’t necessarily stay on it or in the hands they’re meant for. The Global Organized Crime Index reports, “While [Ukraine] has long been a key link in the global arms trade, its role has only intensified since the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

So it’s hardly mystifying that, for example, Ukrainian forces have cluster bombs, banned internationally but used by the Russian army, and probably wielded them while trying to retake the village of Husarivka.

Ukraine may even have used Western-supplied weapons to attack fuel and research sites inside Russia itself. (Ukrainian officials are cagey on the subject.) As we know from leaks in Washington, their forces also used U.S. intelligence to target and kill a striking number of Russian generals and sink the most formidable ship in that country’s Black Sea fleet. Those attacks may indicate a strategic shift from a defensive war to one aimed at debilitating Russia’s military. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said as much when he visited Ukraine in late April, declaring, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Mission creep? Slippery slope? Those, of course, aren’t the preferred terms here, although they’re beginning to sound like accurate descriptions of what’s happening.

What Can Be Done?

Okay, so arming the world up the wazoo, as the United States, long the world’s greatest weapons merchant, has been doing for years, isn’t the best response. Then what should this country be doing as Russia destroys Ukraine’s buildings, infrastructure, and environment, while endlessly brutalizing people there? Of the many tropes being applied to the situation — David versus Goliath, standing up to bullies, Europe on the precipice, freedom versus tyranny — the dominant one is good against evil. What a relief to finally have a war situation be so clear-cut.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan on the flimsiest of pretexts — and, in the case of Iraq, outright lies (about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) — it was clear, at least to me, that the right response was Don’t Do It! and, once it was done, Get the Hell Out Now!

My country was the one acting criminally and I believed it to be not just my right but my obligation to protest vociferously and make those in power take heed. They didn’t, of course, but in my heart of hearts, I still believed that they should have.

In contrast, protest over Ukraine feels empty, performative. I can doff my cap to Marina Ovsyannikova, the valiant Russian TV editor who burst onto a news set with her antiwar sign. I can mourn the seven journalists who have died doing what the world needs them to do. I can send money for humanitarian aid and love to the librarians who are backing up Ukraine’s digital archives. I can support the 35 or so young men from both Russia and Ukraine who, according to Jeff Paterson, the founder of Courage to Resist, have called a resisters’ hotline in Germany to get accurate information about how to refuse to fight in this war. I can even recognize the impulse that moves veterans of America’s recent morally murky wars to volunteer to fight in Ukraine because it feels like a kind of redemption.

I could do that and more, but still, 300 civilians were slaughtered while sheltering in a theater in the city of Mariupol, although the Russian word for “children” was painted in giant letters on the ground nearby in the hope that the bombers would spare them. Still, 50 or more civilians were blown up in Kramatorsk while awaiting a train to take them to safety. Still, investigators found evidence of torture and rape, along with mass graves, in Bucha.

I don’t believe any war is a good war, but I recognize the need for self-preservation.

Such war crimes and brutality have put many antiwar activists, including those with military ties, in the disquieting position of struggling with their stance on this war. Veterans For Peace and Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), for instance, issued statements early on condemning the invasion and calling for a commitment of both sides to sincere negotiations. They also expressed concern over the weaponry pouring into Ukraine and the environmental consequences of such a war at this moment. VFP rejected punitive sanctions as not targeting those responsible for the war and used its military expertise to argue against establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. MFSO also demanded that the thousands of additional American troops the Biden administration had dispatched to Europe be withdrawn.

But in the face of war’s atrocities, the tyranny of the immediate can be overwhelming and, for groups that have long opposed America’s wars (and sometimes war in general), confusing indeed. Intra-group discussions in such organizations have reflected this and led to a marked lack of unanimity on how to respond. Positions have ranged from blaming the U.S. and NATO for provoking Russia’s invasion, to charging Washington with not negotiating in good faith, to worrying about provoking Russian President Putin further — the Biden administration seems to be worrying about this, too — to calling out defense industries and their supporters for making hay while the sun shines, to hailing the Ukrainians for their resistance and affirming that people indeed do have the right to defend themselves.

Jovanni Reyes, who served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army from 1993 until he resigned in 2005 because of his strong opposition to the Iraq War, acknowledges such internal conflicts in peace groups right now, including About Face, where he’s a member. He believes that sending arms to Ukraine will only fuel the conflict further and that our government doesn’t want to end the war but to fight the Russians. “There is no military solution,” he says, “so you have to come to the table and stop flooding [Ukraine] with arms.”

