One of the most welcome differences between the post-Vietnam and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan eras is that veterans are not being vilified for serving in an unpopular war. Even anti-war activists have generally drawn a distinction between opposing the war and attacking those who served—although that line got blurry at times, as when Moveon.org, for example, ran a full-page newspaper ad in 2007 slandering General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”
Now that both wars are ending—or, to be more accurate, now that American involvement is ending—there is, however, a disturbing tendency to paint veterans as mentally deranged ticking time bombs. That tendency grows when veterans commit horrifying acts of violence—as, for example, when Specialist Ivan Lopez, killed three people at Fort Hood on April 2. Lopez, it seems, briefly served in Iraq but saw no combat, yet there was the usual leap to judgment among those who decided that his murderous rampage must have been caused by battlefield trauma.
Now we are hearing something similar about Frazier Glenn Miller, the neo-Nazi nut who shot and killed three people outside a Jewish community center in Kansas. Miller, you see, served in the army in Vietnam—therefore his military service must be directly related to his violent and extremist acts more than 40 years later. It may not make much sense to you or me, but it seems to be a compelling case to Kathleen Belew, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern, who has used Miller’s shooting as a peg to publish an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that veterans are behind the white supremacist movement.
Here is Belew’s shoddy logic. Step A: “Vietnam veterans forged the first links between Klansmen and Nazis since World War II. They were central in leading Klan and neo-Nazi groups past the anti-civil rights backlash of the 1960s and toward paramilitary violence.” Step B: “It would be irresponsible to overlook the high rates of combat trauma among the 2.4 million Americans who have served in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the full impact of which has not yet materialized.” Implication: Many Iraq and Afghanistan vets are about to become violent white supremacists.
This doesn’t add up, to put it mildly, as even Belew (or her editors) seem to recognize because they put so many qualifiers into her argument. For example, she admits that “the number of Vietnam veterans in that [white supremacist] movement was small — a tiny proportion of those who served.” She also adds: “A vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill. When they turn violent, they often harm themselves, by committing suicide.” But those qualifiers easily get loss amid the gist of the article, which clearly implies that the U.S. armed forces are a breeding ground for violent extremists.
The reality, of course, is that, while there are bound to be a few mentally unstable individuals in any group as large and varied as the armed forces, by and large veterans are more law-abiding, more successful, and better-adjusted than the population at large. To suggest some correlation between military service and membership in extremist groups, based on a tiny percentage of outliers, is a gross calumny on the millions of Americans who have served their country honorably and have adjusted to make a useful contribution in civilian life too.