We Live in A Sick Society

W.J. Astore

I have a brother who’s mentally ill.  When you deal with mental illness in your family, you come to realize that local, state, and federal resources are limited.  Funding is iffy.  Expertise is dodgy.  Facilities are often disappointing.  And systems and bureaucracies can seem heartless.

I take nothing away from the dedicated doctors, nurses, and other staff I’ve met who’ve helped care for my brother.  Considering the resources available to them, they often do a fantastic job.

It soon appears my brother will be assigned to a nursing home, though he does not yet require that level of care.  The system, however, has virtually no other options available between a halfway-house-like setting, where a nurse isn’t available 24/7, and a nursing home, which does have nurses 24/7.

My brother was in a smaller group home where he had his own room, but a series of minor medical issues caused him to be “re-leveled” beyond the care provided by that home.  He was rather unceremoniously dumped into a private, for-profit, nursing home, where he remains as he awaits a much-delayed court date.  Indeed, his “temporary” assignment to the nursing home expired last December, with various agencies finger-pointing and blaming each other for the delay in reviewing my brother’s case.

Mental illness is such a devastating thing.  It can be far worse than physical illness.  When my brother had his first serious breakdown in 1973, we certainly didn’t understand what was happening.  Back then, there was far more stigma attached to mental illness, and few people talked about it.  It’s a shattering experience, and my brother had the worst of it, including ECT or electroshock treatments and powerful drugs like Stelazine and similar anti-psychotic drugs.

I was writing to a sympathetic attorney about my brother’s case today, and I thought maybe I’d share a little of what I wrote.  My brother’s situation, I wrote,

speaks to a larger point about how our government cares for the mentally ill, the lack of funding and so forth, something that’s not going to be fixed by an email by me.

Still, it’s a system that tends to see my brother as just another client, just another case file, just another court date, even just another billable moment.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have asylums in the true sense of that word for those among us who needed them?  But our government chooses to fund more F-35 jet fighters, more nuclear missiles, more police forces, and so forth.

The poor and mentally ill have no power because they have no lobbyists and very few advocates.

It’s a sign of the sickness of our society that we care so little for the sick.

That poor attorney got more than she bargained for.  But I truly believe a society can be judged by how it treats the poor, the sick, the unhoused, the desperate.  Our society tends to treat them like dirt, like losers, like a nuisance, even as the government gushes money for more police, more weapons, and more wars, whether internally or externally.

This is ultimately why our society is so sick.  Because we care so little for the neediest among us.

I’m sorry this is so depressing, and I plead guilty as well for not caring enough, for not acting instead of just blogging away about it.

Jesus healed the sick and dying and attracted society’s outcasts.  He praised the poor and railed against the rich.  Is it any wonder He was crucified?  So, we Americans invented our own Jesus, one who showers money on his believers, one who rewards them with happiness and health, a Santa Claus Jesus who gives out gifts to good little girls and boys.

And if you’re not “good”?  I guess you get to be homeless or dumped in a nursing home.  Next time, pray harder, loser.

We live in a sick society.

Going “Hard” in America’s Schools

Hardening Schools and Arming Teachers Is the Wrong Approach

BY WILLIAM J. ASTORE

Originally posted at TomDispatch.com.

American schools are soft, you say? I know what you mean. I taught college for 15 years, so I’ve dealt with my share of still-teenagers fresh out of high school. Many of them inspired me, but some had clearly earned high marks too easily and needed remedial help in math, English, or other subjects. School discipline had been too lax perhaps and standards too slack, because Johnny and Janey often couldn’t or wouldn’t read a book, though they sure could text, tweet, take selfies, and make videos.

Oh, wait a sec, that’s not what you meant by “soft,” is it? You meant soft as in “soft target” in the context of mass school shootings, the most recent being in Uvalde, Texas. Prominent Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz have highlighted the supposed softness of American schools, their vulnerability to shooters armed with military-style assault rifles and intent on mass murder.

