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by Allan Branstiter

[X-Posted from Agreeing Loudly]

IMAGE: BRANDI SIMONS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

This past Tuesday, half-term governor Sarah Palin endorsed fellow reality TV star and demagogue Donald Trump for president of the United States of America. That same day, her son Track, an Iraq war veteran, was arrested for drunkenly assaulting his girlfriend with an AR-15 and attempting to prevent her from reporting it to the police. At a press conference the next day, Sarah Palin addressed “the elephant in the room” and used her son’s alleged domestic violence incident as a platform to blame Obama for not supporting the troops, especially those with PTSD.

“My son, like so many others,” she explained, “they come back a bit different. They come back hardened, they come back wondering if there’s respect for what it is their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military have so sacrificially given to this country.” Remarking that she could “related with other families who can feel these ramifications of PTSD and some of the woundedness our soldiers do return with,” she then turned to Obama as the root of the victimization of American veterans. “It starts from the top,” she concluded, “the question though, that comes from our own president, where they have to look at him and wonder, ‘Do you know what we have to go through?’”

In the days since, many veterans have rejected Palin’s statements. Liberal critics wuickly condemned her overtly partisan manipulation of veterans issues, while others (like Bill Maher) argued that Track’s actions were the product of poor parenting, not combat trauma. Some [see 1, 2] have even gone as far as to argue that Track Palin never saw combat and, therefore, is lying about having PTSD (recent studies have shown that 31% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD, including many who never saw combat). While the response to Palin’s remarks has been almost exclusively negative, she is tapping into a perception among conservatives that Obama and Democrats neither care or understand the military or veterans.

Whether or not Track Palin suffers from PTSD remains unknown. As a veteran who has been treated by the Army and the VA for anxiety issues in the field and at home, I’d hate to attempt to diagnose Palin from afar. However, there are some lessons to be garnered from Palin’s statements that have not been addressed by most observers, namely where her statements come from and their effect on public perceptions of veterans. Most people on the left side of the aisle have dismissed Palin’s remarks as a bald-face and shameless attack on Obama. And yet Palin is tapping into several less obvious ideological and cultural strains regarding the role of veterans in American life.

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daniel patrick moynihan

This month’s cover story in the Atlantic is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” This provocative look at the effects of mass incarceration on the African American community and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous report that helped create this situation has sparked an heated dialogue on the internet. I’m studying for comps right now, but I’m definitely going to have to set sometime to read as much as I can later. Here’s a list, starting with the Moynihan report itself:

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Captain Kalsi's head-cover isn't going to destroy the military. | photo by Shaun Tanden
Captain Kalsi’s head-cover isn’t going to destroy the military. | photo by Shaun Tanden

Williamson Murray, a military historian and former Air Force officer, contributed a post bemoaning the current state of gender equality and political correctness in the United State military to the Hoover Institute’s  blog:

“The long and short of the increasing imposition of societal strictures, guided by the gated communities of the Beltway and the media, could well lead to a steady decline in the competence and military effectiveness of America’s military. Moreover, the military draws the great majority of its officers and enlisted personnel from parts of the United States that are far removed from the comfortable circumstances in which the American elite pursue their dreams of a comfortable, peaceful global community that has little relation to the harsh, brutal reality that characterizes much of the world outside the United States, Europe, and the island states of Asia. Should those parents of those outlier communities no longer be willing to send their sons and daughters to defend the interests of this great Republic, the nation will pay a terrible price.”

One can almost hear a ghostly finger scribbling these words upon Belshazzar’s wall.

I find many of Murray’s points ridiculous and disconnected from the current state of the U.S. armed forces, but the most troubling to me is his assumption that a division between the military and civilian spheres is a natural one. He isn’t alone in this belief. Many Americans (regardless of their partisan allegiances) tend to view the military an entity outside the rest of the nation’s polity. They view the military, and war-fighting more generally, as something that requires an expertise or knowledge that cannot be understood by civilians. Of course the military is a profession with it’s own jargon, confusing bureaucracy and idiosyncratic culture, but none of these are so alien or unique that a civilian cannot hope to understand them.

While we are troubled by the growing division between America’s civilian and military spheres, we also find comfort in the fact that we do not live in a military state. We celebrate the image of the volunteer citizen soldier fighting to protect their communities and nation, but we resist most attempts to engage with the military as an institution—especially if that engagement requires us to give up something like freedom or material comfort. The beauty of our military, we tell ourselves, is that it’s professional and politically disinterested. We like to envision it engaged in its strange art of national security alchemy in far away places, but we also like enjoy the fact that its wizards are essentially like us. It is this belief that the military is alien yet representative of American civilian life is what we believe separates us from the corrupt world of Latin American juntos and coups.

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If you have an uncle or aunt who keeps insisting that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery and that anyone who says otherwise is an egg-head pinko long-hair revisionist, show them this video arguing the very point you’re trying to make. Not only is it from a conservative university (Prager University), features a uniformed professor of history from West Point, and clocks in at a easy-consumed 5.5, it also ends with an appropriately patriotic appeal to the moral superiority of the “Civil War was about Slavery” camp. What it lacks in Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” or John Wayne waxing romantic about bob-whites and stuff, it more than makes up for in conservative bona fides. So tuck this handy video away until you need it!

Ah, who am kidding…even this won’t work.

 

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One of my favorite historians on the internet is Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory. He’s been blogging about the war for around ten years, and the amount of content he produces never ceases to amaze me. Up until recently, Levin had been working on researching the Myth of the Black Confederate. After the murders at Emanuel A.M.E., he switched gears and began covering the debate surrounding the display of the Confederate Flag. His analysis was insightful, historical, and sharp–a refreshing departure from the “Heritage or Hate” debate. It’s definitely a must read if you are interested in the issue.

After Charleston, I was a little worried that Levin’s work on the Myth of the Black Confederate had been placed on the back burner (though I understand why the Rebel Flag debate had to be addressed). This morning I was delighted to see that Levin has published a debut article with the Daily Beast that brought together both topics. Definitely give it a read. Levin’s insight into why the Sons of Confederate Veterans rely on black activists so much is enlightening.

414QcLDljwLOn a final note, I ran into Anthony Hervey–the “Black Confederate” mentioned in Levin’s lede–in Speaker’s Corner in London, of all places, when I was interning with the U.S. Embassy. I had no idea he was anything more than some random lunatic spouting off hate and Neo-Confederate slogans. He gave me a card depicting the cover of the book he was trying to sell. I completely forgot about him, so it was a bit of a shock to read about his passing in Levin’s article. I can’t say he’ll be mourned on this website. While I am often frustrated with the fact that Americans would rather attack the symbols of racism rather than it’s social and institutional scaffolding, Hervey serves as a reminder such symbols have power and must be challenged at every turn.