Andrea Plate Writes — I just concluded a three-year run teaching “Gender and the Military” at a major Southern California university. For three years, I thought I knew what I was talking about. Fifteen years as a licensed clinical social worker at the Department of Veterans Affairs; author of ‘Madness’, the recently published book about veterans; instigator of the Facebook page “About Face: Veterans and Others Against Madness”, for veterans, healthcare workers and all those who care about the plight of America’s veterans. That means I’ve got all the answers, right?
But then came the Trump trifecta of very questionable pardons: Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Matt Golsteyn, both cleared of war zone murder charges; and Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, the Navy Seal convicted of posing for a picture with a dead teenage Islamic State fighter (held up by his hair). Lorance had already served six years of his 19-year sentence, with a federal review pending; Golsteyn was set for a February 2020 trial; and Gallagher, after much ado, surrendered his right to service but was allowed to nail down his retirement with a Trident pin. Most recently, three Navy Seals involved in the Gallagher case were freed from accountability and review.
So much for military culture. So much for my teaching respect for that culture. Trump upends all! Were my lesson plans wrong? Or has the military simply, but severely, been wronged?
For months, students struggled to understand military culture. Sure, we pushed on the hot button topics: the right of transgender persons to serve in the military, the growing role of women in combat. But the first few weeks needed a careful introduction — military life as revealed in foundational tenets such as: loyalty; leave no man behind; group cohesion versus the rights of the individual; and chain of command (break it, and the military will break you. Never skip a link —except in that rare case of a major ethical or moral breach, when disobedience becomes duty).
Why was the Secretary of the Navy compelled to resign? Should the Secretary of Defense have stood up for him? Punishments were lifted. The President reversed the Pentagon. Soldiers were … criminals … or
What do the real, actual veterans think of all this, my students asked?
Well, at least according to many of the many posts on my Facebook page, it’s complicated:
“Trump was given my son’s paperwork at a Gold Star dinner he hosted at the White House. He never read it… No soldier left behind means nothing to any of them (civilian officials).”
“Politics are pervasive in the military just as it is in any industry. It’s unfortunate but it’s a reality, and you must learn and adapt.”
“If a country sends you to war, then they shouldn’t charge you with a crime that they sent you there to commit.”
“War is hell, and in hell, bad things happen.”
“Isn’t this reaction the Trump derangement syndrome?”
“You train men and call on them to do horrible things. When that horror impacts their behavior in a horrible way then you can’t hang ‘em out to dry.”
Stop this thread, we want to get off!
What to conclude? That the U.S. military is no longer in charge of itself. That military culture is under siege. That its norms and tenets are under reconstruction (some would say, destruction). That the ties that bind the military and its veterans — tenets like brotherhood, unity over individuality — have come unraveled. That military culture, in its ugliest incarnation, reflects the current chaos of civilian culture.
My American-born students, as if anti-imperialists to the core, were troubled. They had thought they knew what to think! The military is almost always wrong. Not really … (As a popular car bumper sticker put it: Hire a college student while they still know everything). International students were far less sure. Because when your military is a security force, rather than defender of the free world (Kuwait), and when America has liberated your country, who’s to judge? Because when a K-pop career run seems tougher than service in the South Korean military (witness the rash of star suicides), can all militaries, in all countries, be condemned? Better to serve than sing, said a South Korean student. And she meant it.
We could not come to an agreement.
But in a rare moment of East meets West, a student from Indonesia said this: “No matter what side you’re on, you know what’s great? That we can actually sit here and talk about it.”
Silence. No one could improve on that.
Class dismissed — I did the best I could.
Andrea Plate, senior editor at Asia Media International (asiamedia.lmu.edu), taught ‘gender and the military’ to undergraduates at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in the Women and Gender Studies Dept. She is the author of the new book, MADNESS, about veterans and America’s veterans administration. She holds degrees from UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA.