Tragedy of Iraq war vets: Re-enlisting in the Grand Army of the Poor

OPINION

According to a Feb. 8 Christian Science Monitor report by Alexandra Marks, “The number of homeless vets is rising, in part because of high housing costs and gaps in pay.”

A picture in the Feb. 19–25 edition of the PWW shows a homeless veteran examining a rack of used clothes. The caption notes that nationwide there are some 275,000 homeless vets. This is nearly equal to 15 standard army divisions of 18,000 soldiers each at full combat strength. As Joel Wendland reports in the same issue, the Bush-Rumsfeld orchestrated Pentagon and its congressional buddies maintain that benefits for veterans must be slashed because such benefits “hurt” national security. They want to cut $15 billion from vets benefits over a 10-year period, starting with over $900 million in 2005.

Is extreme poverty among returning Iraq war veterans evidence that a crime of major proportions has been committed by the society which sent the vets off to war, way over there?

Maybe it ought to be, but, of course, it is not criminal, because it’s not against the law to be poor in the richest country on earth. Nor has any law been violated just by the existence of homeless war veterans living on the mean streets of the American homefront. Nor has homeland security been compromised by this growing presence of veterans without shelter. Nor has our sense of outrage been stirred up, because very little has been reported about this problem “on the down low.”

The majority of returning veterans seem to comply with our social norms of stability and orderliness; they strive for success in whatever way they can. But a few vets — not most, but a growing, awful number — are not success stories. They are no longer heroes for whom we hold up bright yellow ribbons. Somehow these few complicate our pretty picture of the hometown heroes who return and fill our local newpapers with heartfelt human interest stories. These are throwaway vets whom we’d rather not hear of, for they shatter the norms of what a truly good society should value and cloud our vision of justice.

No official crime committed, so no one to accuse, try, convict and imprison for aggravated assault and battery on our collective national pride. Yet, our sense of patriotism frequently does not include the postscript of what happens to our boys, and now girls, when they return home to face economic degradation, joblessness and the resultant mental anguish. The feelings of pride dim considerably when the racial, ethnic and class status of the returning vets materializes in some ugly aspects of civilian life.

Certainly the current heads of the Pentagon cannot be solely blamed for this tragedy, nor the current commander in chief, for it has existed under past administrations as well.

But our top political leaders can be blamed, for they have the resources to help fix the problem. If $500 billion-plus can be projected in Bush administration military budget outlays, surely someone can find a few extra bucks to help our one-time heroes. But our leaders won’t do it. They hardly ever do.

When the politicians have responded to vet homelessness, it’s often been with dehumanization and warehousing in mind.

For instance, huge homeless shelters of 800–900 men are not uncommon in New York City. Some of those shelters are set aside for veterans only. Many of the shelters are located in the city’s abandoned National Guard armories in dreary places in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The city has hired private security outfits to patrol these armories on 24/7 basis. Some actually look like prisoner of war camps for the homeless vets! Next time you’re in the Big Apple, visit an armory. You’ll learn a lot about what our society actually thinks of some of its once heroic veterans.

On the other hand, we the people must take part of the blame. Unlike veterans of the ugly war in Southeast Asia a generation ago, we have learned again to really love and celebrate our Iraq war veterans and praise them for their valor and sacrifices. But then in schizoid fashion, we turn our backs while some of them are forced to re-enlist in the Grand Army of the Poor — that growing army of the unemployed, the insane, those sick vets with strange diseases picked up in war that the veterans hospitals claim are unrelated to war, and of course, the hungry, the cold and the homeless. Some don’t even have “three hots (meals) and a cot” to sleep on. Instead of barracks cleanup, they have garbage can raids. They make the rounds of faith-based soup kitchens, where they hear worn-out sermons from well-meaning religionists who know lots about heaven, but very little about how the U.S. “market-oriented” system works to produce and warehouse the poor as it enshrines the avarice and wealth of the few.

It all comes down to an unpatriotic scenario of pain and insult for our once brave young men and women. Iraq war veterans sneaking around outside cafes, lurking in bleak alleys, transit stations, all-night spots and byways, waiting for a space in a shelter that’s already full. The jails become a place of warmth and fellowship where a vet goes for limited, incarcerated joys. Crime gets the veteran jail time away from the streets. Crime brings vets shelter behind bars. Crime becomes a way to get back home to a place of rest, on lockdown. Jail guards now guard some of our once heroic ex-guardians who fought our battles. Keys thrown away — just another crazy, criminalized veteran produced by just another crazy, imperialist war, way over there.



Dr. A.S. Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad served in the U.S. Air Force, 1961-1969. He is adjunct professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, and co-chair of the Philadelphia Area Black Radical Congress.