The fallout from the Vietnam War included a shift in public thinking about war narratives. The antiwar movement, sparked by outrage at our government’s actions and lies and the unending costs in human lives and resources, was critical to ending our involvement. Unfortunately, blame and anger were displaced onto American soldiers as agents of the government and symbols of war. This misdirected backlash foreshadowed the current “support our troops” phenomenon. Since 9/11 and the subsequent invasion into Iraq, magnetic yellow ribbons have emerged as a symbol of this national sentiment.
For some, these words have become associated with of a brand of patriotism that discourages citizens from asking valid questions and/or expressing misgivings about our government’s use of our military and proliferation of war acts in (now) seven foreign nations. In this way, our soldiers become shields twice. First, they are engaged in the fundamental task of protection of country and citizens and the US’s purported interests abroad. Simultaneously, they are covertly utilized as a shield against inquiry into how interests are defined and/or how military actions are implemented, lest the citizen(s) be deemed unsupportive or unpatriotic.
During the Vietnam War the real of consequences of war were widely public and viscerally potent in the media. Body counts were listed daily on TV, and dead soldiers’ bodies were filmed or photographed as they were unloaded from planes in body bags and caskets. The draft made it less possible for war to be the primary burden of the working class or volunteers. The impact of the war was real to all of us, not exclusively the individual families involved in military service.
We no longer observe the daily impact of our military’s engagement and our status as a nation permanently at war. Since Desert Storm, in which subsequent war initiatives have been given poetic names, it has been intentionally sanitized or scripted in the media. This allows many Americans, like me, to go about our daily business of family, school, and work lives unscathed, with war an abstraction and a trip to Starbucks an easy comfort. The defense budget is another vague concept, but something we are told must always be increased to ensure our basic safety.
We do not see the impact on the nations and landscapes in which the bombs are dropping or our troops are navigating in proxy wars not of their choice. Instead, war is presented in most media outlets as egregious actions by others, while we, as Americans, are written into the story as the heroes, the humanitarians, the agents of the free world spreading democracy. As if bombs were bread, and bullets were medicine. As if more violence and traumatization were the answer. As if dead, faceless civilians known as “collateral damage” were expendable for the ever-evasive greater good of eradicating the specter of terrorism we have been trained to fear. As if strength was always and only defined by aggressive action instead of thoughtful deeds and words.
The lessons of Vietnam need to be remembered now more than ever. Our government and influential corporations who thrive as stakeholders in the industrial war complex have agendas the broader populace may not. Governments, even democratic ones, use propaganda and fear to manipulate narratives and justify imperialism and power grabs for resources or the appearance of global leadership. Soldiers are never to blame. Questioning our government’s use of military force abroad should never be confused with a lack of support for the individuals who serve, whatever the mission. True patriotism means respectfully understanding and taking responsibility for our government’s use of our military and actions enacted in our country’s name, with our tax dollars, and therefore with the citizenry’s full consent. To truly support our troops, we would do well to honor their service and sacrifice (and their families) by holding our government and political representatives accountable for limited and discerning engagement. Otherwise, war is first and foremost about power and profits, the soldiers and citizens be damned.
‘If You See Something, Say Something’
We the People under the current administration are supposed to be afraid. This is irrespective of political ideology or how or if you voted last November. A fearful populace is vulnerable and malleable—susceptible to manipulation, propagandizing, and subgroup infighting. Such conditions make the justification for increased defense spending, while proposing cutting meal programs for the elderly, after-school programs for children, and eliminating funding for the arts, more viable to some citizens. Fear capitalizes on divisiveness and inflames an us-versus-them dynamic, inside and outside our nation’s borders. For many supporters of Trump, a level of stress and fear were already well developed, and his campaign rhetoric intentionally stoked the cauldron. For others, a drop into angst hit on November 9 and has been regularly reinforced since. Researchers have found that fear is perceived in another’s facial expressions faster than any other emotion and posit an evolutionary protective function. In other words, we are hardwired for and particularly sensitive to fear.
When fully operationalized, fear is power. Every tyrant or domestic abuser knows this, writ large or small in a nation or home, respectively. Keeping people scared is central to your power structure. Unpredictable moods and behaviors that fluctuate between outbursts, tantrums, and name-calling rages to pleasantness, smiling facades, and grandiose compliments or statements (the latter initially a welcome relief) keep people off balance and insecure. Over time, this psychological seesaw fractures an innate sense of security and skews reality. Truth and lies are presented as interchangeable, the narrative defined solely by the oppressor. Chronic confusion reigns, as a sense of surreality permeates. A partner, a family, or a nation’s populace can end up wondering which mood, mandate, and/or reality they will be greeted by today. A myth forms that tyrants or abusers can be satiated or appeased, and therefore the pleasant, charming, grandiose persona will sustain. Ask anyone with authentic experience: neither are possible. Or not for very long.
