• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal


Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.

Can the Military Be Reformed?

Six Unusual Veterans Ponder Active Duty and Its Aftermath 

It happens all the time in small towns and big cities across the country. A young person from a poor or working-class family can’t find a good job or afford to pay for higher education. Other family members, a teacher, coach or guidance counselor–who have been in the armed forces themselves– encourage them to enlist. Military service promises an escape from the dead-ends and disappointments of civilian life. It offers steady employment with benefits, now and later.  By signing up, you can learn a skill, see the world. Overcome challenges. Make yourself into a leader. Become an army of one.

Unfortunately, going to war—or even just training for it—can be a life-changing experience in ways never mentioned by military recruiters with a quota to fill. Former Marine Captain Anuradha Bhagwati, the author of Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience (Simon & Schuster) and the multi-generational cohort in Michael Messner’s Guys Like Me: Five Wars, Five Veterans for Peace (Rutgers University Press) all left active duty deeply scarred. Their service related conditions, emotional and physical, landed them in Veterans Health Administration (VA) treatment programs, based on varying degrees of disability. Their troubled feelings of anger, betrayal, sadness, or remorse often laid waste to their personal lives. But their common experience in uniform also transformed them into public advocates for peace or gender equality.

A Moral Burden

In Messner’s book, we first meet World War II veteran Ernie Sanchez who survived, as a 19-year old, heavy German shelling in the Hurtgen Forest. For the rest of his life, Sanchez carried “a jagged scrap of shrapnel lodged near his spine.” But, far more grievously, he also suffered from PTSD, long untreated, and “the moral burden of having mowed down, with his Browning Automatic Rifle, between fifty and a hundred German soldiers.”

Just a few years after Sanchez (who is now deceased) mustered out, Wilson (“Woody”) Powell joined “the three-year armed conflict in Korea that was an initial flash point of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.”

There, his complicity with “acts of cruelty and atrocities committed against Korean civilians” left him guilt-stricken as well. His response, later in life, has been to make amends wherever he can, by “letting people know that wars have very personal, very harmful consequences.”

After winning medals for his war-time duty in the Navy in the late 1960s, Gregory Ross “fell into a depressive and sometimes suicidal state.” To this day, he suffers from partial hearing loss due to “the clamor and thunder” of the “7th Fleet gun line, a floating artillery unit, that hammered the coast of Vietnam.” His personal healing process led to a twenty-year career as an acupuncturist in a Bay Area public hospital– a way of “paying off karmic debt for my part in the war, for the people I killed.”

Like Powell and Ross, Army lieutenant David Craig followed in the patriotic footsteps of a father who served before him. “For lack of common sense, I liked the military,” he confesses to Messner. “I liked the structure. I was a little kid playing war: I’m twenty-one, twenty-two but without an adult brain.

During his deployment in Operation Desert Storm (aka the First Gulf War), Craig ended up “inhaling the smoky air from burning oil wells, ingesting the PB pills that troops were given to protect against expected nerve gas attacks, being exposed to depleted uranium found in tank rounds, and being in proximity to stockpiled Iraqi chemical weapons that U.S. military engineers had destroyed in place.” The experience wasn’t healthy for his body or brain. By age 52, Craig is practicing yoga, leading a Veterans for Peace chapter, and sporting a T-short with the provocative message: “Military Recruiters Lie.”

Unlikely Recruits

Jonathan Hutto, an African-American former student body president at Howard University, faced a “toxic workplace environment” below deck during Operation Iraqi Freedom (aka the Second Gulf War). “Women and men were groped in what they call in the Navy ‘grab ass,’” he recalls. Black sailors were subjected to derogatory remarks about Rev. Martin Luther King, praise for Adolph Hitler, and, in Hutto’s case, the experience of having a hangman’s noose dangled in front of him by three white Navy men, all of higher rank.

After enlisting in the Marines, Anuradha Bhagwati discovered that being a highly-educated bi-sexual, immigrant woman of color made life difficult, on the job and off.  “The Corps” is a branch of the military only 8 percent female and a known breeding ground for military sexual trauma (MST). As such, it was a very bad career choice for someone previously assaulted in civilian life.