That “softness” diagnosis leads to a seemingly logical quick fix: “harden” the schools, of course! Make them into “targets” too intimidating to approach thanks to, among other security measures, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof doors and windows, reinforced fences, armed guards, and even armed teachers.

Here’s the simple formula for it all: no more limpness, America, it’s time to get hard. Johnny and Janey may still find it challenging to read books or balance a checkbook (or even know what a checkbook is), but, hey, there must be an app for that, right? At least they’ll stay alive in our newly hardened schools. Or so we hope. There’s no app, after all, for reviving our kids after they’ve been shot and shredded by some assault-rifle-wielding maniac.

As a retired military officer and professor, and a former gun owner, the latest chapter in this country’s gun mania, the Republican urge to keep all those assault weapons circulating and still protect our children, strikes me not just all too strangely, but all too familiarly as well. Those voices calling for billions of dollars to “harden” schools reflect, of course, the imagery of a sexualized hyper-masculinity, but something else as well: a fetish for military-speak. In my service, the Air Force, we regularly spoke of “hardening” targets or “neutralizing” them.

In essence, politicians like Graham and Cruz seem way too eager to turn our schools into some combination of fortresses and bomb shelters, baby versions of the massive nuclear shelter I occupied in the 1980s during my first tour of duty in the Air Force (on which more in a moment). Button up and hunker down, America — not from the long-gone “red” enemy without, armed with nuclear missiles, but from the red-hot (as in murderously hateful) enemy within. These days, that increasingly means a school-age shooter or shooters armed with military-grade weaponry, usually acquired all too legally. Sound the klaxons! Lock and (especially) load! It’s time to go to DEFCON 1 (maximum military readiness, as in war) not in nuclear shelters but in America’s schools.

Speaking of my Cold War nuclear-bunker days in the 1980s, when I was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain, America’s command center for its nuclear defense in Colorado, a few things stood out then. Security guards, for one. Locking cipher doors, for another. Security ID badges. Razor wire. Video monitors. Blast doors. I was in the ultimate lockdown fortress. But tell me the truth: Is this truly what we want our schools to look like — pseudo-military bunkers for the (hot) war increasingly blazing in our society?

In fact, the whole “hardening” idea represents not a defense against, but a surrender to the notion of schools as potential sites of gun combat and mass death. To submit to such a scenario is, in the view of this retired military officer and educator, a thoroughly defeatist approach to both safety and education. It’s tantamount to admitting that violence and fear not only rule our lives but will continue to do so in ever more horrific ways and that the only solution is to go hard with even more “security” and even more guns. Hardening our schools implies hardening our hearts and minds, while we cede yet more power to security experts and police forces. And that may be precisely why so many authority figures so lustily advocate for the “hard” way. It is, in the end, the easy path to disaster.

The Hard Way as the Easy Way Out

Though six of my college-teaching years were at a military academy, where I wore a uniform and my students saluted me as class began, it never occurred to me to carry a loaded gun (even concealed). For the remaining nine years, I taught at a conservative college in rural Pennsylvania where, you may be surprised to learn, guns were then forbidden on campus. But that, of course, was in another age. Only at the tail end of my college teaching career were lockable doors installed and voluntary lockdown drills instituted.

I never ran such a drill myself.

Why not? Because I refused to inject more fear into the minds of my students. In truth, given the unimaginably violent chaos of a school shooting, you’d almost automatically know what to do: lock the door(s) to try to keep the shooter out, call 911, and duck and cover (which will sound familiar to veterans of early Cold War era schooling). If cornered and as a last resort, perhaps you’d even rush the shooter. My students, who were young adults, could have plausibly done this. Children in the third and fourth grades, as in the Uvalde slaughter, have no such option.

That mass shooting took place at a hardened school with locking doors, one that ran lockdown and evacuation drills regularly, and had fences. And yet, of course, none of that, including 911 calls from the students, prevented mass death. Not even the presence of dozens of heavily armed police inside and outside the school mattered because the commander at the scene misread the situation and refused to act. Well-trained “good guys with guns” proved remarkably useless against the bad guy with a gun because the “good guys” backed off, waited, and then waited some more, more than an hour in all, an excruciating and unconscionable delay that cost lives.