In contrast, Celeste Zappala, an early member of Military Families Speak Out and the mother of a National Guardsman killed in Iraq in 2004 (who once described herself to me as “everybody’s bleeding-heart liberal”), disagrees. She doesn’t think the U.S. should back off. As she put it, “I feel like if we don’t somehow face this down, what happens?” And if she had a son in the military now? “I’d be super worried, but I would reluctantly support [his deploying to Europe] because I don’t see any other way.”

Any Other Way?

Since NATO was launched in 1949 as a defense alliance of 12 Western countries aligned against the Soviet Union — it has 30 members now — much has transpired, including actions that were provocative or poorly timed. Nothing NATO has done, however, justifies Vladimir Putin’s invasion and destruction of Ukraine. Of course, the odds on his listening to American peace activists are nonexistent. He has, after all, ignored more than 1.5 million of his own citizens, the 4,000-plus Russian scientists and science journalists, the 20,000 artists and other culture workers, and the 44 top chess players in his own country who have signed petitions and letters stating their opposition to his war. He seems no less capable of ignoring the deaths of anywhere from 7,000 to 24,200 Russian troops, not to mention probably tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians.

What Putin wants and what he’s still planning to do are the subject of much speculation, especially if he’s given no face-saving way out. I hope that there’s more diplomacy going on behind the scenes than is now being reported and that realistic compromises on all sides, even hard-to-swallow ones, which will satisfy nobody, are being considered. But maybe Putin is just plain crazy, in which case, we’re all screwed.

The significance of Ukraine’s struggle certainly doesn’t lie in educating Americans, but perhaps it is finally making us reckon with the costs of war, as we’ve needed to do for so long. As the blood and dread and filth of war are made vivid to Americans through relentless reporting and imagery, is it possible that we will become at least somewhat more mindful of going to war? Might it even lead us — and yes, I know it’s unlikely — to reexamine this country’s militarism in this century and its role in other wars in places we’ve done our best never to see from the inside?

Why didn’t the anti-war movement catch on?

When I urge my writing students to juice up their stories, I tell them about “disruptive technologies,” inventions and concepts that end up irrevocably changing industries. Think: iPhones, personal computers, or to reach deep into history, steamships. It’s the tech version of what we used to call a paradigm shift. (President Biden likes to refer to it as an inflection point.)

Certain events function that way, too. After they occur, it’s impossible to go back to how things were: World War II for one generation, the Vietnam War for another, and 9/11 for a third. Tell me it isn’t hard now to remember what it was like to catch a flight without schlepping down roped-off chutes like cattle to the slaughter, even if for most of the history of air travel, no one worried about underwear bombers or explosive baby formula. Of course, once upon a time, we weren’t incessantly at war either.

However, for my students, the clumsily named Gen Z, the transformative event in their lives hasn’t been a war at all — no matter that their country has been enmeshed in one or more of them for all of their conscious lives. It’s probably George Floyd’s murder or the Covid pandemic or the double whammy of both, mixed in with a deadly brew of Trumpism. That alone strikes me as a paradigm shift.

It’s not that they are uncaring. Those I know are ardent about fixing myriad wrongs in the world and prepared to work at it, too. And like many Americans, for a few weeks as August 2021 ended, they were alarmed by the heartbreaking consequences of their country’s failed mission in Afghanistan and its betrayal of the people there. How could you not be heartbroken about people desperate to save their lives and livelihoods? And the girls… ah, the girls, the 37% of teenage girls who learned to read in those years, went to school with boys, saw their lives change, and probably will be denied all of that in the years to come.

In my more cynical moments, though, I note that it was the girls and women who were regularly trotted out by our government officials and generals insisting that U.S. troops must remain in Afghanistan until — until what? Until, as it turned out, disaster struck. After all, what good American heart doesn’t warm to educating the young and freeing girls from forced marriages (as opposed, of course, to killing civilians and causing chaos)?

Militarism is among the all-American problems the young activists I meet do sometimes bring up. It’s just not very high on their list of issues to be faced. The reasons boil down to this: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interminable as they seemed, had little or no direct effect on most of my students or the lives they imagined having and that was reflected in their relative lack of attention to them, which tells us all too much about this country in the twenty-first century.