Bhagwati never got a chance to test, in actual combat, the “violent edge” she developed in “a culture in which degradation and humiliation were entwined with belonging.”  She did reach the rank of captain and, like several of the “guys” in Messner’s book, earned a VA disability rating for the trauma she experienced in uniform.

Both Bhagwati and Hutto were unusual recruits because of their political leanings. A Yale University graduate and Columbia grad school drop- out, Bhagwati was, according to her memoir, “immersed in leftist politics growing up.” She protested police brutality as a teen-ager, visited the Zapatistas in Mexico before joining the Marines, and voted multiple times for Ralph Nader.

Hutto organized his college dorm mates to participate in Louis Farrakhan’s “Million Man March” in Washington, DC. A political science major and undergraduate visitor to Cuba, he arranged for one of Howard’s most distinguished alums, the civil rights and Black Power movement leader formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, to address the student body. Seeing Kwame Ture speak and meeting him personally, nine months before his death, changed the trajectory of Hutto’s life, but not on a straight line for sure.

Hutto went from Howard to public school teaching, fathering a child and struggling to pay off $65,000 worth of student loans. When a Navy recruiter promised that enlistment would make him debt-free, Hutto “started listening” despite his awareness that the U.S. was already engaged in disastrous open-ended wars in the Middle East. While serving in the Navy in 2006, he helped initiate “An Appeal for Redress,” signed by more than 2,000 active duty personnel who favored “prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases in Iraq.”

G.I. Jane

Bhagwati had more complicated reasons for enlisting. She was escaping abusive parenting by two Ivy League professors of economics, who subjected her to cruel belittling and relentless pressure for academic success. Their privileged daughter’s reaction formation was shaped in part by watching G.I. Jane, a 1997 Hollywood action film. It features a buff and buzz-cut Demi Moore, who “pushed feminist boundaries” in her quest to join an elite Navy Seal-type unit. The author “was riveted” by the movie.

Real life in the Marines exposed Bhagwati to “fierce misogyny and sexual harassment,” which inspired her to create the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) after she was discharged. At SWAN, Bhagwati became, according to her publisher, a “radical activist effecting historic policy reform.” It would be more accurate to say she was Sheryl Sandberg in camo– an “equal opportunity feminist,” demanding fair treatment and more leadership opportunities for women in the military, neither of which alters anything problematic about its fundamental mission.

With funding from corporate law firms and foundations, SWAN won much needed improvements in the federal government’s treatment of current and former military personnel suffering from MST.  But Bhagwati’s book includes far more criticism of the under-funded VA than our $700 billion a year Department of Defense.  Under Presidents Bush, Obama, and now Trump, the DOD is, after all, responsible for the open-ended warfare that has flooded the VA with hundreds of thousands of new patients suffering from PTSD, MST, traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs and the effects of burn-pit exposure.

No Soldier Left Behind?

To deal with this burden of care, Trump wants to privatize VA services, rather than strengthen or expand public provision.  In a recent New York Times op-ed piece based on her book, Bhagwati loudly applauded this right-wing initiative  (See “Donald Trump is getting it right on Veterans Affairs” .)

In Unbecoming, the author also rejects the peace activism so bravely embraced by four of Messner’s five male interview subjects. “I avoided antiwar partnerships,” Bhagwati explains, because “activists in a post-9/11 world” often approached SWAN “with mixed agendas that started with opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” According to the author, “imposing an antimilitary ideology” or “writing off the military in broad brushstrokes” wasn’t going “to win over mainstream flag-waving Americans, whom we needed on our side in order to reduce sexual violence in the ranks.”

As Messner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, documents in Guys Like Me, a broader social justice and peace movement approach is much preferable to Bhagwati’s narrow focus on “military culture” reform. Like Bhagwati, the veterans in his book have combined activism “with deeply personal efforts to heal their own emotional wounds, sustain sobriety, and help other veterans” who suffer from interpersonal violence, poverty, or homelessness.

Yet, they manage to do that while also opposing U.S. military intervention “as an act of moral necessity and patriotism.” And their national organization, Veterans for Peace, strongly opposes Trump’s undermining of veterans’ hospitals and clinics because it threatens nine million patients and the 100,000 veterans who are part of the workforce caring for them. Privatization will have its greatest impact on former military personnel who are poor, working class, and non-white (most of whom never served as an officer, like Bhagwati did).

