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America Goes To War: A Military Spouse On The Capitol Riot

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

"Are you okay?" asked a friend and military spouse in the voicemail she left me on the afternoon the mob of Trump supporters breached the Capitol so violently. At home with a new baby, her Navy reservist husband stationed in Germany, the thoughts running through her head that day would prove remarkably similar to mine. As she said when we spoke, "It's as if the U.S. has become a war zone."

Do a Google search and you'll find very little suggesting that the January 6th attack on the Capitol in any way resembled a war. A notable exception: a Washington Post op-ed by former Missouri secretary of state and Afghanistan combat veteran Jason Kander. He saw that day's violence for the combat it was and urged congressional representatives and others who bore the brunt of those "armed insurrectionists" to seek help (as, to his regret, he hadn't done after his tours of duty in combat zones).

Now, take a look back at that "riot" and tell me how it differs from a military attack: President Trump asked his supporters to "fight like hell" or "you're not going to have a country anymore." He swore he would go with them, though he didn't, of course, just as those who launched and continued our "forever wars" of the last almost 20 years sent Americans to fight abroad without ever doing so themselves. Trump's small army destroyed property with their metal baseball bats and other implements of aggression, in one case even planted pipe bombs near Republican and Democratic party headquarters (that didn't go off), and looted congressional chambers, including carrying away House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's lectern.

The rioters used intimidation against those in the Capitol. Some screamed insults like "traitor" and the n-word (reserved, of course, for the black police officers protecting Congress). One rioter wore a sweatshirt emblazed with the words "Camp Auschwitz," a reference to the Nazi death camp. Make no mistake: the America these rioters envisioned was one full of hate and disdain for difference.

In their disregard for pandemic safety protocols, they employed the equivalent of biological warfare against lawmakers and the Capitol police, breaking into the building, screaming and largely unmasked during a pandemic, forcing lawmakers to jam into enclosed spaces to save (but also endanger) their own lives. The rioters smeared blood on walls and on the busts of former presidents. Their purpose was clear: to overturn democratic processes by brute force in the name of what they saw as an existential threat to their country, the certification of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president.

Among those aggressors were veterans and some active-duty personnel from elite U.S. combat forces (as well as from police departments) who brought years of expertise to bear on orchestrating an attempted takeover of our government, based — much like the costliest of our still-ongoing wars, the one in Iraq — on lies told by their commander in chief ("Stop the steal!").

My Own Personal War

To fight wars, you need to summon a mix of rage, adrenaline, and disregard for the humanity of those whose project you seek to annihilate. That seemed evident in the mob of the supposedly pro-law-and-order president that attacked Congress, their acts leading to five deaths – including that of Capitol Hill police officer Brian Sicknick, a former New Jersey Air National Guard member. More than 140 police officers who tried to protect lawmakers sustained injuries: Some, who were not given helmets prior to that day, are now living with brain injuries (which, as a therapist, I can assure are likely to come with debilitating lifelong implications). Another officer has two cracked ribs and smashed spinal disks. Yet another was stabbed by a rioter with a metal fence stake. Still another lost his eye.

These deaths and injuries will have ripple effects for the spouses, children, friends, employers, and others in the communities where those officers live. And they do not include the countless invisible injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) that result from such war-like scenarios. In this respect, the cost of armed violence to human life is incalculable.

While that attack on the Capitol was underway, at the tiny community mental health clinic where I work as a therapist, I was speaking to clients who had migrated here from countries plagued by armed conflict. I listened to concerns that the far-right nationalist attack on the Capitol would, sooner or later, inspire violence against their own families. After all, those storming the Capitol backed a president who had referred to immigrants as "animals" and whose administration had put the children of undocumented migrants in cages – or sub-prison like conditions with zero-provision for their care. In the days after the attack, an acquaintance of mine, an African American man, was indeed pursued by a carful of people wearing Trump hats and shouting racial slurs. (They slowed their vehicle and followed him down the road towards his Maryland apartment.)

