Aaron Alexis, the man responsible for Monday’s massacre in Washington, served in the U.S. Navy Reserve for four years. But the frequent descriptions of him as a veteran killer are disingenuous and dangerous. They reveal nothing about his motivations, though they may offer some insight into the process of newsmaking and the glib signifying that’s an inevitable result of senseless mass violence.
There is no single definition of a veteran. It’s a status tied to privileges and benefits, not least among them public honor, that are earned based on an individual’s record of service. The modern conception of the word derives from Abraham Lincoln, who after the Civil War instituted the formal awarding of benefits to soldiers who had served. Lincoln introduced the cultural meaning of the veteran as a guardian of the nation, entitled to care and compensation after leaving uniform.
At both the state and federal level today, active and former military members have different levels of status based on type and length of service. Though Alexis meets some of the technical criteria, he falls short of many others and would be ineligible for a wide range of veteran’s benefits. He never left the United States during his brief service and worked in a technical job that kept him far from anything resembling combat, even simulated versions in training. Many have served honorably in jobs like the one Alexis held and for enlistments as short as his, but it’s misleading and pernicious to conflate a four-year stint stateside with the life-defining impact of tours overseas and the experience of combat.
When “veteran” appears in headlines describing Alexis and his attack, the word doesn’t, and probably isn’t meant to, draw a line between the limited role he played in the Navy and what he did in Washington. It is, rather, a dishonest elision meant to conjure the specter of war and trauma as a convenient way to explain a horrifying event by relating it to something recognizable. Calling Alexis a veteran, as if the word alone brings a closer understanding of what he did, ignores the record and nature of his service.
Though he exhibited behavioral problems in the Navy, his troubles didn’t begin there. He had already been arrested in 2004, three years prior to enlisting, for a deranged though victimless shooting. His four years of service in the Naval reserves don’t appear as any kind of pivotal event that laid the groundwork for what was to come. They seem to be something more like a brief interlude between his early acts of violence and their later, depraved culmination.
Judging by the available record, Alexis appears to be mentally ill and to have experienced a psychotic break at some point in his life that led to his condition deteriorating. Since that break he had been progressing, markedly but unimpeded, toward larger and more horrendous acts of violence. We don’t yet know the reasons for his murders, but it’s reasonable to believe they have less to do with his short career as a reservist and more to do with the documented mental problems that became evident long before he enlisted.
The link with Alexis is not to damaged veterans but to the mentally broken killers of Newtown and Aurora. Like them, Alexis had demonstrated a pattern of violence that was known to many but seemed always to fall just short of the threshold that would have demanded action from authorities.
There is a lure in offering up Alexis’s service to account for his actions. In one quick step his association with the military is conflated with the trauma of war, and a basis for madness and violence seems to appear. By invoking war and its symbolic power, anything can be explained, and so we reach for it most in those cases that seem hardest to understand. If the answers provided are facile and misleading, at least they offer a temporary salve to the troubling question of how someone could do so much evil for no apparent reason. But Alexis never saw combat or anything like it. Nor is there any evidence that his job in the Navy, working on aircraft electrical systems, is some sort of incubator for perpetrators of homicidal rampages.
Each new murder spree in America competes with the last for obscene lethality. That the country seems particularly prone to psychotics seeking their end in operatic acts of violence perhaps says more about the relationship between violence and mental illness and our nation’s methods for dealing with that problem than it does about the U.S. Navy Reserve.