John Mellencamp first heard his 2003, antiwar, anti-Bush song on the radio while driving around his home state of Indiana with one of his sons. The DJ played “To Washington,” his update of the Woody Guthrie protest anthem, and asked listeners to call the station to report their reaction. One angry caller captured the mood: “I don’t know who I hate more, Osama bin Laden or John Mellencamp.” Mellencamp’s son asked his dad how he felt about having a freshly painted bull's-eye on his back for right-wing venom, and he dispensed some fatherly wisdom, “Sometimes when you stick your neck out, your head gets cut off.”
For the first couple of days after the publication of my essay criticizing military worship, “You Don’t Protect My Freedom,” I certainly felt like my head was resting in the guillotine. On the day of publication I woke up to check my email and found thousands of messages, ranging from the mild (“I hope you die and burn in hell”) to the touching (“If I ever see you on the street, I will kill you.”)
My Twitter account, which I had updated once in five years, exploded with counterarguments of similar erudition and insight. A scroll through my feed took me through a tour of the cyberschoolyard. Mockery of my hairstyle, and invective like “loser,” “punk and the retrograde “hippie" substituted for real argument. The Twitter campaign found its fearless leader in Montel “Bounce Any Checks Lately?” Williams, who after calling me a “POS” (an acronym for “piece of shit,” I assume), challenged me to a debate 140 characters at a time. He then unleashed his public relations team on me, and together, they started tweeting at all the cable news networks, seemingly jockeying for a segment on television, in which the payday-loan pitchman could pose as defender of the sanctity of the military against my “vile” attack.
Feeling no obligation to give Montel and his minions a venue to insult me, I deleted my Twitter account. Two days later, while the emails were still overwhelming my inbox, a well-meaning weirdo created a Twitter feed using my name and likeness, and began to tweet sophomoric replies to the right-wing mob. I filed a complaint with Twitter, and after scanning and sending them an image of my driver’s license to verify that I am the real David Masciotra, they removed the page. Michelle Malkin, whose claim to fame is defending the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, followed all of the action closely and provided her fans with updates on Twitchy – a conservative Us Weekly without the charm – and contributed to the conversation about war, peace and militarism by calling me a “jack ass” and “douche bag.”
For the rest of the week, I let the delinquent children play with their paste and crayons. Watching from afar in Indiana, in the company of my loving girlfriend and cats, I rejected several invitations to appear on Fox News and conservative talk radio. I reread my essay, thought about the arguments I made and the conversation I hoped to provoke, and reflected on my confrontation with contemporary right-wing culture and my visit to the intellectual sewer of social media.
First, I considered my own errors. I firmly believe that every point I argued in my essay is correct, and I do not repudiate any of my criticism of America’s gratuitous glorification of the military. The language I used to express some of my points, however, lacked the sensitivity necessary for acknowledging the loss many families suffer when their loved ones enlist. When any politician or pundit discusses the military, thousands of Americans do not approach the issue as a political, philosophical or cultural abstraction, even if it does have important implications in all three areas of analysis. They simply think of their child, spouse or sibling. They worry for his safety or mourn his death.
By dealing with the topic as merely the source of an intellectual inquiry, I ignored the pain and trepidation many families feel on a daily basis when they confront headlines or news reports of a bombing in Afghanistan. If I could rewrite the original essay, I would better account for the burden that military families silently and steadily carry, because the American government has committed itself to eternally validating the conclusion of United States Marine Corps' Smedley Butler: “War is a racket.”
I should have included the story of my own grandfather, a veteran in World War II who was the sole survivor of an Army plane crash. He hated war more than anyone I’ve ever met, and he found mawkish tributes and parades for veterans both cheap and corrosive to a critical perspective necessary to prevent future deaths of young men who take their final breaths among the carnage of plane debris, broken bones and bloody faces.
I should have written about my own father, who was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, and began suffering from severe heart disease in his 40s, even needing open heart surgery, despite having a healthy BMI, and never even taking a puff off a cigarette. It is likely that his heart problems are the result of exposure to Agent Orange in Southeast Asia. The VA invited any Vietnam vet who showed symptoms of heart disease under the age of 50 to file for compensatory benefits, but they subjected my father to the typical treatment of endless delays until he finally surrendered.
I also should have written about my former student, Daniel, who is an Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He told me the word “hero” embarrasses him, and that whenever he hears the phrase “thank you for your service,” he remembers participating in a raid based on faulty intelligence. When he and his fellow soldiers violently burst into the home of a “suspected terrorist,” all they found was an elderly man so shocked by the upheaval that he immediately entered cardiac arrest and died. Daniel speculated that if the elderly man’s son or grandson was not a terrorist before the American raid induced that heart attack, he “probably is now.”
