How does an anti-war liberal deal with a partner in the military?
April 11, 2016 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Partner on military deployment overseas. What do I do about my feelings on war?

I've always been very left-leaning and peaceloving, and then found myself with a boyfriend who's in the military (and I'm very much in love with him and proud of who he is). I've been successful in holding the two conflicting parts of me separate and balanced, without compromising either of them.

He's on his first overseas deployment now and I'm concerned about how to deal when he returns home in a few months. I've heard stories of how people are changed after what they've seen and done out there in the field. Thankfully he isn't in any personal physical danger, so I'm not worried about that level of PTSD that news reports talk of. But he's likely to witness a lot of bad stuff out there, and maybe even cause those events leading to "collateral damage". I don't know if anything like that has happened, and there's still a fair bit of time before he comes home, so these questions may be a bit premature. But here goes:

1. How can I best support him emotionally through any feelings of guilt, sorrow, etc when he comes home?

2. Can I even bring up my opposition to war and executive power, the military-industrial complex, the drone strikes, the very idea of a having a non-zero minimum acceptable level of collateral damage? Whether as an intellectual debate or as a passing remark? If not immediately, then how long before such subjects can be introduced into conversation? I've been refraining from doing so, preferring to give him wholehearted support while he does his job out there. But when he comes home, I expect that he'll want to talk about some of his experiences..and do I just keep quiet? Will he see my pacifist arguments as a personal judgment and attack?

3. Are there blogs, forums, articles about/by people like me and how they deal with this? Everything I've come across is very black and white - either really anti-war/anti-government or support-our-troops rah rah patriotism. Surely there are people who've had to juggle both sides?

(Yes there are official military channels for families to seek guidance. But I do not think it would be appropriate to raise such questions and come across as less than fully supportive of the cause when I am dealing with my partner's employer.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My Dad was a DoD family counselor. You should DEFINITELY talk to someone who has been trained to deal with SO/Family of those who are currently deployed and who will be returning home.

Don't assume that everyone in the military is pro-war. They aren't.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:02 PM on April 11, 2016 [12 favorites]

I run in peace activist circles and some of the others I know come from military families. There is a certain way they distinguish judging policies that lead to violence vs being fully supportive and respectful of the person involved. So you may not be as alone as it feels.

Absolutely talk about it - and perhaps you can approach it from a "how do I best support my partner" perspective. By venting out, you're less likely to build up resentment to stay silent.

In terms of bringing up your objections - I would recommend learning about what your partner actually experienced vs what you read in the paper or hear other peace activists discuss. You'll enrich your perspective by being open to your partner. But it will also help you to personalize the situation rather than just engage in an intellectual debate, which should minimize a discussion feeling like an attack.

The fact is, your partner being in the military is a part of who they are and in part why you love them. Identifying how this path made them who they are can help you approach this with curiosity and kindness, rather than on the opposite side (which is what you fear if I'm reading the question correctly).
posted by A hidden well at 3:33 PM on April 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think being left-leaning/peace-loving/anti-war and being supportive of an individual in the military are far from conflicting attitudes. You don't have to keep two sides of yourself separate and balanced; you're supportive of him because you hate war.
posted by ejs at 4:13 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was a peacenik in my teens. I married a guy who made a career in the army.

Most soldiers do not want to go to war. To my genuine surprise, many are resligious and attend church regularly. People who join the military do so for various reasons. An active desire to see live war is usually not amongst them.

I have heard an activist talk about the importance of being against certain government actions but taking the position that you never, ever attack the soldiers for it.

Over time, I studied the history. I became a big believer that "A man of peace must be prepared for war." The Shaolin priests that studied and practiced kung fury were pacifists. They were also great warriors.

If you look at American history, we routinely downsize our military and then end up having to ramp up when war occurs. I think this is not mere coincidence. There is some evidednce that having a standing army is a good deterrent to war.

If you think removing our military forces would make the US and the world a better place, think again. The most likely outcome would be that we would be invaded and overthrown by something worse than what we have currently.

The military also does a lot of non war things, like disaster relief.

I remain something of an anti war hippie peacenik. But I am a pro military hippie these days. It makes other people cross eyed, but I am quite at ease with this seeming contradiction.

When he comes back, just be supportive. Deal with your inner conflict some other way. War is terrible. He doesn't need a loved one judging him for it on top of it. If you can't do that, don't stay with a soldier. Serving their country really costs them something. That needs to be honored in a very respectful and idealistic fashion.

