In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, novelist Elliot Ackerman and memoirist Anuradha Bhagwati talk about how the military has—and hasn’t—changed during Donald Trump’s time as Commander in Chief. They also discuss their own experiences as Marines, the history of the American military, and how its future may affect the country and the world.
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Readings for the Episode
Waiting for Eden: a novel by Elliot Ackerman · Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning by Elliot Ackerman · Dark at the Crossing: A Novel by Elliot Ackerman · Green on Blue: A Novel, by Elliot Ackerman · Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience, by Anuradha Bhagwati · “What to Make of Military Endorsements,” by Elliot Ackerman, The New Yorker, Sept. 8, 2016 · “A Former Marine Looks Back on Her Life in a Male-Dominated Military,” by V. V. Ganeshananthan, The New York Times, April 21, 2019 · The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell · “Donald Trump’s ‘Salute to America’ Was Not a Complete Authoritarian Nightmare,” by Joshua Keating, July 4, 2019, Slate.com · Fields of Fire by Jim Webb · The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Part I Elliot Ackerman
Whitney Terrell: During the 2016 general election, you wrote a terrific piece for The New Yorker titled “What To Make of Military Endorsements.” Can you tell us a little bit about the American tradition of having a nonpartisan military? And why that tradition is important?
Elliot Ackerman: I’m glad you like the piece. Thanks for that. I think we have structurally organized ourselves so that from the commander in chief—who is a civilian—all the way down, we have civilian oversight of the military. The idea of interjecting recently retired military officers into a political campaign is something new—we certainly saw that in 2016. On the Republican side, we saw that in the personage of Michael Flynn; on the Democratic side, I’d say you probably saw that in the personage of General Allen, who was a retired Marine four-star general. And we see it every day, with the pundits appearing on CNN and all the other cable news networks.
WT: Did that not used to happen? Is that a relatively new thing?
EA: In this incarnation, it is, but at the same time too, if we’re going to be honest about it, we have to go back to our nation’s founding, and our first president is a general. And we have a long history of generals being presidents. So there is, of course, interplay between the military and the political and to be too precious about it would be to ignore that relationship throughout our country’s history. From Eisenhower to Grant, there have been a long series of military men who have led the country—and served in lesser capacities as well, as senators and congressmen.
We’re a curiously ahistorical people. It was very easy for people to put forward the narrative that say, honoring the military through the anthem had always been the case.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Given that our subject for this episode is the military under Trump, how is that nonpartisan tradition holding up under the current administration compared to say, the Obama administration or Bush? Do you have any general sense of what the Marines—which was your branch of service—think of the current administration?
EA: I’m not going to try to speak for all Marines. The idea that our presidents and our political leaders use the U.S. military to drive forward whatever agenda they have, and will sometimes use the military as a political prop, is nothing new. it goes back to the founding of the republic. So I think when we are encouraged to gasp, whether we’re gasping on the left or gasping on the right, and we’re encouraged to have our senses of outrage stoked over these issues—no, I’ve always found it to be kind of disingenuous. Surprise, surprise, a politician wants to make a spectacle out of something—that’s what they do.
I apologize if I sound cynical, but I feel like there’s a through line that goes from the Bush administration, the Obama administration, or the Trump administration, all the way back to the Kennedy administration, or further back than that. The U.S. military is always used for political leverage.
VVG: We did an earlier episode—it was actually our very first episode—where we had Matt Gallagher on and we were talking about Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee during the anthem and the military’s relationship with the NFL. We’re a curiously ahistorical people, which I think you’re correctly pointing out in a variety of ways. It was very easy for people to put forward the narrative that say, honoring the military through the anthem had always been the case. And then he was able to point out and other folks were also able to point out that that was the result of a specific relationship that had developed later on. I feel like it reminds me a little bit of college. You go to college, and you join some institution, and they’re like, well, for hundreds of years, our fraternity slash college newspaper slash a capella group has done things this way. And actually, then—
WT: Sugi’s comparing the Marines to an a capella group! You better watch out now!
VVG: Well, ahistorical viewpoints in general—you’re able to sell very easily the notion that something has always or never happened, and people seem to me to have really lost the ability to think about a longer arc. And so, yeah, if you tell someone that something has always happened, or has never happened, they don’t really check.