Spare Change

So here we are, 20 years after U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan and months since they hotfooted it out. That two-decade-long boots-on-the-ground (and planes in the air) episode has now officially been declared over and done with, if not exactly paid for. But was that an inflection point, as this country turned its military attention to China and Russia? Not so fast. I’m impatient with the conventional wisdom about our twenty-first-century wars and the reaction to them at home. Still, I do think it’s important to try to figure out what has (or hasn’t) been learned from them and what may have changed because of them.

In the changed column, alas, the answer seems to be: not enough. Once again, in the pandemic moment, our military is filling roles that would be left to civil society if it were adequately funded — helping in hospitals and nursing homes, administering Covid-19 vaccinations and tests, teaching school and driving school buses — because, as Willie Sutton answered when asked why he robbed banks, that’s where the money is.

Apparently, it’s so much money that even the Defense Department doesn’t quite know how to spend it. Between 2008 and 2019, the Pentagon returned almost $128 billion in unspent funds from its staggeringly vast and still expanding budget. Admittedly, that’s a smaller percentage of that budget than other departments turned back, but it started with so much more and, as a result, that Pentagon spare change accounted for nearly half of all “cancelled” government funds during that time.

Yet too little of those vast sums spent go to active-duty troops. A recent survey found that 29% of the families of junior-level, active-duty soldiers experienced food insecurity (that is, hunger) in the past year, a strong indicator of the economic precariousness of everyday military life, even here at home.

It didn’t help that the U.S. military’s wars only sporadically drew extended public attention. Of course, before 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, that country’s name was shorthand for a place too obscure for most Americans even to find on a world map. And maybe that was still true in 2020, when, nearly two decades after the U.S invaded that nation, the American presence there got all of five minutes of coverage on the national evening newscasts of CBS, NBC, and ABC.

Years earlier, when the focus was more on Iraq than Afghanistan, I attended a meeting of the Smedley Butler Brigade of Veterans For Peace. I was writing a story for the Boston Globe, which made me an easy target for the veterans’ anger. As a result, they badgered me to make our city’s newspaper of record print a daily report of deaths in the war. I explained that, as a freelancer, I had even less influence than they did and, unsurprisingly, such an accounting never came to pass.

Years later, as the U.S. endeavor in Afghanistan wound down and the Globe and other mainstream outlets did actually publish calculations of the costs, I found myself wondering if all those credible, influential media sources would ever publish a reckoning of how many times in the past 20 years, when it might have made a difference, they had run cost analyses of the blinding arrogance that defined U.S. foreign and military policy in those decades. The impact of such accountings might have been vanishingly small anyway.

It’s true, by the way, that Brown University’s Costs of War Project did a formidable job of tackling that issue in those endless war years, but their accounts were, of course, anything but mainstream. Even today, in that mainstream, accurate counts are still hard to come by. The New York Times, which recently published a groundbreaking report on civilian deaths in the Middle East caused by U.S. airstrikes, was stymied by the Pentagon for years when trying to get the necessary documents for just such an accounting, while provincial authorities in Afghanistan often denied that civilian casualties had even occurred.

Presence and Power

In 2004, when Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) was just getting started, I was introduced to a small group of disillusioned but determined young vets, wonderfully full of themselves and intent on doing things their way. While they appreciated the earlier soldier-led antiwar efforts of the Vietnam War era, they wanted to do it all in a new fashion. “We’re sort of reinventing the wheel,” Eli Wright, a young medic, who had served in Iraq, told me, “But we’re making it a much nicer wheel, I think.” I was smitten.

At first, those newly minted anti-warriors thought the very novelty of their existence in war-on-terror America would be enough. So, they told and retold their stories to anyone who would listen: stories of misguided raids and policing actions for which they were ill-equipped and ill-trained; of soul-destroying cruelty they found themselves implicated in; and of their dawning awareness, even while they were in Iraq, that they could no longer be a party to any of it. Believe me, those veterans told powerful and moving stories, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

In a piece about the power and pitfalls of storytelling,Jonathan Gottschall notes that, in the tales we tell, we tend to divide people into a tidy triad of heroes, victims, and villains. My longtime trope was that we — by which I mean we Americans — allowed those fighting our endless wars to be only heroes or victims — the former to valorize, the latter to pity — but nothing else. (Admittedly, sometimes civilian peace workers did see them as villains, but despite an inevitable jockeying for position, civilian and military antiwar groups generally recognized each other as comrades-against-arms.) IVAW insisted on adding activist to that dichotomy, as they attempted to change minds and history.

