War never changes, but the way we take care of our veterans must

“Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and fight our wars.” – Bernie Sanders

The earliest evidence of warfare in the archaeological record only dates back to between 14,340 to 13,140 years ago; not even a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Chimpanzees — our closest evolutionary relatives with whom we share 99.9% of our DNA — have been known to engage in war as well, even at times drinking the blood of their enemies and tearing off and eating their limbs.

Wars today are fought for a variety of reasons: access to strategic resources like oil or, in the near future, waterideological and religious differences; access to trade routes or land; for profit; or perhaps for more personal reasons such as to protect what is ours, to protect our loved ones and to defend one’s country. However, whatever the reason, war is hell, and no one suffers more in war than the soldiers, their families and the innocent civilians caught in the war zone.

Imagine, if you will, that you have just enlisted in the military. You are disproportionately more like to be a racial minority or woman, and are most likely also from a poor background, i.e. the backbone of today’s US military. You have enlisted for personal reasons: to give your life meaning; to provide for your family or for college tuition reimbursement; to serve and protect your country and its citizens; to “fight the enemy;” to see the world; because it’s a job like any other; or because your father or mother fought before you and military life is in your blood. Whatever the reason, you are willing to risk your life and your physical and mental health for those values.

Today’s soldiers do not return home to ticker-tape parades and the thanks of a grateful nation, but aren’t they no less heroic than those who fought before them? Oftentimes they are physically scarred with missing limbs, or confined to wheelchairs; over 970,000 are registered with the Office of Veterans Affairs. Even those that physically appear to be fine are still suffering. An estimated 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return from the war suffering from diagnosable Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and this number is most likely far higher. Either way, one doesn’t have to be diagnosed with PTSD to suffer from what they have seen and experienced. Many have returned disillusioned and furious with the US government itself. Many have been ordered to commit one of the worst acts a human being can inflict on another human being: shooting and killing a man, woman or child.

One would think that with all the taxpayer resources that the US government and military have on their disposal that veteran health and wellbeing would be at the top of their list of priorities, but it isn’t. At all. The US military budget was estimated at $610 billion in 2013, or roughly 3.8% of GDP. They had ample money to spend on their fleet of $116 million F-35 “Lightning” II Jet that, in a fit of military-grade irony. cannot fly within 25 miles of a lightning strike out of fear of exploding. The Pentagon has even asked Congress to stop buying it equipment it does not need, but to no avail. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will wind up costing us between $4 and 6 trillion, but we only allocate $87.6 billion per year (75 “Lightning” jets) for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The runaway military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned the country about in his farewell address as president in 1960 is worse than even he could have imagined.

Why is the US military so overfunded and the veterans so underfunded? Three main reasons: 1. the negative stigmas associated with homelessness and mental illness; 2. the racial and sexual discrimination within the armed forces; 3. the lack of media attention and how far removed the American people are from the fighting.

In order to provide some context for those factors, however, it is important to briefly discuss Max Weber’s 1905 work, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. In this work, Weber discusses the relationship between Protestantism — especially the doctrine of John Calvin — and the rise of Capitalism in America. In modern capitalism, the pursuit of wealth and profit is an end in itself, the pursuit of which is not only virtuous but the goal of business. Calvinists believe in the idea of predestination — that God has already determined who is saved and who is damned — and Calvinists looked to their work as a sign of their predestined status. Their fear of being damned became the engine that drove capitalism. The wealth that they accumulated was itself a sign that they were saved, and as a result they became disdainful of the poor, as in their eyes they are lazy and clearly damned (sound familiar?).

This is the context for why the typically wealthy conservatives seemingly despise the poor and homeless. What they fail to realize, however, is that myriad systemic injustices contribute to the cycles of poverty and homelessness. It is therefore difficult to disentangle race, social class and gender from the discussion of homeless veterans. Statistics from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans cite that 12% of the homeless are veterans, 40% of those veterans who are homeless are African American or Hispanic and 8% are female. If you add this to the statistic that one in five veterans suffers from PTSD, is it any wonder why so many of our veterans are homeless and suffering?

2012 Best Medic Competition, via Wikimedia Commons

2012 Best Medic Competition, via Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, especially with respect to PTSD, our indifference to the wellbeing of veterans is reflective of a larger stigma toward mental illness in America today. Part of the reason for the stigma is the difficulty with correctly identifying and adequately treating mental illness, which stems from a lack of knowledge about how the brain works — nearly everything we know about the brain we’ve learned in the last 30 years — and the remnants of a “stiff upper lip” attitude towards dealing with mental illness within the pursuit of “normalcy” or “perfection.” As acceptance of those with mental illnesses becomes more widespread, hopefully mental health will be treated with equal importance to physical health, and this will in turn have a positive impact on the treatment of veterans with PTSD.

