Andrea Mazzarino – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 23 Nov 2022 02:28:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How the Bush “War on Terror” Fed US White Nationalism and brought the Terror Home Wed, 23 Nov 2022 05:02:54 +0000 ( ) – Recently, an agent of the Department of Homeland Security called me and started asking questions about a childhood acquaintance being investigated for extremism. I put him off. My feelings about this were, to say the least, complex. As a military spouse of 10 years and someone who has long written about governmental abuses of power, I wanted to cooperate with efforts to root out hate. However, I also feared that my involvement might spark some kind of retaliation.

While I hadn’t seen the person under investigation for years, my memories of him and of some of the things he’d done scared me. For example, when we were young teens, he threatened to bury me alive over a disagreement. He even dug a hole to demonstrate his intent. I knew that if I were to cooperate with this investigation, my testimony would not be anonymous. As a mother of two children living on an isolated farm, that left me with misgivings.

There was also another consideration. A neighbor, herself a retired police officer, suggested that perhaps the investigation could be focused not just on him, but on me, too. “Maybe it’s because of stuff you’ve written,” she suggested, mentioning my deep involvement in Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I co-founded as a way of dealing with this country’s nightmarish wars of this century.

Indeed, the American version of the twenty-first century, marked by our government’s devastating decision to respond to the September 11, 2001, attacks with a Global War on Terror — first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then in other countries across the Middle East — has had its grim effects at home as well. It’s caused us to turn on one another in confusing ways. After all, terror isn’t a place or a people. You can’t eradicate it with your military. Instead, as we learned over the last couple of decades, you end up turning those you don’t like into enemies in the bloodiest of counterinsurgency wars.

I’ve researched for years how those wars of ours also helped deepen our domestic inequalities and political divisions, but after all this time, the dynamics still seem mysterious to me. Nonetheless, I hope I can at least share a bit of what I’ve noticed happening in the conservative, privileged community I grew up in, as well as in the military community I married into.

Around the time I co-founded the Costs of War Project in the early 2010s, I fell in love with a career military officer. Our multitrillion-dollar wars were then in full swing. At home, the names of young Blacks killed by our police forces, ever more ominously armed off the country’s battlefields, were just seeping into wider public consciousness as was a right-wing political backlash against prosecutions of the police. Anti-government extremist militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, some of whom would storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to try to violently block the certification of an elected president, were already seething about the supposed executive overreach of the Obama administration and that Black president’s alleged foreign birth. But back then, those guys all seemed — to me at least — very much a part of America’s fringe.

Back then, I also didn’t imagine that men in uniform would emerge as a central part of the leadership and membership of such extremist groups. Sadly, they did. As journalist Peter Maass pointed out recently, of the 897 individuals indicted so far for their involvement in the January 6th violence, 118 had backgrounds in the U.S. military and a number of them had fought in this country’s war on terror abroad. Nearly 30 police officers from a dozen different departments around the country similarly attended the rally that preceded the Capitol riot and several faced criminal charges.

What also sends chills down my spine is that federal law enforcement agencies turned their backs on the warning signs of all this. Had the FBI acted on information that extremist groups were planning violence on January 6th, it might not have happened.

A Nation Rich in Fear

If one thing captured the spirit of the post-9/11 moment for me, in retrospect, it was the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has defined itself as a “whole-of-society endeavor, from every federal department and agency to every American across the nation.” Expenditures for that new department would total more than $1 trillion from 2002 through 2020, more than six times expenditures for similar activities at various government agencies during the previous 20 years.

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With its hundreds of thousands of workers, DHS often seems susceptible to overusing its authority and ignoring real threats. Case in point: of the approximately 450 politically motivated violent attacks taking place on our soil in the past decade, the majority were perpetrated by far-right, homegrown violent extremists. Yet all too tellingly, the DHS has largely remained focused on foreign terrorist groups — and homegrown jihadist groups inspired by them — as the main threats to this country.

Thanks to the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, federal authorities were also empowered to obtain the financial and Internet records of Americans, even if they weren’t part of an authorized investigation. In the process, the government violated the privacy of tens of thousands of citizens and non-citizens. Authorities at government agencies ranging from the FBI to the Pentagon secretly monitored the communications and activities of peace groups like the Quakers and Occupy Wall Street activists. Worse yet, in June 2013, Americans learned that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone records from tens of millions of us based on a secret court order.

Such practices only seemed to legitimate vigilantism on the part of Americans who took seriously the DHS’s mantra, “If you see something, say something.” Incidents of racial profiling directed towards people of Muslim and South Asian background spiked early in the post 9/11 war years and again (I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn!) after Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017.

Sometime before that, a relative visiting me noticed a darker-skinned man, a tourist, taking photos of historic buildings in my community, while speaking on his phone in Arabic. To my shame, she began questioning him, based on “a feeling that something was wrong.” In other words, well before the Donald put “fake news” in the contemporary American lexicon, feelings and not facts all too often seemed to rule the day.

“Is that the Russia?” or Dangers Near and Far

Terrorism was at once everywhere and nowhere for those who were supposed to be fighting that war on terror, including members of the military. In 2013, when my husband was on a months-long deployment at sea, another wife, whom I had texted about having a party for the crew on their return, texted me back a warning. I had, she claimed, jeopardized the safety of my husband and other crew members on his boat. After all, what if some foreign enemy intercepted our exchange and learned about the boat’s plans?

