Though my father served in World War II (an experience he would seldom talk about), I was never in a war myself, nor has the rest of my family been. Nothing strange there. It's typical, in fact, of American life since the draft was abolished in 1973 and the all-volunteer military established. Though I had been deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, it's still hard for me to explain the urge that led me to launch TomDispatch more than 17 years ago, based on a feeling that the Bush administration's invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks was the start of truly bad times for us and for the planet. Still, here's the reality so many years later: this website's focus on what became Washington's forever wars of this century and our regular publication of work by retired (or even active-duty) military figures critiquing our wars has proven an anomaly in these years. Of course, I always thought it was obvious that those who had come through the very system fighting those conflicts and emerged in a critical frame of mind would naturally have something crucial to say to the rest of us.
As the polls show, however, the U.S. military remains the most admired institution in this country and yet, generally speaking, Americans have paid remarkably little attention to the disastrous wars it's been fighting since 2001. The two, in fact, seem strangely disconnected -- the endless thank-yous and tributes to the troops and the remarkable lack of interest in what that all-volunteer military is actually doing in the world. Strange, to say the least, don't you think? Today, military spouse, co-founder of the invaluable Costs of War Project, co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino offers a look at what it feels like to be, as she is, part of a military family in such a strange, embattled world. Tom
What Americans Don't Know About Military Families
America's Endless Wars Go On (and On) and the Wounds Multiply
By Andrea Mazzarino
As each of my husband's Navy submarine deployments came to an end, local spouses would e-mail me about the ship's uncertain date of return. They were attempting to sell tickets to a raffle in which the winner would be the first to kiss her returning sailor. When the time came, journalists would hover to capture the image as hundreds of families, many with young children like mine, waited for hours at an empty lot on base, sometimes exposed to rain, wind, or sun reflecting off the pavement.
As the crew disembarked, kids tried to catch sight of parents they hadn't seen or spoken to for months, calling out to them from behind barbed wire fences. Amid the hubbub, a singular couple -- curiously, almost always a young, white, attractive heterosexual pair -- would enjoy the carefully manufactured privilege of having that first kiss.
Following one six-month deployment, I remember being told about the chatter aboard the sub when, through its periscope as the ship approached base, the long "ears" of the male partner of a male submariner were spotted. Being part of a community of "furries," he was dressed in a giant rabbit costume. Other spouses and sailors wondered what it would have been like if that couple had gotten the coveted raffle ticket.
What message would the American public then get about military families? Would they even be allowed to appear? "It'd actually be kind of perfect," a friend of mine and military spouse (about to enter a graduate program and live separately from her Navy husband for years) told me, wryly.
We agreed that such a moment would have offered a needed balance to the Stepford-wife-style images of military families to which Americans have grown accustomed.
Beyond the Cameras
I'm a Navy spouse. My husband has served two tours on a nuclear submarine and spent two shore duties at the Pentagon while we've been together. We've moved three times with our young children and that's a modest number compared to so many hundreds of other military families I've met in our community and through my work as a therapist-in-training.
While I haven't experienced the life-and-death costs of war like the families of so many U.S. troops who have served in this country's twenty-first-century war zones, I've co-edited a book, War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which documents the health costs of our endless post-9/11 conflicts. In 2011, I also co-founded Brown University's Costs of War Project, which continues to document the human and financial tolls caused by those wars.
So I'm no stranger to the experience of war in its grim diversity. Which is why I cringed when, during President Trump's recent State of the Union Address, he used a family reunion -- an Army sergeant first class brought back from seven months in Afghanistan, his fourth tour of duty in America's forever wars -- to show his empathy for the strains such conflicts place on the U.S. military. In the process, he claimed a rare moment of bipartisan accord. An attractive young husband and wife embraced in the gallery of the House of Representatives while their two well-behaved children beamed. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, clapped, and close-ups of figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence displayed solemn faces, respectful of this intimately staged public moment.
As I watched that scene, I wondered: What about the family members of the other 1.4 million active-duty service members today? What are they experiencing as they catch this scene and think about their families? What have their reunions felt like?
The family is probably the most significant form of support that American troops have today, so it's obviously convenient to believe that such families are capable, stable, and instagrammable. Their capacity to withstand the repeated long deployments of the post-9/11 years, whether in war zones or not, says a great deal about this country, its unity, and its security.