I can no longer open an essay about September 11, 2001 with "We all know where we were that day," because an increasingly large number of individuals are coming of age without having any discernible memory of a life prior to the World Trade Center attack. This generation, even moreso than mine, has always lived in the Post-9/11 world, and embodies the concept behind my popular essay "Generation at War" better than my generation ever could.
These individuals lack the pre-9/11 context in which to frame their new world views, and as such will rely heavily on the narrative that generations before them have provided. As a result, it becomes increasingly important that, as we round the fifteenth anniversary of this tragic event, we pause for some introspection in order to better understand the narratives that we are providing.
If you are religious, then this moment of silence will likely involve a prayer of solace, remorse, and spiritual protection for those involved in this seemingly ceaseless War on Terror. That is, unequivocally, a selfless and honorable thing to do; it is not, however, the objective of this essay. As I dive into this complicated and controversial issue, please remember that I am heartbroken by the loss of life that we have experienced as a result of that attack, and I remain humbled by the sacrifice thousands of Americans have made every day since.
I cannot, however, analyze our nation's narrative if I append this sentiment to every statement. Similarly, as I cannot append my standard "My views are my own, are not indicative of real or perceived endorsement by my employers, the USAF, or the Air National Guard" to every potential controversial stance, please consider both of these disclaimers standing and explicitly implied throughout this essay.
The movie War Dogs starts off by introducing the mind boggling amount of money it costs to wage war and it does so in a fairly unique way: By dehumanizing "a kid from Arkansas." They do this by focusing, instead, on the individual components that make up an Arkansan soldier:
- Thermal weapon sight
- Fire-retardant gloves
- Anti-ballistic eyewear
- Night-vision eyewear
The point that War Dogs makes here is simple: To Department of Defense (DOD) contractors, a soldier is simply a collection of individual components that the company can sell the DOD for a profit. That soldier, that kid from Arkansas, is simply: $17,500. This sets the tone for the movie perfectly, as it follows the exploits of two greedy and profit-hungry entrepreneurs trying to capitalize on the War on Terror. However, I think that there's a different narrative that should be discussed here.
Consider what we know about the soldier pictured above.
We know only that this married 30-something returned home to Minnesota after a deployment to the Middle East. After a little bit of digging, you could find out to which Army Brigade he belonged, and to which war torn country he deployed, but there's really not much else to be said about him.
He is a man with a complex set of dreams and ambitions, a family, a story, and a reason that he joined the military. That reason may have been out of patriotic duty, a heroic and selfless desire to provide for and defend his country, or he could have been one of thousands to join in order to escape poverty and take advantage of lucrative college benefits. He might agree with the war, or he may see a country broken by American intervention that needs a way out; a path decided by a previous generation of soldiers.
I cannot, nor will I, attempt to speak for this soldier, because it's impossible to do so without making sweeping generalizations. Yet, every day, media outlets throughout the United States do just that by reducing individuals in uniform to nothing beyond the clothing they wear; heroes unequivocal in their support, selfless in their motives, and tireless in their dedication. This, in my opinion, is fundamentally no different than reducing individuals in uniform to nothing beyond the equipment they use.
"But, Danial," you might object, "DOD contractors are motivated by a need to profit on the war; those of us who popularize these sentimental homecomings aren't!"
Are we so sure about that? Media outlets are driven by ratings, which in turn affect the effectiveness of their advertising and constitutes the lion's share of their bottom line. Individuals, are motivated by more complex reasons: Popularity on social media, the need to vocalize support, or social pressure to name a few. While none of these reasons are inherently bad, they do contribute to the reduction of this individual to nothing beyond the clothing they wear.
This reduction of an individual to one facet of their life also poses incredible dangers to that service member, and his or her coworkers. Through a well-documented phenomenon known as the Halo Effect, reducing someone to one single facet also reduces their credibility to that single facet. This effect can be illustrated through a very simple thought processes:
- I like Jill, she is nice.
- I think donating to charity is nice.
- Therefore, I assume that Jill donates to charity.
If we see an individual in uniform as nothing beyond any individual in uniform, then it becomes increasingly difficult to separate that person's qualities (both good and bad) from their uniform. When we compound that issue with society's propensity to consider people in uniform as being, more or less, unassailable then we run the very real risk of assuming each person wearing it is above reproach. This is problematic for several reasons:
This isn't a simple case of correlation being confused with causation. We, in 2016, have a presidential candidate that, at at least one point his his career, considered this conduct "unavoidable."
The issue of 26,000 unreported cases -> 238 convictions raises a whole slew of issues that is, unfortunately, outside the scope of this essay. The underlying phenomenons at play in creating a culture in which civilians are only briefly outraged at transgressions caused by service members creates a culture at risk, no matter how unrealized, of losing it's accountability.
This risk is, for the most part, unrealized due to a healthy set of check's and balances that have been put in place to prevent outright abuses of power. There is an argument to be made that the swift retribution against the examples (sexual assault, unfortunately, not withstanding) I've listed as being a robust counterargument to my central point here. I would, however, disagree. That these scandals exist in the numbers they do highlights a cultural problem created - at least in part - by this hero worship.
I am also of the opinion that this popularization of this warrior class is detrimental to the US taxpayer. Consider Tom Cotton, who campaigned on a central theme: His military service would make him more effective than his competitor (Mark Pryor) in holding Obama accountable for our light stance on ISIL.
Tom Cotton used his four years in the military to create the persona of a hard liner on National Security (to Cotton's credit, he has upheld that campaign promise, though to limited effectiveness). Tom Cotton isn't the only elected official to use his military service to get elected, nor does the GOP have a monopoly on this tactic. In fact, with what we've learned about the Halo Effect, it should be fairly obvious that military service members would be seen as trustworthy congressmen.
With so many elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, having military service it should not be surprising that our National Strategy is focuses so heavily on security (13 of 29 pages), in direct contrast to the already safe lives of most Americans. This becomes a detriment to the US taxpayer when we begin treating every issue as if it were a military issue; resulting instead to solve every crisis with military solutions, technology, or manpower in lieu of less available (but potentially better suited) resources. This phenomenon bleeds over from the military into everyday life as well, as decades of military spending have created surpluses that are now being used by local law enforcement agencies.
The resulting pandemonium is an objectionable use of military power that is fully endorsed and funded by the US taxpayer. After all, we voted these individuals into office based, in some cases, solely on their military service history; can we really fault them for using their military experience in order to solve problems? Can we articulate our objections with the moral high ground? Should we?
I should make sure that I'm clear here: I can't fault US Congressmen for our performance in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, nor can I directly fault them for the proliferation of military equipment throughout the United States. Taken individually, each decision they made likely increased the economic, physical, and transnational security of the United States; it's only when we take a look at the last fifteen years that we're able to see the aggregate result of each of these decisions.
And it's only by looking deeper than those heartfelt prayers of solace and remembrance that we're able to see our complicity.