But combat can be like that. It’s chaotic. It’s confusing. People freeze or act too quickly. It’s not hard to make bad decisions under deadly pressure. At Uvalde, the police disregarded standard operating procedure that directs the immediate engagement of the shooter until he’s “neutralized.” But we shouldn’t be surprised. Fear and uncertainty cloud the judgment even of all-too-hardened professionals, which should teach us something about the limitations of the hard option.

A related hardening measure that’s been proposed repeatedly, including by former President Trump, is to arm and train teachers to confront shooters. It’s a comforting fantasy, imagining teachers as Dirty Harry-like figures, blowing away bad guys with poise and precision. Sadly, it’s just that, a fantasy. Imagine teachers with guns, caught by surprise, panicking as their students are shot before their eyes. How likely are they to respond calmly with deadly accuracy against school shooter(s) who, the odds are, will outgun them? “Friendly fire” incidents happen all too frequently even in combat featuring highly trained and experienced soldiers. Armed teachers could end up accidentally shooting one or more of their students as they tried to engage the shooter(s). How could we possibly ask teachers to bear such a burden?

Let’s also think about the kind of teacher who wants to carry a weapon in a classroom. My brother was a security policeman in the Air Force, and he understands all too well the allure of weaponry to certain types of people. As he put it to me recently, “A gun is power. To some, even the psychologically relatively stable among us, carrying a gun is indeed like having a permanent hard-on. You have the power of life and death as well. It can be a pure ego-driven power trip, sexual, every time you get to pull the trigger. You give a guy a gun and strange things can happen.”

Think of your least favorite teacher in your K-12 experience, perhaps the one who intimidated you the most. Now, think of that very teacher “hardened” with a gun in class. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Arming Lady Liberty (to the Teeth)

Arming teachers is a measure of our collective confusion and desperation, though some politicians like Donald Trump are sure to continue to press for it. Again, if I’m an armed teacher, perhaps with a concealed 9mm pistol, I’d have virtually no chance against a shooter or shooters with AR-15s and body armor. Does that mean I need an AR-15 and body armor, too? Who needs an arms race with the Russians or Chinese when we can have one in every school in America?

What, then, of hardening schools? We’re back to locking security doors, reinforced fences around campus, cameras everywhere, metal detectors at each entrance, and of course more armed police (or “school resource officers,” known as SROs) in the hallways. We’re talking about untold scores of billions of dollars spent to turn every American school into a fortress/bunker, a place to hunker down and ride out a violent weapons-of-mass-destruction storm of our own making.

And mind you, of all the things we don’t know, one thing we do: this hunkering down, this fear will be indelibly etched into the minds of our kids as they navigate our ever more hardened, over-armed schools. It won’t be healthy, that’s for sure. In seeking to reduce and eliminate school shootings in America, we should be guided by the goal of not making matters worse for our children.

As horrific as they are, headline-grabbing school shootings are rare indeed compared to the number of schools across America. Indeed, given the violence of this society and the extreme violence we routinely export to other countries across the globe, it’s surprising we don’t have more school shootings. Their relative rarity should reassure us that all is not lost. Not yet, anyway.

I get it. We all want to feel safe and, above all, we want our kids to be safe. But buying them bulletproof backpacks or hardening their schools is the wrong approach. Besides, if we spend massively on school security, what’s to stop a shooter determined to kill children from going elsewhere to find them? It’s horrifyingly grim logic, but he’d likely go to a playground, or the movies, or a dance recital, or any other “soft” place where children might gather. And what then? I for one don’t want to live in fortress America, surrounded by armed and armored police and intrusive security gadgetry “for my protection.”