The inclusion of my own personal experiences with veterans, and the testimony of their own heartbreak over the costs of carrying out the orders of Empire, would have humanized my argument. But I wonder if it would have made any measure of difference. The overwhelming majority of readers who reacted with rage to my article showed no evidence of actually reading it. Had the people who accused me of “hating the troops” or “supporting terrorism” given the essay even a cursory look, they would have seen that I twice stated that some of the troops are heroes, but that many are not. They would have also learned that, unlike many of the political pawns of the Pentagon who can’t cry enough tears for our “heroes,” I support providing all veterans with the best possible healthcare and psychiatric services. My antiwar advocacy and resistance to militarism is, partially, motivated by solidarity with the military – a term I used in the original essay. Fewer soldiers fighting fewer wars translates into fewer funerals, and less waste and betrayal of the bravery that active duty military personnel do display on the battlefield. In the words of historian Thaddeus Russell, “calling soldiers heroes gets more soldiers killed.”
Fewer soldiers fighting fewer wars also minimizes what theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who I quoted in my article as instructing pastors to discourage young congregants from enlistment, calls the “moral loss” of having to accept the duty to kill. Even if the killing occurs in self-defense, it strikes a blow to the killer’s psyche and sense of ethics.
It is supportive of troops and veterans to demand aggressive action to protect women from rape while serving in the military. The nearly universal refusal to acknowledge the evidence that sexual assault is rampant in all branches of the military demonstrates how little the bodies and lives of women matter in American culture. Writers, activists and documentary filmmakers invest their energy into emphasizing the gruesome reality that, according to the Department of Defense’s own study, one-third of women in the military become victims of sexual assault while wearing the uniform, and the mainstream media, along with the political establishment, continue to ignore it. No one in the media who vilified me for my perspective made any attempt to counter the statistical data I cited on the sexual assault epidemic in the military. No one even mentioned it, with the exception of the characteristically sophisticated Rush Limbaugh who claimed it is “childlike” to “pretend all of this is happening.”
An apparently “childlike” woman who spent years in the Air Force emailed me, thankful for my article, and wrote that she had twice been sexually assaulted. An active duty soldier, who also works as a paralegal with military justice, objected to some of the terminology and rhetoric in my essay, but told me that he sees the sexual assault epidemic up close in his legalistic role, and that clearly, rapists, even those in uniform, are not heroes.
The cultural narrative that all troops and veterans are heroes will not allow for the acknowledgment that some are rapists. But by ignoring the stories of thousands of women who battle the real “rape culture” of the barracks and the Pentagon, who are the defenders of the sanctity of the military really protecting? They are enhancing and extending the vicious violation of women who suffer the violence and degradation of rape, and they are providing a cover story for the rapists and the military administrators who would rather bury the story than deal with embarrassing headlines. Given the priorities of American culture, the popular bumper sticker should actually read, “Support the troops unless they are raped by other troops.”
Just as observing the indifference toward rape in the military exposes the depth and breadth of American sexism, any engagement with right-wing media and culture confirms all the worst suspicions anyone could have about its leaders and followers.
There is not only an acceptance of ignorance, but from Fox News, an encouragement of it. On “Fox and Friends,” “The Five” and Fox Business News’ “The Independents,” the respective hosts of the programs vilified and demonized me as someone who hates everyone in the military. “Fox and Friends” posted my photo, over the ominous tones of their hosts condemning my words – almost none of which they quoted – as if it was a mug shot, and then told readers, “Go tell him what you think of this.” The language of the command exposes the poison of their propaganda. They did not tell viewers to go online and read the article, evaluate it according to their own analysis, and decide for themselves what they believe. They ordered their viewers to believe a certain way, without acquiring any information, and target me with their hatred and hostility. Judging from my inbox, thousands of viewers marched along like wooden soldiers, eager to behave as if they just received a lobotomy from the skilled surgeons of Fox.
The pattern of ad hominem attacks, without any engagement of the evidence or acknowledgment of the argumentation of my article, demonstrated the thoughtlessness that defines political activism on much of the right wing, but also the racism, homophobia and prejudicial scorn and fear of Islam. Clearly, the worst thing much of the right can think to call someone is “gay.” Nearly every email I received contained some accusation of homosexuality. When one homophobic crackpot suggested that I’ve had sex with John Mellencamp, Jesse Jackson, Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter, because I’ve written favorably about all four men, I emailed a bisexual friend and said, “I’m not gay, but if I was, I guess I’d have some impressive and accomplished partners.” My friend wrote back, “I’d be in awe.”
