On April 7th 2009, the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Intelligence and Analysis (DHS/I&A) released an assessment to all state and local law enforcement agencies wherein they made a number of inflammatory, baseless remarks about threats returning veterans may pose to the peace and security of the country, and were even so bold as to link them to rightwing extremist groups within US borders. These false accusations have commanded modest media attention, but quickly mobilized veteran groups like the American Legion, VFW, and IAVA. Each is saying the same thing: “this is a false claim, odious, and extremely detrimental to the cause of veteran advocacy and reintegration.” I couldn’t agree more.
Though my mention of this a full nine days after it was first issued from its source, and three days after it first appeared in the media will appear terribly belated, I have been unimpressed with the articles covering it, personally insulted by the insinuations of the original report, and still feel compelled to contribute my thoughts on the subject.
For those unfamiliar with the precise statements, of the report itself, a .pdf version of the original document can be read by clicking here. In a nutshell, the report advises law enforcement agencies to remain vigilant and alert for veterans because, ”…the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.” And, at seven other places in this 10-page document, returning veterans are directly mentioned as posing a potential threat to the peace and safety of the United States.
Since this report was leaked to the media (and it was NOT meant to be, since it was categorized as Unclassified/For Official Use Only), DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has been appearing repeatedly on various networks to not only stand by the report’s assertions, but contradictorily claim that the report was not meant "to suggest that veterans as a whole are at risk of becoming violent extremists." Yet this DHS/I&A document has already directly implied just that.
The next mention of veterans in this report boldly claims, “[r]eturning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists. DHS/I&A is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.” Should this be interpreted to state that having a skill makes one inherently more likely to use it? On the contrary, in conjunction to combat skills, servicemembers are also completely familiarized with and trained to act under orders, with the sanction of higher military (and ultimately civilian) authority, and to always conduct themselves in total compliance with the articles of the Geneva conventions, the current Rules of Engagement, and all applicable Escalation of Force doctrines. We aren’t ruthless fighters; we’re skilled, merciful surgeons.
An allegation that veterans are somehow more vulnerable to recruitment by rightwing extremists is not supported by any solid evidence, and the act of a single man (Timothy McVeigh) in no way indicates the sentiment of the rest of us. “The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist, groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from, the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.” Can this be verified? Can any evidence be offered to support these remarks about post-Desert Storm troops? The actions of a single man, though inarguably tragic, do not reflect the sentiment of well over one million Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans.
Again, does our combat skill (always learned in close conjunction with the laws and proper conduct of combat operations) somehow leave us more inclined to use such skills against the very country we took an OATH to protect? Veterans, as a whole, fought to PRESERVE free speech, not harm those with differing opinions. I challenge any legitimate research group to produce verifiable evidence that veterans suffering from the psychological effects of war are somehow more predisposed to “turn” on their own country. I would submit confidently that no such data exists.
Veterans, as a group, are not intellectually, philosophically, or morally vulnerable. If we were, our presence would be contributing to higher crime rates. Yet studies have roundly rejected the assertion that veterans are more inclined to violent crimes than civilian groups in the United States. A few propose that the rates for violent crimes (homicides) are actually LOWER than civilian figures (suggests John Hinderaker of www.powerlineblog.com). Veterans have, like every other group, their fair share of fools, criminals and troubled. But the rates are no higher than those of their civilian counterparts. To suggest we constitute a greater contribution to crime rates than another group is blatantly false.
This report also ignorantly cites that “a prominent civil rights organization reported in 2006 that ‘large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.’” This claim, however, fails to give the source of the aforementioned information, fails to provide specifics about numbers, and also directly conflicts with other “prominent civil rights organizations” claims that the military unduly attracts a disproportionate number of minority recruits. So who are these white supremacists? The Hispanic infantrymen?
“These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists—including lone wolves or small terrorist cells—to carry out violence.” Well, this is actually entirely correct. But does potential in any way imply willingness? Is a star batter with a baseball team more likely to use that bat to beat his opponents on or off the field? Is he now a threat? The assertion, again, is that veterans are a morally vulnerable group. I find it as unfounded as saying that a dog with big teeth must be more dangerous than a dog with smaller ones. It completely ignores the disposition of the animal, upbringing, personality, and characteristics of the breed. At any rate, troops are never trained to kill; they are trained to fight, to conduct combat operations, and that always in accordance with their orders. There is no arbitrary killing at all. That requires NO training. Just ask a criminal.
Some of the less overt suggestions contained within this report are that veterans, collectively, are threats to be monitored, and therefore a societal burden. While this claim is being fought tooth and nail by a number of veteran organizations, the seeds of doubt have already now been sown with law enforcement AND the public: we should be wary of our veterans, watch them carefully, and be hypersensitive to their behavior. As a veteran who has struggled with the reintegration process/feeling of being welcomed, and as a writer who frequently addresses the public’s reception of returning veterans, I find this a poisonous, counterproductive allegation to my own struggles to return to civilian society and help secure a smooth transition for others. Veterans have been unfairly lime lighted. Incidentally, the precise individual source of this missive remains unknown. The DHS has yet to reveal just who it is within their ranks equates veterans with a threat to domestic peace.
As a whole, this report serves to diminish the citizenry’s indebtedness to veterans, subscribes to fearmongering, invites skepticism, and effectively arrests our reintegration into society. It wastes the resources and time of law enforcement agencies that would be better served pursuing criminals, and instead paints veterans as suspect simply because they served their country. Just like the recent entertaining of a proposal for third part billing with the VA (see “A Matter of Import”), millions of veterans read this as a direct move by the leadership of this nation to abandon and betray us.
Veterans always anticipate some degree of skepticism and abuse from the public. They don’t understand, they’ve listened to the biased media source of their choosing, and frequently mistake veterans for the politicians making the policy decisions on how a war is prosecuted (see “We Needn’t a Parade”). Somewhat begrudgingly, these misplaced jabs are accepted. These people are exercising their right to free speech. We fought for that. But for the government of this nation to agree to and even PURVEY such misinformation is unbelievably wrong. In fact, it conveys a powerful message to us:
“We recruited you, you took an oath to us and this country, you served honorably, lost much, lost friends, and gained a lifetime of nightmares. We welcomed you home halfheartedly, made efforts to distance ourselves from our national responsibility to you, impeded your reintegration and recovery processes, confirmed the poisonous suspicion that you are forever different, failed to resolutely state that you have done well, implied your moral ambiguity despite your rigorous adherence to an honorable creed and your fellow countrymen, and now we believe you pose a threat to our national security.”
Thank you, United States Federal Government, for the warm welcome home.
*Since this writing, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has offered a remarkably unimpressive apology for offense taken to the claims made in the aforementioned report. In an on-air interview with Fox News, she stated, "To the extent veterans read it as an accusation ... an apology is owed… This was an assessment, not an accusation," Napolitano insists that the internal report was, "limited to extremists those who seek to commit violence within the United States. And all this was meant to do was to give law enforcement what we call 'situational awareness.'… The last thing I want to do is offend or castigate all veterans. To the contrary, let's meet and clear the air…”
The air, as far as I’m concerned, is hardly clear.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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