In my hometown thirty miles northeast of Detroit, there is a stretch of road that runs along the border of Selfridge Air National Guard Base, one of nearly 500 military bases found in the United States. Just past the fence on the base side of the road is a landing strip, and if you drove down the road at the right time, you might get to see a jet fly right overhead, so close you could almost touch it but so loud you didn’t want to open the car window to reach for it.
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the first since the U.S. officially declared the disastrous war in Afghanistan over, I reflected on my experiences growing up near a U.S. military base during the early days of the so-called war on terror. On some level, it seems intuitive to assume that the closer you live to a military base the more likely you are to be pro-war. For a time, despite being only 9 years old when two planes flew into the World Trade Center, I was swept up in the war propaganda. I was in awe of the jets I saw landing at the base. I signed the “Support Our Troops” banner at my elementary school. I even bullied a French foreign exchange student because his country refused to invade Iraq.
This enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. Long before I moved to college and became corrupted by cultural marxists and critical race theorists, as the rightwing laments, my experiences growing up near the base had already left me disaffected. As I now understand it, the military, like capitalism itself, is shaped by contradictions that produce its own negation.
My early investment in the military was undoubtedly due to the fact that most of my friends in elementary school were from military families. The elementary school I attended was across the street from Sebille Manor, the housing complex for active duty military families, and all of the kids in Sebille Manor attended my school. With so many friends in one neighborhood, I ended up spending a lot of time there. I would meet up with one friend, and we would go join others to play basketball, make home movies, or do stunts like we saw in Jackass.
It’s probably equally true that my eventual disinvestment from the military can be attributed in part to the way it shattered those friendships. By the end of my elementary years, my closest friends had moved away, as the top brass reassigned their families. Even before then though, our bonds were being eroded by the security state that the Bush administration was rapidly constructing in the wake of 9/11.
Like the base itself, Sebille Manor was gated off from the surrounding area, but before 9/11, it was not that difficult for civilians to enter either place. After 9/11, however, we would be stopped by an armed guard at the gate who checked that we had clearance from someone inside. It didn’t matter how often we were there; we needed clearance for every visit. One time a friend forgot to notify the guard that I was visiting, and my dad and I were left waiting at the gate. Spending time with my friends became a hassle.
When I did finally get access, I found myself having to adapt to the fear and paranoia sweeping Sebille and Selfridge. While playing kickball with some friends, one of us accidentally kicked the ball onto someone’s roof, and a woman ran out of the house screaming, thinking that a bomb had dropped and the terrorists had finally attacked our town. She complained to one of my friend’s parents, who then explained to us what happened and suggested we stop playing kickball.
This experience made me think twice about how my actions would be perceived. I didn’t want to be mistaken for the enemy, and if a kickball could be mistaken for a bomb, what else might be misinterpreted?
Sometime thereafter, I was playing golf on Selfridge with a friend and his dad. I had never played golf before and so naturally I was terrible. I was also nervous. What if we accidentally hit the golf ball off the course and into the base proper? From the golf course, you could see the refueling station where the fighter jets were parked. These massive instruments of death and destruction gleamed in the sun and looked much more threatening on the ground than in the sky where you couldn’t see the missiles. It would only take one of these to obliterate us if someone, like the woman in Sebille, thought that a fly golf ball was a provocation that required retaliation. We managed to keep the ball on the course, but I didn’t have much interest in golf after that.
My experiences with war-time Sebille and Selfridge only lasted two years. I was in fourth grade when 9/11 happened, and by the end of 5th grade, my closest military friends had moved away. The war, however, was only just beginning, as the invasion of Afghanistan became the invasion of Iraq. Despite how unpleasant things had become for me since 9/11, I was not immune to the drums of war when the Bush administration began beating them with renewed intensity.
It just so happened that during this period, a civilian friend’s family was hosting a foreign exchange student from France who was a few years older than us. He could not have picked a worse time to visit the U.S., since these were the days when all things French were scorned upon because France refused to invade Iraq. At age 11, my friend and I couldn’t enlist in the army, but we could subject this French kid to a campaign of juvenile terror. The worst thing we did was barricade him in his room with furniture from around the house. The most ridiculous thing we did was taunt him while we ate our “freedom fries” at Burger King.
I had forgotten this memory until this past year when I read The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks, who sadly passed away in December. Writing in response to the Iraq War, hooks was concerned with the ways that patriarchy at the earliest age mutilated men’s psyche to prepare them to be cold-hearted killers in war. It trained them to kill off any connection to their own emotions and to the emotions of others—making them more capable of inflicting pain when duty called. Looking back on this scene, I shudder at how early in life this conditioning yielded fruit. What this foreign exchange student needed was a friend who could guide him in a new place, and instead he was met by two little soldiers in the trenches of suburbia.
Thankfully, the campaign was called off—interestingly enough by my friend’s father, who was a veteran. The first conscious blow against the empire’s hold on our minds would come from within the ranks of the imperial army itself, which is just as riven by the contradictions of class and race as the society it supposedly serves. My friend’s father was a Black man and as a veteran, he was in the complex position of serving a country that did not value his life.
Shortly after we barricaded the foreign exchange student in his room, we were summoned to the living room, where my friend’s father was seated on the couch looking very grave. This would be one of few exchanges I had with my friend’s father, and I still remember the severity with which he spoke. I do not know by what route he arrived at his politics, but what he said that day shocked and confused us. He said that Saddam Hussein was his friend and a friend of the United States and that even if he had weapons of mass destruction, the United States had certainly given them to him. For this, both he and Saddam were going to hell.
This was very different from the melodramatic narrative of good and evil we were usually told, although it had its own brand of fire and brimstone. I didn’t understand the finer geopolitical points made, but I did recognize the gravity of someone saying they knew they were going to hell. I had never heard someone say that before, and I have never heard it since. Our enthusiasm for the war was never so great after that, as we pondered what my friend’s father meant.
John Bohn is a writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of Fallen Empire.