Consistent with her own former rank and neo-liberal politics, the author of Unbecoming thinks that this VA out-sourcing is just fine. For-profit medicine will produce more “positive outcomes” for veterans, particularly women, than a system favored by all major veterans’ organizations (other than the Koch Brothers-financed Concerned Veterans of America). Leaving no soldier behind was part of Bhagwati’s military training, now apparently forgotten. The market solutions to veterans’ health care that she champions will leave many of her former comrades very far behind, even those she professes to care the most about.


More articles by:

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

May 26, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump Administration and the Washington Post: Picking Fights Together
John Kendall Hawkins
The Gods of Small Things
Patrick Cockburn
Governments are Using COVID-19 Crisis to Crush Free Speech
George Wuerthner
Greatest Good is to Preserve Forest Carbon
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Covid-19 Conspiracies of German Neo-Nazis
Henry Giroux
Criminogenic Politics as a Form of Psychosis in the Age of Trump
John G. Russell
TRUMP-20: The Other Pandemic
John Feffer
Trump’s “Uncreative Destruction” of the US/China Relationship
John Laforge
First US Citizen Convicted for Protests at Nuclear Weapons Base in Germany
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump, Resign Now for America’s Sake: This is No Time for a Dangerous, Law-breaking, Bungling, Ignorant Ship Captain
James Fortin – Jeff Mackler
Killer Capitalism’s COVID-19 Back-to-Work Imperative
Binoy Kampmark
Patterns of Compromise: The EasyJet Data Breach
Howard Lisnoff
If a Covid-19 Vaccine is Discovered, It Will be a Boon to Military Recruiters
David Mattson
Grizzly Bears are Dying and That’s a Fact
Thomas Knapp
The Banality of Evil, COVID-19 Edition
May 25, 2020
Marshall Auerback
If the Federal Government Won’t Fund the States’ Emergency Needs, There is Another Solution
Michael Uhl
A Memory Fragment of the Vietnam War
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
Make a Resilient, Localized Food System Part of the Next Stimulus
Barrie Gilbert
The Mismanagement of Wildlife in Utah Continues to be Irrational and a National Embarrassment.
Dean Baker
The Sure Way to End Concerns About China’s “Theft” of a Vaccine: Make it Open
Thom Hartmann
The Next Death Wave from Coronavirus Will Be the Poor, Rural and White
Phil Knight
Killer Impact
Paul Cantor
Memorial Day 2020 and the Coronavirus
Laura Flanders
A Memorial Day For Lies?
Gary Macfarlane – Mike Garrity
Grizzlies, Lynx, Bull Trout and Elk on the Chopping Block for Trump’s Idaho Clearcuts
Cesar Chelala
Challenges of the Evolving Coronavirus Pandemic
Luciana Tellez-Chavez
This Year’s Forest Fire Season Could Be Even Deadlier
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Beijing Acts on Hong Kong
George Wuerthner
Saving the Lionhead Wilderness
Elliot Sperber
Holy Beaver
Weekend Edition
May 22, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Hugh Iglarsh
Aiming Missiles at Viruses: a Plea for Sanity in a Time of Plague
Paul Street
How Obama Could Find Some Redemption
Marc Levy
On Meeting Bao Ninh: “These Good Men Meant as Much to Me as Yours Did to You”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Shallò: 120 Days of COVID
Joan Roelofs
Greening the Old New Deal
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Still Matters
Charles Pierson
Is the US-Saudi Alliance Headed Off a Cliff?
Robert Hunziker
10C Above Baseline
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
The Fed’s Chair and Vice Chair Got Rich at Carlyle Group, a Private Equity Fund With a String of Bankruptcies and Job Losses
Eve Ottenberg
Factory Farming on Hold
Andrew Levine
If Nancy Pelosi Is So Great, How Come Donald Trump Still Isn’t Dead in the Water?
Ishmael Reed
Alex Azar Knows About Diabetes
Joseph Natoli
Will Things Fall Apart Now or in November?
Richard D. Wolff
An Old Story Again: Capitalism vs. Health and Safety
Louis Proyect
What Stanford University and Fox News Have in Common