EA: Sugi, you’re very nice to refer to it as being ahistoric. I would refer to it as being uninformed.
VVG: [laughs] I think that’s the Marilynne Robinson rhetoric creeping in, but yeah, I do feel like Americans know less history at this at this moment, than they ever have before.
EA: I think our outrage has become a currency that many people trade in, whether it’s the media trading in it, or politicians trading it. So when you couple our tendency to be ahistoric with our ability now to become quickly outraged, through social media, through television, through whatever media we’re consuming, it’s a potent mix that leads to many social brouhahas, and the military is just one of our institutions that can be thrown into the center of such controversies.
WT: We’re recording the day after the Fourth of July parade and Slate had a piece this morning saying, you know what? The celebration that Trump organized, that we said was going to be really bad? It was okay. And I thought that was interesting, because Slate’s no slouch in criticizing the president. And I’ve written for Slate, and I like Slate. But it was interesting that it didn’t turn out to be the thing that people thought that it was going to be. I do wonder if you feel like there are differences between the way this administration deals with the military and past administrations, or do you feel like it’s all on a continuum?
By showing leniency to possible war criminals, you’re really not supporting the troops—you’re in fact doing the exact opposite of what you profess to be doing.
EA: I think this administration, and our president in particular—his style is pretty vulgar. And it causes many, many people, myself included, to oftentimes recoil. Usually, after I see something, and after I’ve had my moment of recoil, I try to calm down, look at it and say, why am I finding this so offensive? Am I finding this offensive on the substance or on the style? And if I feel like I’m finding it offensive on the substance, then I guess I would listen to my initial instinct, which was to recoil. There are other times where I’ll find, you know what, that I actually am finding this more offensive on the style than anything else, and then I will try to parse what my opinion is.
WT: One of the things that I wanted to ask you about, because it’s been one of those points of outrage and discussion, and maybe you can give us a level-headed sort of perspective on it, is the way that President Trump has injected himself in discussions around different court martial proceedings, one involving Michael Behenna, whom he pardoned, and then more recently, a soldier, Edward Gallagher, who was acquitted of all but one count of war crimes. Is that very different than what Bush or Obama or previous presidents would have done in cases like that?
EA: Absolutely. And this is like when I go back to my style slash substance calculus. This is one where I think it’s appalling, both the style of it is appalling, and the substance is appalling. We have a judicial process here, and those courts martial need to play out. The president shouldn’t be putting his fingers on the scale. When he puts his fingers on the scale, the style of it is, well, I’m just supporting the troops. Well, guess what, by showing leniency to possible war criminals, you’re really not supporting the troops—you’re in fact doing the exact opposite of what you profess to be doing
VVG: It’s interesting to think about it as putting his fingers on the scale, because it seems to me that Trump has this rhetoric of—he’s never wrong. And he extends that as a mantle of protection to the people who are allied with him, or who he wants to be allied with him. And the military has a tradition of respecting checks and balances, even with courts martial, with certain kinds of accountability—it seems to me like accountability is actually really important to the way the military operates. And he seems not interested in that. I’m interested to go back to some of what you were saying about outrage or the idea of trying to take a level-headed view of some of this stuff. When there is outrage about the military or in relation to the military, is there any value to any of that? Has that ever provided a valuable check or balance?
EA: The U.S. military is an institution that people feel sentimental about in different ways, but it’s one with which there is probably more emotion associated than with let’s say, the U.S. Department of Transportation.
EA: I’m gonna go out on a limb here. Stay with me, guys. So if all politics is the either the maintenance or acquisition of power—I think that’s a definition of politics—there are two ways that you can maintain or acquire power. One is by uniting people—it’s very difficult to do, I would argue, maybe like Obama did in ’08, I don’t think he did it in 2012—tough to do. And the other is by dividing people. And the way you divide people is pretty easy. You basically say, there’s a group of people over there, and they are going to take away whatever you have or do; they’re the ones causing your problem.
It’s fear, and fear manifests as outrage. That by and large, sadly, is the currency that both sides of the political divide deal in. And so I don’t know about you guys, but I can certainly feel it when I turn on the television, or I read a news story, that there’s messaging that I am receiving every day, that encourages me to feel that type of outrage. And in most cases, I don’t want to engage. Again, it’s style versus substance. And a lot of the style I feel coming at me and what I consume is that you need to be outraged because of x, y and z, when the substance doesn’t necessarily back it up.