Four years later, in the shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency, it only got worse. A stressed-out, combat-traumatized commander, who took over the vessel to which my spouse was next assigned, emailed us wives weekly warnings against sending messages just like the one I had dispatched years earlier. He also ordered us not to email our husbands anything that could be imagined as negative, even if it reflected the realities of our lives: sick children, struggles with depression, financial troubles when we had to miss workdays to single parent. According to him, to upset our spouses in uniform was to jeopardize the security and wellbeing of the boat and indeed of America. He could read our e-mails and decide which ones made it to our loved ones. It was an extreme atmosphere to find myself in and I started to wonder: was I an asset or a threat to this country? Could my harmless words endanger lives?

One summer evening toward the end of another long deployment at sea, a fellow spouse tasked with disseminating confidential information about the boat our spouses were on arrived at my home unannounced. I was feeding my older toddler at the time. She whispered to me that our husbands’ boat was returning to port soon and swore me to silence because she didn’t want anyone beyond the command to know about the vessel’s movements. It was, she said, a matter of “operational security.” Then she took a glance out the window as though a foreign spy or terrorist might be listening.

“Oh! That’s great!” I replied to her news. Later, I tried to explain to my bewildered child what “operational security,” or keeping information about daddy’s whereabouts away from our country’s enemies, meant. He promptly pointed toward that same window and said, “Is it the Russia? Does the Russia live there?” (He’d overheard too many conversations at home about nuclear geopolitics.) The next day, pointing to a mischievous-looking ceramic garden gnome in a neighbor’s yard, he asked again, “Is that the Russia?”

It was not Russia, I assured him. But six years later, in a weary and anxious country that only recently gave The Donald a true body blow, I still wonder about the dangers of our American world in a way I once didn’t.

The 2020s and the Biggest-Loser-in-Chief

Eventually, my family and I settled into what will hopefully be our final stint of military life — an office job for my spouse and a home in rural Maryland. But somehow, in those Trump years, the once-distant dangers of our world seemed ever closer at hand.

This was the time, after all, when the president felt comfortable posting a meme of himself beating up a CNN journalist, while his Homeland Security officials detained peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon. I soon began to wonder whether returning to something approximating normal civilian life was ever going to happen in this disturbed and disturbing land of ours.

Motorcyclists sporting confederate flags drove by on the rural highway in front of my house. Blue Lives Matter flags fluttered in a nearby town after the police murdered George Floyd. Even years after Trump left office, as the polls leading up to the midterm elections seemed to indicate a coming red wave, I wondered if I had been wrong to imagine that our fellow Americans would choose democracy over… well, who knew what?

As part of that election campaign, I wrote nearly 200 letters to Democratic voters in swing states urging them to get to the polls as I was planning to do. Remembering a trend my friends and I had started on social media in 2020, I considered posting a funny photograph of my sweet, excitable rooster, Windy, sitting next to piles of letters, with the caption, “Windy is vigilant about the state of our democracy! Are you?”

Then I thought twice about it, another sign of our times. It occurred to me that if I did participate in an investigation against an angry person in uniform, the one I had once known, I risked retaliation and — yes, I did think this at the time — what better target was there than our strange outdoor pet? On realizing that it was I who was now starting to think like some fear-crazed maniac, I forced myself to dismiss the thought.

Of course, that predicted red wave turned out to be, at worst, a ripple, while election denialism and voter intimidation seemed to collapse in a post-election heap. None of the most extreme MAGA candidates running for top election positions in swing states won. Was it possible that Americans had started to see the irony, not to say danger, of voting for public officials who attack the basic tenets of our democracy?

In the end, I told the guy investigating my childhood acquaintance that I couldn’t help him, feeling that I had nothing new to add for a crew with such sweeping powers of surveillance. To my relief, he simply wished me the best. The normal tenor of that conversation changed something in my thinking about the government and this moment of ours.

I found myself returning to an older (perhaps saner) view of our times, as well as the military and law enforcement. Yes, our disastrous wars of this century had brought home too many unnerved, disturbed, and damaged soldiers and small numbers of them became all too extreme, while over-armed police forces did indeed create problems for us.

However, it was also worth remembering that the military and the police are not monoliths. They aren’t “blue lives” or “the troops,” but individuals. They are part of all our lives, as fallible as they are potentially capable of helping us form a more perfect union instead of the chaos and cruelty that Donald Trump exemplifies. Were Americans — all of us from all walks of life — more willing to stand up to bigotry and extremism, we might still help change what’s happening here for the better.

Copyright 2022 Andrea Mazzarino


Choosing Life in a Pro-Violence Society Mon, 03 Oct 2022 04:02:20 +0000 ( – In significant parts of this country, the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade returned Americans to a half-century-old situation in which hundreds of thousands of women, faced with unwanted pregnancies, were once forced to resort to costly, potentially deadly underground abortions. My spouse’s employer, the Pentagon, recently announced that its own abortion policy, which allows military insurance to cover the procedure when a pregnancy results from rape or incest, or poses a threat to the mother’s life, still holds.