To me, that is the only logical thing to do if you really believe we should make love, not war.
posted by Michele in California at 5:50 PM on April 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

I was a DoD contractor on a military base during 9/11 through the beginnings of the Iraq war, with a lot of friends who were active duty. A great many military families had bumper stickers that said "Support the Troops by Bringing Them Home." You're definitely not alone.

Supporting the human who has been through deployment, whatever that means, does not mean that you support war or any of the efforts surrounding it.

However, if he comes back and needs support, maybe it's not the best time to bring up #2. If he needs support, then it's time for him to talk through whatever he's going through and you to help him work through things. If his views and yours no longer line up, then maybe it's time for a different discussion if and when that happens. If he does feel regretful and awful, though, telling someone who's just returned from deployment that you firmly believe that everything he just did was awful and in support of awful shit... Well, that may be less than productive or helpful.
posted by erst at 7:35 PM on April 11, 2016

James Fallows has been doing some great pieces in The Atlantic over the past year on what he calls "Chickenhawk Nation", the problem of how poorly we use our volunteer armed forces, how the general public has difficulty relating to them and made more ill-advised military adventurism possible. Well worth a read.
posted by sapere aude at 7:52 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am you (so I wrote you this novel of a post). Well, I was you 6 years ago, when we were living in sin and Mr. Motion left for his N-1th deployment. Since then, we have gotten married (yay DEERS card!) and he has gone on, and returned from, his Nth. Most of his friends, who have become our mutual friends, are military members. And I am not even a citizen of the country that we live in (that Mr. Motion is a member of the military of)!

I can assure you that there is a very wide platform to stand on which consists of the not-mutually-exclusive feelings of being anti-war, and also supporting the troops. I invite you to stand on it with me.

The biggest thing to remember is that your boyfriend is not involved in making any of the decisions that you disagree with (at least the ones that could really make a difference). It's true, he did volunteer for service, but beyond that he is executing the mission as given to him. And while you can choose to read that statement as "just following orders" BS, my experience with military folks is that, individually, they want nothing more than to be a force for good in the world. Yes, there are Charles Graners and Lynndie Englands out there but they are really not the norm, and I assume you would know if you were dating one of those. And yeah, you guys might disagree on what exactly it means to be "a force for good," and if your relationship is healthy, you can continue to hold differing beliefs while still wanting the best for each other, personally.

I suggest that you reach out to whatever version of a Family Readiness Group is appropriate for your BF's unit. I understand your concerns about coming across as less than fully supportive of your boyfriend's employer, but one of the services that they can provide is pointing you to a counselor that you can talk to on a confidential basis. The rear-detachment chaplains are also equipped to deal with people who are questioning the "why" of it all, in a non-denominational way. To be fair though, I found that the services available to a spouse on deployment N were much more robust than those available to a girlfriend on N-1. Part of that might be the passage of time (these wars have gone on long enough that the military has realized the importance of keeping things healthy on the homefront), part of it I'm sure is the family status. But you won't know until you ask.

As to your questions:

1. How can I best support him emotionally through any feelings of guilt, sorrow, etc when he comes home?
Just support him. Most of the advice that you'll find on the rah-rah-america-fuck-yeah army-wife (and it is almost always, army wives) blogs will be applicable here. Remember that he signed up to do what was right, and he's going to spend the deployment trying to do what's right. Be available for him to talk, be respectful of the stuff he isn't ready to talk about yet. And, you talk about supporting him when he gets home but don't forget that now is a great time to be reminding him that he is loved. Try to use whatever communication mechanisms that are available to reach out at least once a month or every couple of weeks -- even if it's a situation where he might not get the communication immediately, or might not be able to respond. I've heard anecdotally from navy sub types that finding a bunch of emails from their SOs when the boat surfaces and has comms again is a huge pick me up.

2. Can I even bring up my opposition to war and executive power, the military-industrial complex, the drone strikes, the very idea of a having a non-zero minimum acceptable level of collateral damage? ...

My first question is: what's the point? As I discussed above, generally speaking, your boyfriend isn't in charge of that kind of thing, so will swaying his opinion do much?

But, if you really do want to talk about things along the line of "your mission is broken," consider couching it in terms that bring it down to his actual experience. Everyone I know in the military is happy to talk about (at least with friends) the ways in which the chain of command is stupid/bonkers. Often it's petty stuff like Major-so-and-so made us dig a ridiculous number of latrines. Sometimes, it gets bigger like the amount that contractor's get paid. It can even reach the scope of the stupidity of the F-35 program. Pretty much every military person I know thinks that Donald Rumsfeld was a fuck-up (if not actively evil). But they wouldn't be willing to have these conversations with me if they thought that I thought that they were baby-killers, you know?

