Socialist Alternative

Casualties Long After War: Crisis In The VA

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They were forcing him to be silent. They didn’t want to hear him. They weren’t interested in anything but getting him off their minds.

– Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun

Many movies and books have been produced about the horrors of war over the years, particularly that of Vietnam. These often depict not only the gruesome savagery of the war itself but the severe physical and psychological impacts it had on those who ‘survived’ that great crime of US imperialism. It has become so pervasive that the war in Vietnam in particular cannot be mentioned in American society even by the establishment without commenting on the havoc it wrought both in Vietnam and also on a whole generation of workers and youth, their friends, families and even children and grandchildren through intergenerational trauma.

However, what the US capitalist war machine has been able to hide much more effectively is that these were not blips in history but that the consequences of their imperialist policies has resulted in war after war destroying the lives of millions sent to kill, die, and be maimed only to return to broken promises. The military adventures by US imperialism especially during the ‘War on Terror’ and its disastrous campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere continue their bloody legacy today. Not just in the millions of civilians killed in those countries or the thousands of US workers and the poor sent to die via the de facto racist, poverty draft. But also in the tens of thousands of those who ‘survive’ military service only to come back broken and abandoned by the same government who asked them to potentially sacrifice their lives and mental health for its imperialist ends.

Veteran Suicides Through The Roof

While the US government keeps records of overall veteran suicides they are not ‘generational,’ i.e. they don’t group together veterans of certain conflicts or eras. For example, the US government itself cannot officially say how many veterans of post-9/11 wars have taken their own lives, leaving it to non-governmental sources to estimate. A bloody trick of accounting to obscure the horrific impact of US imperialism’s most recent adventures.

Since 9/11, over 125,000 military veterans have committed suicide. But perhaps even more shocking is a Brown University study from 2021 that found that over 30,000 of these are veterans of post-9/11 conflicts which is four times the amount of those who have died in actual combat in those wars. In addition, a 2022 report by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association found that almost half of those serving in the US military have considered suicide since joining compared to 9% who said they considered it prior to joining. Dr. Ron Hirschberg of Harvard Med School has said that on average 20 veterans commit daily

The crisis has become so acute that earlier this year the ‘Veterans Crisis Line’ operated by the Department of Veteran Affairs (referred to hereafter as the VA) announced it was fielding a record number of veterans asking for mental health help – over 88,000 calls, texts and chats in March 2023 alone – a monthly record. In a hearing in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the Afghanistan pullout held earlier this year, retired Army Lt. Colonel Scott Mann warned that the US ‘is on the front end of  a mental-health tsunami’ among current and former soldiers.

A System Under Strain

The VA is the government department charged with supporting former members of the US armed forces after their service in the military. One thing it does is operate the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) which is the biggest healthcare system in the country, operating at over 1300 facilities including 172 VA Medical Centers. All active duty military personnel and their families receive 100% free medical care through the ‘TRICARE’ program that includes a vast array of services that even the best private health insurance plans may not include for ordinary people. In a sense it is a model for Medicare for All style free national healthcare service.

However despite its coverage for those still in the military, veterans are not given nearly the same support. Not all veterans are eligible for VA medical care and those who are are sorted into ‘priority groups’ which affect what coverage they are eligible to receive. And in 2014 a massive scandal took place where it became revealed that the VHA was massively overstretched. Despite the fact that the federal government instituted major reforms in the wake of 2014, the crisis has not been solved. The Government Accountability Office found earlier this year that ‘timely health care’ was still the number one issue facing the system.

This has now collided with the intensifying the epidemic of suicides. So much so that the VA has had to change its own rules and since January has implemented a policy of providing free medical care at any VA or private healthcare facility to any military veteran facing ‘a suicidal crisis’ regardless of whether they are qualified for VA enrollment – something that under a nationalized public healthcare system like Medicare for All would be the standard for all rather than the exception. 