I wanted to go to a place where it wasn’t a niche experience, and to be with a generation of people for whom they are all been defined by it. And that is what I found in Abu Hassar and in Abed.
WT: So early on in Places and Names, you introduce readers to Abed, your translator and someone he met at a refugee camp, Abu Hassar. We see these characters throughout the rest of the book. Can you frame them for us and talk about their importance to the story and how they knit together the different passages here?
EA: Well, Abed is a friend of mine. And he and I met in southern Turkey. And he had been a democratic activist in the Syrian revolution’s early days in 2011 and 2012. And one day, he’d been working down in a refugee camp right on the Turkish-Syrian border. And he came into the place where we were living, and he said, Elliot, I met a guy I really think you should meet. I said, Okay, Abed, who’s the guy? He said, Well, he fought for Al Qaeda in Iraq, but I think the two of you would really get along. I’m up for anything. I said, Okay. And his name was Abu Hassar. And so Abed and I arranged a meeting with Abu Hassar and it turned into a series of meetings over several years that I write about in the book. And Abu Hassar had run guns and fighters for Al Qaeda in Iraq, in some of the same years I had fought there. And through a confluence of events that I get into in the book, he had wound up in a refugee camp in southern Turkey. And although he was no longer engaged in jihad, he was still, ideologically, very much a subscriber to this radical brand of Islam that at that time, the emerging Islamic State was preaching. However, he and I had this connection, which is we had both fought in the same war, albeit on opposite sides, and had this shared defining experience, and I think had a real curiosity about who each of us was in relation to that.
VVG: I really appreciate that passage in particular, because of how it shows that people can communicate in all sorts of ways when language isn’t available to them. And that image of the two of you looking at the map is astonishing. That passage reminds me of
Green on Blue, which has sections told from the point of view of Afghan characters, and it makes sense to me why you want to meet with Abu Hassar. But could you talk a little bit about why it was important to you? And what you learned from that not-exactly-conversation?
EA: These wars for our generation were not generationally defining. And what I mean by that is you have the First World War, you have the Lost Generation, or the Second World War, or even Vietnam, but people who are my generation, I would say most of them would not say they were defined by the 9/11 wars. However, there’s a part of the generation that certainly was, and I would count myself of that part. And when you’ve been defined by something, you’re curious about the other people who are involved in it. And I knew that there was an Abu Hassar out there, or many Abu Hassars out there, meaning the people who I’d fought against, who had defined me in this way, because I think when you’re in war, it’s like a shadow dance, in that you never see your partner, but you can feel them acting against you.
And so then, ten years later in southern Turkey, when Abed walked in that day, and said, I met an interesting guy, I for the first time had the chance to meet that partner, that person I’ve been engaged in the shadow dance with. And that entire meeting was predicated on this gamble, that just as he had defined me, and I could feel that instinctually, and that desire to meet him as well, that having also defined him, he would have a similar desire to sit across the table from me and talk about all of these issues, and these questions as simple as: when were you the most afraid?
VVG: So when you talk about this, I can’t help but think of both the effect of the draft—you were talking before about a professional soldier class. And you’ve also mentioned generations defined by war. We don’t have a draft at the moment, and also the nature of warfare has changed. So when you have a dance partner who you haven’t met—there have been other wars where that’s been true, but there’s also been more face-to-face and or manned combat where people are coming into closer contact with each other.
EA: If I had come back home in a generation where we’d all been defined in the same way, that gap in my understanding wouldn’t, I think, have felt as acute. But because I came back to a world and a country where the experience had not been a shared one, it almost became more of a niche experience, something that was a little bit more rarefied. And I wanted to go to a place where it wasn’t a niche experience, and to be with a generation of people for whom they are all been defined by it. And that is what I found in Abu Hassar and in Abed and in traveling through the Middle East—was that I had more in common with this generation than I felt I did with my own, based only on the fact that we’ve all been defined in the same way.
VVG: It’s interesting to think about in this conversation, both Trump and Obama ran as opponents to the war in Iraq. I’m curious about what you think about that—if they were right. Was it a good idea for us to leave Iraq in 2011?
