The counter-narratives some of my left-wing friends write on holidays like this one aren’t my thing but I thought I’d make use of the day to write about a friend of mine named K, someone who was nothing like the abstract “heroic soldier” we’re supposed to honor but was a veteran, serving tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He killed himself on the first day of 2014, leaving me a message to wake up to in the morning, a gift from an old friend to start off the new year. As he pointed out in his suicide note, although his death was by his own hand, responsibility for it doesn’t stop with him. For once, we’re in agreement about something.
K was from Oakland, a city that from the days of the Black Panthers to the police killing of Oscar Grant has been a damning symbol of the U.S. government’s failure to correspond in practice to the egalitarian rhetoric its representatives employ in speeches. Growing up in desperate circumstances, K chose the path he felt was predetermined for him: he joined the military. Lacking job prospects, K chose the only stable work open to him – and in doing so, threw his life into the hands of the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. As he said to me – serving in the military makes you a hero, so why choose to work anonymously for shit money instead?
After serving his tours, K tried to return to civilian life. Struggling with PTSD and without enough support from the institution that caused his suffering, he started getting into fights and legal trouble. As K put it to me, he couldn’t imagine continuing to serve in the military, but the country whose dirty work he carried out wouldn’t support him as a civilian either. Out of options, he returned to military life a few years ago, only escaping it on January 1, 2014.
While clearly a victim of an inhumane institution, K was also a product of that institution’s culture, and we need to take this seriously when looking critically at the U.S. military. I didn’t know him prior to his time in the Marines, but our friendship was riddled with violent outbursts. K made rape jokes. He relentlessly mocked Muslims. I hope he never did anything worse than make jokes at the expense of these groups but I’d be surprised if that’s the case. Riddled with anxiety about proving himself a Real Man, K was more likely to get into a fist fight than not on any given night. You could bet on it, and sometimes I did – in one memorable instance, he even managed to get into two distinct fights in the course of our walk home. I say this not to demonize him or make light of a condition that kept him awake at night, but to demonstrate that there is no sense in talking about abstract “heroic veterans” – just like any group of people, some are great, some terrible. And even more than most of us, veterans have been exposed to a toxic ideological cocktail of white supremacy, misogyny, and violence. Unsurprisingly, that makes some of them unpleasant people.
In K’s case, that makes for such a shitty person that when you lose touch with him, you never regret it, even when you wake up to his suicide note. By the end of 2013, I had cut off contact with K because I couldn’t put up with him any longer. I learned that in the final months of his life K had started directing his anger inward, talking at length to other soldiers about the people he had killed. My wish upon getting the news that morning was that K could have directed his outrage at a system that produces cities like Oakland as a necessity so that people like him will keep having to choose between signing their own death certificates to fight horrific wars abroad or working in poverty at home.
I wish that K, like the many veterans who have become anti-war leaders, had set his sights on the military itself. It’s here, with the veterans who use their status to voice criticisms of those who bestow it upon them. Here is where you find heroic acts.
I write this in part to keep my memory of K intact but more importantly to provide one example of the atrocities facilitated by glorification of the military. K knew he’d be seen as a hero for enlisting and he was right. Instead of ever working on his dangerous behavior and disgusting political beliefs, he reveled in them.
K was a friend, a largely despicable person, someone deserving of access to adequate support systems, and a veteran. None of those roles are mutually exclusive, and if we refuse to admit such complexities when we talk about veterans, than we’re giving up on an important part of struggling against war.