When I first wrote about my experiences in the Navy, I expected some sort of angry backlash from some veterans. After all, the image of sailors huddling around a computer screen watching videos of attacks against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t exactly an image the Navy would want to project. However, the backlash never came. Instead, hundreds of people, including veterans with whom I never served, reached out to me and expressed their support. They understood that, ultimately, I was writing about a social phenomenon – I call it otherification – where we devalue the lives of those we do not identify with. I heard numerous times from these veterans that they could not have done X activity if they saw those they acted against as real people. I was simultaneously embarrassed for myself and yet immensely proud to call myself a veteran, embarrassed that I underestimated my colleagues and proud of how they embraced my words and translated to their personal stories.
This is the conversation I wanted to start. Otherification is not a military-specific problem. Its effects tarnish our domestic political processes as well as foreign relations. Our society is paralyzed because we rush so quickly to label ourselves and others. Those that claim labels that we do not approve of are unworthy of respect and human dignity. These labels represent various identities, and their precedence can change depending on the circumstances. This helps to explain why, for example, Democrats and Republicans can be at each other’s throats on Sept. 10, and then be cooperative and unified on Sept. 11. The political identity meant more the day before while the national identity took primacy the later day, at the expense of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, my point was hijacked by someone claiming to want the same conversation. David Masciotra’s ill-timed article perpetuates the damaging dichotomy that many U.S. veterans are placed in – the sadistic warmonger and the medal-clad paladin who righteously defends freedom and regularly smites dragons (my Marine friends will appreciate the reference to the old recruiting video). Mr. Masciotra’s words stymie the very conversation he wants on our democracy and associated role of the military.
Vice President Joe Biden’s speeches are often more profound than he likely intends. I certainly believe this was the case with his Veterans Day address where he said that veterans are “the heart, soul, and spine of the United States.” Some may see this as bland pandering to the institutionalized sense of patriotism that Mr. Masciotra writes about, but I do not. Americans from all sectors of the socioeconomic stratum, even the “1 percenters," join the military. There is a variety of reasons that people sign up for service. Sure, some do join because the military can be a push-button to a better socioeconomic status. Some, such as myself, join because of the incredible education benefits that the American people graciously provide for us. In terms of those who have left the military, yes, there are thousands of homeless veterans and even more struggling to find their place in both society and in the workforce. But there are millions more who have used their benefits and experience to make a difference in diverse fields ranging from medicine to nuclear energy. The point is that because our military is a snapshot of the American population, it makes sense that we represent the absolute best, the absolute worst, and everything in between, of the American people.
Finally, whatever the reasons one may claim for joining the service, there is always an overarching message of defense. Defending one’s family, their country, their comrades in arms – these are expressions of love rather than hate. This is an important distinction to make as, in spite of claims of entrenched sadism in the military, far fewer would join in response to advertising campaigns simply highlighting violence. I will not stand before you and argue that sadism is not present in the military; rather, I ask if sadism is not running rampant in all of us. Millions of people were glued to their TVs for the unfortunately named “shock and awe” bombing campaign against Iraq in 2003. We fill our lives with violent movies and shows, video games and books. We worship at the altar of violence. One might argue that enjoying violent video games is fundamentally different than cheering and laughing at footage of air attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, in many ways, this is not true. In both cases, the violence is not “real” for the observer – the video game characters are nothing more than lifeless pixels while those in the combat footage are simply dehumanized targets.
I am not certain if I failed to adequately express this point in my previous article, or if Mr. Masciotra simply saw my words as ammunition for an opportunistic swipe at veterans on a day where many of us remember the brothers and sisters that we have lost. But I am making it, again, here. When one looks at the breadth of the otherification and dehumanization that control our daily interactions, it is possible to see that many other issues are simply smoke screens. Do we have a gun problem in the United States, or have we become so closed and unwilling to engage with those with whom we have conflict that we reach for tools to help settle our differences? Do we have a problem with militarism in this country, or have our civilian leaders, on both sides of the aisle, lost the political will and courage to use tools other than violence? After all, we have become so used to the narrative that al-Qaida militants were just hanging out in caves in Afghanistan, hating Americans because we have freedom and McDonald's, so they decided to launch a jihad against us. In that context, what room is there for negotiation?
Whenever the topic of militarism and the role of the military in our democracy comes up, there are those who respond with angry proclamations of “this is why I don’t support the troops” and often far uglier words. This is truly sad for those of us who gave up our youth under the auspices of protecting our families and our country. However, many of us recognize that the clichéd “support” we do receive is all too often merely lip service. I challenge everyone to truly support us, but to do so in a substantive manner. Stop electing officials who defer to the use of force as the go-to option. Stop electing presidents who actively create the wars of the next generation with merciless drone strikes and wanton foreign policy agendas. Stop supporting leaders whose wars have created a half a million sufferers of PTSD. Railing against vets in the face of this madness is cowardice – we are the ones who die with your silence and inaction.