Admittedly, in a country in which Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything but the most modest gun reforms (forget banning military-style weapons or even restricting their sale to people 21 and older), the hardening of schools is an easy target (so to speak). As gun enthusiasts like to say: don’t focus on the weapons, focus on the shooters.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people, right? As best we can, we must identify those crazed enough to want to murder innocent kids and get them the help they need before they start squeezing triggers. We should deny unstable people the ability to own and wield weapons of mass destruction — that is, assault rifles (and preferably simply ban such weaponry period). We must do everything possible to reform our blood-drenched society with all its weapons-porn. One thing is guaranteed, as a “solution” to the gun problem, adding more of them and other forms of “hardness” into an already deadly mix will only worsen matters.

Quick fixes are tempting, but school-hardening measures and even more “good guys with guns” aren’t the answer. If they were, those 19 children and two adults in Uvalde might still be alive. An exercise in over-the-top security, meanwhile, is guaranteed to do one thing — and that is, of course, starve schools of the funds they need to… well, teach our kids. You know, subjects like math and science and English and history. We’re trending toward graduating a generation of young people who may have trouble reading and writing and adding but will be experts at ducking and covering behind hardened backpacks.

Going hard isn’t the answer, America. Unless the “hard” you’re talking about is the hard I grew up with, meaning high academic standards instilled by demanding and dedicated teachers. If, however, we continue to harden and militarize everything, especially our schools and the mindsets of our children, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when this country becomes a bastion bristling with weapons, one where Lady Liberty has relinquished her torch and crown for an AR-15 and a ballistic helmet from the local armory.

And that’s not liberty — it’s madness.

Originally posted at TomDispatch.com.

1972 and 2022, or Long Live the Fighters

W.J. Astore

Fifty years ago, a remarkable thing happened in America. A pro-peace candidate, George McGovern, won the nomination for one of America’s two major political parties. Of course, McGovern went on to lose big time to Richard Nixon in the fall, but his rise within the Democratic Party, much of it driven by grassroots activism, still inspires hope.

McGovern was right in 1972 in his justly famous “Come home, America” speech after he gained the nomination. It’s time to end overseas wars and military adventurism and heal our divisions here at home. The big problem, of course, is that so many powerful elements within the U.S. thrive best when the masses are kept busy fighting each other.

A friend posted this image on Facebook, which sums up much of America’s predicament today:

Progress within the terrarium won’t happen as long as we keep fighting each other

To borrow from my father once again, in America the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. And the rich have neither sympathy nor use for the poor. Unless by “use” you mean soldiers for empire, cleaners for mansions, and so on.

What is to be done? People ask me this a lot, expecting me to have a magical solution. I say fight the best you can, using your skills and the tools at your disposal. But make sure you’re fighting the right people and forces. Don’t fight your neighbors within the terrarium. Fight the powerful who are preventing change by keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden.

Long live the fighters!” as they cried in “Dune.”

Death and Violence in America

W.J. Astore

It’s staggering the number of people dying in America in ways that are preventable. Here’s a quick summary, courtesy of Blake Fleetwood at Scheerpost:

  • Gun deaths are at record levels, up 45% from the previous decade. In 2020 there were a total of 45,222 firearm deaths in the US.
  • Suicide rates have gone up more than 30% in the last 20 years. More than 1.4 million adults attempt suicide every year in America. And 45,979 succeeded in killing themselves in 2020. The highest rate of suicide is among middle class white men.  Suicides rose to the highest in the central part of the country. In 2020, 54% of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition. 
  • Health risks for adolescents have shifted from pregnancy, alcohol, and drug use to depression, suicide, and self harm.
  • Drug overdose data from the CDC indicates that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before.

When you start adding these numbers, you reach a grim conclusion: Americans are killing themselves and others at record rates. Grimmer still are the numbers from the Covid-19 pandemic, which in the U.S. has killed more than a million people. Estimates suggest that a true national health care system could have reduced this number by 300,000 (!), but there’s no interest among Democrats or Republicans to create such a system. Our politicians, corrupted by money from the health care “industry,” Big Pharma, etc., have no interest in saving lives (or even saving money, since a national health care system would save trillions over time).

Is it any wonder why the U.S. government embraces violence with such zeal? If you can’t care for your own people, why should you care at all for other peoples, such as in Yemen or Ukraine? What matters is profit from selling weapons, whether in the U.S., awash in assault rifles and other guns, or overseas with massive arms sales or shipments to Saudi Arabia and Ukraine, among others.

