How America Turned on Itself

How America Turned on Itself

Amid talk of “civil war,” it’s impossible to imagine the violence of this moment in the absence of America’s forever wars abroad.

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A peculiar thing about the forever wars, different from wars past, is that progressively fewer Americans have served in the military or even know someone who has served. Currently, less than one half of 1 percent of the US population is on active duty. Among them, far fewer are ever deployed to a combat zone. This is mostly a good thing, the result of the end of the draft in 1973: When service is not compulsory, studies show, those who join up are generally more committed, and the overall professionalism of the force rises. Beyond that, do we really want to live in a society where military service is mandatory? I’m a veteran, and I certainly do not.

With fewer serving, however, fewer Americans ever need to grapple with the devastating realities of war or the often-cataclysmic implications of our country’s actions abroad. If national leaders, say, lose themselves in a global war with no discernible strategy and no clear definitions of success, well, how many Americans really are going to stand up and demand better?

An awful lot of Americans, though, nevertheless love the symbols and iconography of our wars. From military flyovers at sporting events, which became ubiquitous in the wake of the September 11 attacks, to military-themed video games, movies, country songs, and any number of other media touchstones, war is ever present in our cultural diets. And why not? When you strip the branding of war from the actual product, it sounds great: Valor. Bravery. Honor. The flag! Sure, the “Support the Troops” ethos begins well-intentioned. But recycled year-in and year-out, always stopping short of a real reckoning, it serves mostly to perpetuate war by making it palatable. The Pentagon budget, in turn, stays inflated, and the troops—heroes, the cozy symbols that we make them—never come home.

The thing about a war mindset, too, is that it demands an enemy. If Americans adopt the mindset but skip the actual wars, surely, eventually, they will find their enemies closer afield. For years, many Americans fixed their ire on the southern border. This summer and fall, as the War on Terrorism enters its 20th year, it seems we’ve found our enemies at home.

For me, as a veteran, the events of the past months repeatedly triggered jolts of recognition. But in the aggregate, they depict a country I no longer recognize. First, it was the National Guard in Washington. Then it was the domestic commandos in Portland, wearing the garb of Special Operations forces, who snatched Black Lives Matter protesters off the streets and shot and beat others. In Kenosha and Louisville, my hometown, it was the militias, clad head-to-toe in military kit, looking much like fellow service members and I did in Afghanistan—save for the occasional Hawaiian shirt and the fact that many in the militias are overweight. All along, of course, there have also been the cops, whose weapons, uniforms, and tactics are dangerously militaristic.

It is as though war—and all the symbols, words, and violence associated with it—has seeped through our pores and settled deep in our bones.

Racism and racial violence against Black Americans, to be sure, have been central to the events of this summer and early fall. It was, after all, when Donald Trump was asked to disavow white supremacists during the first presidential debate that he told the Proud Boys, a violent hate group, to “stand by.” (The president later walked back the statement, which was widely viewed, including by white supremacists in general and the Proud Boys in particular, as encouraging the group.)

This moment is also impossible to imagine in the absence of our war-making abroad. We have become a country in which force is ever-present—in which strength is celebrated for strength’s sake and the flag venerated in ways that say little about the values—democracy, multiculturalism—we claim that it represents. Our wars have addicted us to force, and with talk of “civil war” now passing through so many Americans’ lips, that addiction could well destroy us.

On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman in high school outside Louisville, Ky. I had never been to New York City and I comprehended the attacks only abstractly. A year and a half later, I watched the invasion of Iraq on Fox News, while on a spring break mission trip to build houses. I joined the military, plain and simple, because I wanted to be of service—hence the mission trip, even though my belief in God was tentative at best. I attended college in Tennessee on an ROTC scholarship and afterward served in the Navy for seven years, with deployments to Afghanistan, East Africa, and the South China Sea.

