Veterans: Return to Hell?

The midterm elections, like those that led to Trump’s victory, have taken place in a militarized society at war.

The “alt-right”* is again visible because of the events of the midterm election campaigns. The most absurd hate and violence have manifested themselves on television screens in the form of two people’s faces. Cesar Sayoc is suspected of sending mail bombs to various people associated with the Democrats, and Robert Bowers has confessed to being behind the anti-Semitic attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh. As often happens, television experts in the United States have emphasized the brutal rhetoric of President Donald Trump, the lack of respect for the rules of the game in politics, America’s lax attitude when it comes to firearms and the detrimental effect of the power of social media. There is, however, an important explanation that is rarely considered: the militarization of American society. Since the end of World War II, the country has permanently been at war. Since Sept. 11, 2001, American military intervention has almost reached a saturation point for the whole of the U.S. Armed Forces, composed of the regular U.S. Army and the National Guard. The midterm elections, like those that led to Trump’s victory, are taking place in a country at war. It is a fact of life that we must be reminded of.

The military itself wants the fighting and the deaths to remain invisible so as not to frighten the public. As such, war has been wiped from American consciousness. However, soldiers that fight today, like those before them, play a decisive role in contemporary public debate. In a work recently published by Harvard University Press, “Bring the War Home” (2018), historian Kathleen Belew reminds us of the extent to which the Vietnam War has shaped the far right since the 1970s. From hostility toward the federal state, to hatred of the outsider, to the necessary expertise to make bombs, these soldiers learned from their experiences under fire. Successive wars only served to accentuate this phenomenon.

Timothy McVeigh, a hero of the “alt-right” and perpetrator of the bloody attack against a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was a former soldier of the first Gulf War. As historians have taught us, the return to war has consequences for society, and the repercussions are lasting. How can one not make a connection between the democratic crisis of the country and the war unleashed by Sept. 11, 2001?

Everybody is in agreement about the problems regarding returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. Every year since 2008, 6,000 soldiers have ended their lives. Many are young recruits, but it is noticeable that many older men and women tread this fatal path, too. This suicide epidemic in the ranks worries all levels of society. The number of suicides has surpassed the number of combat deaths during the two world wars by a wide margin (slightly lower than 7,000). Soldiers have also become avid opiate users. Although taken as painkillers, these pills lead to troubling addictions and, in certain cases, cause lethal overdoses. Post-traumatic depression has become such an ingrained problem in the military that recently, the U.S. Army publicly confessed to the difficulties it has faced in dealing with the suicide epidemic in its ranks. Although the military has managed to hide the combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq thanks to perfectly coordinated public relations, it now recognizes the overwhelming extent of the problem on American soil. Treatment has improved since the Vietnam War, and psychiatrists and other doctors are responsible for helping those that suffer from PTSD. Nonetheless, this condition remains all too present in the daily lives of soldiers. Even for those who regularly have appointments in hospitals reserved for military staff, the risk of succumbing to depression and making an irreversible decision remains extremely high.

These difficulties faced by soldiers and their families have been expressed in politics. Locally, the presence of military bases has strong repercussions on voting habits. The hinterland states, where Trump won huge numbers of votes, are also where military personnel are based. For the midterm elections, which are being held in a few days, the Democratic Party has taken on the idea that the Army is more of an internal political problem than an external one. As a result, the Democrats have multiplied the number of male and female candidates who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Kentucky, an ex-fighter pilot, Amy McGrath, has worn the colors of the party and asserted the right to health care for all Americans. In Kansas, another woman, Mary Ottilie Hegar, has been chosen for her service in the Army, where she was awarded the most prestigious military medals. In light of these optimistic faces, we must not forget the extent of the problems linked to the militarization of society. An ex-captain of the National Guard, Jason Kander, emphasized that political efforts do not suffice. Even though he was never assigned to a combat zone, Kander served in Afghanistan and makes the defense of former soldiers one of the promises of his campaign. Clean-cut, polite and respectable, until the start of October he was one of the rising stars of the party, and many foresaw a Barack Obama-like future for him. A few weeks before the electoral deadline, he abandoned politics as a result of continued struggles with PTSD. Instead of running for office, he left politics to be treated in the hospital for suicidal tendencies and nightmares. The tragedy that Kander lives through reminds us of the harsh reality of war on American soil. By quickly forgetting this, we risk failing to understand what has been happening under our noses for several months.

The author is finishing an essay titled “Trumpland,” which will be published shortly.

*Editor’s note: The term “alt-right” is a white nationalist movement.

**Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the Nov. 6, 2018 midterm elections, but the editors felt that the commentary is still relevant.

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