Sadly enough, this seems an all-too-hollow reassurance, given the reality that pregnant women in the military are, in many places, likely to face an uphill battle finding providers trained and — here’s the key, of course — willing to perform the procedure. The Supreme Court abortion ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health leaves it up to the states to determine whether to allow abortions. In doing so, it ensures that the access of military populations to that procedure will be so much more complicated, especially for spouses who need to seek off-base care, including ones like me who have chosen the military insurance option TRICARE Select that allows us to access almost exclusively civilian providers. America’s 2.6 million military dependents now live in a country where an ever-changing patchwork of state laws can make seeking an abortion costly, risky, and stressful in the extreme.

Any military spouse with young children in tow who’s had to relocate somewhere in this nation’s vast network of military bases can tell you that just caring for another person is challenging in itself. Upon learning you’re pregnant, you practically need a Ph.D. to locate a competent obstetrician who also accepts military insurance.

And even when you do, don’t discount the problems to come. After an ultrasound, my first provider in the military’s TRICARE Select healthcare program told me that my child was missing a foot. (In fact, he was just positioned with his back to the camera.) My second provider almost injured that same child by attempting to apply force during labor when his head was stuck against my hip bone.

And once you’ve actually had the child, you’re likely to find yourself bickering for hours with uninformed military insurance providers simply to get coverage for a breast pump so you can feed your baby and go to work. Your military-approved pediatrician may — or may not! — know anything about local TRICARE Select specialists who can help you address common family problems like deployment-related anxiety in kids. And childcare? This country’s childcare facilities are already stuffed to the gills and that’s even more true of military childcare centers. Typically enough, I fear, I was on wait lists for them for years without the faintest success.

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Now, add the devastating Dobbs decision to that military reproductive healthcare landscape. Imagine that you want and need an abortion and rely on TRICARE Select, especially if you and your family are stationed in one of the 13 states that have near or total bans on the procedure. If you’re lucky enough to have the funds and social connections, you may be able to call in your babysitter to watch your older children and let your employer know that you’ve got to travel out of state for a medical procedure — as if they wouldn’t know what kind! Then you’ll spend what disposable income you have, if any — poverty and food insecurity being rampant in today’s military — to head out of state alone in hopes of getting access to an abortion.

You may want your partner to come with you. If he’s not deployed and assuming he supports your choice to seek an abortion, the two of you will face a barrier peculiar to military life: any service member who needs medical leave must request it through a commanding officer. To be sure, the Army and Air Force have issued directives to commanders not requiring soldiers to state why they’re requesting it. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a pro-life commanding officer wouldn’t see right through such a sudden request and deny it. This is one of the many reasons you may find yourself alone on your journey.

And oh, the places you’ll go! The nearest abortion clinic likely won’t be off base over on Main Street. The states with the most restrictive laws governing abortion also have among the highest concentrations of military bases. So military dependents and soldiers whose insurance or health conditions require them to go off base will likely have to travel across state lines (possibly many state lines) to get the services they need and, of course, do so on their own dime. And by the way, the anti-abortion states are also among those with the largest number of per capita troop hometowns, meaning that military personnel from them are unlikely to get access to care if they go home to be with family during a time when they undoubtedly need extra support.

In other words, in the military world, Dobbs is a recipe for disaster.

Military Health Insurance 101

For those unfamiliar with the military’s insurance system, let me make a key distinction. Military family members like myself get to choose between two main types of health insurance. The first, called TRICARE Prime, lets you access care in Department of Defense healthcare facilities military bases or posts. This is how active-duty troops typically get care as well. A case manager refers you to various primary and specialty-care providers as needed. With TRICARE Prime, you’d be using federal facilities, so you might, at least theoretically, have an easier time getting access to an abortion when, under a narrow set of conditions, the federal government is willing to cover such a procedure.

In my experience as a therapist listening to military spouses over the years, to seek healthcare at military facilities almost invariably involves conflicts of interest. Doctors there tend to treat you as though your concerns about your health or that of your children are remarkably insignificant compared to the needs of the troops. They tend to speak to spouses like me as if we were the only ones responsible for the health of our families, in the process essentially dumping such issues (and the services that go with them) onto the unpaid shoulders of us and us alone.

To offer an example, a mother I knew in Washington State was increasingly worried about her toddler’s rapidly declining weight, only to have that phenomenon dismissed by physicians at a military hospital as the result of poor parenting. In the end, her suspicion that her child was gravely ill turned out to be all-too-sadly correct. Another military wife I interviewed went to couples’ therapy on a military base to discuss how an upcoming move might impact their marriage. The counselor they saw, she told me, emphasized her spouse’s service to the country, suggesting that she prioritize his career over hers and complete the move.

Perhaps because of such conflicts of interest and the greater choice offered by civilian-based health plans, most military dependents (72% in 2020) choose the second military-authorized insurance program, TRICARE Select. There, you manage your own care by finding civilian doctors willing to accept the Select plan or you simply pay out of pocket for civilian providers, hoping for some reimbursement sooner or later. With this option, if you were faced with an unwanted pregnancy, you would be subject to any abortion restrictions in your surrounding area.

Keep in mind that specialty care like obstetric services is not likely to be easy to find when you’re looking for military providers in your community. A recent Pentagon evaluation of access to healthcare found that 49% of the people with TRICARE Select could not find a specialist in their community who accepted TRICARE patients, nor could 34% travel the necessary distance to reach an appropriate specialist. Meanwhile, 46% couldn’t access a specialist in a timely manner due to long wait lists. Worse yet, overall access to specialist care within 24 to 48 hours for TRICARE Select beneficiaries decreased significantly between 2016 and 2019 and continued to do so through the first half of 2021.