Another key factor contributing to rates of poverty and homelessness among combat veterans are racial and sexual discrimination that occur within the military itself. Since the integration of the military in 1948, white men have had to adjust to the fact that non-white men, women, transgender and LGBT people can be exemplary soldiers. Within the military, 27% of black and Hispanic officers reported being victims of racial discrimination and in 2010 there were 19,000 reported cases of sexual assault — again, these are just the reported figures. Given the rigid structure of the military and the subservience of lower ranked soldiers relative to their superiors, the numbers are most likely substantially higher. In fact, military sexual trauma is the leading cause of PTSD among female soldiers.

To top it all off, we the American people are far removed from war. As Orwell wrote, “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia” (or ISIS, or Al Qaeda, or the Taliban take your pick). Although many of us probably have relatives who fought in World War I or II or Vietnam, unless you personally know someone in the military most of us have no connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given that 0.5% of the American population serves in the military, the number of people with that connection is slim at best. Sure Afghanistan and Iraq were always on the news in the early stages of their respective invasions, but they quickly turned into nightly reports of the number of soldiers who died that day in some city with a foreign-sounding name on the other side of the world. It’s a different war from Vietnam when the draft was in effect, and if the draft were similarly in effect for our current wars there would almost certainly be the public pressure necessary to end them by now.

So what can be done to support our troops? How can we give much needed resources to support them when they come home? Giving to charities like the Wounded Warrior Project are certainly a good option, but we wouldn’t have to do that if the government properly cared for their veterans as much as they care about building shiny jets that can’t fly in a thunderstorm. Petitioning Congress to increase funding to Veteran Affairs, or to provide our veterans with proper education and job opportunities would make a difference. Improving the treatment of PTSD; decreasing the stigma surrounding mental illness and homelessness in America; and prosecuting sexual and racial abuse and discrimination within the military are musts.

But what if we could end the endless wars? What if we could dismantle the military industrial complex? What if we could stop the media beating the war drums, and give peace and diplomacy a chance?

The US military is too entrenched in global geopolitics to dismantle it entirely. And the Republicans get up in arms whenever a Democrat even broaches the subject of cutting funding to the military. But maybe we could not be so interventionist, and leave matters that don’t concern us alone. Maybe if we stop the wars and stop the indiscriminate drone strikes we could stop creating more terrorists to fight, and more wars to profit off of weapons manufacturing. Maybe we should start with not “telling with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.” (it is sweet and right to die for your country).


Nick Lehn recently received his Masters in Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of Oxford. His favorite topics include anything pertaining to science and society, global politics, social justice, globalization, and technology. Nick recently moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, MD.

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19 Responses to “War never changes, but the way we take care of our veterans must”

  1. lynchie says:

    You are right it is power over people who they can send to sacrifice for their putrid lives.

  2. lynchie says:

    Like most of the things the government funds it is all based on how if personally effects Congressmen. If they have weapons manufacturers in their territory they are all for increased military spending. Like Jeb Bush who wants increased spending on Alzheimers because his mother in law is afflicted do nothing till it effects them personally and because no Congressmen have sons or daughters (or very few) who went to Iraq or Afghanistan they don’t care. In addition they never visit them when they return, Bush would not allow pictures of the coffins to be published and ignore the huge mistake this war was. Lastly it is a constant reminder that we haven’t won a war since WWII and we didn’t do that alone.

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  5. Nick Lehn says:

    Haha no worries at all! My research is in the cognitive evolution of music and how music effects cooperation and social bonding (so only indirectly related to primate behavior in so far as it involves the evolutionary origins of musicality).

    I read the article itself, and you are correct they attacked smaller monkeys (a black mangabey), but it was unclear as to whether or not they attacked each other. Here’s another link I’ve found of a write-up about the article (hopefully this one works: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081013124416.htm)

    With chimpanzess in the Gombe, that Jane Goodall observed, the war occurred because the social group had grown to large. Not only did this growth put a greater strain on access to resources in the area, but later research by Robin Dunbar revealed that the social group bifurcation occurred at correlated with the maximum predicted social group according to the size of the neocortex (Dunbar’s Number). Chimpanzee troops rarely exceed 40-50 members, while humans can reach 150-200 members (thanks to our significantly larger neocortex.

    So you are 100% right, as of now there is no evidence (that I have found anyway) of intra-bonobo warfare. However the image of bonobos as “peace-loving” isn’t exactly accurate either. It may be that the groups studied have not reached their maximum group size (as predicted by Dunbar’s number), or have enough resources in the area to exceed it. Or their number might be higher due to their slightly larger neocortex size (relative to the common chimpanzee). Just brainstorming here, I haven’t found anything as of yet.