The day of the riots, I arrived home from my job to find my husband, a Naval officer, in front of the television news, tears in his eyes and sweat dripping down his face. My children, unprepared for bed (as they should have been), were staring at him in confusion. That night, he and I bolted awake at every sound, as we had in the weeks after Trump was first elected.

Of course, given our incomes and our home in the countryside outside Washington, D.C., we were about as far from danger as one could imagine. Still, our sense of distress was acute. After the riot was over, my husband, gritting his teeth, wondered: "Why aren't the Capitol floors covered in rioters in zip ties right now?" We noted that, if there had been Black Lives Matter slogans and black fists on the flags and banners those rioters were carrying, the National Guard would have arrived quickly.

As time wore on, my husband and I attempted to comfort each another and explain those televised scenes of violence to our two children, four and five, who had been stunned both by glimpses of what grownups could do and by how visibly upset their father had become. And we weren't alone. I soon found myself scrolling through texts and voicemails from other military spouses with similar fears who wanted to know if my husband and I were okay and if the violence in the Capitol had made it anywhere near our home.

In our minds, fearful scenarios were playing out about what January 6th might mean for military families like ours — and little wonder, since in those tense two weeks before Joe Biden's inauguration, the military still answered to a commander in chief who had visibly incited the possible takeover of our government. What would the military members of our families be asked to do in the days to come, we wondered, and by whom? What would have happened if those rioters had actually succeeded in hanging Mike Pence or slaughtering other members of Congress?

Preparing For War

In truth, in Donald Trump's America, my spouse and I had been conjuring up scenarios of violence for months. We had found ourselves obsessed with the fears of rising political violence in what, during wartime, used to be known as the home front in the country with the most heavily armed civilian population on Earth. (I had even written about that very subject in those very months.) No wonder then that, before November 3rd, I was so focused not just on dispelling Trumpian disinformation about the election to come, but on helping voters locate their polling stations and finding transportation to them.

As it happens, my husband's jobs in recent years have often involved anticipating war and what our military would do if Americans ever faced it on our own soil. He's served as an officer on a battleship and three nuclear and ballistic-missile armed submarines. He's had to collect intelligence under the leadership of presidents with very different levels of impulse control. Most recently, he's worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff thinking through scenarios in which the United States might be engaged in nuclear war — and what the costs might be.

Together, we have been amazed at how few Americans, other than our fellow military families, have been preoccupied with the violence beginning to unfold on our nation's streets and the way, in some strange fashion, America's distant, never-ending wars of these last nearly 20 years were threatening to come home.

One lesson of these years, in an America with an "all-volunteer" military, is that wars essentially don't exist unless you're directly or indirectly involved in fighting them. At no time did that seem more evident to me than on January 6th, in the divergent responses of my own family and those we know who aren't in the military. If you're interested (as I am as a co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project) in how, during these years, voters and their representatives have justified (or simply ignored) the decision to "solve" our global problems with unending war, then you might frame what happened on January 6th in these terms: some 74 million Americans voted for a president who portrayed those who disagreed with him as existential threats to America.

In the meantime, for almost two decades our government has invested staggering, almost unimaginable sums in this country's military machine (and the war-making industries linked to it), while diverting funds from key social services, ranging from healthcare to domestic job creation. Meanwhile, it has consistently "retired" military-grade weaponry from our war zones into the hands of police departments across the country and so onto our city streets. I mean, given such a formula, what could possibly go wrong? Why would anyone connected to the military be worried?

Of course, why wouldn't we worry, since we — or our loved ones — are the people who are ordered to participate when wars of any kind happen?

The Isolation Of Military Service

There are about two million Americans who serve in the U.S. military and 2.6 million more who are military spouses and dependents. Altogether that's just a little more than 1% of our entire population. We are, believe me, in another world of fears and worries than the rest of you. We've been involved, directly or indirectly, in fighting those godforsaken wars launched after 9/11 for almost two decades now. You haven't. You've generally thanked us religiously for our "service" and otherwise forgotten about those wars and gone about your business. We haven't. Our sense of the world, our fears, are different than yours.