My previous writing on Jesse Jackson seemed to cause the right-wing psycho meter to go off the charts. Many of my correspondents resorted to ugly racial slurs that, out of respect for Rev. Jackson, I won’t repeat. The rhetoric about Islam, always accompanied by an insinuation that I’m actually a Muslim, was equally vicious and vulgar.
Kennedy, host of "The Independents," offered the insightful rebuttal to my essay by positing I had a “miserable childhood,” and then proceeded with her guest, a representative of Concerned Veterans for America, to concede one of my major points – the elementary truth that not all soldiers and veterans are heroes. Then, they gave revelatory insight into the strange and sick mind-set of libertarian ideology. In my article, I argued that much better ways to offer “support for the troops” than contrived hero worship and garish displays of nationalism is to grant all veterans the best healthcare and psychiatric services available, and to oppose wars that turn soldiers into victims by wasting their lives for the advancement of unnecessary and unjust military adventurism.
Kennedy and her guest laughed off the healthcare argument, apparently operating under the assumption that a 20-year-old in a wheelchair doesn’t really need medication, physical therapy and handicap accommodations in his home, but will settle for ribbons around trees and stickers on cars. Then, they denied that any veterans are victims. The right wing is especially resistant to the categorization of any group of people as victims. They decry black Americans for embracing “victimology,” and they disparage women for “playing the victim,” whenever anyone identifies incidents or patterns of racial or sexual injustice. It is of crucial importance to the right-wing project of constructing a society of solipsism to sketch a victimless world of capitalistic purity. If there are no victims, institutions are irrelevant, and there are no victimizers. If there are no victimizers, there is no need for external agitation from democratic organization or government enforcement of fair and consistent standards under the law.
It is why, as Jesse Jackson once told me, “Anyone who even gestures toward justice is on their [the right-wing] out list.”
The prevention of wars of aggression and corruption is central to any culture not just gesturing, but marching toward justice. Maintaining faith in the fidelity of the American government to causes of freedom, and expressing that faith in the ritualistic prayer of thanking “heroes” for “protecting our freedom” is sacramental and essential. Religious language clarifies the dogmatic approach to American exceptionalism and militarism, because as historian Morris Berman correctly explains, “The real religion of America is America.”
Spiritual devotion to the purity of America, preached by fundamentalists such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and even by moderate believers like Barack Obama, explains why for all their whining about “political correctness,” the right wing is far more sensitive and emotionally fragile than liberals. Many liberals do have a problem with overreacting to gaffes and jokes, but the real p.c. enforcement comes from the flag-saluting conservative crowd, with "p.c." standing not for “political correctness,” but “patriotic commandments.”
At the top of the tablet is the Patriotic Commandment, “Thou shalt not criticize the military.”
Besides a couple of mildly stressful days, when the emails would not stop, I did not suffer because of my article. Many right-wingers promised to make my life a “living hell,” but after a few days the emails dropped down to zero, and they had moved onto their next target for hatred. Coincidentally, it was Bruce Springsteen for performing “Fortunate Son,” a classic song with antiwar themes, at the Concert for Valor.
The salient question is not how badly the right-wing army failed at making my life unpleasant, but how terribly they succeed in making American democracy duller and smaller. With cooperation from much of the moderate media, and the American political establishment, they exercise the removal of certain topics and arguments from the discourse, and in doing so, narrow the conversation about American power. The myth of universal heroism in the military and pure benevolence of American foreign policy functions as a force field around the status quo. It protects the “masters of war,” Bob Dylan famously indicted, and it shields American eyes from the dead or disfigured children in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other places on the other side of the planet, barely in the consciousness of the average citizen of the United States.
Ernest Hemingway wrote in "A Farewell to Arms" that “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain …There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
The abstraction of “thanking heroes for our freedom” not only distracts from the bodies and hearts that break in the wake of war, but contributes to the continuation of war. One man who cannot forget the concrete names of dead soldiers in the ground is Fred John Boenig, a radio host in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Boenig spent his three hours on the air, the morning after the publication of my article, defending my arguments against another radio broadcaster, Chris Salcedo in Houston, who was denouncing me on his show as a traitor. Boenig reads the names of American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan each morning on this show -- all the names of the fallen who died on that particular day of the year, from 2001 to present. He invited me to come on the air, and after I declined, he asked if we could speak privately on the phone.
Boenig is a gold-star father with three children currently in the military. His oldest son died in Afghanistan, and it was over the phone on the morning of Veterans Day that he humbled me by sharing his story.