Lack of access is not an accident. Despite the monstrous size of the Pentagon budget in these years, the Department of Defense actually decreased its health expenditures for all medical programs relative to its overall spending between 2017 and 2020.

New Barriers to Treating Patients and Even Saving Lives

In such an environment, it’s hardly surprising that state abortion bans containing exceptions in cases when pregnancy threatens the parent’s life will not easily result in access to the procedure. For example, Tennessee, home to five military bases and with a per capita troop concentration about 10% greater than the national average, provides exceptions to its ban when a parent’s life is at risk. Here’s the catch: doctors need to be prepared to show evidence that the procedure is necessary to prevent the impairment of a parent’s major bodily functions were the pregnancy to continue — enough evidence that a team of prosecutors with its own expert medical witnesses could not convincingly argue otherwise in court. If not, a doctor could face felony charges and up to 15 years in prison.

Under such circumstances, if you were a doctor considering whether to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy for a patient, would you choose the patient or protect your ability to stay with your own family, avoiding the risk of prison? I’m not sure what I would do in such a situation.

There’s reason to believe that even military dependents not seeking abortions could end up struggling to get the pregnancy care they need because of the restrictions doctors will face when it comes to treating complicated pregnancies. For example, the drugs used to induce abortion by medication, misoprostol and mifepristone, are also the most effective ones for treating patients experiencing miscarriages. At the Cleveland Clinic Emergency Department, under Ohio’s new “heartbeat ban,” which makes it a felony to end a pregnancy after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, women could soon enough have to wait 24 hours before receiving treatment for miscarriages, since anything earlier might qualify as an illegal abortion. Thankfully, for the time being two judges have placed a pause on the ban.

Another troubling fallout from new state abortion bans is the way providers and their patients are now being left to handle exceptions when a pregnancy results from rape. Many abortion bans contain sexual assault reporting requirements that make it all but impossible for doctors to avoid serious liability. For example, Utah’s new abortion law permits the procedure in cases of rape, but for a doctor to perform it without risking criminal charges, he or she would need to report the rape to law enforcement. Similarly, in Wyoming (a state with just one abortion clinic that has two providers), the new exception in cases of rape does not specify how a client should prove that rape occurred, again leaving it up to doctors to decide how to treat patients and protect their own lives from devastating consequences.

The assaulting of civilian women by soldiers is not a widely studied subject, but accounts by activists and journalists suggest that it is a significant problem. What’s more, about 80% of rapes committed by soldiers are never officially reported because victims fear retaliation either from their rapist or others in their communities, including their own or their spouse’s commands. If the rapist happens to be their spouse, reporting the rape in order to obtain an abortion could mean that the family loses its sole source of income, since a convicted rapist would assumedly be discharged from duty. In addition, it’s widely known that people who report sexual assaults often face uninformed responses from law enforcement officers who doubt their stories or blame them for being attacked, only increasing the trauma of the situation.

Pro-Lifers, Their Pro-Violence Society, and a New Approach to Reproductive Rights

The pro-life activists and policies behind those cowardly laws belie the fact that much of what far-right Americans and their elected representatives support undermines human life. Look at the violence and poverty some of the same leaders who advocate abortion bans allow in a country whose politicians generally choose to sanction war and investments in weapons development over better social services. Look at the way a significant minority of the citizenry support elected officials who encourage violence against other Americans of differing political beliefs. Look at the way some of us would support the separating of parents and children at the end of life-saving journeys away from drug wars and poverty in their home countries.

Given such political headwinds, it’s worth remembering that a pregnant person is not a passive receptacle but a worker, whether for nine months or the rest of her life. If anyone should have the power to choose death, she should, because there is always a damn good, heart-wrenching reason for doing so.

I don’t know how many people realize this, but if Roe had not become the law of the land in 1973 to protect abortion rights, a different case might have taken its place. In the early 1970s, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, took up the case of an Air Force nurse in Vietnam named Susan Struck who was told (as was the military’s policy at that time) that she would be discharged if she were to carry her pregnancy to term.

Captain Struck was a devout Catholic who wanted to keep her job and have that baby. Ginsburg argued that all government attempts to regulate reproduction constituted sex discrimination, whether it involved restricting pregnancies or abortions. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in 1972, but before that could happen, the military changed its policy, rendering the case moot. Had Ginsburg won that case before the Supreme Court, our legal system might have prioritized parents, not the state, as the ultimate decision-makers — heroes no longer navigating a landscape of red tape and indignities.

Last June, right after Roe was overturned, I contacted a fellow military spouse visibly pregnant with her first child. She told me how complicated her feelings were about showing up in Washington, D.C., to advocate for abortion rights just after the draft decision to overturn Roe was leaked this past May. Would people misunderstand her presence at that demonstration? About a year ago, she’d sought emergency care for a miscarriage, which she might not have been able to get had abortion rights already been taken away. Perhaps, in the absence of adequate care, she might have suffered complications that prevented her from becoming pregnant this time around. She did, however, attend that demonstration, convinced that advocacy was as important to self-care as any other act in this country.