EA: I’ve always believed that the great strategic blunder of the Bush administration was putting the troops into Iraq, and the great strategic blunder of the Obama administration was pulling all of the troops out of Iraq. We as Americans seem to have this conception of war—maybe it comes out of the Second World War—it came to our consciousness that the war is over when the troops come home. That seems to be what we believe.
But it’s never happened. It’s never been the case. In the Second World War, the troops didn’t really come home; we created bases all over Europe and the world in the wake of the Second World War to secure the peace. The same thing in Korea—the troops never came home. The troops did all come home from Vietnam, because we so squarely lost that war. And so there’s this idea of how do you secure the peace? And so I believe that when we pulled all of the troops out of Iraq in 2011—that was a mistake. We should have left some type of residual force behind.
When Trump talks about ending the wars, I applaud that. We should end the wars, but if he’s talking about ending the wars in a way where just every single American comes home, and we just leave those parts of the world up to the influence of other powers, I think that’s a huge mistake. I hope that one of these days we’ll have a president who will sit down with the nation and explain how you can win a war, bring the troops home, secure a peace, while not also abandoning the people in the region, whom we’ve supported for many years, but who’ve also supported us.
WT: I was in Iraq in 2010 to cover the drawdown, and what amazed me was a couple things. It was incredibly calm, compared to 2006, which was when I had been there before. We took a long trip up to Mosul from Joint Base Balad—nothing happened. No IED problems, and the guys I was with had not seen any problems at all. We visited a joint group of Kurds, and Sunnis, and Shias who were working to repair a highway intersection. I just thought, Oh, my God, this is what we should have been doing. This is useful. And then, of course, I saw the footage of Mosul. We were up near Mosul after ISIS had taken over Mosul, and then they had been driven out and it was just destruction. And it was so incredibly depressing to see. Did you feel the same way?
The nature of how our society engages with war, to Sugi’s comment on the draft, has changed a lot. I don’t know that it’s necessarily changed for the better, either.
EA: I did. And I felt that we were probably going to have to pay for the same real estate twice. But these are difficult issues. So one of the challenges is, to have that peace, you have to have a situation where American service members aren’t dying. So we have troops in Germany and have had them there for years. And they’re not facing IEDs and dying. Once you stabilize a security situation enough, you then as a country need to figure out—okay, what are the right force levels to have to make sure that we can secure the peace that we’ve created? What we often do is secure the peace and just leave.
WT: You write a lot about Syria, in Places and Names, and there’s a connection, right, between what you’re talking about and what’s happening in Syria now.
EA: There’s a connection between Syria and Iraq because the Islamic State doesn’t even recognize the validity of the two as countries. Their mission was to destroy Sykes-Picot, and modern-day Syria and Iraq are creations of Sykes-Picot. It’s the Islamic State and the Levant. Their vision was a caliphate that extended all the way to the Mediterranean. So those two conflicts are very much intertwined. Our Americanized narrative is that there’s the war in Iraq, the war in Syria, but there it feels much more just like one large war, and I think that is probably a closer representation of what’s going on there. What you’re really witnessing is an existential crisis for the future of that region and what it’s going to look like.
WT: So you were awarded the silver star. My grandfather was awarded that as well. His commendation letter, which was from October 7, 1918, talks about him rescuing the body of a First Lieutenant J.H. Carter from electrified wire near the enemy’s trenches, which in World War One is a completely crazy thing to do. I was sitting last night with my dad and my aunt, and I asked if they knew why he had done that—was that a friend of his? What was the motivation? What was going on? And they had no idea because he’d never talked about it. So that part of history is lost. In your collection, at the very last piece, you notate your Summary of Action for that award, and I was wondering what your motivation was for doing that. Is it to try to avoid that kind of blankness, that is the blankness of my grandfather’s war experience? Or something else?
EA: It’s the last chapter of the book. And it originally wasn’t in the book, that chapter. So I turned in the book; my publisher was happy with it. They were going to publish it. We’re delighted, and then my editor sat me down.
And he said, hey, listen, I want to talk about one thing. He’s like, you don’t write about the Silver Star. And that’s fine. I imagine that’s a decision you made. But I feel like I’d be remiss as your editor if I didn’t tell you that I think it’d be a better book if you could figure out a way to write about that.
And I had the Summary of Action on that award that went into a lot of detail, but it goes into that detail with this very stilted military language. And I wanted to annotate it and say, this is what was really going on, this is what it felt like, smelt like, tasted like, this is what I was thinking. And that Summary of Action, to me, it was like a key to go into the experience one more time.