Violence or the threat of violence can be enormously profitable to those who deal in it.

Last night, I was watching baseball and saw an advertisement for a new show. In one 30-second clip, I saw several assault rifles and a gun battle, with a few handguns thrown in for good measure. We are assaulted constantly by such imagery, so much so that gun violence is seen as “normal” because it has become our new normal. Hence the gruesome spike in mass shootings across America.

Way back in the early 1980s, I had a sticker that read “NRA Freedom.” Remarkably, “freedom” in America has become synonymous with having guns everywhere, more than 400 million of them. Other freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, are being curtailed and eroded with barely a complaint, but any attempt to make it slightly more difficult for a few people to buy guns is instantly opposed.

A culture of freedom is increasingly a cult of death. And as the Outlaw Josey Wales said, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living.” Time to learn from Josey.

Naked Power and Julian Assange

Julian Assange before he was locked away for his truth-telling

W.J. Astore

The worst crime you can commit, in the eyes of the powerful, is to embarrass them and to reveal their crimes. That is what Julian Assange did, most notably about U.S. war crimes in Iraq, and that is why he is being hounded and punished. Assange is being made to suffer, and suffer greatly he is, because he spoke truth about the powerful to the powerless. That is arguably the number one job of a real journalist, to hold powerful people accountable, to reveal the truth when so many conspire to keep it hidden. But most journalists are not profiles in courage, just as most people aren’t. The courageous are few, and counted among their number is Assange.

If you’re a journalist looking to make a difference, to shed light in dark corners, do you dare to take on the U.S. government and national security state given its persecution of Assange? Do you want to spend years in a maximum security prison, almost in total isolation, facing extradition to the U.S. for a bogus and nonsensical charge? The U.S. government’s persecution of Assange, though it’s meant to punish him and silence him, is really about intimidating and silencing other journalists. Who now dares to follow Assange’s example?

Power operates most freely, meaning most tyrannically, when it’s unconstrained by accountability. The more Assange suffers, the more America slips into authoritarianism. Joining America in its drift toward tyranny is Great Britain and Australia, with Britain imprisoning Assange and approving his extradition and Australia doing nothing to stop the persecution of one of its own citizens. Such is the corrupting influence of power.

As usual, George Orwell explained all this in “1984” when he described the nature of power:

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power … [No] one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”

Assange, like the character of Winston Smith in “1984,” now has a full understanding of the nature of power. It’s come at an enormous price to him. Yet Assange has also revealed the nature of our government to the rest of us, the way it brutally uses power to keep its monopoly on power.

The question is: Are we going to do anything about it? Or is it already too late? And if we do choose to resist, like Winston Smith (and Julian Assange), will we be taken to our own versions of Room 101, after which we too will profess our love for Big Brother?

Addendum: A comment by Dan White stimulated this reply by me. I think it’s worth adding here.

If not obliteration [of people like Assange], then marginalization, incarceration, diminishment, denouncement, and so on. Chelsea Manning. Daniel Hale. Daniel Ellsberg. And many more. Put them in prison and/or accuse them of treason. Seize their assets. Destroy their lives.

Most of all, intimidate those who are wavering, who are thinking, but who perhaps don’t have quite the nerve, or perhaps too much to lose.

The best way to silence whistle blowers is to make them choose to throw their whistle away before it even reaches their mouth.

Military Spending Robs Workers and the Poor

Ike was unafraid of plain and cruel truths

W.J. Astore

Unless you’re working for Raytheon or some other weapons contractor, you’re being robbed whenever our government spends excessively on the military, which is always. $54 billion of your money was stolen from you and sent to Ukraine, with much of it going to Raytheon and similar merchants of death. More than $813 billion will be spent next year on the Pentagon, with roughly half of that being unnecessary for true national defense. Excessive military spending is a form of theft in which workers and the poor are the biggest victim.

My point here isn’t original. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said it nearly 70 years ago in 1953 in his brilliant “Cross of Iron” speech. In Ike’s words:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.  It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.