Hers is a true pro-life position. It’s the position of someone who has for years moved from one military base to another. Loving both yourself and your baby is a struggle, not a campaign slogan. As a parent myself, I think that parenting is a journey many more pregnant people would happily embrace if the conditions in this country were significantly more humane. Right now, if you truly care about the lives of us all, it’s up to you (and me) to join women like my friend in her post-Roe advocacy.

Copyright 2022 Andrea Mazzarino


A Military Rich in Dollars, Poor in People: And our Frayed Social Safety Net Mon, 15 Aug 2022 04:02:06 +0000 Andrea Mazzarino | –

( – The American military is now having trouble recruiting enough soldiers. According to the New York Times, its ranks are short thousands of entry-level troops and it’s on track to face the worst recruitment crisis since the Vietnam War ended, not long after the draft was eliminated.

Mind you, it’s not that the military doesn’t have the resources for recruitment drives. Nearly every political figure in Washington, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, invariably agrees on endlessly adding to the Pentagon’s already staggering budget. In fact, it’s nearly the only thing they seem capable of agreeing on. After all, Congress has already taken nearly a year to pass a social-spending package roughly half the size of this year’s defense budget, even though that bill would mitigate the costs of health care for so many Americans and invest in clean energy for years to come. (Forget about more money for early childhood education.)

Nor is the Pentagon shy about spending from its bloated wallet to woo new recruits. It’s even cold-calling possible candidates and offering enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000.

As it happens, though, its recruiters keep running into some common problems that either prevent young people from enlisting or from even wanting to do so, including the poor physical or mental health of all too many of them, their mistrust of the government (and its wars), and the recent pandemic-related school closures that made it so much harder for recruiters to build relationships with high-school kids. Many of these recruitment issues are also all-American ones, related to the deteriorating quality of life in this country. From a basic standard of living to shared values or even places where we might spend much time together, we seem to have ever less connecting us to each other. In a nation where friendships across socioeconomic classes are vital to young peoples’ access to new opportunities, this ought to trouble us.

Playing Alone

When I arrived to pick my kids up from camp recently, an elementary school classmate playing basketball with them was yelling “This is for Ukraine!” as he hurled the ball towards the hoop. It promptly bounced off the backboard, landing on a child’s head just as he was distracted by a passing bird. Another mother and I exchanged playful winces. Then we waited a few more minutes while our kids loped back and forth between the hoops, not really communicating, before taking our charges home.

By the time I had gotten my young kids signed up for a camp so that my spouse, an active-duty military officer, and I could continue our work lives this summer, basketball was all that was left. The sun often baked the courts so that less time was spent outside playing and more time talking, while trying to recover from the heat. Though our children were new to group activities, having largely engaged in distance learning during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, they did find a couple of things to talk about with the other kids that reflected our difficult world. “Mommy,” said my seven year old when we got home one day, “a kid said Russia could nuclear bomb us. Could they?” On another occasion, he asked, “Is Ukraine losing?”

They know about such subjects because they sometimes listen in on nighttime discussions my spouse and I have. We might typically consider Russian President Vladimir Putin’s elusive nuclear redline and how close the U.S. will dare creep to it in arming Ukrainian forces. As a therapist who works with active-duty military families, I’m all too aware that kids like ours often worry about violence. Similarly, it’s my experience that military kids tend to wonder whether some kind of repeat of the January 6th attack on our Capitol by Trump’s armed mob could, in the future, involve our military in conflicts at home in which our troops might either kill or be killed by their fellow citizens.

Such violence at home and abroad has become routine for daily life in this country and been absorbed by troubled young minds in a way that left them attracted to video games involving violence. Those can, under the circumstances, seem like a strangely familiar comfort. It’s a way for them to turn the tables and put themselves in control. I recently had a perceptive neighbor’s kid tell me that playing the military game Call of Duty was a way of making war fun instead of worrying about when World War III might break out.

My family is fortunate because we can afford to be home in our spacious yard long enough to let our kids play outside with one another, delighting in nature. I also watch them play “war” with sticks that they reimagine as guns, but that’s about where their militarism ends.

I know that military spouses are expected to encourage their children to join the armed forces. In fact — don’t be shocked — some 30% of young adults who do join these days have a parent in one of the services. But I guess I’m a bit of an odd duck. Yes, I married into the military out of love for the man, but I’ve led a career distinct from his. I even co-founded the Costs of War Project at Brown University, which played a vital role in critiquing this country’s wars in this century. I also became a therapist with a professional, as well as personal, view of the healthcare deficits, internal violence, and exposure to tough work conditions that military life often brings with it.

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To take one example, my spouse and I have been waiting for months to get care for a life-threatening condition that those with comparable insurance coverage in the civilian population would often have access to in weeks or less. A host of related health conditions are no less poorly treated in our all-too-well-funded military these days.

As we plan to wind down our family’s stint in the military, it’s hard to ignore how little of our fat military budget with its ever fancier weaponry goes to help Americans in those very services. A line from the new film Top Gun: Maverickcomes to mind, as title character’s commanding officer warns him: “The future is coming. And you’re not in it.”

Capitalism’s Military Marriage

Thanks in part to growing wealth inequalities in this country and what often seems to be a perpetual stalemate in Congress regarding social spending, the next generation of would-be fighters turn out to be in surprisingly rough shape. It’s no secret that the U.S. military targets low-income communities in its recruitment drives. It has a long record, for instance, of focusing on high schools that have higher proportions of poor students. Recruiters are also reportedly showing up at strip malls, fast-food joints, and even big box stores — the places, that is, where many poor and working-class Americans labor, eat, or shop.

