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I know what it means to be watched all too carefully, a phenomenon that’s only grown worse in the war-on-terror years. I’m a strange combination, I suspect, being both a military spouse and an anti-war-on-terror activist. As I’ve discovered, the two sit uncomfortably in what still passes for one life. In this country in these years, having eyes on you has, sadly enough, become a common and widespread phenomenon. When it’s the government doing it, it’s called “surveillance.” When it’s your peers or those above you in the world of the military spouse, there’s no word for it at all.
Now, be patient with me while I start my little exploration of such an American state at the most personal level before moving on to the way in which we now live in ever more of a—yes—surveillance state.
A Navy Wife’s Perspective on Military Life, Post-9/11
“The military sounds like the Mafia. Your husband’s rank determines how powerful you are.” That was a good friend’s response, a decade or so ago, when a more experienced Navy wife shamed me for revealing via text message that my husband’s nuclear submarine would soon return to port. Her spouse had been assigned to the same boat for a year longer than mine and she headed up the associated Family Readiness Group, or FRG.
Such FRGs, led by officers’ wives, are all-volunteer outfits that are supposed to support the families of the troops assigned to any boat. In a moment of thoughtless excitement, I had indeed texted another spouse, offering a hand in celebrating our husbands’ imminent return, the sort of party that, as the same woman had told me, “all wives help with to thank our guys for what they do for us. It’s key to command morale.”
She had described the signs other wives had been making under the direction of both the captain’s wife’s and hers, as well as the phone chain they had set up to let us know the moment the boat would arrive so that we could rush to the base to greet it. In response to my message, she’d replied in visibly angry form (that is, in all capital letters), never, ever indicate in any way over text that the boat will be returning soon. you are endangering their lives. She added that I would be excluded from all boat activities if I ever again so much as hinted that such a return was imminent.
Alone in my apartment in a sparsely populated town near the local military base, my heart raced with the threat of further isolation. What would happen because of what I’d done?
And yes, I’d blundered, but not, as became apparent to me, in any way that truly mattered or actually endangered anything or anyone at all—nothing, in other words, that couldn’t have been dealt with in a kinder, less Orwellian fashion, given that this was a supposedly volunteer group.
It was my first little introduction to being watched and the pressure that goes with such surveillance in the world of the military spouse. Years later, when my husband was assigned to another submarine, an officer’s wife at the same naval base had burst into tears telling me about the surprise visit she’d just been paid by three women married to officers of higher rank on other boats stationed at that base.
Sitting across from her in their designer dresses, they insisted she wasn’t doing enough to raise raffle money to pay for a military child’s future education. Am I really responsible for sending another kid to college? That was her desperate question to me. Unable to keep a job, given her husband’s multiple reassignments, she had struggled simply to save enough for the education of her own children. And mind you, she was already providing weekly free child care to fellow spouses unable to locate affordable services in that town, while counseling some wives who had become suicidal during their husbands’ long deployments.
I could, of course, multiply such examples, but you get the idea. In the war-on-terror-era military, eyes are always on you.
Married to the Military (or the Terror Within)
On paper, the American military strives to “recognize the support and sacrifice” of the 2.6 million spouses and children of active-duty troops. And there are indeed gestures in the right direction—from partnerships with employers who have committed to hiring military spouses to short-term-crisis mental health support.
Talk to just about any spouse and she’ll—and yes, we are talking about women here—tell you that the most effective and reliable support comes from other wives who volunteer their unpaid time to run FRGs and similar activities. Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 era, as anthropologists Jean Scandlyn and Sarah Hautzinger have pointed out, ever more aspects of military family life, once thought of as “volunteer,” have become “voluntold”—as in, we’re watching you and you’re expected to do it. Otherwise, your husband’s career won’t advance.
Worse yet, all such voluntold activities tend to sweep you into a world of informal surveillance geared not just toward making sure you don’t spill the beans on classified troop movements, but also averting possible PR crises over looming military realities like family violence and the rising suicide rates among the troops. After the birth of our second child, a woman with zero mental health training typically called me weekly to “check in.” She wanted to make sure, she insisted, that I was caring properly for our baby. If I refused to talk with her—and I found her oppressive indeed—she threatened to call in child protective services. I was in graduate school studying to become a clinical social worker, I told her, and knew perfectly well that she had no basis to report me. I wondered, though, what spouses with fewer resources went through when they received such “surveillance” calls.