We military spouses are charged with comforting and caring for those who serve, especially (but not exclusively) when they are sent to one of the many countries where that never-ending "war on terror" continues to be fought into the Biden years. Caring for those who serve is no small task in a country where the very act of trying to get mental-health care could be a career-ending move for a soldier. Families are often their only recourse.

Military spouses also care for children in mourning, temporarily or in some cases permanently, over the loss of a parent. In an anemic military healthcare system, we are often left to marshal the necessary care for ourselves and our children, even as many of us struggle with depression, anxiety, and trauma thanks to the multiple, often unpredictable deployments of those very loved ones and being left alone to imagine what they're going through. According to a recent op-ed by my colleague and military spouse Aleha Landry, approximately 25% of us are unemployed in this Covid-19 moment. On average, we also earn 27% less than our counterparts in the civilian world, not least of all because the burden of childcare and frequent redeployments prevent us from moving up in our chosen fields of work.

In this pandemic-stricken, distinctly over-armed world of ours, in which nationalist militia groups (often with veterans among them) backing the former president continue to talk about war right here in what, after 9/11, we came to call "the homeland," it's not surprising how increasingly anxious people like me have come to feel. Personally, what January 6th brought home was this: as a military spouse, I was living in a community that didn't know my family, while my husband, in his own personal hell of hypothetical nuclear wars, could be called upon at any time to represent a president who had incited an assault on the Capitol, leaving my children and me alone. And that, believe me, was scary.

I was struck, for instance, that a military spouse I became friends with and who occupied a very different part of the political spectrum from me nonetheless feared that, in the event of conflict, she would be vulnerable — and it wasn't just foreign conflicts that she was worrying about after Trump was elected. At one point, her husband had told her, "If you see a flash in the sky, then take the kids and drive in this direction," indicating a spot on the map where he felt, based on wind patterns, nuclear fallout was less likely to blow. After the Charlottesville Unite the Right riot of 2017, she stocked up on food, water, and extra gas so she could head for Canada if armed conflict broke out among Americans. "We'd be alone," she told me, "because obviously, he'd be gone."

Stopping Our Endless Wars

These, then, are the sorts of fears that arise in my militarized world on this careening planet of ours. Yes, Joe Biden is now president, but this country is still on edge. And the military that's been fighting those hopeless, bloody wars in distant lands for so long is on edge, too. After all, military personnel were present in significant numbers in that mob on January 6th. Almost one in five members of Trump's invading crew were reportedly veterans or active military personnel.

Sometimes, the people I feel closest to (when I do my work for the Costs of War Project) are the women who must mother and maintain households in the places my country has had such a hand in turning into constant war zones. Right now, there exist millions of people living in just such places where the anticipation of air raids, drone attacks, suicide bombings, snipers, or sophisticated roadside IEDs is a daily reality. Already, over 335,000 civilians (and counting) have been killed in those foreign war zones of ours. Mothers and their children in such lands are often cut off from hospitals, reliable food, clean water, or the infrastructure that would help them get to school, work, or the doctor. Unlike most Americans, they don't have the luxury of forgetting about war. Their spouses and children are in constant danger.

Democrat or Republican, the presidents of the past 20 years are responsible for the violence that continues in those war zones and for the (not unrelated) violence that has begun to unfold at home — and even, thank you very much, for my own family's fears and fantasies about war, up close and personal. It's about time that all of us in this disturbed country of ours at least bear witness to what such violence means for those living it and start thinking about what the United States should do to stop it. It can't just be the most vulnerable and directly involved among us who lose sleep — not to speak of lives, limbs, mental stability, and livelihoods — due to the cloistered decisions of our public leaders.

