What A Hell Of A Way To Die and toxic veterans

One of my favorite military podcasts is What A Hell Of A Way To Die.  Its hosts, Nate and Francis, are both Army combat veterans and they take their views to the news with a both an intellectual and social mind set.  Recently, they did a episode on toxic veterans, and it intrigued me as I had an idea of the demographic they described. However, they brought out a lot of interesting points on the subject I didn’t expect and really got my wheels spinning on this.

For simplicity’s sake in this discussion, toxic veterans are veterans who bring the worst elements of the military lifestyle back to civilian life with them.  They are usually overly aggressive in a lot of ways, maybe attempt to drink and smoke like they did in service, and have a general dislike and distaste for anything too far from what they asserted was normal life as a servicemember.  Now, there may other factors in describing a veteran as ‘toxic,’ but for my purposes, this definition will do.

Does the veteran talk down to almost anyone who isn’t a veteran?  Does the veteran cover themselves in the mounds of veteran themed clothing, textually indicating their status as said veteran and mention it to anyone who has ears?  Does the veteran regard men who aren’t veterans as cowards or pussies? Does the veteran verbally downgrade the veteran status of those who have opinions they don’t agree with?  And most importantly, does the veteran diminish the self worth of others who didn’t serve as they did or talk down to them because military service becomes a criteria for personal self worth?

‘What makes the green grass grow?  BLOOD, BLOOD, BRIGHT RED BLOOD DRILL SERGEANT!!’  I used to say this in basic training. Get the idea?  So, it’s fairly simple to point out one of these guys and their slanted viewpoint on military service, as their favorite hobby is using their opinions as a cudgel to browbeat anyone who might listen.  And I’m not saying that servicemembers don’t learn great things or have amazing experiences, but with a huge centralized amount of male testosterone and activities which live off of that same testosterone (throwing a live grenade was fun), it pushes male servicemembers to embrace and hang onto the most aggressive parts of themselves.  But, when servicemembers return to society, did the military teach them to revert a bit, dial back those aggressive actions or thoughts when they got home? Or even to understand the process and the massive changes they went through as people? The military requires hard violent work, done quickly and concisely, so in a sense they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they attempted to help servicemembers work on being less aggressive.  

The military is a place where bigotry, sexism, and toxic masculinity can be rampant in different ways.  The Marines United investigation and those like it paint a terrifying picture for some women in the Marine Corps, and that idea stands true across all the branches, obviously to different degrees.  The election of our new president brought forth a whole host of bigoted people, empowered by their slight perceived elevation in social status (remember the Navy Seals with the Trump/Pence flag?!) And those are just the recent additions to the complexity that is military service.  The point is that for people of color, LBGTQ people, and really anyone who doesn’t agree with the mass of alpha males around, your life in the military could be really horrifying. I say could, because everyone’s experience is different. A person could experience none of these circumstances, some of them, or all of them.  

Now, let’s back up just a second in talking about this group of males.  People generally come into the Army at a very young age. I spent my 19th birthday getting my security pass at the Pentagon and my 20th birthday in Kuwait, preparing to drive north into Iraq.  I had to learn and adapt to so many different leaders and missions in such a short time; I say absolutely without reservation that my time in the Army had a huge impact on the person I became, and I think most veterans who joined at a young age have had a similar experience.  That being said, when formative years of your youth have been spent doing a particular activity, how do you separate yourself and your identity from those elements? And when those elements, whether veterans want to admit it or not include death and destruction, how do veterans react when those elements inconveniently show up at home?

Now, I don’t want to fall into the easy trap of saying all men in the military fit this description.  People are too quick to add stereotypes, especially when it comes to military service. Remember, only around 1% of Americans will ever serve in the military, so the pool of common knowledge on what it’s really like to serve is already quite small.  But I do think male veterans need to honestly examine their service and the environment it happened in when bringing forth habits and patterns from that time. Do the Mat Best’s of the US see themselves as part of the whole in terms of US veterans’ visibility and reputation or do they simply care about making videos filled with guns and tits?  And this is where toxic masculinity comes into play.