When you’re trying to do that, or at least influence policy, your odds of success are greater if you have a clear, specific goal you can advocate and agitate for and build coalitions around. Then, when you achieve it, you can, of course, claim victory. IVAW’s overriding aim was to bring the troops home immediately. That goal was finally (more or less) achieved, though at great cost and so much later than they had been demanding, making it anything but a resounding victory; nor did it, in the end, have much to do with those young veterans.

Their significance may lie elsewhere. Last August, in the midst of the chaotic U.S. pull-out from Afghanistan, I tuned in to a podcast about political and social activism just as Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization, Color of Change, was making a distinction between presence (“retweets, shout-outs from the stage”) and power (“the ability to change the rules”).

It would be hard to come up with a better illustration of that difference than Camp Casey, the August 2005 encampment of antiwar military families, veterans, and their sympathizers. It was sprawled across a ditch in Crawford, Texas, a few miles down the road from the ranch of a vacationing President George W. Bush. Their protest made significant news for those five weeks, as media around the world featured heart-rending stories of mothers in mourning and veterans in tears, photos of an iconic white tent, and interviews with Cindy Sheehan whose son, Casey, had been killed in Iraq the year before. The media anointed her the Grieving-Mother-in-Chief and news reports sometimes even got the protesters’ end-the-war, bring-the-troops-home message right.

Whizzing past in a motorcade on his way to a fundraiser, President Bush ignored them, and the war in Iraq continued for another five years with the deaths of about 2,700 more sons and daughters of grieving American mothers. But the next month, when somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Camp Casey participants, veterans, and their supporters gathered for an antiwar march through downtown Washington, D.C., the government was forced to acknowledge, perhaps for the first time, the existence of opposition to the war in Iraq. For context, the National Park Service estimated then that, of the approximately 3,000 permits it issued for demonstrations on the National Mall yearly, only about a dozen attracted more than 5,000 people.

Presence matters and in the few years following Camp Casey, when the antiwar veterans were at their most effective, they learned how to make themselves harder to ignore. They’ve since renamed their group About Face and reconceived its purpose and goals, but the perennial challenge to political activists is how to turn presence into power.

Why Didn’t the Anti-War Movement Catch On?

In February 2003, as many as 10 million people took to the streets in 60 countries to protest the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. But once that invasion happened, it was primarily the military-related groups, sometimes joined by other peace organizations, that kept the opposition alive. Why, though, couldn’t they turn presence into power? Why didn’t more Americans take up the campaign to end two such pointless wars? Why didn’t we learn?

I make no claim to answering those questions in a definitive way. Nonetheless, here’s my stab at it.

Let’s start with the obvious: the repercussions of an all-volunteer military. Only a small proportion of Americans, self-selected and concentrated in certain parts of the country, have been directly involved in and affected by our twenty-first-century wars. Deployed over and over, they didn’t circulate in civil society in the way the previous draft military had and, as warfare became increasingly mechanized and automated (or drone-ified), there have been ever fewer American casualties to remind everyone else in this country that we were indeed at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the troops, that distancing from battle also undoubtedly lessened an innate human resistance to killing and also objections to those wars within the military itself.

Next, stylish as it might be in this country to honor veterans of our wars (thank you for your service!), as Kelly Dougherty, IVAW’s first executive director, complained, “We come home and everyone shakes our hands and calls us heroes, but no one wants to listen to us.” Stories of bravery, horrific wounds, and even post-traumatic stress syndrome were acceptable. Analysis, insight, or testimony about what was actually going on in the war zones? Not so much.

Folk singer, labor organizer, and vet, “Utah” Phillips observed that having a long memory is the most radical idea in America. With items in the news cycle lasting for ever-shorter periods of time before being replaced, administrations becoming ever harder to embarrass, and a voting public getting accustomed to being lied to, even a short memory became a challenge.

