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By Kim Scipes (reviewer)
Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs
by Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early, and Jasper Craven
(Duke University Press, 2022)
This country is really good at sending young people off to war, killing people, animals, plants, and the environment overall while destroying buildings and highways, and disrupting people's lives and societies wherever the US invades. The US has turned this into an art form. What they haven't done well is taking care of the women and men they send to do their dirty work once these service members return from the field of battle; or even from their term of "service." This new book by Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early, and Jasper Craven does an excellent job of pulling the covers back and illuminating the governmental disservice to these veterans.
This book gets behind all of the "Yankee Doodle Dandy" bullshit that is propagated throughout our society about military service. The military picks on young people who often want desperately to contribute to the well-being of our society, to make it better, and who think military service is a noble cause, as well as those living in economically devastated areas and who are willing to do almost anything to get out and be able to (ultimately) try to get another shot at life. The key thing to note is the emphasis on young people: they want to get to them before they learn to think critically about what they are being told and before they figure out that they have options otherwise that they may not have known about or even considered. (Increase the minimum age of enlistment to 21, for example, from 18 or 17 with parental approval, and I'll all but guarantee that enlistment rates plummet; free college education for all would have a similar effect.)
The strength of this book is the clear thinking behind it. Most importantly, for which I'm extremely grateful, is that they recognize that "veterans" are not just a bunch of flag-waving "patriots" who don't have a brain in their head. Yes, there are some like that. Military service affects each person who survives it; some say it was the best time of their lives, while others recognize they have had their desire to improve their life distorted, instead causing great pain and suffering wherever the US sent them. Add in a suicide rate averaging 22 veterans a day, along with massive amounts of alcohol and drug abuse, and you see the human cost to many of the US's veterans. The key thing to recognize, however, is that "veterans" are not a monolithic group.
And "Veterans of all types experience higher-than-average rates of joblessness, homelessness, chronic pain, mental illness, and substance abuse." Approximately one-in-three women veterans are survivors of military sexual trauma from their military "comrades." "These problems," the authors note, "were particularly acute among former enlisted men and women who returned to poor and working class communities slow to recover from the great recession of 2007 and 2008."
This is even getting worse than for previous veterans: 44 percent of today's veterans are suffering reintegration problems, as compared to 25 percent previously.
The thing the authors make clear is that military service itself, excluding combat, is dangerous. This begins in boot camp when the military tries to break down and then re-establish one's personality; this varies with the branch of the military, with the Marines being the most determined to build a "new" you. Again, varying with the branch, physical punishment is a key component in this process, whether a direct physical attack or the work of "motivation platoons," where the insistent digging and refilling and digging and refilling deep holes in the ground while incessantly being screamed at by a charming "drill instructor" who helps convey the message that you better get with their program—or you will continue to "pay" for your failure to comprehend. (The first half of the movie Full Metal Jacket is the most accurate rendition of Marine boot camp that I've seen; I think the second half of the movie sucks.)
Beyond that, many of the jobs that service people simply have to perform are inherently dangerous, whether driving a tank or a truck over imposing physical obstacles, firing artillery, or working on warplanes, with screaming jet engines, live ammunition, and active ordinance, including rockets and bombs: what could possibly go wrong? Service at sea also brings additional hazards for those in the Navy and Coast Guard, as well as for those who fly.
And then combat accentuates these dangers to the nth degree: not a single combat veteran I've ever met has come out unscathed, and many survivors have taken years to get themselves back together, if they ever do.
The US Government has an agency, the VA or "Veterans' Administration" that is supposed to provide medical resources to help veterans overcome whatever they experienced in the military when they present themselves for treatment. The authors point out that, when fully resourced, the VA generally does an excellent job of serving veterans. Their treatment of physical injuries is deemed quite good, and while it varies between facilities, the VA seems to be dealing better with mental health-related issues over time; it took multiple veteran occupations of VA facilities during the Vietnam War to get the VA to begin to address the issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since many of the VA employees are veterans themselves, it shows that veterans in VA facilities can often get more sympathetic help than they can in most "civilian" facilities.
The problem, however, is tied to the phrase "when fully resourced." The government has never fully funded the VA, and in fact, Congress has been channeling significant amounts of money away from the VA, supposedly to improve services for veterans—especially those physically distant from VA facilities—but have done this in a way that has undercut the VA itself and its ability to provide support for veterans in general.
Challenging the attacks, the authors argue that the VA is so good—again, when fully resourced—that it serves as a model for the entire country, and it shows how a single-payer system could actually work. This is important. In fact, they point out that something around 70 percent of all medical residencies in the country are carried out in VA facilities today, and that the VA served as a backup medical system when our medical system was overwhelmed by the COVID pandemic.
These political attacks have been given "cover" by several right-wing veterans serving in the House and Senate, as well as conservatives in office who cannot wave the flag enough, the "uber-patriots," many of whom avoided serving but who actually work desperately to deny the impact of their own decisions and who don't give a shit about veterans. (The word "scum" for both groups comes immediately to mind.)
Gordon, Early, and Craven deplore this, and detail what is really going on behind the flag-waving. Interestingly, they point out that most of the right-wing veterans were officers, and that we must not conflate their efforts with those of enlisted personnel who have often borne the brunt of officers' decisions: just because an elected official is a veteran, he or she is not necessarily "right" or looking out for the interest of most veterans.
The strength of this book is its honesty about the whole field of military service and its effects on those who survive it; as well as, obviously, those who don't. These authors demonstrate through this, and previous activities, that their concerns are for the well-being of those who have served. Their writing is straightforward, clear, and honest.
However, I have two criticisms as well. First, I think they delve into the veteran's world more deeply than many would on their own. To be honest, it can be very depressing to learn a lot of the crap that goes on with veterans' groups, many of which out of self-interest work against addressing the real needs and concerns of veterans, despite their stated "missions" and their rhetoric. This is even worse when their actions provide "cover" for the right-wing idiots who use veteran groups' positions to justify their own.
My larger and more important critique begins with the cover photo and title of the book, but extends beyond: I don't like the cover and title. In my opinion, these are not "our" veterans; they are the veterans and victims of the US Empire. "We" didn't send them to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the other places around the world where they've been sent; the scumbag political leaders, both Democrats, and Republicans, sent them. And they bear responsibility for this, as well as taking care of these men and women upon their return home.
And I don't think sufficient attention has been paid in this book to explaining and understanding the US Empire: while these political leaders suggest our country and the Empire are the same, the reality is that they are not; the United States is our country, where we live, but the US Empire includes everywhere in the world that the US seeks to dominate, whether others want it or not. Our country is not at risk from others, despite all of the propaganda; the US Empire is at risk. If the political leaders want to defend the US Empire, let THEM do it. As Phil Ochs said, "I ain't marching anymore!"
Kim Scipes, PhD, is a former Sergeant in the US Marine Corps, who turned around while on active duty (1969-73); he stayed in the States the whole time. He is a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). He is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana, the author of four books and over 240 articles published in the US and in 11 different countries. A global labor scholar, a list of his publications can be found on-line for free at https://www.pnw.edu/faculty/kim-scipes-ph-d/publications/, with many linked to the original publication.