Believe this at least: if we can't stop fighting those wars across significant parts of the planet, this country won't remain immune to them either. It hasn't, in fact. It's just that so many of us have yet to fully take that in.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University's Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Civil War? A Military Spouse Wonders — And Worries

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

When it rains, pieces of glass, pottery, and metal rise through the mud in the hills surrounding my Maryland home. The other day, I walked outside barefoot to fetch one of my kid's shoes and a pottery shard stabbed me in the heel. Nursing a minor infection, I wondered how long that fragment dated back.

A neighbor of mine found what he said looked like a cartridge case from an old percussion-cap rifle in his pumpkin patch. He told us that the battle of Monocacy had been fought on these grounds in July 1864, with 1,300 Union and 900 Confederate troops killed or wounded here. The stuff that surfaces in my fields when it storms may or may not be battle artifacts, but it does remind me that the past lingers and that modern America was formed in a civil war.

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What War Costs Me As A Military Spouse

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

There is some incongruity between my role as an editor of a book about the costs of America’s wars and my identity as a military spouse. I’m deeply disturbed at the scale of human suffering caused by those conflicts and yet I’ve unintentionally contributed to the war effort through the life I’ve chosen.

I am the co-editor with Catherine Lutz of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new volume of social science research from Brown University’s Costs of War Project. At the same time, I am a practicing therapist-in-training and I specialize in working with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Through the scholarly research I review and the veteran clients I have seen, I am committed professionally to bearing witness to the human costs of America’s forever wars, and to alleviating suffering where I can.

I am also married to a submarine officer in the Navy. We are so fortunate in so many ways. We have two beautiful children, pets, loving friends, and extended family. We both have graduate degrees. While our finances take hits from relocations without adequate job and childcare support, we don’t face the continuous fears that many military families experience when a loved one is sent into a war zone. In many respects, my family’s life does not look like that of most American military families profiled in my book.

And yet I have misgivings.

During one of my husband’s deployments, I was relieved to hear our 2-year-old son talk about war in a way that, despite his innocence, was more nuanced than the usual tales of “sacrifice,” “honor,” and “fighting terror” that one hears routinely in the mainstream media and in local command newsletters.

It was spring 2017 and we had just seen Kim Jong-un displaying one of North Korea’s new missiles on the TV news. Our son asked me what a war is. I gave my best explanation and his reply, undoubtedly garnered from preschool discussions about conflict resolution, was: “They don’t use words? They hit?”

Sort of, I told him. I did my best to explain what a weapon was, a description I suspect that many of my liberal mom friends would balk at. In our military community, however, such imagery is all around us. Real missiles and replicas are, for instance, often used as decorations lining the streets of naval bases or as lampposts or even wall hangings in military family households.

My son did his best to take it in. Later, at the waterfront near our home, he tossed a piece of his donut into the ocean and told me it was for his father who, he insisted, was under the water “playing hide-and-seek.” Of course, he doesn’t connect the relentless training and deployments characteristic of our military life with the fighting of war itself, though our family feels the strain and implicit sense of danger in our daily lives.

In writing my recent book on the costs of this country’s post-9/11 wars, I learned about Afghan war widows who use heroin to make it morally possible to live amid grief and poverty after seeing their spouses and children killed; about NGO workers who leave their own families, facing threats of kidnapping and death, to aid refugees in the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands. And I read about the experiences of the million war-wounded, ill, or traumatized American combat veterans, the sorts of patients my therapy will someday (I hope) help, who have sought health care and social support and so often come up desperately short.

As I do this, there’s always a low buzz of guilt somewhere in my gut, even about my own voluntary, unpaid work in support of other military spouses, even after I’ve relinquished travel assignments in my work as an activist that would have compromised my husband’s security clearance, even as I abide by harsh security restrictions in my personal life. I worry, in other words, about aiding the very military that, 18 years after the 9/11 attacks, still continues to rack up war’s costs without an end in sight.

The Costs of War at Home

I see firsthand trends affecting all military communities in the United States. Deployments during these wars have come more frequently and often last longer than in past American wars. The specter of death by suicide hangs over all our lives, because everyone in such communities knows someone who has died that way or has threatened to do so.