The hollowing out of local news in these years only exacerbated the problem. Less local reporting meant fewer stories about people we might actually know or examples of how world events affect our daily lives. Pro-war PR, better funded and connected than any antiwar group could hope to be, filled the gap. Think soldiers striding onto ballfields at sports events to the teary surprise of families and self-congratulatory cheers from the stands. Between 2012 and 2015, the Pentagon paid pro sports teams some $6.8 million to regularly and repeatedly honor the military. Meanwhile, the mainstream media has made it ever harder for peace groups to gain traction by applying a double standard to protest or outsider politics, a reality sociologist Sarah Sobieraj has explored strikingly in her book Soundbitten.

The nature of political protest changed, too. As information was disseminated and shared more and more through social media — activism by way of hashtag, tweet, and Instagram — organizing turned ever more virtual and ever less communal. Finally, despite protestations about the United States being a peace-loving country, the military in these years has proven a rare bipartisan darling, while, historically speaking, violence has been bred into America’s bones.

Maybe, however, the lack of active opposition to the endless wars wasn’t a new normal, but something like the old normal. Sadly enough, conflicts don’t simply end because people march against them. Even the far larger Vietnam antiwar movement was only one pressure point in winding down that conflict. War policy is directed by what happens on the ground and, to a lesser degree, at the ballot box. What an antiwar movement can do is help direct the public response, which may, fingers crossed, save the country from going to war someplace else and save another generation of soldiers from having to repeat the mistakes of the past 20 years.

The threat from within: Right-wing extremism lurks in the U.S. military

It was around noon and I was texting a friend about who-knows-what when I added, almost as an afterthought: "tho they seem to be invading the Capitol at the mo." I wasn't faintly as blasé as that may sound on January 6th, especially when it became ever clearer who "they" were and what they were doing. Five people would die due to that assault on the Capitol building, including a police officer, and two more would commit suicide in the wake of the event. One hundred forty police would be wounded (lost eye, heart attack, cracked ribs, smashed spinal disks, concussions) and the collateral damage would be hard even to tote up.

I'm not particularly sentimental about anyone-can-grow-up-to-be-president and all that — in 2017, anyone did — but damn! This was democracy under actual, not rhetorical, attack.

As the list of people charged in connection with that insurrection rose, ways of analyzing their possible motivations grew ever more creative: at least nine of the rioters who broke into the Capitol had a history of violence against women; almost 60% had had money troubles; and above all, 50, or 14.5%, of the 356 people arrested at last count, had military connections, as did the woman killed by a policeman that day. (Veterans and active-duty personnel account for 7.5% of the U.S. population.) More than a fifth of the arrested veterans have been charged with "conspiracy."

The need to understand why an estimated 800 people ransacked the Capitol, attacked the police, and threatened elected representatives, journalists, and the basic functioning of American democracy is both practical and emotional. Thinking that we know what motivated the rioters makes their rebellion feel a little more manageable (at least to me) and might just help prevent something like it from happening again.

Given my background — I've been writing about soldiers and veterans for years — my management technique has been to look at the military links to that assault.

I'm hardly alone. In one of the few times other than Veterans Day in this century when American journalists seem to have remembered that our military was crucial to our national experience, a number of them began covering that link. A regularly updated NPR list shows that almost all of those with military affiliations in the Capitol that day were veterans. Several had previously been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan; one had worked on presidential helicopters and so (like another of the rioters) would have had a top-secret security clearance; one, who wasn't actually at the Capitol but whom the FBI is eyeing for conspiracy charges, was on the staff of former congressman Ron Paul; and one had even been in the Peace Corps. Nearly all of them were men and nearly all were white. Two were Citadel cadets, but only two were active-duty personnel. (One of those had, in the past, come to work at a Navy yard in New Jersey decked out in a Hitler mustache and hairdo and reportedly made anti-Semitic comments daily. He got admonished for the mustache; the comments continued.)

I admit that I was surprised by all this, although I probably shouldn't have been. After all, last year, even in the age of Trump, the FBI had opened 68 investigations into domestic extremism involving current or former members of the military.

I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that many of those veterans were affiliated with the far-right Proud Boys or Oath Keepers and much has been made of why such groups would want to engage people with military experience who bring with them training, skills, possible access to weaponry, and the twisted credibility of government-issued hero status. Far less was said about why people in the military might be attracted to far-right groups.