WT: The last part of that essay, you talk about having the uniform that you wore when you were in Fallujah, and that you kept it. And I had an opposite story. The one story that I do know about my grandfather’s war experience in World War One was that he came to a hotel in France. When he got out of the army, he rented two rooms, he bought himself a suit, he went into one, he took the uniform off, took a bath, walked in the next room, put the suit on, and never went back and got the uniform. I wonder if that desire to not remember, how that relates to the desire to remember.
EA: I believe that war is part of human nature, and that there have always been wars and there will probably always be wars, sad as that is. And when I was a kid, I was interested in the military. And I read a lot of books. I read books like Tim O’Brien’s book, I read Jim Webb’s
Fields of Fire. And I feel like those guys, the Vietnam guys, they were custodians of that memory. And that when the war’s over, when you come back, and you also, in a certain degree, become custodians of the memory. At some future point, the United States will probably find itself marching off to war again. And the most recent thing people will have to draw upon will be our last war, which will have been my war.
And if I go totally tight-lipped about it and never say a thing, there’ll be no reference point as to what war is like. But I also think that there’s a difference now, generationally, too, because when I took off that uniform in Fallujah I was a professional, and I knew I was going back to war. And in the First World War those were citizen soldiers signed up to do something very specific, fight a very specific conflict. And the nature of how our society engages with war, to Sugi’s comment on the draft, has changed a lot. I don’t know that it’s necessarily changed for the better, either.
Part II Anuradha Bhagwati
Whitney Terrell: You and our previous guest, Elliot Ackerman, are both Marine Corps veterans. Your book’s subtitle is A Memoir of Disobedience. With the military in particular, the Marines are famous for discipline and obedience. I wondered if, for listeners who haven’t yet read your book, could you talk a little bit about what led you to join the military and how you got that title?
The most delicious phrases are tinged with putting somebody else down, oftentimes women. And so, you know, it’s loaded, it’s loaded terminology. And it’s deliberately put together.
Anuradha Bhagwati: I joined the military in my early twenties. And I’m the daughter of Indian immigrants. My parents came here about 50, 60 years ago, and were pretty traditional parents. I’m an only child and they had put a lot of academic expectations on me—kind of the typical Asian immigrant experience. I didn’t have much of a voice in my family. And as they were navigating what it was like to be American and assimilating, I was also navigating what it meant to have Indian parents but being surrounded by mostly white kids in my schools, and not really feeling Indian, not really knowing what that meant. I identified as bisexual by the time I was probably 18, or 19, but was deeply in the closet. And my parents had shamed me for that when I fell in love with my best friend, who was a girl, and there was just a lot of pressure on me.
They didn’t want me to play basketball, even though that was like, my favorite thing in the world to do. So I really wasn’t allowed to do the things that made me happy. I was just supposed to go to school and do really well, get straight A’s. And so the Marine Corps,it wasn’t just a rebellion, it was my freedom. It was something my parents couldn’t touch at all. They are both academics and fiercely so. They live in the world of ideas, in the ivory tower. And this was the one place I knew they couldn’t touch me or control me.
WT: There’s one passage that I wanted to ask you about that I really thought was interesting, because I have a novel that I wrote after being a reporter in Iraq called The Good Lieutenant that has a female protagonist, and she’s in the army. But she’s an officer. And you have this passage where you talk about “G.I. Jane,” the scene where Demi Moore beats up her—what is Viggo Mortensen’s character? He’s like her trainer or something like that.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: The Master Chief.
WT: Yeah. And then says to him, “Suck my dick.” And you write, “Her team goes wild. She’s become one of them while also rising above them.”
I thought that was really an interesting passage, because a lot of the women that I interviewed and talked to about the book talked about how learning to talk like guys do, or in the Trumpian phrase, “locker room talk,” was part of them learning to command men, but also was a loss in certain ways. I wonder if you could talk about that.