In my more recent life, in New York City and Washington, D.C., I’ve been struck by the number of people, especially in liberal circles, who ask why I chose the military—like they could just never imagine it. But for me, growing up in Kentucky and Tennessee, it was a natural step for a civic-minded young person; at the time, I couldn’t imagine not serving. Misgivings that I have now about the military-industrial complex or the notion that I could have been equally of service in the State Department or with an NGO (or, for that matter, as a journalist) wouldn’t have crossed my mind. For some who knew me when I was young as sensitive and artistic, the military was perhaps a confusing fit. But in truth I found there was a place for just about everyone, all the more so after the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

What confused me as I progressed in my career was seeing guys I had grown up with—civilians—take to posting videos online of their own military-style training. As I attended annual summer training during college, there they were on Facebook, in the Kentucky woods, with guns. Later, as I traveled back and forth to Afghanistan and elsewhere, their guns became more numerous and higher tech—I only ever had the two I was issued. It was like looking at a film negative of myself. And it struck me as silly, frankly. If they were so into this stuff, I wondered, why not just join up? I loved being in the military and all, but it’s not like it has prohibitively high standards.

If any of those guys belong now to militias, I have no idea; but suddenly people who look just like them are center frame in news reports from across the country.

Militias, I’ve learned, are definitionally opposed to power and authority, and therefore many of their members would presumably be wary of military service. But the gear we see these guys wearing sort of belies that skepticism, in that it copies military motifs to a T. From the slick rifle modifications, to the flak jackets adorned with so many cool-guy patches, to the shirts featuring Punisher skulls and American flags emblazoned on the sleeves (stars facing forward, because the flag streams forward into battle and never retreats), everything these guys have on is something I saw first in a war zone. Instead of principled individualism, the result smacks of military fan culture, making the militias’ presence at protests a kind of ComicCon for a different social set.

The graphic novelist Nate Powell has written about how this “distinctly paramilitarized aesthetic” has trickled down from America’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, from the military to law enforcement and the general public. “Within this,” he writes in 2019’s About Face, “is a surface masculinization of every detail and accessory.… All of this—skulls, trucks, flags, guns—form the edges of a commodified, weaponized identity.”

“At its core,” Powell says, “this is a child’s power fantasy finally enacted in adulthood, speaking only the language of power, the intellectual crudeness of reaction, contrarianism, opposition.” Socially, it has “normaliz[ed] the language of force” in America.

Enter, for a moment, Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who, in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting by Kenosha police in August, crossed state lines to join counter–Black Lives Matter protests. Rittenhouse is charged with killing two protesters in the Wisconsin city and injuring a third.

It’s not clear if Rittenhouse formally belonged to a militia, though video and photographic evidence show him mingling with militiamen in Kenosha. A lot of what can be said about Rittenhouse has been said already. Much of the public expressed horror at the teen’s actions. The media, as it does with mass shooters, probed his past for social defects, painting caricatures of an oddball for whom violence seemed inevitable; Rittenhouse was easily angered, Vice News heard from Rittenhouse’s former classmates, who without irony also characterized the boy as a “chubby” loser. The political right, meanwhile, swung to Rittenhouse’s aid, framing the boy as the hapless victim of so-called Democratic lawlessness. “How shocked are we,” Tucker Carlson said on Fox News, “that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order, when no one else would?” Since then, Rittenhouse has been elevated on the right to hero status; Trump officials were even instructed to show sympathy for his actions.

What I find myself sticking on as the debate around Rittenhouse continues is his face. In the videos and photos that have made the rounds, Rittenhouse looks soft and naive, marked by a certain eyebrows-up optimism. Setting aside briefly the consequences of his actions, I see a young man who believes he is doing right—who, however misguided, is trying to be of service. In his own words, Rittenhouse said his job in Kenosha was to “help people.”

This is no apology for Rittenhouse. I say it to emphasize what I wish more of the discourse around Rittenhouse would: that he is only 17. It takes a village to raise a child, and this young man seems, as much as anyone of his era, a child of America’s militaristic culture in which we have all played a part, whether by embracing war or ignoring it.