The Link Between Extremist Culture and the Military

A week after the Capitol invasion, 14 Democratic senators wrote a letter calling on the Pentagon's Inspector General to investigate "white supremacy" and "extremism in the military." The next month, a House subcommittee held a hearing under the rubric "Alarming Incidents of White Supremacy in the Military — How to Stop It?" Meanwhile, on February 5th, the first Black secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, directed commanding officers at all levels to conduct a one-day stand-down before April 1st to address extremism in the military and provide training in avoiding involvement with extremist groups. At the same time, the Pentagon admitted that it didn't have a handle on the scope of the problem or what to do about it.

The link between extremist culture and the military goes way back, as do efforts to track and deal with it. The names of the groups have changed over the years — they used to sound German, now they sound moralistic — but the problem hasn't. For instance, in 2009, Operation Vigilant Eagle, an FBI program focused on the recruitment of veterans by white supremacist groups, came to light, and that same year a Department of Homeland Security assessment warned that "right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans" — returning, that is, from America's distant, never-ending wars. Conservative politicians, media personalities and veterans' groups found that DHS report insulting to veterans and got it withdrawn.

Keep in mind that active-duty service members are officially restricted in their political activities, so there were undoubtedly many still in uniform who didn't show up at the Capitol but would have liked to do so. And though the Proud Boys have focused their recruiting on the military and law enforcement, it's hardly necessary to join such loosely structured groups to support their ideology and aims. A 2019 MilitaryTimessurvey, for example, found that 36% of military respondents had "witnessed examples of white supremacy and racist ideologies" in the ranks.

Military rules tend to delineate the rights soldiers don't have more than those they do, but Department of Defense Directive 1325.6 gives active-duty members the right to participate in political demonstrations as long as they are off base, out of uniform, within the United States, representing only themselves, and not slandering the president or high officials. However, activities like fundraising for, distributing the political material of, or wearing the totemic clothing of white supremacist and other extremist groups could indeed get you kicked out of the military, as could certain kinds of social media posts.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) has been pushing to track the social media activities of all enlistees and the Pentagon claims that it's looking for a "scalable way" to add that into background checks.

Members of the armed forces have a duty to report such behavior, though don't count on that, since it's probably seen as snitching. Commanders also have considerable leeway when it comes to how they might respond to the proscribed actions.

It goes without saying, of course, that soldiers are not supposed to engage in any kind of violence — except the violence they're ordered to take part in as soldiers.

That's Not Okay — ish

America's military was designed to be politically neutral and has prided itself on being nondiscriminatory and merit-based, traits theoretically crucial to maintaining an all-volunteer force (though in racial terms over the years it's been anything but, at least when it came to the high command). All branches now purport to screen for supremacist, extremist, or criminal-gang involvement at the time of enlistment and military leaders, who probably don't want troublemakers in their commands, are reportedly taking pains to confirm that such extremists will not be tolerated.

Except when they are.

The design of military justice makes it hard to track advocates of extremist violence, as there is no centralized record-keeping for such things and, often enough, such behavior is simply brushed aside.

In my own unscientific survey, I recently asked two active-duty soldiers and three Iraq War veterans if they had encountered right-wing extremism while in the service. Four initially said no — the fifth, a Black sailor, at one point had had a noose dangled in his face — but then began recounting tales of what was permitted or considered normal behavior: a U.S.-based paramedic talking about avoiding a Black neighborhood where he would encounter "animals"; a call from a friend and Stryker platoon leader in Germany who found arbeit macht frei, the slogan at the gates of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, carved into the interior of some of his unit's vehicles; a fellow recruit at basic training revealing a giant swastika on his back. He was soon sent packing, but had made it through the enlistment process where such things are supposed to be caught. (My source thought his quick dismissal came only because his training instructor was Black. He didn't consider such a response typical.)

Nobody I talked to was okay with any of this, but one active-duty soldier admitted, "When I was most brainwashed, I saw it as cathartic, being comfortable without having to worry about 'cancel culture.'"

Extremism in a World of Never-Ending War

Organizing within the military isn't easy. At least, it wasn't for antiwar activists during the Vietnam and Iraq War years (as I found out when researching my book, War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built). But maybe what's going on now among the soldiers of the far right isn't organizing as much as a signaling or sharing of interests and affinities, particularly on the Internet. Or maybe it's "self-radicalizing" — reading extremist material, following the websites of supremacist groups, or connecting on social media; what, in other circumstances, we might call educating yourself — which breeds sympathy, if not membership.