Austin Gates Benson, Fred’s son, at the age of 19, enlisted in the United States Air Force, because one of his goals in life was to help bring Osama bin Laden to justice for orchestrating the murder of thousands of Americans. Benson’s brilliance in computer engineering and programming ensured that he would not contribute to the cause of the U.S. military in a combat role, but rather as a computer specialist in Afghanistan. Always a precocious boy, at the age of 18 he was reading and writing at the high collegiate level, and at the age of 7, he was an extra in the Julia Roberts movie "Stepmom."
Fred speaks of his son with the words and tone of a proud father. Austin was not only talented, but brave and compassionate. His potential to contribute and serve was without limit, and it was something that Col. Wesley L. Rehorn saw and affirmed. Rehorn cradled Benson as a protégé, even developing a personal friendship as he would invite him to smoke expensive cigars on base. Benson wrote home and explained how much he was enjoying his bond with Rehorn, and that all seemed well in Afghanistan.
For his work, he would receive high military honors (a Firewall 5) normally not given to young A1Cs. He was able to repair the Joint Special Operations Command computer for monitoring drone strikes. When his improvements were complete, the military sharply escalated its drone strike program in 2010. The strikes in Pakistan, for example, increased from 25 to 150 a month, after Benson’s reworking of the computer. He wrote home explaining how he loved the leadership and wanted to extend his tour.
Communications stopped for two weeks in April 2010. Benson’s mother, Joie Gates, emailed Austin, saying, “No news is good news, but what’s up?” Austin wrote, “We have been real busy with this roll up. I’ll call today.” When the call came, Joie had just seen a report on the BBC about a drone strike in Pakistan that killed 79 innocent civilians. She asked her son if the report was accurate. Benson said that he could not discuss it because it was classified, but whispered, “Funny they are only reporting one.” Many civilians had died in drone strikes. The firsthand knowledge and experience of Benson reinforces the New York University Law School and Stanford Law School joint study finding that in Pakistan, drone strikes have ended the lives of 471 to 881 civilians, including 176 children.
Benson said goodbye to his mother, and that afternoon his parents received an email from him stating, “Due to recent events, including those that kept me from communicating with you, I have cemented my decision, I will not spend one second in Afghanistan longer than I have to. Don’t worry I’ll be home on time.” Two weeks later, he shot himself in the head. In his suicide note, he wrote that he “felt like a monster only a mother could love.”
Fred Boenig and Joie Gates, while still mourning the loss of their son, have petitioned President Obama to address the growing number of suicides in the military, have become antiwar advocates, and have called for reevaluation of the drone strike program. Boenig has also started the Daily Ripple, a news site focusing on the American movement for peace and social justice.
Through his work, Boenig is able to give his son a voice, and he tells me that he often has to remind people, “My son didn’t feel like a hero. He cared about what he was doing, which he did with great expertise, but he felt very badly for the Afghan people caught in the middle. He wasn't fighting for our freedom. The only freedom we lost after 9/11 was because of the Patriot Act.”
Boenig told me that he wears the gold star and three blue stars on his lapel whenever he knows he will share a room with a politician. He uses it to get their attention, and when he has it, he explains what it's like to pick a son up at Dover Air Force Base and live with the constant fear of losing his other children who are currently serving. “No boots on the ground,” he tells them. “I don’t ever want to pick up another kid in a flag-covered box.”
Fred Boenig isn’t a flag waver, using the patriotic banner to shield his eyes from the real cost of war. He reminds people as they so bravely say from the comfort of their home, “We should kick their ass,” that it likely won’t be their child going, but it will be his. Then he asks them, “Do you know how many we have lost so far?”
When they often fail to give even an approximate estimate, he replies, “I guess if you aren’t concerned with the ones we already lost, what’s a few more?” The numbers are real to Boenig and he reads them every day on the air because on both ends of the barrel, every casualty is someone’s son or daughter. He understands, learning in the worst imaginable way, how war devastates the human spirit. With an average of 22 vets a day, dying by suicide, he wishes America would find a better way to use talented and brave children than sending them to fight over something few if any understand.
One year to the day of his son’s death, JSOC sent SEAL Team 6 to get Osama bin Laden, a bittersweet anniversary for Boenig, knowing the role his son had in it.
The story of Austin Gates Benson not only exposes the hollow center at the core of America’s militaristic culture, but it also demonstrates and dramatizes the wisdom of Asha Bandele, who in her novel "Daughter" illumines the absurdity of apologetics for violence. Bird, a character of the story who is a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, tells his young lover, “The United States likes to act as though it honors their dead. But if it did, there’d be a whole lot more people alive.”