But when he comes home, I expect that he'll want to talk about some of his experiences..and do I just keep quiet? Will he see my pacifist arguments as a personal judgment and attack?
Again, if he wants to talk about his experiences, why would you need to make pacifist arguments? If the military life is not good for him, then arguing that he should quit when possible might be reasonable. But saying "war is immoral" when he just wants to talk about how scared he was when he was on a convoy just doesn't seem like the right place and time.

3. Are there blogs, forums, articles about/by people like me and how they deal with this? Everything I've come across is very black and white - either really anti-war/anti-government or support-our-troops rah rah patriotism. Surely there are people who've had to juggle both sides?

I've got nothing for you here, besides what I've written. I think it's at least partly because folks in our position realize how unbelievably individualized this stuff is. There's also an extent to which a lot of military SOs/spouses tend to buy into that as a major part of their identity, and don't want to be seen, in public, questioning.

Finally, deployments suck. A piece of your heart is far away, possibly in danger, and they can't necessarily even tell you about what is going on on a daily basis. Some of what they do tell you, you need to keep secret for their safety and others. If you co-habitate, you need to run a household on your own. Depending on the arrangements that you and your SO have, you'll probably be starved for intimacy and sexual satisfaction. It's stressful. I can share stories with you (or be available for venting) anytime if you memail me.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:30 PM on April 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Some excellent advice above - the activist (in Michele's post) is bang on.

FWIW, you may want to think of it as any other profession that he works in - a profession that primarily is responsible for protecting the nation and innocents from being harmed. If someone we elected decides to use them for a different reason, then the judgement should be on the decision maker and not on those who are serving the lawfully elected government.

I may believe that big industry, especially the financial-oil-armaments industry, is responsible for the global chaos we are in, but that does not mean I will take issue with anyone who works for one of them.
posted by theobserver at 11:31 PM on April 11, 2016

Well, to start with - please stop thinking of yourself as a "leftist." Che Guevera has been built up as a martyered leftist, and he was all for bombing the US with nukes! So, not what you think it means and an artificial label others made up, at any rate.

You are against war and violence? GREAT. Welcome to the cause! We need you!

Hey - do you want to know the one of the nicest things that happened to me recently? A veteran was asking for donations in a park on Veteran's Day and approached me. I was flummoxed for a moment because I realized I was (a) ready to publicly declare myself, and (b) realized my usual "No Thank You" to anyone soliciting finally wouldn't be adequate in this exchange.... So I said, "I'm sorry. I can't. I'm a pacifist." It was so fucking hard to say. He seemed to understand I wish wish wish he, and everyone else, never had to kill others. He said, "I understand" as he touched my arm and gave me the American flag decal he was selling anyway. So I drove around with that in my car for a few weeks until it disappeared from the dash at some point.

There's no such thing as a "necessary" war - just a large large number of people from different cultures and countries who have been conned into thinking we can't talk it out or agree to disagree without killing each other.

Nope. You probably can not mention this to your partner now or in the next few years. Yes. You should hold a place in your heart where you fervently believe we don't have to commit violence against each other and then put that into practice every single day. Maybe start with curbing your road rage or annoyance at others in the check out line at the store? But just start doing that face-to-face everyday in your own life. Keep your own counsel. Just be nice. See where it goes...

You might take up a practice like mindfulness or other types of meditation. Something to assist you show patience when you interact with your partner.

Thank you for asking this question. I think everyone comes to this result in their own time. I'm pretty sure once you decide violence and killing are not answers to conflict, you kinda have to put it into practice on the very small scale in your personal life and work outwards from there. It's not what you say, it's what you do in every moment. Then maybe it makes a difference.

You love your partner. That's an every moment type of practice you already have, so strengthen that. Your partner is responsible for him or herself. Just be kind. If they don't ask, don't offer your opinion. If they ask, couch your feelings kindly.

Practice kindness. Non-judgement. See if that helps you and your partner.
posted by jbenben at 1:21 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you are not yet hooked up with his unit's Family Support Group, get hooked up. You do not have to be married to him to participate. I attended the wedding in one case and already knew the gf from support meetings.
posted by Michele in California at 12:08 PM on April 12, 2016

This essay by Simone Gorrindo was very helpful for me in knowing it's a normal experience for many, even for the ones actually serving.

"Could I marry a soldier? Could I support him as he fought in a war that could turn out to be one of uncertain reasons and certain blood? Could I reconcile that man with the man who is the love of my life, the tenderest man I know, the kind of man who makes me want to be a better human being? Could I forgive him if he were killed? Could I forgive myself?"
posted by hellopanda at 11:05 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

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