So, too, has the military and the rest of the national security state piggybacked on an American love of screens. The alliance between Hollywood and military recruiters goes all the way back to World War I. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, the government stepped up its efforts to sell this country’s latest wars to the public, presenting them as a ticket to greater opportunities for those who enlisted and, of course, a patriotic fight against terrorism. The smoke had barely cleared from the site of the Twin Towers when Pentagon officials began meeting with Hollywood directors to imagine future war scenarios in which the U.S. might be involved. Present at those meetings were the directors of movies like Delta Force One, Missing in Action, and Fight Club.

It appears that those efforts had an effect. A 2014 social-science study found, for instance, that when it came not to the military directly but to the U.S. intelligence community, 25% of the viewers of either the combat film Argo or Zero Dark Thirty changed their opinions about its actions in the war on terror. Who knew that, with the help of stars like Jessica Chastain, waterboarding and sleep deprivation could be made to look so sexy?

Some kids were more likely than others to pick up such messages. On average, low-income children have more screen time daily than higher income ones do. And many teens increased their screen time by hours during the pandemic, particularly in poor families, which grew only poorer compared with wealthy ones in those years. As a result, in a country where basic services like school and healthcare have been harder to access due to Covid-19, the few spaces for social interaction available to many vulnerable Americans have remained saturated with violence.

A Frayed Social Safety Net and the Military

In such communities, it turns out that the military might no longer be able to promise opportunity to that many young people anymore. After all, our government has done an increasingly poor job of providing a basic safety net of food security, a decent education, and reasonable healthcare to our poorest citizens and so seems to have delivered many of them to adulthood profoundly unwell and in no condition to join the military.

Annually, the proportion of young people who are mentally and physically healthy has been shrinking. As a result, roughly three quarters of those between the ages of 17 and 24 are automatically disqualified from serving in the military for obesity, having a criminal record, drug use, or other similar reasons.

To take one example, obesity among kids has skyrocketed in recent years. During the pandemic, in fact, it began rising a stunning five times faster than in previous years. While obesity may not always disqualify young people from serving in the military, it usually does, as do obesity-related diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. While its underlying causes are complicated, two things are clear: it’s far more prevalent among the lower- and middle-income segments of the population and per capita it’s strongly linked to wealth inequality.

Legislation like the Healthy Food Access for All Americans bill, which has the potential to expand access to less fattening foods through tax credits and grants for grocers and food banks, was introduced in the Senate more than a year ago. You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that it has yet to pass.

The casualties of not caring for our own in this way are high. According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 300,000 deaths each year are due to this country’s obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, deadly as such a phenomenon might prove to be, it doesn’t make for the sort of gripping plots that popular movies need.

Similarly, the military’s recruitment efforts suffer because of poor mental-health levels among young people. One in five young women and one in 10 young men experience an episode of major depression before turning 25. Meanwhile, the suicide rate in this country is the highest among wealthy nations and now — thanks, in part, to all the weapons flooding this society — it’s also the second-leading cause of death among 10-to-24-year-olds. Worse yet, poor kids are significantly more likely to die by suicide. Globally, wealth- and race-based inequalities are key determinants of mental health, in part because people who sense that the world they live in is deeply unfair are more likely to develop clinical mental-health disorders.

A 2019 United Nations report suggested that, in order to improve mental health, governments ought to focus on investing in social programs to support people who have experienced trauma, abuse, and neglect at home or in their neighborhoods. It seems unlikely, though, that our elected representatives are ready for such things.

This Is for Democracy

The human frailties that hinder enlistment are symptoms of something more sinister than a military lacking bodies. The threat that is guaranteed to further undermine any American readiness to face life as it should be faced in this discordant twenty-first century with its ever more feverish summers is the dismantling of our democratic system.

A recent survey ranked the U.S. only 26th globally when it comes to the quality of its democracy. And that’s sad because functional democratic systems are better at creating the conditions in which people can help each other and be involved in public service of all sorts, yes, including in the military.

Democracies are also better at educating people and generally have more efficient health-care systems in part due to the lesser likelihood of corruption. Ask anyone who has sought care in an autocracy like Russia and they’ll tell you that even being rich doesn’t guarantee you quality care when bribery and political retaliation infuse social life.

Democracies have less criminal violence and less likelihood of civil war. In a true democracy where the peaceful transition of power is a given, the kinds of emergencies that necessitate a strong military and law enforcement response are much less likely, which is why the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol was so ominous. Worse yet, investing in weapons rather than human livelihood is guaranteed to have costs that are not only far reaching, but hard to predict. One thing is certain, though: war and ever greater preparations for more of it do not lay the groundwork for a good democracy.

All this is to say that our government ought to stop using movie screens and strip malls to sell its bloody practices overseas. It ought to stop investing in the national (in)security state and the corporations that support it in a way that has become unimaginable for the rest of society. It ought to develop a truly functional social-support system at home that would include the Americans now not quite filling the Pentagon’s tired ranks.