As separate as the military may seem from civilian culture, it's anything but immune to the vicious discord which now plagues this country. But the military was fertile territory for right-wing sympathies long before Donald Trump became president or the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers came along. The turning of the post-Vietnam War military into an all-volunteer force only seems to have exacerbated such tendencies. As an Army captain emailed me, "The military recruits heavily from the same population that extremist organizations do — socially isolated, downwardly mobile, and economically vulnerable young men." Jonathan Hutto, a Black veteran who challenged the racism he encountered in the Navy, wrote that his shipmates didn't need to be "inculcated with Racist-Fascist Ideology" because they had arrived primed for it by their families and communities.

A former captain in the Marines told me that veterans often find themselves battling with the VA over benefits and services they thought they'd been promised when they went to war and that leaves them embittered against the government. Their difficulty in even talking honestly about their war experiences, not to speak of the PTSD they may be experiencing, often leaves them feeling out of sync with the country — and so they become ready recruits for extremist and white supremacist groups that offer them a sense of belonging.

Active-duty service members also often feel betrayed by recruitment promises which never pan out and multiple deployments in distant war zones which accomplish little or nothing at all. Speaking of that sense of resentment, Garett Reppenhagen, executive director of Veterans For Peace, says, "They just can't pinpoint where it comes from. The frustration is legitimate. It's just focused wrongly."

Kathleen Belew, a historian much cited in the wake of the January 6th insurrection, studied the appeal to veterans of white-power groups in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In her book Bring the War Home, she explains how they came to see the state as the enemy and patriotism as something other than defending the nation. The parallels to today, while striking, lack one reality of this moment: unlike in the Vietnam era, America's wars in this century have simply never ended and so continue to produce alienated veterans.

It's striking, after all, that the veterans who joined the Capitol insurrection weren't exactly kids. In fact, only seven military-connected rioters arrested so far are 30 or younger.

Unlike with Vietnam (long as it was), when wars never end but continue, as if on a Mobius strip of belligerency and repetitious deployments, there is no aftermath, no recovery. People now old enough to enlist have never known a United States not at war. As a result, the pressures now at play and producing extremism in the military could be seen as related to what one veteran I interviewed termed a larger "cultural project" that, however unexamined, is aimed at creating an ever-more-militarized (which also means an ever-more-extreme) society.

Here, war is sold, not just as acceptable, but as necessary to maintain the vaunted American way of life. Meanwhile, its actualities are largely cloaked from scrutiny until they shimmer into a very pricey item loved by both parties. It's called the Pentagon budget.

An Increasingly Militarized Heritage

However many military-related figures broke into the Capitol on January 6th, what if the tendency toward violent extremism is more endemic to that military than we'd like to think? What if the very purpose of such a military creates the conditions for the racism and violence we're now seeing? What if far-right radicals aren't some enemy out there but a seamless outgrowth of the institution we think of as so categorically American? And if all that's so, what have we really been thanking service members for, so devotedly all these years?

A military is, of course, innately hierarchical, authoritarian, and adversarial, and war, by definition, is terror. Tenets inculcated from basic training on — venerating tradition, idealizing heroism, valuing action for action's sake, equating masculinity with militarism, and thinking of anyone who disagrees with you as potentially treasonous — are eerily similar to the ideology of far-right groups. And don't forget this either: American wars of the past 70 years have functioned by reducing the enemy to gooks, sand n***s, and hajis (the last, a term of respect in Islam twisted into an epithet by American troops) — in other words, using baked-in racism to dehumanize enemies and make it easier to hate and kill them.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm by no means saying that everyone in the U.S. military is racist or enamored of violence, or that they condone or support racist, violent ideologies. What's true, however, is that the military's actions are based on dividing the world into friends and foes: the first to be protected out of all proportion to the threat, the second to be humiliated and defeated out of all proportion to the need — though, in this century, ironically enough, the defeated have turned out to be us.

Such overkill in attitude and approach naturally bleeds into society as a whole (even when its members are paying remarkably little attention to the wars being fought in distant lands). Of his country's treatment of Palestinians, the Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote, "I could not understand how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched."

Only a small crew of people in the military actually join radical right-wing groups and there's little question that its leadership is concerned about those who do. But there is an inheritance of violence in our increasingly militarized land that ought to concern us all, too.

Copyright 2021 Nan Levinson

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.

Nan Levinson's most recent book is War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built. A TomDispatch regular, she teaches journalism and fiction writing at Tufts University.

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