The price of America’s quest for an external enemy

The US spent so much fighting phantom enemies and creating the myth of good versus evil that it ignored the real threat.

Army funeral 2005
Funeral of Army Sergeant Richard Ford at Arlington National Cemetery on March 5, 2007; Ford died of wounds suffered during combat operations near Baghdad, Iraq [File: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images]

I heard her sobs the moment before I saw the butcher knife. It bobbed up and down rhythmically in her hand as she cried, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car. I could not just walk by as if I had not seen anything. I leaned into her open passenger window and stupidly asked her if she was OK.

She gestured with the knife towards the cop cars lining the street. “They won’t even do their job and shoot me! I stood there waving this knife around, and the cops didn’t even notice. They just walked into the building. Now I have to wait for them to come back out.” Her words devolved into choking sobs.

The Portland Police Bureau holds its martial arts training in a building next to a convenience store. Police SUVs can always be found parked along that street, officers chatting outside.

The woman had intended to commit suicide-by-cop. My first instinct was to call the police to save her, then I realised how absurd that would be. Unsure of what to say or do, I stood there awkwardly. She looked at me, annoyed by my presence. “Who are you?”

“Hi. My name is Morgan. I saw the knife, and you looked upset, so I wanted to check-in.”

She looked straight at me, her eyes so full of pain. “I came here to die and like everything else in my life; it didn’t even work.”

“Why do you want to die?” I asked her bluntly.

She leaned her head back against her headrest and the knife dropped to her lap. Tears streamed down her face. “It’s my daughter. It’s almost the anniversary of her death. I still can’t live without her. They said it would get easier, but it didn’t. She was a soldier.”

The price of war

I know the military. My mother served 20 years in the Air Force. I tried to follow in her footsteps but was discharged out of basic training, deemed medically unfit for service. I was raised in a military culture with a deep respect for service members.

Her crying became softer. “But she didn’t die in Iraq. She lived through the war. She died later, in a drunk driving accident…”

I thought of the people I had known who had survived war but died after. There were many: a friend who was so drunk he drove his car into a concrete barrier, dying instantly; another who overdosed on heroin; one who shot himself.

“Deaths of despair” go hand-in-hand with modern military service. They are part of the price of war – a price I have seen paid by friends who returned home with PTSD, in the 21-gun salutes at the military funerals of those who could not bear the pain, in the psychologist’s waiting room at the VA, in the faces of the active-duty members at the drug treatment centre who preferred the deadening of chemical dependency to the flashbacks. 

I looked at the woman’s face and thought of the mothers of all the friends I had lost, the end of their children’s suffering marking the beginning of theirs. Because, for those who fight it, war does not end in the war zone.

I made the woman laugh by telling her about how I had joined the Air Force but gotten discharged from basic training after getting an abscess on my butt. She told me about her only remaining child, a son, who is set to graduate from high school this year. She told me about all the other problems in her life and how she felt so terribly alone.

I connected with her through kindness. Eventually, I got her to put the knife away, tucked under her seat. After some prodding, she called a friend, and he came to pick her up. We said goodbye. I never got her name.

I spent the rest of the day ruminating on the far-reaching consequences of America’s wars.

Veterans and villains

I got home that night, turned on the TV, and saw the breaking news: the US military had killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. I was confronted with the possibility of yet another American war. Yet another generation of PTSD-stricken veterans, yet another wave of suicides, drunk driving accidents, addiction, and overdose.

Americans are uniquely adept at discounting the tragedies that occur outside America, even when those tragedies are a direct or indirect result of our actions. America determined which region was the villain of the hour and attacked accordingly. From the loss of precious human life on a scale which I find incomprehensible, to the horrors inflicted on the living, there is no end in sight for the suffering of the people that called those regions home. Millions of people – each one a human being with a story – have become refugees of war. 

As the prospect of war devolved into partisan bickering in the days that followed, I often heard the “military” and “veterans” invoked as reasons for war with Iran.

I respect the military in the sense that I respect the service members within it, who joined to serve their country, or provide for their family, or for the only American chance at a free college education. A victory for them would be to protect them from unnecessary wars and all that comes with them.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood on the floor of the senate and gave an impassioned speech supporting President Trump’s decision to kill a foreign military general. It sounded like a cry for war and included all the typical invocations that precede unilateral US invasion of a foreign country. “No man alive was more directly responsible for the death of more American service members than Qassem Soleimani,” he said.

Apparently, Soleimani, the villain of the hour, had posed an imminent threat and military action was taken – without congressional approval – to protect American lives. Initiating a military offensive was being touted as a way to protect us.

What we did not know at the time is that American lives were, in fact, in great danger. But the enemy was not a villain; acellular entities do not have personalities.