AB: Assimilating to a patriarchal institution is something that most women learn to do, if they want to follow their dreams, and their dreams lead them into those institutions. It’s something you learn without hesitation, or you have to learn it in order to be accepted. And oftentimes, maybe all the time, it’s a legitimate, authentic source of pride when you get there. I spoke like an entirely different human when I was in the Marines. And even afterwards, I had to unlearn some of the language. Because I wanted to unlearn it, not because I had to. But that kind of foul mouth—it’s a foul mouth that’s tinged with misogyny, sometimes racism, sometimes homophobia. It’s tinged with a lot of bad stuff. The most delicious phrases are tinged with putting somebody else down, oftentimes women. And so, you know, it’s loaded, it’s loaded terminology. And it’s deliberately put together. It’s not the same thing as real power, real authority, real confidence. It’s a short-term high.
VVG: And yeah, as you point out, pretty classic code-switching. And the Marine Corps is famous, I mean, at least as far as I’m concerned, in terms of being the toughest branch of the military. Towards the end of your book, you say that women who want to join the American military would do better to consider one of the other branches. Your version of rebellion was to run towards an alternative, tough set of rules and discipline, one that had its own hypocrisy within it—so how did you end up picking the Marines in particular?
WT: Because they were the biggest jerks! That’s what it seems like in the book.
AB: Yeah, even Marines would call themselves the biggest jerks as a matter of pride. But I think that I had a streak of masochism in me. I certainly still have some of that. I’m still working on it. But the thing that was the most extreme—the branch that had the most discipline and you were guaranteed to wreck your body the most, it was a different version of the authoritarian culture I grew up with. Study until you crack or exert yourself physically until you break. It’s all part of the same worldview. It’s a focus on excellence. And the Marines are all about that, for sure. But you take a typical Tiger mom and dad, they’re all about that as well, just in a different venue.
It was like all the worst of the worst on this site. And I directly connect that to the President’s comments. He’s the commander-in-chief, right? He literally dictates the personality and the moral character of the armed forces.
I would have definitely succeeded more in the other branches of service, because they’re better integrated. They are better institutions when it comes to a healthy workplace. You see across the other service branches that women are in more positions of power, you have more female generals in the other branches of service. The Marine Corps is still very much segregated, across gender as well as race.
WT: You know, this episode, we’re talking about the military under Trump and you weren’t in the Marines during his presidency. But—I felt like when I was writing about women in the military, there was this story of progression that had been happening in the army, and that movement toward allowing women to be in combat, for instance. But first of all, you write a lot in the book about sexual harassment, and the Marine Corps’ failure to deal with it. And the President has a long history connected to sexual harassment. Also, he has said that he’s not really necessarily in favor of, for instance, women being in combat. I wondered if you could talk first about that aspect of your book, which is a big part of it, but also, if you feel like there is a risk under this current administration of some of the gains that women have made in the military being lost.
AB: Yeah, it’s a direct connection. Anybody who says that we’re making too much of the President’s comments on women, and then how men behave toward women within the military is really naïve. One thing that we pride ourselves on as officers, in the Marines and in the other branches is that if we are good at our jobs, if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, then our troops have respect for us, that there’s good order and discipline within the unit. And if we do something along the lines of saying, ‘Grab women by their pussies,’ or ‘I wouldn’t rape her because,’ and I’m paraphrasing here, but ‘she’s not my type,’ then, this, literally, it trickles down to the troops.
And unfortunately, within months of the president being elected, we saw just that happen within the Marines and the other branches. This huge scandal, Marines United, erupted, where over 30,000 mostly Marines and also veterans and other members of the other branches were stalking, engaging in revenge porn against mostly women in the military, and also, some civilian women, without their permission. So nude photos were posted on this site. Some videos as well, sex videos without the women’s permission. And it required what I would call an active whistleblower to get this out to the public. A former Marine infantryman broke the story. And then he was also the victim of death threats, he and his family. Of course, the women on the site were victims of rape threats, and so on. It was a moment that strangely surprised the Marine Corps, even though this kind of thing is very much the culture of the Marine Corps when it comes to misogyny and racism and homophobia. It was like all the worst of the worst on this site. And I directly connect that to the President’s comments. He’s the commander-in-chief, right? He literally dictates the personality and the moral character of the armed forces. And so I am extremely concerned about rates of assault and harassment in the military. They certainly haven’t gone down. All evidence suggests that they’ve gone up in the last couple years.