Now, I don’t know Mat Best personally and haven’t watched any of his videos in some time, but I continue to pass them on my way to other videos, so I know he’s still active.  He run a company called Black Rifle Coffee Company and is involved with a lot of other veteran enterprises. His profile on Black Rock’s website says that he makes ‘satirical videos.’  And I’d agree that his videos are definitely satire; I never saw them as anything else. But his satire requires a commitment to the idea of being a ‘professional veteran,’ that veterans stereotypically own big arsenals, are committed to violence and supportive of military interventions overseas; essentially, Mat must ‘own’ parts of the toxic veteran climate for his videos to have an honest satirical view.  If the violence, sexism, and desire to stomp on liberals’ feelings had no connection to truth, why would we find it funny? While they are satire, they definitely target liberals, people who don’t or won’t own guns, and other groups who fit their chosen targeting. It’s that idea that Mat sublets of the ‘pussy liberal.’ I mean, can it really be ‘satire’ if the guy making the videos sells coffee called Black Rifle Coffee?  Where does Mat’s connections to those stereotypes start and where do they end? Mat is a former Army Ranger who did contracting work with the CIA following his enlistment, so making satirical videos that espouse the worst stereotypes of veterans and people on the left who criticize them isn’t an exercise in satire for Mat; it’s a documentary of reality, only slightly funnier.

And here is my point.  People look for social clues in becoming acclimated to belonging to one group or another and veterans are no different.  The word ‘Hajj’ is a good example. Its definition is a practicing Muslim who has taken the pilgrimage to Mecca. Now, during my time in service, guys I served with used ‘Hajj’, ‘Haji’, and a whole host of variations in referring to ordinary people we met in Iraq, and at times, I was one of those guys.  ‘Man, that Haji was an asshole!’ And the truth is, using that word in this context is a slur against Arab and Persian people, no different than someone referring to a person they believe to Christian as a ‘Bible thumper.’ And given the nature of the word’s real definition, it’s a pretty fucked up slur when you really think about it.  So, I used it in service and never gave it another thought until years later.

It’s that right there; that continuation without consideration.  This is the kind of apathy that brings bad ideas into social groups as people continue doing what they’ve always done until they have a good enough reason to stop, and given the fast paced nature of military service, why wouldn’t something like that breed like wildfire?   Mat Best didn’t create these stereotypes; he simply makes videos about them. But is there any consideration?

So, is Mat Best a ‘toxic veteran,’ at least in my definition of it?  Hardly. Mat seems to be an intelligent and perceptive individual and his videos are genuinely entertaining; and the one thing we definitely agree on is the overreaction to certain things by different groups.  If an entire conversation can be derailed because someone used the wrong word or phrase to describe something (illegal immigrant vs undocumented comes to mind,), why do you continue to have conversations with those persons if you feel that’s the price of admission?  I’m sure Ben Shapiro makes a pretty penny on selling ‘Liberal Tears.’ My only real question is if someone like Mat Best does give consideration to the stereotypes he supports. I did notice one article from Adam Linehan at Task and Purpose titled “10 questions only a veteran would ask Mat Best.”  And there was this gem: 4. Finish this sentence: you shouldn’t join the military if…You’re a pussy. We need some more red-blooded Americans who aren’t pussies to join the military.”

Needless to say, I didn’t see any questions that were quite revealing, and granted, this wasn’t an in-depth breakdown of all things Mat Best; however, I didn’t expect to find a question quite so on the nose for my blog, but hey, shit happens.  But this is the exact kind of mindless rant some people expect from veterans. I’d like people to see veterans in a more diversified light and I’d like veterans to attempt a bit of consideration when they deal with civilians. Whether that ever happens isn’t the question here; it’s whether or not people even try.


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FOH is hosted, written, and produced by Chris ‘Henri’ Henrikson and Danny Sjursen
The show was mixed and edited by Chris Henrikson

A special thanks to our honorary producers Matthew Hoh, Will Ahrens, and Ron Unger!!  Without you guys, we couldn’t continue our work.

Cover and website art designed by Brian K. Wyatt Jr. of B-EZ Graphix Multimedia Marketing Agency in Tallehassee, FL
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Note: The views expressed in this podcast are those of the hosts alone, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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Henri

Sergeant Christopher 'Henri' Henrikson is a disabled Iraq war veteran from Portland, OR. A former military police team leader and drug suppression investigator, Henri deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. You can contact him at henri@fortressonahill.com. Follow him on Twitter @Rorak11GGD.