In 2012, for the first time in our history, American service members began to die by suicide at higher rates than civilians. Today, they are more likely to take their own lives than to perish in combat. As anthropologist Kenneth MacLeish points out, military suicides are most prevalent among those who have deployed to our war zones just once or not at all, or who left the military involuntarily with a “bad paper discharge” or other than honorable discharges of some kind. Moreover, mental illness is rampant among active-duty military service members. According to the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, in 2014 roughly one in four active-duty service members showed signs of mental illness, including mood and trauma disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety (though this figure is conservative, given that the study did not include the prevalence of traumatic brain injuries among combat vets. Many soldiers seek relief from the stresses of training and combat through alcohol and other drugs and, in our military community, it’s common knowledge that seeking professional support for such problems can place you at risk of social stigma.

And don’t forget military families either. Training and fighting both take a toll on us, too. What modest figures we have on the subject make the point. For example, as anthropologists Jean Scandlyn and Sarah Hautzinger point out in our book, among servicemembers who entered the military between 1999 and 2008, the more months spent deployed, the more likely they are to divorce, with the vast majority of such divorces occurring soon after returning from deployments.

Local reports of domestic violence in military communities suggest that the problems leading to such divorces are only growing, though documentation on the subject is unreliable. It wasn’t until 2018 that, under pressure from Congress, the military made domestic violence a crime under its own legal code. Deployments of nine months or longer or frequent redeployments leave spouses at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, which, in turn, often affect the mental and physical health of their children as well.

Young children with deployed parents visit the doctor more frequently for behavioral health issues than those whose parents have not been deployed. Yet, as many spouses like me have discovered, community-based physicians are often unprepared to help in such situations, tending instead to blame the behavioral and mental-health issues of children on their parents or even on the children themselves, while not making referrals to services that could help (often, sadly, because there are none in the community).

“They Were as Hard Off as Me and I Was Killing Them”

Such collective problems are, of course, experienced individually and I’ve felt many of them in my own life. My spouse, for instance, departed for sea tours at moments when most of our family’s ducks were anything but in a row, whether it was a matter of childcare, work schedules, my health needs, or our other family obligations. Our son, for instance, has trouble sleeping because he was sad and scared for his dad, given what he hears in passing about Syria, North Korea, and — from other well-meaning military spouses and our own extended family — his own father’s attempts to “keep us safe” from unnamed others who might want to harm us.

I’m edgy and uneasy, knowing that my husband’s commander, a combat vet, has been angry at our family because I refused at one point to volunteer to work with a spouses group. When our house gets broken into, mid-deployment, and I’m alone with our toddler and pregnant, I wonder briefly if payback could have been involved before I dismiss the thought.

After I have our second child, a woman from the base with no mental-health or social-work training calls me weekly to ask about my baby’s health and safety. When I request that she stop, she refuses, telling me the same commander has ordered her to check in on each new mother in his command during deployment. I receive capitalized, hysterically punctuated emails from this woman warning all spouses not to jeopardize national security by talking to anyone about the submarine’s movements or, for that matter, emailing anything to our partners that they might find “distressing,” even details about a family member’s illness. Repeatedly, I am reminded that the U.S. is fighting a war on terror and our individual problems should never get in the way of that.

Things aren’t exactly a cakewalk between deployments either. It seems that, wherever I go, I find stigma, not support. For example, shortly after giving birth, I consulted a psychiatrist for help with post-partum depression. He was the only psychiatrist within 30 miles of our town who accepted military health insurance. Upon meeting me for the first time, he asked me to sign paperwork allowing him discretion to commit me to a psychiatric hospital “because military spouses often get psychotic during deployments.” I decided to tough it out rather than see him again.

And I try to keep in mind that my problems don’t add up to much, given the true costs of war out there. As a start, it’s a stretch to draw comparisons of any sort between an educated, white millennial family here and those who directly pay war’s costs like combat vets or, above all, civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other American war zones. As my co-editor Catherine Lutz and others have shown, though, combat and the home front are connected in unexpected ways.