WT: I had a friend who I met originally in Iraq, in 2006. She was a captain, she was very helpful in informing my book, and she is now a colonel. At the time, she was not open about her relationship. She was a lesbian, she was married to a woman. But the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy went away, she could become open about her relationship, that was all fine. By the time that I saw her again, in 2016, when the book was out, her wife came to the reading that we did. And yet, when I talked to her recently, within the last year, she said, this is the first time that I have started to have people politically come after me. And she felt like it was due to her relationship, and her gender. And she didn’t say this, but it’s hard for me not to connect that to the current administration in the same way that you are doing, like, oh, what just happened to show up now? That’s interesting.
AB: Yeah, my heart goes out to her. I agree with you. One measure of the temperature within the military on all these issues, on inclusivity, on acceptance of people who are different than the status quo is military chat rooms, or your average Facebook group. The filth that I have seen in the last couple of years, since the last presidential election, has made me sick to my stomach. White supremacist language is sick in these conversations. And so I’ve had to distance myself from veteran friends. I never thought I would have to. Unfortunately, those of us who are brown or queer or female or transgender—I mean, you name it, right. And some of us are several of those identities. We are seen as a threat to whatever the administration represents. And so it doesn’t matter if we’ve taken an oath to protect and defend the country. That’s not seen as something that’s noble. We just don’t belong.
Culturally speaking, anytime you go against the grain in the military, you become a whistleblower. So when all eyes are on you, you stick out like a sore thumb. And of course, if you’re a female, queer, black or brown, right, all the things, then you’re really sticking out, and you already were sticking out. There’s so much pressure on you then to do the right thing. There’s so much pressure on victims to report their assaults. And, you sorta gotta wonder, are you kidding? If it’s not safe, and you’ve already been violated, you’ve already been hurt by a brother in arms, you have to consider your safety coming forward.
WT: You do have a series of descriptions towards the end of your book where you talk about Trump.
AB: The last chapter of the book, which discusses what it’s like to make that transition from an Obama presidency to a Trump presidency from the perspective of veterans and service-members. I certainly saw cultural shifts, and that’s what this passage is about.
WT: It’s shocking to me. I mean, the whole thing, the Trump tweet is crazy. But then the fact that Obama didn’t talk about this is also crazy.
I have to remind people that Joe Biden, military father, he’s just loved by everyone allegedly, did even less than Obama. A lack of spine when it comes to supporting women.
AB: It’s so crazy. And I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness on this. But every time somebody says something about Joe Biden and the Violence Against Women Act like I have to remind people that Joe Biden, military father, he’s just loved by everyone allegedly, did even less than Obama. And I don’t know what to make of this. A lack of spine when it comes to supporting women.
VVG: I wish I could have had you read like the next five pages, because the whole book is fantastic. Listeners, go and get it. There’s this paragraph later on… “Of course, pick up the news any day of the year and it is hard not to think that Secretary Mattis”—and here you’re talking about former Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, a four-star General, who was in the Trump administration—“Chief of Staff John Kelly and General Joseph Dunford, a trio of Marines as hard as nails, are the only civilized beings guarding us from the President’s madness. But they are not above our scrutiny simply because their boss is madder than they ever will be. Let’s hold our standards higher than this.”
There was this rhetoric going on, the generals are going to keep us safe from Trump the lunatic. One of the things the book does is have this really even-handed way of critiquing, of noting that no one is above critique, including these generals.
At the end of last month, NPR reported that Trump wanted to get rid of protections for undocumented family members of active services. They’ve had protection against getting deported. And there’s some plans to perhaps get rid of that. And then also, some immigrants who enlisted in the military as a path to citizenship are being discharged very abruptly and finding themselves up shit creek in terms of in terms of getting citizenship. How is this going to change the military?
AB: It’s already changed the military in the sense that the folks who never wanted immigrants to join in the first place, are emboldened again. The culture of the military, obviously, for the folks who are getting kicked out it’s a nightmare. But the thing about this type of policy decision is we’re dealing with a military that is still an all-volunteer force. This kind of policymaking cannot last unless you want to draft, right? So you got volunteers, healthy, capable, capable, able-bodied volunteers. Some of them may be undocumented, some of them may be immigrants, certainly many of them, many of us are women. Many of us are queer or transgender. You can’t pick and choose when you have an all-volunteer force, or we won’t have a military. Most folks serving in the military would agree with this. So it’s a lot of arrogance, a lot of hubris coming from the White House, but I don’t think it’s sustainable.