Copyright 2022 Andrea Mazzarino


War as Terrorism: Conflicts We Can’t Win, Suffering We Don’t See Wed, 01 Jun 2022 04:04:49 +0000 ( – Anyone who grew up in my generation of 1980s kids remembers G.I. Joe action figures — those green-uniformed plastic soldiers you could use to stage battles in the sandbox in your backyard or, for that matter, your bedroom. In those days, when imagery of bombed-out homes, bloodied civilians, and police violence wasn’t accessible on TV screens or in video games like Call of Duty, war in children’s play took place only between soldiers. No civilians were caught up in it as “collateral damage.”

We kids had no way of faintly grasping that, in its essence, war actually involves civilian deaths galore. And why should we have? In that era when the only foreign conflict most of us knew about was the 1991 U.S. tromping of Iraq, mainly an air-power war from the American point of view, we certainly didn’t think about what we would now call war crimes. It might have been cause for a therapy referral if one of us had taken a G.I. Joe and pretended to shoot a child, whether armed with a suicide bomb or not.

Having lived through more than a century and a half of relative peace in our homeland while fighting endless conflicts abroad, only in the past 20 years of America’s post-9/11 war on terror, waged by U.S. troops in dozens of countries around the world, have some of our children begun to grapple with what it means to kill civilians.

War in a Trumpian (Dis)information Age

As a Navy spouse of more than 10 years and a therapist who specializes in treating military families and those fleeing foreign wars, I believe that the post-9/11 wars have finally begun to come home in a variety of ways, including how we think about violence. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond have reached U.S. shores in all sorts of strange, if often indirect manners, starting with the surplus small arms and tactical equipment (some of it previously used in distant battle zones) that the Pentagon has passed on to local law enforcement departments nationwide in ever increasing quantities.

Our wars have also come home through the “anti-terror” grants of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), itself a war-on-terror creation, that have funded local law-enforcement purchases of armored vehicles and other gear. Such weaponizing programs have helped embolden police officers to see themselves as warriors and citizens like George Floyd as enemy combatants, which helps explain the increased use of force during police encounters in these years.

Additionally, in the last decade, this country’s wars have come home in the form of more mass shootings by white supremacist and anti-government types targeting minorities and people of color. Meanwhile, the DHS continued to focus disproportionately on the dangers of Islamist extremists, while overlooking the threat posed by far-right groups, despite their easy access to firearms and the reality that many of their members have military backgrounds.

And think of our wars as coming home in one more way: through the January 6th attack on the Capitol by then-President Donald Trump’s small army of coupsters. After all, about 20% of those facing charges in connection with the Capitol riot had served in the military. Consider it a symbol of our embattled moment that the Republican Party leadership would officially sanction that assault as “legitimate political discourse.”

In this age in which armed conflict seems to be everywhere, take my word for it as a therapist and a mother, kids think about violence in a way they once didn’t. After George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation in 2020, caused by pressure from a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, kids in my community have asked me more than once what it feels like to die when someone steps on your neck. Others have asked me what bullets feel like when they enter your body and whether it’s possible to stop the blood when an armed person walks into your school and starts shooting students down.

I was in a military museum on a base where missiles were displayed and overheard a young child ask his parent whether such a weapon would hurt if it landed on you. Some kids, whose fathers or mothers fought in combat zones and returned with injuries or post-traumatic stress syndrome, can intuit what it means to survive a war after they’ve seen their parent hit the ground upon hearing a child scream on a playground.

The Heart of War’s Toll: Civilian Deaths

One imperative has rested at the core of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I helped found in 2011: to account as accurately as possible for how many people have been killed or injured thanks to the decision of President George W. Bush and crew to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with endless military actions across significant parts of this planet. It’s easy to forget how regularly soldiers kill and maim innocent civilians, sometimes deliberately.

According to our count, by 2022, some 387,000 civilians had been killed thanks to war’s violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Civilian deaths similarly occurred in countries like Somalia where President Biden just redeployed hundreds of American troops in another round of the military offensive against the Islamic terror group al-Shabab (which has grown stronger in these years of all-American violence).

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People living where the U.S. has fought have died in their homes and neighborhoods from bombings, shellings, missile attacks, and shootings. They’ve died while shopping for groceries or walking or driving to school or work. They’ve stepped on mines or cluster bombs while collecting wood or farming their fields. Various parties in our conflicts have kidnapped or assassinated people as they went about their everyday lives. Girls and women have purposely been raped as an attack on their communities. Human Rights Watch has documented how, in Afghanistan, parties on all sides of the war on terror, including troops and police allied with the United States, have raped, kidnapped, shot, or tortured civilians, including children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross defines war crimes as acts that are disproportionate to the military advantage sought, that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, or that fail to take precautions to minimize injuries and loss of life among civilians. It was symbolically apt that the last U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as U.S. troops were withdrawing from our 20 year-old war there, reportedly killed three adults and seven children. And yet most Americans never seemed to take in how much civilians suffered from our war tactics, widely publicized as “surgical” and “precise” in their targeting of Islamic extremists, even as they now take in how the Russians are slaughtering Ukrainian civilians.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that information about the harm to civilians caused by our air wars in particular hasn’t been available for years to those willing to search it out. To take but one example, check out Zeeshan Usmani, Pakistani scholar-activist and founder of Pakistan Body Count. He conducted detailed investigations of the U.S. drone war in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands since 2004. Usmani’s research shows how, in the absence of strong human intelligence on the ground, American drone operators often determined who was a militant based on imprecise and moving targets. For example, some drone strikes were aimed at cell phones that might have changed hands among several people. Such attacks have killed or injured family members and neighbors of the targeted individual, or even first responders rushing to help after an initial attack had taken place. Usmani found that, between 2004 and 2014, 2,604 civilians had died in those borderlands from U.S. drone strikes — or 72% of the victims during that period.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times set of investigations into this country’s air wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria analyzed more than 1,300 military reports of air strikes between 2014 and 2018. Its journalists found that more than half of those strikes, often based on flawed intelligence that caused the Pentagon to target civilians, resulted in thousands of such deaths.