If you spend 18 years fighting wars you grossly underestimated how to pay for, if you embark upon those wars without first considering alternatives like diplomacy, if you assume that social support for this country’s wars and those fighting them will come from military families that are patriarchal ideals from the white 1950s, and if you imagine an enemy — terrorism — that could be anywhere at all any time at all, then you’re already in a battle that’s going to prove unwinnable and morally unnerving for everyone involved.

I obviously can’t speak for how people from groups in this country more vulnerable than mine think about our never-ending wars and their costs, but my guess is that at least some of them feel connections to those in the war zones far more intimately than I do, no matter how hard I try. I will never forget a neighbor of ours, a Mexican-American Vietnam vet whom I would find smoking on our street when I completed my daily runs. One evening, when we were chatting, he told me that what haunted him most was how many of the rural, poor Vietnamese he’d shot at looked more like him than most of the American officers in his unit. “They were as hard off as me and I was killing them,” he suddenly said, tears in his eyes. Among veterans, he’s not alone in feeling an affinity for those on the other side.

On Bearing Witness

When Catherine Lutz, Neta Crawford, and I first founded the Costs of War Project at Brown University in 2011, we took a close look at the kinds of public assumptions we wanted to upend. As a start, we wanted to show that, contrary to the Bush administration’s stated rationales for invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, Washington had not effectively protected human rights — not to safety, liberty, or for that matter freedom of speech — nor brought “democracy” with us into those distant lands. Instead, by then, those countries had already seen spikes in gender-based violence and the deterioration of the most basic protections that led to everything from the collapse of prenatal care to the killing of civilians to the kidnapping of journalists, aid workers, and academics.

We wanted to go beyond the Pentagon’s focus on the deaths of American soldiers and focus instead on the tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi military deaths that had taken place and especially the soaring death rates of civilians in those lands. And, of course, we wanted to show that our grim wars should not be described in sterile terms via the usual imagery of families embracing upon a smiling service-member’s return or the by-then-familiar photographs of neat coffins draped with flags being carried out of planes by uniformed service members as spouses (usually white, female, and non-disabled) looked on sadly.

That, we knew, was not the essence of America’s already ongoing war on terror. My colleagues and I wanted people in this country to refocus on the staggering death and injury rates that only grew as the years passed, the ever-more-crippling ways in which all sides learned to kill and injure, and the long-term mental-health effects of arduous family separations.

A therapist mentor once taught me that, when working with veterans who have PTSD, I should, as he put it, “Ask them to start their story a little before they think it began and have them keep going even after they think it’s over.” My colleagues and I wanted to do that when it came to our wars, focusing not just on the obvious newsworthy photographs that tended to appeal to the American psyche, but on the missing context in which those photographs were taken. That’s the best way I can think of to describe the purpose of our new book (and our future work). None of us should stop trying to refocus in that way, not until America’s war story is declared over — and not even then, given how long the costs of war are likely to take to play out.

One sunny afternoon in May 2011, as Catherine Lutz and I sat in her office in Brown’s Anthropology Department sifting through media images for the initial launch of the Costs of War website, we happened upon a video of a screaming young Iraqi child with open burn wounds covering his face and body, a relative clutching him in her arms as they hustled through a crowd. Gunshots and explosions were audible in the background. The before, the after, the neighborhood where the violence was taking place, the weapons used, who was even fighting whom — none of that was evident from the clip.

For years, that image and the sound of that child has haunted me. Who was he? Did he get to the hospital? Was there even a hospital for him to get to? Would he ever go to school or play again? Who was the woman and what had her life been like before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003? What was it like now? What services could she access? Was she safe?

I think of this image when I wake up at night, when I hear patients describe the screams of children in war zones, when I hear my own children scream during tantrums. It’s like a nightmarish echo that spurs me to keep working because all of us, regardless of where we are, should be bearing witness to the costs of war until somebody in power decides to end the suffering.

Andrea Mazzarino co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She is an activist and social worker interested in the health impacts of war. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of the new book War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.