Veterans And The Dallas And Baton Rouge Shootings: Wars Return Home

Today, on Facebook, Chad Kautzer offered some brief reflections–“not interested in condemning or justifying”–on the shootings in Baton Rouge. They begin as follows:

First, the police have to stop killing black and brown people. I say that up front, because it’s the social relation and institutional practice that frames everything. Period.

Second, although it’s too soon to call it a pattern, it is significant that Micah Johnson, the shooter in Dallas, and Gavin Long, the shooter in Baton Rouge, were military veterans. These guys have been trained to confront force with force and violently take down an enemy. When you put people like that into a situation of social conflict and division, the impulse to exercise one’s lethal skill set is strong. Countervailing factors, such as strong community and familial relations, often mitigate the impulse to violence, but when they’re lacking or weak the risk increases. It is thus not surprising that both shooters explicitly stated that they were not affiliated with any group. They were not trained in ways to effect social transformation. They were not taught the history of social movements and thus how social change happens. They were taught that the most effective way to defeat an adversary is to take out as many of their soldiers as possible, so in times of conflict that’s what they do. [links added]

In a previous post on Hillary Clinton’s bellicose response to the Orlando massacre, I had written:

[T]hose bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Kautzer’s second point reminds us of another dimension of wars returning home: military veterans, who come back home bringing their memories, experiences, and scars with them. They have left behind–permanently–many who went with them on a tour of duty. Modern battlefield medicine and improved emergency care ensure death rates are not as high as they were in the wars of yesteryear; this means more veterans who would have died previously are now alive, even if grievously injured and crippled for life, perhaps requiring extensive and expensive rehabilitation and follow-up care. The lucky ones are only injured in the body; yet others carry scars in the mind too. Post-traumatic stress disorder and disrupted personal environments contribute to a shocking suicide rate: twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day.

Most relevantly to Kautzer’s observation, veterans–especially black and brown ones–find that they have returned to a society increasingly riven by economic inequality and racial discrimination (and awash in guns.) They find out, just like veterans of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, that they might fight America’s enemies abroad, and yet return to find themselves enemies at home. Second World War veterans returned to Jim Crow in their home states; Vietnam veterans got spat on by anti-war protesters; the modern veteran of color might find himself shot by a policeman at a traffic stop or outside his home itself. They see their communities at home patrolled by policemen just like American soldiers patrolled ‘hostile territory’ overseas. There is the same brusque stop-and-frisk, the same harsh impromptu interrogation, and sometimes, all too frequently captured on video, a fatal resolution of conflict. Those kinds of resolutions, as Kautzer points out, are what veterans are used to; and so they act to bring them about in the struggles of most personal and emotional interest to them, in the ways they know best. Except that the enemy now is an American policeman.

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