For every day of Rittenhouse’s life, his country has been at war. It is within his lifetime that the militarization of our police has accelerated, in large part because of a receipt of wartime military equipment from the federal government. “We appreciate you guys, we really do,” police in an armored troop carrier told the armed civilians, including Rittenhouse, in Kenosha. It is within his lifetime that people across the country have filled closets and dressers with military-style gear, while keeping their day jobs as bankers, pastors, and restaurateurs. In one photo, Rittenhouse wears a T-shirt by 5.11, one of many post-9/11 warrior-couture brands marketed to military personnel that in some circles are all the rage. And it is within Rittenhouse’s lifetime that the AR-15, the rifle Rittenhouse carried in Kenosha, became America’s private weapon of choice. In the United States, estimated annual production of that gun, which mimics the military-issue M-16, jumped from about 100,000 units in 2004, when the federal assault weapons ban expired, to more than 2 million in 2016.

None of this makes Kyle Rittenhouse, fan of Donald Trump, aged 17, pick up an AR-15 and drive to Kenosha. But in the context of a nation obsessed with war, his actions track. Indeed, when Rittenhouse arrived in Wisconsin, he was hardly the only one there who was armed; militiamen in Kenosha carried handguns, rifles, shotguns, drones, and more. Contrary to how some portrayed him, Rittenhouse was no mass shooter. He was a kid emulating what American society would seem to value most—clumsily, tragically, terrifyingly.

The various social factors at play in this historic and awful moment obviously precede Donald Trump. Political polarization has been on the rise for decades; militias have a long and idiosyncratic history in the United States; and violence—in particular violence against Americans of color—has been a defining feature of our nation’s story since inception.

What Trump has done is insist to Americans, repeatedly, that they are in fact each other’s enemies, often leveraging the language of war and militaristic themes to do so.

It is during Trump’s tenure as president, for example, that the words most emblematic of America’s post-9/11 conflicts abroad—“terrorist,” “extremist”—have been deployed at home against political adversaries. Black Lives Matter protesters are “terrorists,” the president told supporters in Wisconsin this July. Following criticism of Homeland Security agents’ violent tactics in Portland, acting secretary of the department Chad Wolf, a former lobbyist playing the field general, said, “Our men and women in uniform are patriots. We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch.” (Never mind that the same Homeland Security department in fact judges white supremacists the greatest terror threat to the United States.) Rhetoric like this has been repeated by any number of Republican officials, all of whom seem to assume in the wartime verbiage the same dehumanizing authority America wields abroad to do as it pleases without fear of consequence.

As Christina Caterucci observed recently in Slate, Republicans’ desire to “own the libs” is increasingly giving way to a policy of “kill the libs.” In Florida, for example, Governor Ron DeSantis has moved to protect drivers who hit protesters with their vehicles, so long as they can claim vaguely that they were “fleeing for safety from a mob.” Kelly Loeffler, Republican senator from Georgia, aired an ad in September advocating for “eliminating the liberal scribes.” It has long been de rigueur for political candidates to pose with and shoot guns in their ads. But it is under Trump that candidates’ weapons have come to be aimed at Democratic opponents. “Defeat the squad,” read one ad in which a congressional candidate gripped an AR-15 beside images of Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Unsurprisingly, violent hate crime in America reached a 16-year high in 2018, according to the FBI, following a marked uptick over the previous three years. “Terrorism,” incidentally, came up often during August’s Republican National Convention—almost always in the context of people and groups that America has defended against or killed.

When it comes to the military itself, Trump of course has wrapped himself in the flag and postures as a foremost backer of men and women in uniform—all while routinely attempting to draw them into partisan politics and showing no appreciation whatsoever for the values that supposedly make America’s military special, like discipline and restraint. Recall the case of Eddie Gallagher, the now-retired Navy SEAL, who allegedly made sport of killing civilians in Iraq and became the subject of whistleblower complaints from his teammates. When the Navy last year convicted Gallagher of posing for a photo with the corpse of an Iraqi fighter, it planned to fire Gallagher and strip him of both his rank and his coveted SEAL pin. Trump swooped in and overturned the Navy’s decision, however, in a startling rebuke of Navy leaders and his own Defense Department. It was the first time any president had pardoned war crimes, and in the ensuing political battle Trump played to his base. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he tweeted.

In Trump’s America, we were to understand, force for its own sake—moreover, vigilantism, like we now see in the streets from militias—is not cause just for celebration; it’s downright patriotic.

There’s a huge difference, though, between militarism and the military, and from the get-go Trump’s militarism has been decidedly detached from any earnest conceptions of “service” or “sacrifice.”

Trump, who famously dodged service in Vietnam, makes political hay saying he’ll bring the troops home. But at the end of this term American forces will still be in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere. Perceptibly so he could appear tough on TV, Trump in his term has also dragged the country to the razor’s edge of new wars with Iran and North Korea. And contrast the president’s pro-military rhetoric with September’s story in The Atlantic, in which Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Trump had disparaged veterans and called America’s war dead “losers” and “suckers,” also wondering aloud what was in it for them.

It’s worth noting that Trump’s approval in the ranks is dwindling. An August Military Times poll found that the favorable rating for the president among active-duty troops has declined nearly 10 points since the start of his presidency, to 38 percent. Worse for Trump, more service members said they plan to vote for former vice president Joe Biden than for him, upending traditional (and outmoded) understandings of the military as a conservative stronghold.

Some vets and military members I know eat up Trump’s military boosting; and, before Trump, they loved all the militaristic pageantry ushered in by the post-9/11 era. Most that I know, however, regard this particular brand of paper-thin patriotism as dangerous—as something that both threatens our credibility on the world stage and fails to meaningfully address veterans’ needs at home. What those people want is not another “Thank you for your service”—much less another of the president’s faux-autocratic military parades—but a thoughtful and challenging reexamination of America’s use of force abroad. What makes them feel like losers is that, despite belonging to the most capable fighting force in the world by far, they never seem to win the big picture. Indeed, America’s wars have served little purpose in the aggregate, except to destabilize swaths of the globe and enrich American companies with military contracts. A lot of people have died, and for what better world?

That is, unless violence is an acceptable end unto itself for America. “We’re really winning,” Trump told service members in 2017. “That’s because I’m letting you do your job.” He was referring to his scrapping of regulations to limit civilian casualties in war zones, which have seen a significant spike during his presidency.

Americans know implicitly that our wars have changed us. I’ve personally found it telling when friends and family seek my opinion upon seeing our cities in flames. The assumption seems to be that a veteran might possess some unique insight into conflict, that I might somehow be making better sense than others of the American project as it collapses before our eyes.

But in fact nothing beyond the surface of this moment reflects anything like my time in the military. For me, the Navy was by and large an experience of coming together. People hailed from all parts of the country, and it worked. Granted, I was a white male in a military that still struggles to reflect the country it serves, so that’s easy for me to say; some former colleagues of mine who are women or people of color surely have more complex feelings. I still feel wholeheartedly, however, that the team-oriented nature of the military resulted in a special, even inspiring, iteration of the American experience. Whether at an outpost in Afghanistan or jammed into tight quarters on a ship, when handed a common purpose, we all knew we were in it together.

America could use some of that right now.

I fear, in ways, that the die might already be cast for how this period of uncertainty will play out. If violence is to come from this election—the sort of violence Americans once watched unfold in faraway lands, sure it could never happen here—it might be too late to stop, no matter how tragic that feels to write. Whatever the results of the election, though, whether violence comes or does not, we will need to rebuild.

When that time comes, our troops will still be deployed across the globe, often in locations where America’s strategic interests are limited at best. And so it will be, as it has been for a long time, past time to embark on a wholesale revision of how we raise and utilize military force.

Crucially, that’s not an anti-military argument. Worldwide, the military does important, often security-enhancing work—think disaster relief, defense of allies, deterrence of bad actors and adversaries, and, yes, even counterterrorism when it is truly necessary. Like with the police vis-à-vis civil society, though, the world will likely be better off if the Defense Department’s unfathomably bloated budget were reined in and some of the military’s jack-of-all-trades humanitarian and diplomatic tasks offloaded to a better-funded Department of State, USAID, and the US Institute of Peace, among other agencies.

This will take reflection on a nationwide scale and deliberate policy reforms at all levels of government. A big-tent effort is needed, and like with other needed social reforms, there will be no quick fixes. In endeavoring to try, though, I hope we can take one thing from the military: the confidence that, together, we can get the job done. The rest, because our lives depend on it, we must learn to live without.

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