• Sarah Chayes

Follow-Up



My last blog, “Time Out,” drew some excellent questions and reactions, most sent directly to me. So -- with thanks to the readers who did leave a comment – it seemed worth all of our time to share the discussion. Note, this will be even more conversational than the blog itself – few references, just an invitation to consider.


One question was why, if the Jan 6 explosion had roots in legitimate grievances, including economic exploitation, did so many of the rioters come from the middle class?


The “why” of the matter may never be fully understood. But ask yourself: how many violent extremist uprisings can you name that were not led largely by members of the middle class? From the protracted and bloody Protestant Reformation to the American and French Revolutions, the Communist upheavals of the 20th century, and al-Qaeda -- however you or I or history ultimately judges these episodes – none featured the abject poor in the front ranks.


The head-scratching over this reality goes back at least to Aristotle. (More recent references are discussed in this article.) Here’s how I’ve been thinking about it, in a mix of the economic or political/social framings that scholars tend to divide in either-or terms.


It may be that when a person reaches the status of middle class – achieves some comfort and social standing – she gains enough sense of self, and enough leisure, to reflect on whether society measures her full worth. The marker may be economic: is she making enough money? Or it may be less tangible: is she getting enough regard? Even if so, is there a cruelty, a raw deal, in her life or history that is going unrecognized?


A reduction in status, or a painful gap between expectations and reality, or a sense that others are getting more than their share of attention, be it from family or from community, can set people off. And we all know what has become of the middle class in this country in the past three or four decades. Given the yawning gap between the fortunes of the super-rich, which have exploded since the mid-1990s at least, and the numbing stagnation of the middle class, it’s a wonder only a few thousand people went off the rails this way. As for attention, I am struck by the absence, in my perusal of the mainstream media since the Inauguration, of those 73 million. I have not read or heard a single story about how that half of the electorate is digesting the first days of the Biden/Harris administration. It’s as though they never existed.


Just one reminder here: when people go off the rails, when they are driven to extremes, they are not pretty, and they are not especially logical. During the Protestant Reformation, rioters desecrated the most sacred buildings in the land – churches. They defecated on the walls, hung the statues from windows or cut their heads off. People died. It was shocking, ugly, violent, and not the least bit logical.


I am not suggesting that that world-altering upheaval and the attack on the U.S. Capitol were comparable. I am certainly not excusing or condoning what took place on January 6 – emphatically the contrary. I am seeking instructive insight.


A second question was: why so many vets?

Even before 2021, there was considerable reporting about deliberate efforts by white nationalist or supremacist groups to recruit men and women in uniform. That’s part of the answer, and it should be top of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s priority list to get a handle on just how far this horror has been allowed to spread through the services, and to get after the long and hard job of uprooting it.


For another part of the answer, let me refer to two brilliant books on PTSD, understood through the prism of Greek myth. Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming toggle between his practice as a psychiatrist working largely with Vietnam vets – some of whom were still walking their perimeters decades after returning from the war – and those two great epics. (That anyone found anything this original to say about them after more than 4,000 years is stunning.)


Shay’s main insight is that PTSD doesn’t happen “just” because of battlefield trauma. It tends to strike those soldiers who have experienced the violence of war and a shattering violation of their deepest sense of “what’s right.” Those betrayed by their chain of command, or who survive when their battle-buddy sitting right next to them in the jeep is blown up, or who are ordered to commit a war crime, suffer disproportionately. Many of them then go “berserk” – start committing atrocities of their own accord.


Combat trauma and the undoing of character.


A related insight is that back in the United States, many of the vets Shay worked with had a hard time abandoning combat mode. They would walk their perimeters – in their homes at night. Or they would take up what he calls a “criminal career.” Or, ironically, go into law enforcement. Anything that drew upon the skills and heightened alertness and adrenaline that remained pathologically stuck in the “on” position.


Both of these insights seem relevant to January 6.


We are now into our third straight decade of warfare launched in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That is, a full generation of men and women in uniform have been sent to Afghanistan and Iraq to kill and be killed in furtherance of missions that have yawed sharply away from their original justification. Countless books and reports, including my Punishment of Virtue, have detailed the fecklessness and poor design of both campaigns, at the hands of civilian and military leadership alike: the waste, the opportunists and criminals grown rich. The conduct of those wars have been epic violations of “what’s right.”


Some vets afflicted with the psychic wounds have taken their own lives. Others have succumbed to substance abuse. These facts have been widely discussed for years. Other service-members have acted out. Given the context of our unending wars, I again almost marvel that so few joined the assault.


A friend in Kentucky gave detailed and deeply thoughtful feedback, much of it for future research and contemplation. I’ll only touch a few wave-tops here.


One element was to gently note the oversimplification – even caricature (my word) – of my summary of the settling of lands west of the Appalachians. The experience was much more of a patchwork than I implied, with frenzied land grabs and debt and landlessness weighing heavily from the start, mitigated only where explicit settlement policies kept the worst abuses in check. The communities involved, moreover, were anything but homogeneous.


I caused some confusion by failing to provide a timeframe for that synopsis of rural history. I had in mind the period starting around 1870, after the Civil War, and as agriculture, together with the rest of the economy, was industrializing. Healthier, more regenerative local subsistence practices (that is, not focused on a cash crop for export) were far more prevalent in earlier periods


I also should have been as explicit as I usually am about who was inflicting the extortionate treatment on these small farmers. “Corporations” might be a typical answer here, but the fact is, corporations don’t do anything. They are inert. We should not be squeamish about pointing the finger at human beings who perpetrate wrongs on other human beings for the purposes of wealth maximization.


So, with some variation across the decades, I’m talking, among others, about large absentee landlords, usually residing in coastal cities, who consolidated acreage and sought cash crops; I’m talking about commodities wholesalers, exporters, and speculators; I’m talking about the executives of agribusinesses and large chemical companies and financial services firms. And I’m talking about local elites, such as the local furnishing merchants and bankers.


In discussing who should be held accountable for the events of Jan. 6 alongside the perpetrators themselves and the members of Congress who helped egg them on, I (also uncharacteristically) neglected to recommend we all follow the money. Some initial reporting has zeroed in on donors to Senators and members of Congress who continued to object to certifying the electoral college results even after the riot tore through the Capitol. I’m looking forward to more details on who funded the groups that organized the assault itself.


Finally, on race: “If the point,” wrote my friend, “is to say that there is a growing awareness in the United States of the intergenerational and collective trauma experienced by African Americans and Indigenous peoples, and that this awareness should be extended to intergenerational trauma in rural – mostly white – communities, then could you just say that?”


Indeed.


With this additional caution: I would like to see us gain a greater understanding of these intergenerational traumas and their current ramifications and increase our resolve to address the ongoing practices, without descending into a kind of competition over who has been victimized worse, with the sufferers turning on each other. The point, instead, should be to discover how similar the main perpetrators and noxious practices are in every case, and to band together in the only force that can confront those perpetrators: a broad coalition, powered by empathy, that transcends our bitter identity divides.


With ongoing thanks for reading, and for the return reflections!


Sarah