At the same time, despite their supposed support for the US military, political right-wingers in particular have consistently attacked the VA as its existence and ability to operate things such as a partial publicly funded health care service, though even significantly limited and with flaws, poses a challenge to the idea of for-profit services that dominate the country. In April, just a month after the record number of contacts to the Veterans Crisis Line, House Republicans backed a bill to cut the VA budget by 22%! But it was isolated to the Republicans, some Democrats backed by big pharmaceutical interests backed the bill as well. Though that was defeated and funding preserved, it’s clear that the issue will reemerge time and again, especially around clashes on US government debt.

Both Parties Committed To Imperialist War Policies

What is even clearer is that despite disagreement on this or that issue of funding, neither major party of US capitalism plans to break with the policy of bloody imperialist wars that are the root cause of all this. The military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq a couple of years ago was not about a more ‘peaceful’ policy but to pivot resources to a future conflict with Chinese imperialism.

In fact, the US military spending increased to record levels of $877 billion in 2022, mirroring the trend of record $2.24 trillion in global military spending. The establishment has spent $46 billion in military aid to Ukraine, not in defense of the working people of Ukraine but to send a message to its imperialist rivals China and its ally Russia. 

Now it is preparing once again to intervene on behalf of the Israeli state. Economically, in addition to the annual $3.8 billion in military funding the US provides every year, Biden has now asked Congress for an additional $14 billion. Militarily, among other things, warships, carriers and additional aircraft have been dispatched, military advisors sent and the Department of Defense has told 2,000 troops to be prepared for deployment to the region.  And as with Ukraine, once again US imperialism is not intervening on the behalf of ordinary citizens of Israel or Palestine but to defend its own interests in the region versus other regional and international powers. 

Despite promises that there will be no US troop deployment in Israel-Palestine, there are tons of troops stationed throughout the region protecting profits of US capitalism who are at risk. Furthermore, it is hard to trust an establishment that crossed so many similar ‘red lines’ during the course of the Ukraine war, though it would be quite a significant escalation. And once again it will not be Congress people or those in the White House who will bear the horrific consequences of such an escalation but those working people forced to participate in the nightmare.

War Inherent In Capitalism

War is a continuation of politics by other means. Violent confrontations are inherent in a system based on competition between different sets of capitalists and imperialists on competing for profit, markets and influence. Even during the period of relative capitalist stability following the fall of Stalinism in 1991, at least ten million people have died in various wars around the world, including over 13,000 US soldiers and contractors. And when through that process, a formidable challenger to US dominance emerged in Chinese imperialism – the cooperation gave way to the era of the New Cold War with the US-China rivalry now potentially plunging workers of the world into a catastrophic new era of global warfare.

Even in these days of high-tech wars, boots on the ground will still be necessary. The ruling class will still put millions of young people at the front line of the bloody madness of the new age. That’s why the military establishment has recently begun to ring alarm bells about the shortfalls in new US military recruits. And many of those who manage to survive the carnage itself may not survive the deep mental and emotional scars from it – whether through outright suicide or a lifetime of mental and emotional strife. 

The resources exist in society to provide a high quality of living for everyone including military veterans. That’s why Socialist Alternative supports:

  • Abolish the ‘minimum duty’ requirement for VA coverage – immediately expand eligibility and full coverage to anyone that was/is in the military for any amount of time and their families.
  • For a fully-funded and expanded VA – no cuts or privatization – as a step towards a free national and universal healthcare system which includes mental health services.
  • Good jobs for all with union-rate wages and benefits with guaranteed placements for veterans who are still able to work and equivalent support for those who are not; as well as a mass recruitment and training program of healthcare workers along the same lines to adequately staff the system.
  • High quality housing for all – no to veteran homelessness.
  • Slash the military budget now – no to the global imperialist arms race, end the billions in handouts to war profiteers like private military contractors and weapons manufacturers.

However even with fully funded medical and mental health care, war is a terror without end. While the suicide and mental health crisis may be bandaged, it can never be healed. Only through an end to its source – the system of capitalism and imperialism – can war and its human destruction truly end. 

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