Last year I brought attention to the number of vets fighting substance abuse issues and filling prisons at rates far surpassing the Vietnam Vet era. America still hasn’t seemed to grasped the collateral damage we are doing to our warriors and those around them. Soldier suicides are an all time high, the VA can’t keep up with the medical needs (i.e. Walter Reed scandal), and veterans are faced with a civilian economy that is as dismal as any of them have experienced. And yet still, one is attacked as un-American when wanting the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations to cease immediately. Michael Reagan called for killing activists. Protests are rarely seen as “support” for the warriors- the spin doctors and warmongers pitch this as an insult to the warriors. Fortunately, HBO marks this Vets Day with a documentary, WarTorn, on the history of PTSD.
Cultural awareness around post-war Vietnam’s legacy came through songs like Born in the USA, Disposable Heroes, and movies such as Born on the 4th of July and Rambo. (Coincidentally, one of the most highly anticipated MTV videos ever was “One,” an anti-war song by Metallica.) With a new 1980s epidemic on our hands known as “addiction,” the launching of a war on addicts put many a vet in the cross-hairs. Was it the Homeless Vet on the side of the intersection that finally pierced the pop culture? At any rate, we are still ultimately blinded by flags and fly-overs during sporting events. We pay billions on military recruitment, billions more on winning our own “hearts and minds,” and even sponsor several NASCAR teams under the military banner. And it seems like we only talk about the good, dead, soldier. Not the new vets, whose unemployment rates are higher than average, rising from 7% in 2008 to 12.5% today.
Of the vets I know quite well, I got to know former Marine Joe D on a far deeper level than my own brother, himself a 101st Airborne Sergeant. I knew Joe beyond the bio. I knew what made him tick, his humanity, and could understand his conscience without him communicating specifics. In fact, I reference him on the very first page of my book NewJack’s Guide to the Big House. We spent the better part of a decade in the same cellblock in prison- both Maximum and Medium Securities.
Joe and my brother were always very aware of the conflict between fighting for the country and supporting questionable foreign policy. Between them, they had served in every skirmish the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton Pentagons devised. They had a slightly different awareness of Timothy McVeigh and “The Sniper,” just as any of us who have experiences that provide for a bit more experience than the general public. Whether fighting for control of foreign markets, oil, or drug cartels, the average soldier knows when they are being used… yet cannot give up the honor of protecting their country. And once they’ve been there, the cat doesn’t get back in the bag.
I don’t know Joe D for what got him into prison. I know the aftermath. Joe was as solid a Con as his USMC tattoo, and a role model for staying in shape. “Use it or lose it, Bruha. Just like your mind, you gotta keep it going.” Known for his dips, pull-ups, and pushups, Joe’s calisthenics kept him possibly the fittest guy in the System. Like Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, a shaved head kept the hairline from betraying their age. Joe was always positive and encouraging. Time and again he would say that my mind and heart would take me big places. As for him, he just wanted to get out someday.
A few days ago, former Marine Joe D finally got out of prison. He got out in a box, as we say, after 19 years inside. I still haven’t gotten details from the prison. Rumor has it he just keeled over from a brain aneurysm or some similar mysterious ailment that only people with health care could ever catch. And just like that, Joe is erased from the Department of Corrections database. He is no longer a number. No longer part of this expensive equation of Crime and Punishment that never adds up to much. Just another guy whose Life sentence turned into death.
How many Joe D’s will go into prison from the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan? Naturally, people short-circuit who were not in combat nor regimented by the military, nor ever sat in the paradox of killing and murder and when violence is an acceptable response and when it is not. A Bureau of Justice report indicates that Vets go into prison at lower rates than the general population, but their crimes are far likelier to be for violent actions. This makes rational sense. On the one hand, conditioned to obey; on the other, when things go wrong they go really wrong.
What does not make rational sense is a culture which categorizes War as “patriotic” and Peace as “treasonous.” A true democracy celebrates differences of opinion and can weigh different strategies to obtain results. One could realistically presume that a country with such zeal for war holds an overall goal of “Global Domination.” This is a rational goal, and many board games encourage it. But I don’t recall this conversation happening, nor this conclusion being drawn.
Somehow the United States of America has never gone a single yearwithout combat. Somehow it has continuously extracted money from its citizenry to fund what is now a ring of military bases spanning the globe. Rather than tax cuts for the rich we get war. Rather than an education movement we get war. Rather than a renewable energy car, cities on wind power, and a laundry list of goodies for every pet project… we get war. If history is any indicator: there will never be a Peace Dividend for the American people.
With every WikiLeak that does not inspire outrage and resistance from the people, the desensitization deepens. With that said, I believe it is harder to be “The Man.” It is more expensive to manufacture consent. With each new media format comes another avenue that needs suppression. As people’s education comes more from the links they hype on Facebook, comes the need for a new information gatekeeper. In an age of Google Images, it seems like 20 years ago George W. Bush was banning photographs of flag-draped coffins at Dover AFB. Can they really put up a veneer that nobody is dying? It requires so much effort, and so many commentators calling all dissenters’ patriotism into question. Stay tuned: the fight for Net Neutrality, and those who would like to control the flow of information are circling the wagons.
If the wars become totally privatized, and all of the troops wearBlackwater XE armbands rather than American flags, would we call them “vets?” It is only a matter of time before Blackwater mercenaries, a.k.a. “contractors,” are filing for VA benefits. Before they are forming their own contingents during Veterans’ Day parades. Those mercenaries, who have come together from around the world, are being paid up to ten times what the American soldier is paid… from the same U.S. Treasury. So what’s the difference? Quite a bit.
The Occupation of Iraq did not end when some soldiers were replaced with mercenaries. The Occupation of Afghanistan has a faux-ending that constantly is pushed back. Will it fade into some “normal” situation like Northern Ireland or Palestine? Post-invasion occupations on this scale have not happened since World War II. Since that time, North Korea was expelled from South. America was expelled from Vietnam. Both before the “battle” phase had been completed. The “Godless” Soviets did not unleash the sort of firepower upon the Afghani people as the U.S. has. Their decade of occupation still came to an end. What is our end?
I’m happy that my brother did not take the Blackwater money. I love him, and consider him to be a highly trained valuable asset that can protect his community if there were ever a true disaster. If a Katrina happened in his hometown, he would be out there with a rope and a buck knife saving folks in myriad ways. I wish he hadn’t been exposed to all that Depleted Uranium and injections and whatever else gave him the “Gulf War Syndrome,” but he lives on. And I’m happy he never melted down like Joe D. We all have our baggage. I for one think we need to stop forcing the Vets to need U-Hauls for all that weight. Love the Warrior. Hate the War.