Ike, a Republican, a retired five-star general, told it like it was, is, and remains. Excessive military spending isn’t a left-right issue. It isn’t a Democrat-Republican issue. It’s a class issue. It’s a moral issue. Ike knew this and was unafraid to say it.

Ike said we are crucifying ourselves with this militarized way of life. He chose this image deliberately for its Christian meaning and moral power. He spoke openly of “plain and cruel truths.” Ike, a true public servant, wanted to make a better America. He had no fear of the military-industrial-Congressional complex because he knew it so well and could resist its old siren song of perpetual war as being somehow in our national interest. I salute him for his honesty and his wisdom.

What do we need to do? We need to reject militarism, we need to reinvest in America, we need to reanimate our democracy, and we need to restore peace. We need more Americans to run and work on these 4 Rs. America needs a thoroughgoing reformation now or, mark my words, as my dad used to say, we will soon experience something far more disruptive and unpleasant.

“Responsible” Gun Laws

Matthew McConaughey holds a photo of Alithia Ramirez, 10, killed in the Uvalde mass shooting

W.J. Astore

The bottom line on gun laws in the USA is, surprise, profit. What matters most is not banning any guns, including military-style assault weapons. There are already more than 20 million AR-15-type assault weapons in the hands of Americans, with more being sold legally every day. They and their related gear (ammo, ammo magazines, and so on) are a big source of profit to American gun makers and gun sellers, so you can be sure that those guns will be protected, unlike the victims of them.

To illustrate this, two stories popped up in my email today. The first, from CNN, is a quick summary of where we stand on gun control measures in Congress:

The current changes to gun laws under consideration include hardening school security, providing more funding for mental health care and ensuring that juvenile records can be considered when a person between the ages of 18 and 21 wants to buy a semi-automatic weapon. Federal incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws are also being discussed. However, despite the ongoing talks, it remains unclear whether there will be enough Republican support to push the legislation forward.

Note that Orwellian term: the “hardening” of school security. Schools are now being talked about in military terms as “soft” targets for mass shooters. Naturally, the solution isn’t to deny shooters their assault weapons. No: let’s turn every school into a “hardened” fortress, with more fences, cameras, locking doors, and armed guards (perhaps with AR-15s?). How long before our schools are indistinguishable from our prisons?

You’ll note, of course, that none of the “new” gun laws being considered by Congress will reduce the number of guns in circulation. Gun sales will continue to soar. When you think about it, guns now have more rights in America than people do.

The second story involves a Hollywood celebrity, Matthew McConaughey, who was born in Uvalde, Texas, and who’s been working with the Biden administration in the cause of “responsible” gun control. He’s called for “universal background checks, raising the minimum age for purchasing an AR-15 to 21, a waiting period for purchasing AR-15s and the implementation of red flag laws.” These steps are better than nothing, but again they will not impact the profit margins of gun makers/sellers. Even so, they are likely to be judged too radical by Republicans in Congress.

President Biden has called for a ban on new assault weapons, but it’s simply empty words. He knows a ban stands no chance of getting through Congress. If the Democrats really wanted to accomplish something, they’d get rid of the filibuster in the Senate, but they’re not about to do that, especially since they’re likely to lose control of the Senate after the November elections.

Speaking of Joe Biden, I saw this hilarious headline at NBC News today: “Biden’s gaffes might actually be his selling point.” The gist of the op-ed is that Biden often misspeaks and sounds both angry and confused, but these qualities make him “authentic” to voters, therefore “let Biden be Biden” and don’t try to handle or edit him.

That’s where we’re at as a country. Guns have more rights than people and our president is to be embraced for all the gaffes he makes. What a country!