  6. FLL says:

    Oops. I overlooked your bio information: Masters in Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of Oxford. Thanks for the current information. For some reason, your link doesn’t work (error 404, page is unavailable), but it might just be my computer.

  7. Nick Lehn says:

    While I have a general rule about not jumping into the debates in the comment sections for articles that I write, I do want to make two quick qualifying statements. Since it is about bioanthropology (and not politics) I feel like I can make an exception in this instance. You are mostly correct. We do share slightly more of our DNA with Bonobo Chimpanzees than we do with Common Chimpanzees. In the interest of simplification (and sleep deprivation due to writing the article late last night) I did not separate bonobos from common chimpanzees, and for that I apologize. As you correctly pointed out, more prosocial behavior has been observed among bonobo populations including the same-sex liaisons you identified as well as being the only non-human animals to have sex while facing each other. However, recent observations of bonobos in the wild have shown that they are capable of killing and eating other primates, same as chimpanzees (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/3353342/Bonobos-not-all-peace-and-free-love.html).

  8. FLL says:

    “Chimpanzees — our closest evolutionary relatives with whom we share 99.9% of our DNA…”

    Excellent article, but the above quote is the only one I would tweak. You’re talking about the common chimpanzee, whose natural range is north of the Congo River. Yes, they can be violent and they do share 99.9% of our DNA. However, Bonobo Chimpanzees, whose natural range is south of the Congo River, share slightly more of our DNA, including a gene that scientists think is crucial to socialization. Bonobo chimps are not nearly as violent as common chimpanzees… and, of course, Bonobo chimps are famous (or infamous) for same-sex liaisons of both genders, but especially same-sex female activity.

  9. FLL says:

    “War is a total bonanza of profit-making opportunities and unlimited off-budget spending.”

    Dead on target, Becca. Money. Profit.

  10. BeccaM says:

    What are they thinking? First of all, they’re thinking, “War is a total bonanza of profit-making opportunities and unlimited off-budget spending.” Then they’re thinking, “Nobody I truly care about will ever be at risk of being wounded or dying out there.” And finally, it’s basically a sociopathic way for them to feel powerful and puissant, knowing that people are dying and nations are being destroyed because THEY (the warmongers) made it happen.

    Truly though, at the core of it is they know neither they nor anyone they love will be asked to sacrifice for the wars they’ve started. That for them, there is no downside to war.

  11. FLL says:

    Now think of needlessly fomenting a war against—not some ragtag outfit like ISIS or al-Qaeda—but a war against Iran, a modern regional power, not to mention a millennia-old civilization, with a population of 78 million. What were John McCain and Mitt Romney thinking? What are Republican U.S. senators thinking? Can you tell me?

  12. BeccaM says:

    As near as I’ve been able to tell, anybody who does not express reluctance to take America to war has no f*cking clue regarding what war really is, what it does, and how any war-of-choice almost never accomplishes anything worthwhile.

    War is violent horror. It ruins lives. It wastes precious resources. It creates lasting enmity, not harmony.

    It should be the last resort, never the first choice. Yes, sometimes war may be necessary, but it always a failure of some kind.

    The last truly just war America was involved in would be World War II. Why? Because we didn’t start it — the Axis powers did. The Allies responded to aggression. Every other police action or whatever name tacked on (because Congress has yet to declare war for any conflict since then) was in the name of Pax Americana. Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, the first Iraq war and the second. Even Afghanistan after 9/11 could have been handled differently.

    Let’s also not forget how the chickenhawk warmongers want us to conflate respect for the sacrifices of America’s troops with the decisions and decision-makers who put those troops in harm’s way, very often for no good reason. Or where political considerations are put before strategic ones.

    We have a major problem with priorities. America’s military budget (and budgets related to it) are a higher proportion of the nation’s GDP than any other nation on the planet. Hell, it’s larger than the first dozen or so nations’ military budgets combined.

    Anyway, war itself may never change, but it’s for damned sure it should be much harder for this country to become embroiled in a bloody, expensive, open-ended conflict. There was a reason why the Constitution’s drafters wanted Congress, not the President, to have the power to commit the country to war. Why? Because it would happen way the hell less often than is has been ever since Presidents decided to commit troops first, then ask for permission (and funding) later.

  13. Hue-Man says:

    I was catching up on ABC (Australia) Radio Health Report this morning and learned about an Australian study of their (early 1960s to 1973) Viet Nam veterans’ disability claims.

    “Around 5% of soldiers who served had some sort of battlefield injury or fatality, and around about 10% had made claims, and that was mainly for injuries. What then happened was there was a fairly long period where there weren’t a lot of claims, but then there was this large wave of claims particularly from the mid-1980s to around the year 2000. And today, or when we did the study, around 70% of veterans who served in Vietnam have at least one accepted disability.”