In January 2017, for example, the Air Force bombed three Iraqi families thought to house ISIS fighters. The households targeted included civilians with no known connections to that terrorist group. An Iraqi man lost his mother-in-law and three of his children, one of whom died in his arms as he tried to get her to the hospital. (A nearby house for Islamic State fighters was untouched.) The Pentagon didn’t even acknowledge those civilian deaths until years after those bombings. Nor did surviving families affected by this and similar “incidents” receive restitution or access to the kinds of medical care that many needed to live with their disabilities.

War as Terrorism

Honoring troops on national holidays like the Memorial Day just past helps obscure a grim reality of our time — that wars are won (or in the case of this country, it seems, never won) only by making it impossible for the communities we oppose to carry on with their daily lives.

I once helped conduct research compiled by 10 major human rights and humanitarian organizations for the publication Education Under Attack. It showed how armed conflict impacted the lives of students and teachers in more than 93 countries. The most recent 2020 report found that government militaries and sectarian armed groups carried out more than 11,000 attacks globally on schools, school buses, students, and teachers between 2015 and 2019. Fighters and troops bombed and occupied schools, and kidnapped students and teachers, sometimes using them for sex or commandeering them into armies and militias. And many of those attacks were all too deliberate. (For reasons I won’t go into here, unlike the Costs of War Project, Education Under Attack did not specifically investigate war deaths at the hands of the U.S. military, though most of the countries profiled in its report were those our military arms, aids through intelligence, trains, or fights alongside.)

An eight-year-old child in Yemen, a country where an estimated 12,000 civilians have died due to air strikes in a nightmarish ongoing war, survived when her bus was hit. That strike was carried out by Saudi forces to which the U.S. endlessly sells arms. Here’s how she responded to the experience: “My father says he will buy me toys and get me a new school bag. I hate school bags. I don’t want to go anywhere near a bus. I hate school and I can’t sleep. I see my friends in my dreams begging me to rescue them. So from now on, I’m going to stay home.”

This is suffering that numbers can’t capture, but it should remind us that war is a form of terrorism.

Who Is to Blame?

Our ignorance of the costs of war is cultural and systemic. The Costs of War Project was started exactly because, as America’s war on terror spread, a few of us became ever more aware of how hard it was to find honest, complete accounts of war and what it does to people and communities. Our military certainly hasn’t proved eager to document civilian casualties in a reliable or consistent way. In fact, what the Pentagon has known about them was often actively suppressed. The New York Times investigations of U.S. air wars in the Middle East, for example, found that only a handful of those hundreds of cases in which civilians were harmed were ever made public.

In fact, members of the U.S. armed forces have been intimidated so that they wouldn’t come forward to talk about what they had seen or done. For example, in 2010 when a group of our infantrymen shot an Afghan teenager working alone and unarmed on his family farm (in addition to killing two other unarmed Afghan civilians), the military barred those who allegedly committed the murders from giving interviews. When those men were indeed brought up on charges (rare in itself), one of them stated during an interrogation that he had been threatened with death if he refused to participate in a murder. The Army then placed him in solitary confinement, supposedly to ensure his safety. (The father of this last soldier had alerted the Army to these murders soon after they took place, but that service didn’t intervene until months later.)

Although impunity and lack of accountability are rampant in war, war-crimes trials like Nuremburg after World War II or Kyiv’s recent first trial of a captured Russian soldier who had committed acts of horror are all too rare. And even when they do condemn specific war criminals, they seldom condemn war itself.

I only hope, as the children in my family and my community grow up, they come to understand that war crimes aren’t just a byproduct of recklessness but of an all-too-human decision to “solve” problems through armed conflict rather than the range of alternatives available to us. I also hope that ever more of us accept how important it is to teach younger generations about the horrific suffering of civilians who live through war.

Here’s the truth of it: if we lack empathy for those who suffer in our wars, we endanger humanity’s future. The kids who ask pointed and graphic questions or wake up from nightmares spurred by playing Call of Duty are saner than parents who thank soldiers for their service or celebrate Ukrainian holidays. Purchasing Ukrainian flags is no substitute for trying to investigate the nightmare really underway in that conflict. We should be supporting organizations that protect local journalists. Instead of buying guns ourselves or voting for lawmakers bent on sending our troops all over the world to fight “terror” (and, of course, cause terror), we should be sending money to organizations that document war’s casualties or the humanitarian agencies that aid refugees, displaced people, and survivors of violence.

And it’s time, above all, to ask ourselves what stories we’ve been missing in all these years that our military has been fighting abroad. In such a world, the true costs of war should be endlessly on our minds.

Copyright 2022 Andrea Mazzarino