War Zone America? Perspectives on a Riven Nation from a Worried Military Spouse

tags: political violence, political polarization

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When it rains, pieces of glass, pottery, and metal rise through the mud in the hills surrounding my Maryland home. The other day, I walked outside barefoot to fetch one of my kid’s shoes and a pottery shard stabbed me in the heel. Nursing a minor infection, I wondered how long that fragment dated back.

A neighbor of mine found what he said looked like a cartridge case from an old percussion-cap rifle in his pumpkin patch. He told us that the battle of Monocacy had been fought on these grounds in July 1864, with 1,300 Union and 900 Confederate troops killed or wounded here. The stuff that surfaces in my fields when it storms may or may not be battle artifacts, but it does remind me that the past lingers and that modern America was formed in a civil war.

Increasingly, I can’t help thinking about possible new civil wars in this country and the violence we could inflict on each another. Recently, a family member reposted a YouTube video on her Facebook page that supposedly showed an Antifa activist accidentally setting himself on fire (with the 1980s hit “Footloose” playing mockingly in the background). “I’m just going to leave this here,” read her caption. Shortly thereafter she claimed that the “YouTube speech police” had taken it down.

I thought of saying something to her about how, in countries where I’ve worked, ones without a democracy, people celebrate the misery of their opponents. Was that really, I wanted to ask, the kind of country she’d like our children to see us creating? But I decided not to, rather than further divide our family, which has grown ever more apart since Donald Trump took office. In addition, I knew that confronting her would do neither of us any good. Inspired by a president who offers a sterling example of how never to self-police what you do, she would simply have dismissed my comments as the frivolous words of the “politically correct.”

These days, when I watch the news and see clashes among the police, Black Lives Matter protesters, far-right “militias,” and Antifa supporters, I’m often reminded that just because no one’s declared a civil war begun, doesn’t mean we aren’t staring at the makings of an armed conflict.

Our military service members and their families have toiled for endless years now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa under the mantle of establishing democracy and conducting a “war on terror.” They’ve done so to the tune of more than 7,000 of their own lives, a million of their own injuries and illnesses, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in those distant lands, and significantly more than $6 trillion in funding provided by the American taxpayer. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, they now live in a country that’s under-resourced and fractured in ways that are just beginning to resemble, in a modest fashion at least, the very war zones in which they’ve been fighting.

This is both a personal and professional matter to me. As the spouse of a Navy officer who served three tours of duty on nuclear and ballistic missile submarines and one on an aircraft carrier, and the mother of two young children, I bear witness in small but significant ways to the physical, emotional, and financial toll that endless war has had on those who fight. I’m thinking of those long separations from my husband, his (and my) unlimited hours of work, the chronic health issues that go remarkably unaddressed in the Navy, the hazing by war-traumatized commanders, one near-fatal boat crash, the rising frequency of violence and suicides among military families, a recent lack of regard for obvious safety precautions during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the service’s under-resourced healthcare and childcare systems -- and that’s just to begin a far longer list.

As a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project and a therapist who has worked with active-duty troops, veterans, and most recently children and adults who have arrived here as refugees and asylum seekers from the very lands in which the U.S. still fights, I continue to bear witness in my own way to the human costs of war, American-style. As I look up into the forest of oaks and elms in the hills around my home where, once upon a time, Americans undoubtedly sought shelter from bullets fired by their countrymen, it seems ever less far-fetched to me that my family could be asked to take part in an armed conflict on American soil.

Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night with a line from former President Barack Obama’s recent Democratic National Convention speech still in my head: “Do not let them take your democracy.” In my lifetime, I’d never heard a former president refer to a government that’s still supposed to be of, by, and for the people as “them” -- especially a president as prone to understatement as he is. As a military spouse, I wonder where my family will fall in that ever-deepening chasm between “us” and “them.”

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