United States veterans are commended on their bravery in keeping American citizens safe from harm or danger. They are lauded for risking their lives to preserve the lives of Americans. But, with the United States’ huge military budget, are threats to national security and democracy really the country’s main concerns? With the death count of Vietnamese in the Vietnam War at an estimated 3.8 million according to Democracy Now!, were anti-communism and containment really the primary reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam? Or, are threats to national security and democracy constructed in public consciousness to defend these atrocities alongside United States imperialism? The United States is not the democratic bastion of international peace that many Americans think it is, and this narrative has caused more destruction than harmony or justice.

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. During this massacre on March 16, 1968, United States soldiers killed more than 500 Vietnamese people in the Southern Vietnamese village of My Lai. According to Democracy Now!, “The soldiers raped women. They burned their houses. They mutilated the villagers’ bodies. One U.S. soldier said he was ordered to ‘kill anything that breathed.’” Just a single soldier involved with this massacre was convicted: a lieutenant named William Calley. Although he was sentenced to a life in prison, he ended up serving only three and a half years of house arrest instead. Calley did not express remorse for his involvement in this massacre in his personal statement. According to his trial record on Famous Trials, he asserted, “Well, I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job on that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified the same, and that was the classification that we dealt with, just as enemy soldiers.”

This association of innocent civilians with enemies follows the United States military’s trend in targeting and attacking threats to democratic values and national security. While this government paternalism helps the United States to build its image as a benevolent protector of its people, it simultaneously instills fear in United States citizens as well. It propagates the idea that there is always some external force, ideology, or person to be feared, rather than revealing the reality–that many United States citizens are complicit in supporting governments that are hell-bent on building the nation’s global power.

The so-called War on Drugs, though concentrated nationally, was also part of an imperialist agenda and employed this scapegoating mechanism to construct the image of Black and Brown Americans as criminals. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, is one of many to connect the dots between the criminalization of Black and Brown people in the War on Drugs and the demographic statistics of mass incarceration. In a PBS article entitled “Michelle Alexander: ‘A System of Racial and Social Control,’” Alexander claims that “President Ronald Reagan wanted to make good on campaign promises to get tough on that group of folks who had already been defined in the media as black and brown, the criminals, and he made good on that promise by declaring a drug war.”

She also discusses the consequences of incarceration–that formerly incarcerated people are “released into a permanent second-class status in which they are stripped of basic civil and human rights, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to public benefits.” This process of mass incarceration not only disenfranchises Black and Brown people and strips them of their civil rights, but it establishes a structure of these people to be exploited for their labor within prisons. The United States military uses this cheap labor to their advantage. According to The New York Times article “U.S. Flouts Its Own Advice in Procuring Overseas Clothing,” federal inmates in 2013 “stitched more than $100 million worth of military uniforms.”

Although mass incarceration and foreign war initiatives are legitimized through threats manufactured to protect democratic ideals and U.S. citizens, they functionally obscure the oppressive conditions required for U.S. democracy to exist and those that the illusions of democracy create.