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Since the attacks of September 2001, it has been impossible to have anything remotely resembling a balanced discussion about the U.S. military and militarism. The wild tweets that Donald Trump published last week moved any discussion about the role of the military light years away from even a semblance of sanity. His statements against transgendered people in the military had no immediate effect on Pentagon policy, but rather caused much concern among transgendered people who currently are enlisted. His Twitter “declaration” held that the U.S. military could not shoulder the burden of “tremendous medical costs and disruption” of having transgendered members (“Trump Says Transgender People Will Not Be Allowed in the Military,” The New York Times, July 26, 2017). Even the Pentagon was caught off guard by Trump’s stream of consciousness pronouncements and referred questions about official policy back to the White House. By week’s end, nothing had changed about who can and cannot be a member of the U.S. military and it appeared, at least for the present, that Trump was making a reactionary pitch to his extreme right-wing base and the fundamentalists among his base.
Democracy Now aired two segments on Thursday, July 27, that featured an interview with a transgendered soldier serving in Seattle, Washington, who had seen active duty tours in war zones (“The First Transgender Infantry Soldier in U.S. Army Speaks Out on Trump’s New Military Ban”), and other interviews from a 2015 New York Times mini-documentary “Transgender, at War and in Love” about transgendered soldiers (“What Role Should the Military Play in the Fight for Transgender Rights?”). .
But it was not until law professor Dean Spade spoke in the second interview on Democracy Now about the key element in the debate that the elephant in the living room came front and center. The discussion turned from a near-slavish endorsement of service in the military to a nuanced view of transgendered people in the armed forces.
The role of the military in preserving empire through violence was added into the discussion. Before the professor spoke, it was as if being a member of the military was like reporting to any other kind of work with the only obvious difference being that military work was done while in uniform. There was nothing of the untold thousands who have died from the two wars in Iraq, nor a mention of the disaster that is the war in Afghanistan. There was nothing about the debacle in Libya, nothing about the outrage that is the war in Syria, nor the many other wars and proxy wars that the U.S. now fights for something more than peace, justice, and the American way, that is, unless the American way equals regime change, the projection of might, and a world in which it is safe for the U.S. and its allies to control natural resources around the world and massive war profiteering while human needs go unmet.
Professor Dean Spade:
I’m concerned about the ways in which this debate gets pitched, kind of puts trans people on one side, usually framed as kind of like willing soldiers with absolutely no critique of U.S. military imperialism or of the U.S. military as an extremely exploitative and abandoning employer, right? We know the statistics about vet suicide rates, the abandonment of vets in terms of access to real mental healthcare. You’ve widely covered the sexual assault levels in the U.S. military. There’s lots of new data about the U.S. military as one of the largest polluters, or maybe the largest polluter, on the planet.
So when we lose our critique of militarism and of the U.S. military in this debate, what happens, in my view, is that trans people become sort of a symbolic space in which to have basically pro-military advocacy and PR.
Here are the dollar amounts for U.S. military spending according to William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy (“Trump’s ‘Fantasy’ Military Budget Hides the Real Cost,” The Real News Network, July 28, 2017):
Well, I mean the amount of money spent on transgender medical expenses is a drop in the ocean in the Pentagon’s budget. When you look at all the different elements of national security spending, the Pentagon base budget, the war budget, nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy, some other defense related expenses in places like the FBI. We’re pushing up to 650 to 700 billion dollars a year. And as it’s been mentioned in some press reports, spending on the Pentagon on Viagra is about 10 times what they spend on transgender medical services. They waste 120 billion dollars over the next five years, 25 billion a year, even just on excess bureaucracy, much less on any weapon system, many of which are not needed. They’re in the midst of a trillion dollar 30 year nuclear weapons build up, at a time when the US has over 4000 nuclear warheads. A few hundred of which would be enough to deter any country from attacking the United States. In the face of a recent proposal at the UN to eliminate nuclear weapons globally altogether.
A debate of guns vs. butter could not have been made more succinctly than is presented above. The only functions of government are the military, the police, and attempting to allow massive corporations to operate in a completely unregulated business universe according to the right-wing extremists who now have almost total control of the the U.S. government. It’s no accident what has happened to this society and the prognosis for any kind of positive change looks bleak from the trench-warfare politics of the far right and their Democratic enablers in Congress.
The left needs to show compassion for those targeted through harassment of all kinds while maintaining a critical analysis of how the military operates as the mechanism of U.S. empire around the world. To see the crisis created by Trump’s attack against transgendered soldiers in a one-dimensional world is to miss how the far right has targeted all of us. It appears that Trump will soon begin more aggressive plans for regime change in Iraq or perhaps attack North Korea. The latter is a classic mode of operation for regimes in chaos, as is the Trump administration. These actions will lead to a further destabilized world and feed the right-wing military-industrial beast while stealing more from those in need.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.