As the memory of the recent US wars in the Middle East begins to fade, the veterans who fought those wars are being forced into lives of increasing levels of precarity.
On the one hand, many people across the political spectrum maintain that they “support the troops,” even if they are critics of US imperialism. Flags, bumper stickers and patriotic slogans give evidence of this general attitude. On the other hand, many people, both on the left and the right, recognize that the United States’ recent wars have been disasters that have only precipitated more anti-Americanism.
Thus, veterans are roundly praised for making incredible sacrifices in the name of an essentially pointless war effort. The demoralizing nature of this situation is apparent among returning veterans. A recent report by the US Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that in 2010, each day, 22 veterans died as a result of suicide. This is a staggering figure. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that suicide rates among veterans were 50 percent higher than the rates of comparable civilians.
Veterans returning to civilian life must become reintegrated into the structure of increasingly stressful economic and social relationships.
Combat is an incredibly traumatic experience and is obviously a significant factor in veteran suicide rates, but is it possible that the return to civilian life is also traumatic? Veterans returning to civilian life must become reintegrated into the structure of increasingly stressful economic and social relationships. Karl Marx characterized such relationships in terms of the notion of alienation. Under capitalism, the average worker is estranged from the product of her labor – her work benefits her employer to a much greater degree than it benefits herself. But she is also estranged from everyone else. Social relationships are increasingly characterized by competition in a manner that leaves no room for substantial forms of cooperation or solidarity, two very basic lessons a soldier must learn to be successful on the battlefield.
Under neoliberalism, the vision of life as ruthless, individualized competition has become a political program that forces veterans to dramatically switch modes from teamwork to individual social survival skills. Oddly, the military is possibly one of the few areas of advanced modernity that serves as a contrast to the vision of neoliberalism – at least, that was our experience of it as veterans ourselves.
While the structure of the military is hierarchical and bureaucratic – and while at times individual soldiers may face abuse and manipulation at the hands of authoritarian leaders, a fact which should never be ignored – the military is often the site of lasting bonds of friendship and solidarity, relationships that contrast with, and serve to resist the dominant logics of both the military bureaucracy and the global market. In this way the military offers something of a respite from the neoliberal economy.
Although the military is an instrument of state power, life within the military can be experienced as based in cooperative social relationships grounded in shared goals, which are fostered by the virtue of solidarity. In addition, the social services provided by the military ensure that the needs of each member are adequately provided.
The cooperative relationships formed within the military are a stark contrast to the ruthless competition characteristic of capitalist social relationships, and this can cause major issues in terms of how veterans find their place in the world outside a military post. We believe that much of the trauma experienced by returning veterans is actually a result of the resumption of capitalist social relationships after living and dying with their fellow comrades.
Veterans are faced with the daunting awareness that they have been killing for an economic elite.
Returning veterans have been especially vulnerable to the ruthless alienation of capitalism. A RAND Corporation study reported that young veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 experienced a 29 percent unemployment rate, and that between 2000 and 2011, veterans from the same demographic were 3.4 percent more likely than civilians to be unemployed. These difficulties are compounded by the realization that the United States’ wars have almost no connection with the needs and interests of the vast majority of Americans, and instead shamelessly serve the interests of an increasingly unresponsive economic elite, what the Occupy movement called the 1% and what racial justice activists call unjust white privilege and supremacy. This sadly results in reducing the most sacred act of courage, the sacrificing of one’s own life for the greater good of the country, into a trivial, thankless gesture.
Professor Alasdair MacIntyre makes this point clear when he argues that the state presents itself under two incompatible guises at the same time. On one hand, the state is the bearer of the ideals of freedom, and as such, as a community for which one ought to be willing to die for, this vision is obviously very prominent among veterans and service members. On the other hand, the state also presents itself as a neutral bureaucracy, which exists for the sole purpose of enabling individuals to fulfill their interests, especially their economic interests of accumulating wealth. Thus, veterans are faced with the daunting awareness that they have been killing for something like a telephone company, that the US ideals of freedom and prosperity are reserved for an economic elite and that the sacrifices made by veterans largely benefit this same elite.
As veterans, we want to see our country provide for the needs of all of its citizens, especially those who have risked their lives in service. What do returning veterans need? First, they need psychological, health and educational services that ensure that their unique needs are met. We owe this to veterans as a simple matter of justice. Secondly, they need jobs. This requires an end to neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation, policies that have contributed to the loss of the types of jobs that would often be suitable for veterans. Third, veterans need to be encouraged by others, intellectuals, political organizers and fellow community members to move beyond a simple (but often knee-jerk) form of patriotism in order to consider, through debate and discussion, the questionable legitimacy of many of the recent instances of military action. Veterans should be encouraged to draw upon the skills and virtues that they acquired while serving in the armed forces in order to continue serving the nation through political activity aimed at reversing the destructive neoliberal policies of the economic elite.