Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt survived stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, where she helped guard military bases at the peak of America’s wars in those regions in the mid-to-late 2000s. Instead, she lost her life fighting her own government in the corridors of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — gunned down by a Capitol Police officer at the front of a crowd trying to smash toward the nearby House chamber and prevent the counting of 2020 Electoral College votes that would make Joe Biden president. Seconds before the fatal shot, a video captured her compatriots smashing a window and shouting, “We don’t want to hurt no one, we just want to go inside.”
“My sister was 35 and served 14 years — to me that’s the majority of your conscious adult life,” Babbitt’s brother told the New York Times. “If you feel like you gave the majority of your life to your country and you’re not being listened to, that is a hard pill to swallow. That’s why she was upset.”
As the Justice Department and other investigators continue to sort out what really happened on that bloody Wednesday on Capitol Hill, it’s increasingly clear that military veterans were disproportionately involved. So far, about 20% of those arrested and charged in connection with the riot had served in the U.S. military, a group that comprises only 7% of the general population. To some experts, the arrests highlight a disturbing trend in American life that’s existed since the bitter end of the Vietnam War — a kind of “blowback” in which troops who were trained to fight and kill for one vision of democracy overseas turn on their own government in their disillusionment once back home.
It’s important to note here that we are talking about a fraction of the 2.7 million service members who took part in Iraq or Afghanistan — a group that includes large numbers of veterans doing good things in their communities, even working in some cases to reduce the aggressive U.S. military posture they participated in. Indeed, the Capitol Police officer who was killed trying to hold off the mob, Brian Sicknick, had also served in the military overseas.
And America, as a society, frankly gives its former soldiers and sailors too many reasons to feel unwelcome or otherwise disconnected when they come home. Some of that is embedded in a lack of support, including the historically poor performance of the Veterans Administration that has festered under both Democratic and Republican administrations. But I also mean much more broadly that our country’s embrace of militarism as our face to the world — including the unending post-9/11 “forever war” — creates lifelong post-traumatic stress or other psychological wounds among the too many who fight it. Even veterans who don’t see frontline combat face a difficult adjustment from the camaraderie of their units to increasingly atomized, individualistic and harsh America that waits at home. For a minority, conspiracy theories or extremism can provide a new form of social cohesion, albeit a dangerous one.
There’s a simple way to curb some of the radicalism and disillusionment that’s caused by sending so many young men and women to fight a muddled “forever war” that continues after nearly 20 years, as our reasons for sending troops into dangerous situations in Afghanistan or Iraq become less and less clear, especially to those “boots on the ground.” Our new president, Joe Biden, could show a seriousness to finally ending these wars and creating an American foreign policy that doesn’t need to be enforced with constant drone strikes and an archipelago of military bases.
Indeed, the indications are that the magnetic inertia of American militarism will continue under Biden, as it does under every modern U.S. president — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. After all, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress who barely speak to one another the other 364 days of the year managed to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” in passing a massive $740 billion defense budget, even over Trump’s veto. While the incoming Biden team has signaled a policy shift on Yemen is coming soon, the future for American troop presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan is very much up in the air.
Once again, Jan. 6 “brought the war home” to America. We act shocked when a nation that too often executes its foreign policy at the barrel of a tank finds that here at home we’ve become not only armed to the teeth but that increasingly seems unable to solve what should be political debates without apocalyptic talk of a “civil war.” When it comes to drawing down the morally corrosive power of militarism on American life, the buck starts at the president’s Resolute Desk. President Biden has both the power and the opportunity to bring the longest military conflict in American history to its inevitable end — and build a society where there’s no longer any war to import.
Read the rest of this article at The Philadelphia Inquirer