Civilians, the Forgotten Victims of War

W.J. Astore

You could fill libraries with books written about war campaigns, battles, generals, and weapons, but the amount of attention dedicated to civilians as victims of war is slim indeed. I’ve been browsing bookshelves for nearly fifty years for books on war, and for all the books on Rommel and Panzers and Patton and tanks and Lee and Grant and Jackson and Sherman that I’ve seen time and time again, I’ve only seen a couple of books dedicated to war and civilians as victims. One book I found was in a used bookshop in Woodstock in Oxfordshire in c.1993. Its title is “The Forgotten Victim: A History of the Civilian,” by Richard Shelly Hartigan, published in 1982.

In his preface, Hartigan wrote that he discovered In his research on “just war” theory that no single work existed on civilians as “innocent” noncombatants and how this status manifested itself in the history of warfare. More recently, Hugo Slim in 2008 wrote a book, “Killing Civilians: Method, Madness, and Morality in War” that also tackled this subject. I reviewed Slim’s book for the Michigan War Studies Review. Here’s how I began it:

Due to their vulnerability, civilians, not professional soldiers, usually suffer the most from war. They are, in fact, “the forgotten victim[s]” of war. Take today’s war and occupation in Iraq: whereas the U.S. military has lost about four thousand troops killed, the war and its resulting social and political chaos have caused at least 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths (some estimates are higher by a factor of five or more). The wide variance in estimates for Iraqi civilian deaths in itself indicates the physical and moral messiness of modern wars (as well as the political agendas of the estimators). And, naturally, militaries count and commemorate their own dead more assiduously than those of civilians caught in the crossfire of combat …

Next, Slim details the “seven spheres of civilian suffering” in war, including genocide, massacre, torture, mass rape and sexual violence, involuntary movement, impoverishment, famine, disease, and emotional distress. His accounts are informed by historical examples as well as his own experiences working in humanitarian relief efforts in West and Central Africa. He reminds us that civilians often suffer long after wars are over, whether from psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or such detritus of war as unexploded munitions and mines.

Most civilians, Slim notes, “die from war rather than in battle“—with loss of identity and livelihood ultimately proving more deadly in the aggregate than bullets and bombs (91). His emphasis on loss of identity is especially telling. In war, people “lose themselves. Socially and personally, they are no longer the people they were …. If destitution, personal injury or rape has humiliated them and brought them very low, they may have lost that essential dignity and self-esteem which was the anchor of their sense of self and gave them the confidence with which to take their place in the world” (109-10). They have become strangers to themselves, and estranged as well from traditional communal networks of support.

Rarely did (or do) we hear in the U.S. mainstream media about civilian suffering and death from the Iraq and Afghan Wars, among other countries and peoples swept up in America’s still ongoing war on terror. Interestingly, the U.S. media is now reporting in harrowing detail about Ukrainian civilian casualties and alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops. What was very much kept in the background, and largely offstage, for America’s various wars has been foregrounded, often taking center stage, in the Russia-Ukraine War.

What we truly need is intense media coverage of civilian casualties in all wars, especially our own, and today’s article by Andrea Mazzarino at TomDispatch.com helps to rectify that need (along with a searing introduction by Nick Turse). Mazzarino’s title is telling: “the true costs of war,” including the suffering of innocents that so often goes unreported or is otherwise ignored. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s easy to forget how regularly soldiers kill and maim innocent civilians, sometimes deliberately.

According to our count, by 2022, some 387,000 civilians had been killed thanks to war’s violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Civilian deaths similarly occurred in countries like Somalia where President Biden just redeployed hundreds of American troops in another round of the military offensive against the Islamic terror group al-Shabab (which has grown stronger in these years of all-American violence).

People living where the U.S. has fought have died in their homes and neighborhoods from bombings, shellings, missile attacks, and shootings. They’ve died while shopping for groceries or walking or driving to school or work. They’ve stepped on mines or cluster bombs while collecting wood or farming their fields. Various parties in our conflicts have kidnapped or assassinated people as they went about their everyday lives. Girls and women have purposely been raped as an attack on their communities. Human Rights Watch has documented how, in Afghanistan, parties on all sides of the war on terror, including troops and police allied with the United States, have raped, kidnapped, shot, or tortured civilians, including children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross defines war crimes as acts that are disproportionate to the military advantage sought, that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, or that fail to take precautions to minimize injuries and loss of life among civilians. It was symbolically apt that the last U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as U.S. troops were withdrawing from our 20 year-old war there, reportedly killed three adults and seven children. And yet most Americans never seemed to take in how much civilians suffered from our war tactics, widely publicized as “surgical” and “precise” in their targeting of Islamic extremists, even as they now take in how the Russians are slaughtering Ukrainian civilians.