    “…[T]he leading causes, half have had accepted claim for a mental health related disorders, predominantly PTSD…” “… about half have had claims for eye and ear, which effectively is
    hearing loss or largely hearing loss. And I suppose the third is musculoskeletals, which is clearly from I suppose bad backs et cetera.” http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/healthreport/long-term-disability-of-vietnam-war-veterans/6384434#transcript (audio file available)

    The research addresses a tier of veterans’ post-war treatment that most militaries don’t provide – preventive interventions BEFORE the veteran suffers PTD – or commits suicide – and counseling on hearing and eyesight loss, back problems, etc. Despite the almost constant warmongering, we haven’t learned from the past.

  14. Indigo says:

    There’s a misplaced modifier in this conversation. I’m not entirely sure where it is but consider that 1. the US is launching a global police force without global authorization or financing, 2. that the US is no longer conscripting young citizens into national service or military service, and that 3. the US military is merely sweeping up undereducated youthful pseudo-volunteers into the military under the guise of future job training and education. The whole system is use is, imho, a sham to generate canon fodder to feed the military industrial complex.

  15. Gable1111 says:

    I remember talking about how veterans were getting mistreated in the 80s.

    This is an old story, and nothing has changed. Why? Because the truth is, NOTHING in this country is more important than profit. Neither “Jesus,” “the troops,” or any other symbolized talking point representation of what supposedly makes this nation exceptionally, “the greatest country in the world.”

    The “job creators” own the government, and this is why we have endless wars. War is profit. Taking care of veterans who fought in them or otherwise served is not. Resources that don’t feed the bottom line, i.e. tax cuts and war, are not necessary. So what if a bridge collapses here or there, or a sinkhole opens up. Chances are the owners or their minions in congress won’t be subjected to that anyway.

    Bottom line: no legislation or policy will get passed that does not serve the owners. Anything that does will be by accident (ACA) or will be so insignificant in scope and resources so as to not really do anything (help for veterans, mortgage relief. Real action is only reserved for those who have the money and power to pay congress to get what they want. And it ain’t “the people.”

    This Memorial Day, remember those who’ve fallen by not forgetting those who tripped them up.

  16. 2karmanot says:

    There exists a terrible dualism in perception of war and the military that is threatening the very foundation of American democracy: (1.) The arbitrary suspension of Habeas Corpus by the Executive Branch, the overriding of Posse Comitatus and the spying on all American citizens by the NSA in collusion with powerful media corporations under the vagaries of war time necessities ( even through there is no war declared) when constant war is waged to sustain the above destruction of the basic pillars of the Republic. (2) The admiration of individual sacrifice, achievement, and dedication to patriotic principles by our troops is common to us all, however, let there be be no illusions. The concept that this state of constant war and the destruction of democracy that it has created is NOT sustainable and is NOT to protect us from terrorists per say. It is a world wide colonial exploitative push for world dominance. The true outrage is the grotesque disrespect, abuse and neglect of those who are lured into the military for all the wrong reasons.


  17. The_Fixer says:

    All of this, and a great number of other societal ills in America, can be fixed through a few simple changes to our electoral system.

    First, publicly financed campaigns. Second, limiting the length of campaigns. Third, get rid of the perks, paid vacations and outright bribes in congress. Fourth, restore the fairness doctrine.

    I’m sure other people here have a few other ideas that don’t come to my mind immediately.

    The problem in caring for our veterans begins with not getting into wars in the first place – wars that we bring on ourselves through attempts to get others’ resources. Second, when war is “necessary”, it’s obvious that we need to devote the resources to their care. That’s simple in concept, but there’s no desire to do that because nobody makes money from it, only from selling weapons.

  18. Butch1 says:

    What bothers me is we continue to give away equipment to undeserving people who in the middle of a battle run away and leave it for the enemy. ( e.g. recent happening in Ramani with ISIS and the quisling Iraqi soldiers who turned tail and ran. ) If they are not going to fight for their own cities and land, then why are we risking our own men and women there or even thinking about putting “boots on the ground” again like “bat-shiite” crazy McCain is now hinting at doing. He’s not the first Republican to have mentioned this either. Though I realize this is campaign rhetoric to fire up their crazy base and their 2016 candidates, we do not need to hear anyone in our government speaking about it.

    We lose equipment there and ISIS gets new equipment; our paramilitary police forces have been getting what our military do not want back here in the states for quite a while, though that is suppose to stop. (we shall see) If we have such an abundance of equipment, then we need to start looking into cutting our Defense budget so they will stop spending it frivolously and wasting it. Perhaps if they had to tighten their belt for the first time in their lives they would learn something about austerity as well. They need to be put on a diet regardless of these mini-wars overt and covert.

  19. evodevo says:

    The Neocons didn’t want to do either one – pay for the (Iraq) war, or pay for veterans’ care. They shorted our troops at both ends whenever they could.

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