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The Toxicity of America's Military Culture

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Message Perry Treadwell
They were clumped together in a corner booth when I walked in. I was looking for breakfast and conversation. On my travels, I search out cafes where men congregate to talk and I saw their outlines from the window. The banter between us was friendly so I ordered my food and sat nearby. Most of them had caps and badges identifying them as veterans so I assumed that they were planning for the Forth of July the next weekend.

As I rose to leave with some more banter I noticed a book about bipolar disease and commented because I have had some contact with the sufferers. The older man in the corner asked, "Are you familiar with PTSD? I didn't quite understand so he answered his question, "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

I quickly sat. Yes, I was familiar. The older man with the baseball cap identifying himself as a Korean War vet continued, "One of our buddies has bipolar as well as PTSD." A younger man whose cap identified him as a Vietnam vet interjected, "We are all a support group with PTSD. We meet here twice a week and once at the VA near by."

Then the anger came out. Apparently, they had just been reading an article by a woman discounting PTSD as nonexistent. "We're going to invite her and her friends to arm themselves, come with us some night into the woods and try to kill us. We'll try to kill them. Let's see who gets the shakes first"

This encounter has stayed with me in vivid detail. I recall my short stint in a health care clinic for the homeless in downtown Atlanta in the 1980s. They came with medical complaints some bogus. I took temperatures, blood pressures and admission slips. Many claimed that they were veterans. Most had drug problems. They were the survivors who had learned how to work the system. The unwanted spinoff of our military culture.

Every few years someone quotes President Eisenhower warning the United States of the "military industrial complex." Yet, few have recognized how militarism has infected every phase of American life. Yes, we are subliminally aware of the high divorce rate and the frequency of battered wives among the military.

However, few recognize how Teddy Roosevelt's "big stick" policy has influenced our global thinking for more than a century. Of course, he was just reiterating the "manifest destiny" of the previous century. We conquered the American continent by war pushing out the Native Americans with intentional genocide and by a contrived war with Mexico. It is no surprise that the officers in that war fought one another in the Civil War and then their underlings continued to wipe out Native Americans.

With the closing of the frontier, we annexed Hawaii, found a war with Spain and colonized the Philippines against that peoples wishes. We used the military to manipulate Central and South American countries. We stuck our nose into a European War about who would have the most colonies and then retreated at the peace conference failing to support a League of Nations with teeth. The result was the continuation of war, a hot war, then a cold war, wars in Korea and Vietnam bleeding this country of young men and domestic funds. It all went into the military industrial complex.

The colonialization of the Mideast after 1918 has come back to bite us now. Our military mind-set has led us into "fighting a war on terrorism" with a military industrial complex ill suited for guerilla warfare.

There are other consequences to this mind-set other that obscene military spending, body counts, and damaged lives: congressional districts become dependent on military spending and their representatives on campaign funds from the military industry. We are the major arms supplier to the world. We have wars on poverty, wars on drugs, and wars on terror. Recently, Atlanta suggested a war on trash. In the past there were wars on geographic entities: states and countries. Now we war against conditions.

Our sports vernacular is loaded with military images such as "in the trenches," "throwing the bomb." Painted sideline warriors shout "kill, kill, kill." In business and politics, we have campaign war chests, foot soldiers, battle plans, and military-like top down management.

Sadly, we do not take care of our veterans. The physically and mentally maimed are getting the short stick. There was a $3 billion short fall last year in the Veterans Administration. The V.A. deputy under secretary for health has confirmed a lack of capacity particularly for mental health clinics.

A few days after that morning breakfast I was speaking with a grizzled biker, a veteran of Vietnam, who was preparing for a rendezvous of biker vets in Cody, Wyoming. The subject of PTSD came up and I observed that in the 1980s PTSD was not recognized. He replied, "Yes, but the wives knew."

The toxic fog of war poisons our lives in many ways. We pay a high price for our dependence on war as the answer to the "conflict of civilizations," as Dick Cheney called our "war on terrorism."
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