Two administrative initiatives actively cultivate a narrative of fear through conditioning and suggestion. As of March 2, the TSA began to “quietly” implement an “enhanced” pat-down procedure at airports, touting it as more effective. This was in response to findings that guns and other potential weapons were not being consistently identified through TSA screenings, although no related crimes were reported. Some individuals have publicly complained that their enhanced pat-downs were inappropriately invasive, including one woman whose panty liner triggered the procedure. When she made a formal complaint to TSA officials, she was told it was necessary for security purposes. Likewise, the travel (read Muslim) ban was rationalized as a means of creating greater safety by keeping “bad” people out. The repeated narrative of terrorism or scary otherness reinforces a contagious belief we are essentially unsafe as Americans. This reality is presented and reinforced despite the fact that more mass murders have been carried out by Americans, with military-style weapons we refuse to take off the market, and that no foreign act of terrorism has happened since 9/11/2001. As we continue to allow our civil liberties to erode, it begs the question: What is terrorism? And can it be an inside job?
Is Bombing Presidential?
Beyond partisan politics, most Americans would agree that President Trump is impulsive, temperamental, strong willed, and not easily redirected when upset or locked into his perspective, even in the face of contrary evidence. Examples abound: the inauguration story, the voting scandal, the wire-tapping story. These traits have been framed as positive or negative based on one’s political leanings. Of note, President Trump has never been publicly described as thoughtful, measured, or compassionate.
Up until the US bombing in Syria on April 6, politicians were separated along party lines regarding their support for President Trump’s actions since taking office. Party politics have played out against a backdrop murmur in the media questioning his inherent capacities and competence for holding office and specific journalists and mental health professionals’ speculations and warnings about his mental stability. Every time President Trump releases a tweet that is nonsensical or inaccurate, citizens, politicians, journalists, and even White House officials work to make sense of it. Every time he reads from a teleprompter or is calm, someone calls him “presidential.” After 76 days in office, President Trump had the lowest approval ratings of any new president since data has been collected.
But as outlined by Glenn Greenwald in his article “The Spoils of War: Trump Lavished with Media and Bipartisan Praise for Bombing Syria,” acts of war (or war) are game changers for leaders. Politicians from both sides of the aisle and media outlets have rushed to approve of Trump’s decision to release 59 Tomahawk missiles (worth approximately $60 million) on select targets in Syria as purported retaliation for the use of chemical weapons on its citizens. Greenwald states what is different about this attack is that it is directed at the Syrian government, in contrast to previous US bombings in Syria. What is not new is President Trump’s choice to act independently, with basic prenotification to Congress but no oversight process—in keeping with the two previous administrations of Bush and Obama, who paved the way to this moment. The multimillion-dollar question is: Given Trump’s demonstrated character traits and craving for approval, how will he handle his role as commander-in-chief of the strongest, most-financed military in the world?
The Long View
On April 10, only four days after the bombing, Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, is warning the Syrian government that more bombings and/or other military actions may ensue if Syria continues to use chemical weapons. Considering Vietnam, an ancestor of misbegotten wars, and now Iraq, Afghanistan, and still counting, one must ask: Do we never learn? According to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs of Brown University, the estimated costs for wars in the Middle East and Homeland Security will reach an estimated $4.79 trillion dollars this year. To what end? Are we or anyone else affected safer? Less afraid? Or has terrorism actually been fueled since 2003 and our invasion into Iraq, as some suggest?
If the United States wants to do something for Syrians, in the midst of an extremely complex civil war, perhaps we could reopen our country’s doors to the refugees and families slated to be welcomed to Rutland and other communities across our country prior to Trump’s anti-immigration/refugee policies. Maybe we could remember our infrastructure as a nation was built, in large part, by immigrants. Perhaps we could remember that perceiving fear has a protective function in survival, but it can be manipulated in ways that curb our personal freedoms, break communities apart, and drain our financial resources, while putting those we love at unnecessary risk. Maybe. But the arc of history suggests probably not.
Published in Vermont Woman, April/May issue, 2017