Believe me, national security has gained a new meaning in such an atmosphere. Once, for instance, my husband was confronted by another officer because I’d written a post on an anonymous blog about military life I was then authoring—my identity had just been discovered—describing the unhealthy diet that officers were forced to eat on his submarine. Even this was considered a threat to national security, because I was “undermining morale.”
Sometimes, it seemed as if those tasked with waging this country’s never-ending war on terror had a deep urge to create yet more problems of every sort, while validating the assumption that we all lived in a world of ever-present danger. Just a week after my husband and I moved to a new duty station with our toddler, for instance, he approached me one evening in our still empty house after a 16-hour shift on base. His face was pale when, with fists clenched, he said, “I have a favor I need to ask of you.” His new commanding officer wanted me to come by one night so that he and a group of senior officers and their wives could discuss what was “appropriate behavior” in spouses’ groups. Apparently, the spouse of an officer leaving the command had not gotten along with the other officers’ wives. Because my husband’s rank was the same as the departing officer’s, I was to be preemptively warned based on nothing more than the rank of the man I’d chosen to marry.
“Yeah, I’ll talk to him,” I said. “But I have some things I’d like him to consider, too.” If I was going to attend such a meeting, I had my own set of topics to discuss—among them, that families shouldn’t be expected to pay $50 a ticket to attend the annual ball and that new mothers shouldn’t be called weekly by the command ombudsman and asked about their parenting skills.
The next day, my husband told me his commanding officer felt “like you’re forcing his hand.” His nerves frayed, he took a breath and then whispered (so our toddler couldn’t hear him), “Look, he said if you don’t just come to his house, anything could happen to our family. Anything.”
I never did visit that captain’s house, nor participate much during the two years we were at that base. And yet the captain’s ambiguous threat to our family hung over our home the whole time. There were moments at night when I jumped at every noise outside our windows. At a moment when I was alone with our toddler and once again very pregnant, our house was indeed broken into and I even briefly wondered whether the captain was to blame (before quickly dismissing the thought). I started to feel as though the terror of that period was coming from within the military itself.
No one attacked my family, but it would prove to be a difficult two years. For example, one evening shortly after my husband returned from a grueling deployment in which his sub had collided with a civilian ship, he shared a text from the captain voicing disappointment that spouses like me had not chosen to go to more events, including the Navy ball. Thanks to families like ours, the captain insisted, command morale was paying a price. We were, he implied, being watched and not only was my husband’s career at risk, but the recent life-threatening crash at sea from which we were all reeling had somehow been caused, at least in part, by lack of spousal participation back here at home. Despite my best feminist efforts to dismiss such a ludicrous suggestion, I felt watched, crushed by guilt, powerless to reverse what seemed like an endless string of negative events affecting our family. Most of all, I felt increasingly lonely.
And as it turns out, I was anything but alone in that sense of constant surveillance and my reaction to it. According to a 2021 independent survey conducted by fellow military spouse Jennifer Barnhill, more than a third of spouses felt direct pressure from commanders or indirect pressure of other sorts to participate in spousal group activities. And yet, a majority of spouses surveyed sensed that they had little influence over the way the military actually ran. In other words, spousal groups often provided not much more than a veneer of legitimacy for the claims of military leaders that they cared about families.
My Personal War on Terror
Terrorism can be anywhere. That’s the message repeatedly conveyed to me by my military community since the war on terror began. In these years, a chilling, if unspoken, corollary to that thought developed: anyone whose lifestyle and viewpoint the military did not agree with or approve of was a danger.
Over the last decade, I’ve felt as if the tiny community of discontented, activist-minded spouses I’ve associated with and the mob-like structures of the military conformists who eternally try to rope us in or dismiss us seemed to recreate post-9/11 America in a microcosm. A deep and ever-present fear of whistleblowers and dissent was increasingly pervasive in our world. It was typical of those years that, in 2010, Army Private Chelsea Manning was convicted—by a military judge—of 17 charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, and sent to jail after she provided more than 700,000 classified military documents to Wikileaks. Among other things, they detailed evidence of American military leaders failing to investigate hundreds of cases of rape, torture, and abuse by the Iraqi police; a 2007 US Army helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed two Reuters journalists; and secret counterterrorism operations in Yemen that, in my opinion, Americans should have been informed about.