It’s high time we examine war in all its destructiveness and inhumanity. It’s high time we had far fewer books on “great captains” and “decisive weapons” and far more on the true costs of war. If we can stop glorifying war and start opening our eyes to all its horrors, we might finally act in a concerted nature to put a stop to it. A man can dream, right?

We Talk Strangely About Guns

W.J. Astore

Guns are the only innocents in America. To be clear, I’m being sarcastic.

Whenever there’s a school shooting, you can count on the shooter being denounced as evil, as monstrous, as out of his mind. But the guns the shooter uses? There are always people who tell us not to blame the guns. Guns aren’t evil. Guns aren’t monstrous. Guns are, in a word, innocent.

It’s all very strange. I think of the children killed in Texas, along with their teachers, as being innocent. I wish we’d have kept them safe. I wish their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness hadn’t been cut down by bullets. But wish in one hand …

We hear a lot of talk about gun rights and gun safety, almost as if guns indeed had rights, almost as if America’s true goal was to keep guns safe.

America is indeed a country where guns are safe, secure, and free to roam. We have more than 400 million of them, including more than 20 million military-style assault weapons. Congress is not seriously acting to put meaningful restrictions on guns. We’re lucky if we’ll see a “red-flag” law (allowing the confiscation of guns from a person who makes deadly threats before he decides to go on a murderous rampage), or possibly universal background checks. Of course, neither of these will curtail gun purchases and availability, and neither would have stopped the latest shooter in Texas, who purchased his guns legally and apparently showed no clear “red flag” before he attacked a school and killed 19 innocent children.

And there’s that word again. Innocent. We need to focus on child rights and child safety, not gun rights and gun safety. Don’t you think?

I’ve been a gun owner and have shot everything from a pellet rifle and .22 pistol to a .44 magnum Model 29 Smith & Wesson, made famous by Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry.”

Model 29 Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum.

I’ve felt the powerful allure of guns. I also have no problem with hunters, target shooters, and all the responsible gun owners we have in America. But when guns are responsible for 45,000 deaths a year in America (data from 2020), and when mass shootings become almost forgettable in their repetition (except in the most heinous cases, like the latest mass murder event in Texas), it’s time to admit that guns are not the innocents here. They are part of the problem, and restrictions to their ownership is part of the solution.

Abortion and Men

W.J. Astore

“My body, my choice” is a common refrain for women in the pro-choice movement. I happen to agree with it. What women choose to do when they get pregnant is truly none of my business.

Photo by Alex Brandon, AP

Yet the abortion debate swirls and twists and roars as if men played absolutely no role in getting women pregnant. As if all pregnancies were some kind of immaculate conceptions.

Our society and culture puts almost all the onus and responsibility (and, often enough, blame) on women for getting pregnant. For pro-lifers, a woman, once pregnant, is then obligated to have a baby and care for it until adulthood, else put it up for adoption.

But what about the father’s obligation? After all, unless we’re talking the Virgin Mary here, she didn’t get pregnant alone. (And even the Virgin Mary had help of a godly kind.)

I’d have a bit more tolerance for pro-lifers if they’d agreed to these rules:

  1. The biological father is also responsible, financially and legally and otherwise, for raising the baby until adulthood.
  2. If the father isn’t married to the mother in question, and the mother keeps the child, he is legally obligated to pay for child support. For argument’s sake, let’s say he’s obligated to contribute 20% of his pay until the child reaches the age of eighteen.

If men were held legally and morally responsible for all the children they fathered, and this was strictly enforced by society and the state, with deadbeat dads becoming society’s new outcasts, I wonder how long it would take for abortion to be made legal and universally available in America?