Good versus evil

I was 12 years old on September 11, 2001. My mother took her flag out of her shadow box and proudly flew it on our front porch, weeping. I learned patriotism before I understood geopolitics. The enemy was swiftly and decisively identified: Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban that supported him. Obviously, it was a battle of good versus evil, which left no room for complexity or nuance. The US righteously invaded Afghanistan. The world was black and white. War was necessary to protect us.

I was a bit older during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. I watched the congressional hearings with uncritical curiosity, already having accepted that war was necessary to protect our country. I remember “weapons of mass destruction”. America had an external enemy that posed an imminent threat, again. I was still young, but I understood it was another righteous battle of good versus evil. Black and white. There was no subtlety, no complexity and no nuance.

There were also no weapons of mass destruction. There was no imminent threat. The black and white world view I learned from my military mother was infiltrated by shades of grey.

I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns and, for the first time, learned how the US had funded and trained the mujahideen, then abandoned the region. This historical detail seemed relevant to our ongoing struggle with Afghanistan, but it was never mentioned in polite company and especially not in history class at my public school. American history class, after all, is used to promulgate a particular and pre-approved world view.

The erasure of history is important for simplicity. History introduces nuance. It can help to explain the complex motives behind seemingly evil human behaviour. Understanding motives is antithetical to the “evil” label, though, so we do not attempt it. Over-simplification comes at the cost of truth. Eliminating complexity obscures reality.

Almost nothing in this world is black and white. As human beings, we are endlessly complex.

I detected a pattern – America is constantly questing for an external enemy, one which can be cast as pure evil. The legitimacy of it is baked into the American psyche with the help of good-versus-evil Hollywood action movies that omit shades of grey from their storylines. There is a villain and that villain is bad, simply because they were born that way. There is an omnipresent enemy, whose animosity is spontaneous and unfounded, and they must be destroyed. It is the way of the world.

A few months ago, the enemy was Iran. The history of US involvement there erased, as if Iranian sentiments towards America were spontaneous and born out of some innate disposition towards hating us. Most actions are actually reactions, though. Still, the US framed it as a fight of good-versus-evil, implied there was an imminent threat, and claimed hugely expensive military intervention would protect American lives.

Ambushed by a virus

But while some politicians rallied for war and others raged against it, a pandemic had already been unleashed on the world. Early warnings of the impending pandemic were largely ignored as we continued to squabble over the appropriateness of military action and diplomacy with foreign governments.

We have spent trillions on the military, on homeland security, on national defence. We were so busy hunting for a villainous external enemy against whom to wage our war of good-versus-evil, that we failed to defend ourselves and were ambushed – by a virus. We spent so much time and money preparing for a phantom enemy that we ignored the real threat.

That virus is sweeping across the US, leaving death and yet more partisan squabble in its wake. We were warned and yet did not prepare with widespread testing capacity or PPE stockpiling. Our superior military is useless. We are far more experienced at chasing boogiemen than we are at actually protecting American life.

We cannot feel safe while an invisible virus lurks in our community, killing tens of thousands. We cannot feel safe when any illness threatens to lead us to financial ruin. A feeling of safety requires a basic assurance of health and access to healthcare. There is no dichotomy between public health and public safety in reality, only in rhetoric.

Now that the virus has been accepted as real and as a public health threat, the presidential focus is shifting to “who can we punish” instead of “how do we heal.” The origin of the virus – though we know it originated in nature – is irrelevant to our current reality. Attempting to blame China and “hold them responsible” is yet another expression of our ceaseless quest for an enemy, at a time when we should be prioritising public health and collaborating with the international community to save lives. The American emphasis on punishment over healing comes at great cost.

We invested more in military presence missions that serve no tactical purpose than we did in PPE, and now healthcare workers are dying of COVID-19 when their infection should have been preventable.

The narrative that the enemy would be an external one was false. COVID-19 is literally living inside us, and we are utterly unprepared to respond because it is not something we can bomb or wage war against, despite our president framing it in such familiar terms. These are the consequences of decades of political choices and public attitudes.

Millions of citizens are losing their employment-based health insurance during a pandemic. Unemployment is skyrocketing, and food banks are struggling to keep up with demand. What the nation needs now is its health defended.

Our economic success is predicated upon our public’s health. This is now a visible fact; may we never take public health for granted again. We can use this as a catalyst for positive change. Instead of constantly searching for threats from without, this is an opportunity for introspection. Healing comes from within.

National defence was once imbued with literal meaning – to defend the nation. That meaning was lost, and we were left undefended in times of crisis. Let us reanalyse the phrases “national defence”, “public safety”, and “homeland security”, and return to their true meaning. Rhetoric will not save our lives nor our economy. Public health measures will.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.