In 2013, I watched in similar horror the attack on whistleblower Edward Snowden for leaking classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) on its staggering global and national surveillance activities. He also revealed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s order for Verizon and other major telephone companies to provide the NSA with the phone records of ordinary Americans on a daily basis.
This was not the country I had ever imagined myself living in or my husband defending. Snowden found himself stranded in Russia in the face of a possible lifetime behind bars here for revealing the true nature of the national security state’s version of post-9/11 America.
I had, by then, helped cofound Brown University’s Costs of War Project to offer a more accurate picture than most Americans then had of the nature and price (financial and human) of this country’s never-ending war on terror. My colleagues and I were working, among other things, to raise awareness here that we were increasingly subject to an all-encompassing kind of surveillance that would undoubtedly have impressed some of our favorite foreign authoritarian leaders—maybe even Vladimir Putin himself.
After all, the dust had barely settled around the collapsed Twin Towers in New York City when the administration of President George W. Bush began conducting electronic surveillance of a growing range of Americans without a warrant in sight. In 2008, Congress would allow that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve such programs without any prior indication of individual wrongdoing. As of this year, according to the Costs of War Project, the US government has more Americans under electronic surveillance through wiretapping and the bulk collection of communications without probable cause than it does through wiretaps based on likely involvement in criminal activity (the standard for such surveillance prior to 9/11).
In the war-on-terror years, the FBI’s powers to secretly compel the release of information on individual bank and Internet use have dramatically expanded (no individualized suspicion necessary). The FBI also sweeps information from tens of thousands of people—citizens and noncitizens alike—into its databases, which then becomes available to tens of thousands of government employees, potentially marking a person for life as a suspected terrorist.
Similar developments are taking place at the state and local levels. Some police departments, for instance, have adopted tactics resembling those of a police state. Since 9/11, the New York City Police Department, the largest in the country, has typically used facial-recognition and license-plate reading cameras to monitor heavily trafficked areas on a constant basis, in the process effectively gaining information on Americans protesting in public.
For instance, The New York Times reports that, based on a recent Amnesty International analysis, a person participating in a protest in part of downtown Manhattan “would be captured on the Police Department’s array of Argus video cameras for about 80 percent of that march.” The NYPD also uses software to sweep social media sites and store information on individuals without a warrant. In Minneapolis, according to former FBI agent Terry Albury, now serving prison time for leaking classified information, FBI agents mobilized local citizens of Somali background, along with local law enforcement, into “Shared Responsibility Committees.” These were ostensibly to help ensure neighborhood security by identifying young people at risk of radicalizing, while actually encouraging committee members to report on one another.
Of course, American Muslims have been disproportionately affected by the government’s dramatic increase in surveillance. According to The New York Times, US intelligence officials estimated that “anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 Al Qaeda terrorists” in the United States had come under FBI surveillance in the year after the September 11th attacks, based overwhelmingly on their ethnic and religious identities. Such individual investigations almost invariably led nowhere.
The unease I felt that first time I got a critical text from a higher-ranking military wife wasn’t faintly comparable to what a Muslim-American husband might have felt when the FBI knocked on his door and took him away for interrogation. Still, believe me, it does feel awful to be alienated from the community you’ve spent much of your life trying to contribute to—as a wife, a human-rights activist, and a therapist.
At one of the first “homecomings” for a boat on which my husband was stationed, a young military spouse approached me. She’d been placed on suicide watch by an officer’s wife when that sub’s deployment began. By then, word had gotten out that I was the author of an anonymous blog on military life. (Not long after, under enormous social pressure, I shut it down.) Staring at the approaching boat, she said in a hushed voice, “My dad sent me your blog. He thought I’d feel less alone. Someone told me the writer was you.” Then she promptly moved away from me.
While tears came to my eyes, I also felt less alone, thanks to her small revelation. If people like us can manage, however modestly, to express our solidarity in a place where this has become so much more difficult and dangerous over these years of never-ending war, then others can perhaps begin to think about calling out leaders of all sorts who abuse their power in the name of fighting terror.
Given that being marked as dangerous can forever alter your life in a world in which surveillance is the order of the day, shouldn’t we all be holding to task leaders who abuse their power, including the leaders of the US military?