I have a complicated relationship with Veteran’s Day. I’ve never served and have never wanted to. Years ago when I applied for college and put down “possibly female” on my application (still the strangest gender designation I’ve ever seen on a form) and received information on enlisting, I quickly changed my answer to “female.” If there ever came a time when I might possibly be drafted, I would do everything I could to evade it. I don’t believe in war and I would never kill anyone. Reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf in high school cemented my anti-war leanings and put into words sentiment that had resided in my heart unspoken for many years. When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, part of me mourned because I knew it would be one less out for folks to have who wished to escape the horrors of war.
In my lifetime, I’ve known a great many people who have served and been marred irrevocably by combat, whether physically or psychologically – in many cases, both. A good friend became a conscientious objector after seeing the horrors of actions he had helped plan brought to life, and now (at least last I knew) spends his days privately dosing himself with hallucinogens in order to avoid reliving those memories. A few of the people I’ve dated are veterans, and I’ve seen them struggle to claim their benefits, including basic medical necessities and the college education they were promised in exchange for their service. Through school I’ve come into contact with students who served and did manage to make their way to college, yet struggle with reintegration into civilian life after dealing with PTSD and deinstitutionalization. Before DADT was repealed, I knew queer couples who were closeted for decades because they were afraid of being discharged and losing the career and life they’d so painstakingly built for themselves. I saw them sit out Pride and other LGBT functions because they were afraid of being spotted and reported. I know of trans people who were discharged in spite of DADT and have lost all access to whatever benefits they might have been able to claim. Even still, the Veteran’s Administration has repeatedly received criticism for failing to adequately care for those who put their lives on the line for what they believed in. Meanwhile, conservatives who are all too happy to send troops off to die in unnecessary wars are the first to suggest funding cuts to services those folks so desperately need.
Let me be clear; I am not a U.S. military apologist, nor a supporter of any military effort. Our grossly inflated military budget could be better spent on any host of concerns facing this country – like getting single payer health care off the ground, improving our country’s infrastructure, creating better support for the homeless, decreasing student debt or hell, offering free education like other countries of comparable wealth. We have a military problem, and it is seeping into the way we do civilian policing. It’s terrifying times to be a citizen of the United States, and our fetish for militarization is at its core. I would love nothing more than to see the U.S. military be scaled back and, one day, completely dismantled. That would be the only way to ensure that no one would be pushed through the meat grinder that is the modern war machine – no U.S. citizens and none of those we are so eager to call our “enemies.”
However, we are not there yet. Compared to China, a nation with a population of 1 billion people to our 320 million, and 749 million in “available manpower” to our 145 million, the United States grossly and disproportionately outpaces them in aircraft of all kinds (13,892 to 2,860), and despite falling behind in tanks and artillery, the U.S. still boasts a national budget of $577 billion to China’s $145 billion. And our debt? Nearly $16 trillion to China’s $863 billion. Some figures suggest our budget is much higher – $610 billion, $9 billion greater than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the U.K., India, and Germany combined. In short, our military expenditure and reliance on aircraft warfare makes it unlikely that any country could successfully defend themselves from our attack or mount an attack against us. There is no sign that this will slow down in the coming decades. We have to face the reality that, despite all of our best efforts, right now, here, today, people are going to lose their lives. People are going to be abused. People are going to be mistreated. It will all be in the name of the U.S. military. We have to do what we can to take care of those people. I would go so far to say that it is a feminist issue.
I’m not thrilled that women are likely going to be able to serve on the front lines. This will do nothing to right the imbalances of power that cause so many women to be raped in the military every single day. I’m not ecstatic that trans people will much likely have an easier time serving in the military, and like Dean Spade, I’m skeptical that this is the movement trans people should be rallying around. Unlike Spade, however, I see a very real need to take care of the very real trans people who are already serving, and are terrified to come out for fear of being sexually harassed, assaulted, or killed. This becomes particularly true when we take into account the fact that transgender women enlist in disproportionately high numbers prior to transition in order “to prove they [are] ‘real men.'” We need to listen to the stories of those who are serving, for whatever reason, and take care of them as we would anyone else. I see them being able to openly serve to be one such way to do this.
There is an attitude among my fellow liberal, academic kin that we oughtn’t be serving in the first place – as Spade says, “It’s true that trans people need jobs. But is military service a job we want?” He goes on to cite examples of the failures of the military to support soldiers, including suicide rates and instances of sexual assault. Yes, the prospects are ugly, and yes, I would personally actively discourage anyone I knew considering serving from doing so. I’ve seen how horrific it can be, and I know the statistics. At the same time, I know many good, decent people who have been duped into serving because they believed they were doing the right thing by a country and people they love tremendously. I do not share their sentiment in many ways, but I know where they are coming from. I know many good, decent people who live in areas so economically deprived that the military may seem like the only viable option. A 2008 study from Syracuse University found that, “Class differences in military enlistment likely reflect differences in the non-military occupational opportunity, structured along class lines. This research shows that the all-volunteer force continues to see overrepresentation of the working and middle classes, with fewer incentives for upper class participation.” Many of those poor people are women, and many of those poor women are black. It feels lofty and callous to simply suggest to poor people that they not serve. It feels a lot like arguments middle and upper class people make to homeless people; that they just “get a job” or “stop using drugs,” as if it were that easy.
I’m not saying there are easy solutions. I’m not saying it’s unimportant or even ill-advised to be critical of the military. But I think it is important for us to push for supports for those individuals who are enmeshed in a disgusting system while we simultaneously work to bring it down. We can do this for our folks in prison, and I say we should do it for those who enlist as well.
On this veterans day, I’m thinking about my ex lovers, my friends, and the many LGBT, POC, and straight, cisgender women veterans whose stories often go untold. In working for military abolition, we cannot turn a cold shoulder to those who simply couldn’t opt out, or who made a choice to do what they believed in their hearts to be right.
Photo credit: PlaidZebra.com