I feel like military leaders, generally speaking, are the last line of defense in terms of white supremacists being emboldened by the by the President or the administration right now, as you have seen this uptick in Nazis organizing within the military. The swastika has been posted on the internet amongst service members—and really horrific statements left, right, and center. But military leadership is cracking down, even if the administration is not cracking down. So these guys hopefully are being booted out of the military as they are discovered. But is the president doing anything, is he responsible for that? Absolutely not. These are just decent officers doing the right thing.
VVG: I grew up in a family where our most of our relationship with the military is through the Sri Lankan military or the Indian military and thinking about what it’s like to be in a place where soldiers from another part of the same country or from a foreign country have come to your home. There’s some striking scenes in the book of servicemen interacting with civilian women around the world. And I thought that that kind of frankness was really important. Were you shocked when you saw some of what was going on? Or was it what you expected?
AB: The scale of commercial sexual exploitation and sexual trafficking and sex trafficking and in Thailand and East Asia, the scale is so enormous nothing could have prepared me for that. I was shocked. I was shell-shocked. I would even say I was traumatized, not really knowing how to respond. And it’s a rite of passage for most men in the military that I’ve served with. If guys aren’t talking about a Las Vegas attitude, they certainly know about it, if they haven’t experienced it themselves. I almost don’t have the words to describe it. I had the words to write about it, but it took many years to even feel comfortable.
There’s a lot of shame I carry as someone who could do nothing about it. It’s such an overwhelming experience to see tens of thousands of women and girls being exploited by your brothers in arms, all at once, just left, right and center. That was a legacy that I don’t think the military has even begun to reckon with. I haven’t heard an honest conversation. My hope is that it happens at some point, whether it’s in a therapy session or with a priest or best friend back home, the conversations are how about the kinds of relationships that men engage in, when they’re in uniform, because they’re very harmful relationships. And even if you aren’t engaging in sexual exploitation of local women and girls, you’re certainly part of the fabric of that world. It’s all around you. Very little is said to stop it, or to challenge it. Yeah, it makes me worry. What does that do to somebody’s psyche when they come back home, and you know, you have a wife and children and things change? We’’re all sponges, we are products of our environment, particularly when we say nothing, when we’re kind of passive observers, that also is harmful to us.
VVG: Those sections were really, really, really hard to read. And one of your responses as you left the Marine Corps was to found SWAN. And just as you described your experience in the military with this incredible frankness—I haven’t been in the military, but I have been an activist, and I thought that your descriptions of activism were also just dead on. Even when you have the best intentions, say, addressing social problems, sexual violence in the military, or sexism or misogyny, on a broader level, you can also find those problems sometimes within organizations, certain kinds of hypocrisy or personal politics getting in the way of getting things done. If you could go back and give your younger activist self—or my younger activist self—some advice, what would you say to yourself, as you were founding that organization to deal with what your feelings were about some of these problems?
AB: I had so much energy when I got out of the military, and this isn’t just an ohh, I feel old reflection. When you have that much energy and purpose and passion about wanting to fix something that’s broken—and that was me for years—you don’t realize when you’re tired. It creeps up on you, you might actually be exhausted and still going a million miles an hour. You might be really efficiently getting work done, or so you think, and in the meantime, your body’s just crashing. And it will catch up with all of us, even those of us who are really young and healthy. Burnout is so rapid. It’s so common among activists, and all of us are working on hard issues. These causes are like moving mountains. Some of them are really old problems.
Misogyny doesn’t get fixed in a day; it doesn’t get fixed in ten years either. Could I have paced myself differently? Absolutely. I ran my body into the ground for sure. There’s this myth among activists that that’s actually the noble way to do our work. If we’re exhausted, then we’re worthy. And it’s a hoax. It’s one of the ways that the powerful systems that we’re trying to change end up winning. The systems keep on exhausting us, because we don’t realize we need to nourish ourselves along the way. It’s just very hard work. So I would have told myself and younger versions of all my friends and colleagues, God, do what you love. Don’t forget to bring some joy into every day. Sleep, sleep. Eat well. See the people you love. Don’t be like, no, the work is more important than anything. It’s actually not. It’s just not. And you’re not gonna able to sustain that pace if you don’t do the things you love, see the people you love. And remember why you’re in it in the first place.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF staff.