“It has been a privilege and honor, and sometimes a burden, to tell stories about Milwaukee from my hometown and from distant but connected points around the world.” – Lee Matz
Milwaukee, Wisconsin • Washington DC • Bucha, Ukraine • Reynosa, Mexico | 2022
Back in May I wrote about how going to a country at war felt like taking a vacation from America. That experience has since made me consider the perception of war in our modern way of life, here in Milwaukee.
It has been reported by news networks, going back to the 1990s, how young Black men often felt they lived in a war zone, in neighborhoods from Milwaukee to any major city across America. It is easy to understand that view, with so much gun violence and law enforcement that at times resembled an occupation force in Black neighborhoods.
When Pro-Trump MAGA supporters declared a Second Civil War was coming prior to the 2020 elections, the examples that came to mind reflected images from the 1860s – like something out of a Ken Burns documentary. But the warnings were an anachronism that lacked imagination for the reality of today.
An old military axiom says that modern wars are fought with new weapons, but the tactics of the last war. Which is why The Great War, later known as World War I, was so devastating. Men on horses charged rapid fire machine guns with horrific results.
I believe a Civil War in America has already been playing out. Not on battle fields in regions marked “the North” or “the South” on a map, but in the living rooms and class rooms across the all these United States. A new type of Civil War that divided families, and has been fought with hatred and ignorance.
Very real causalities in this conflict included the hundreds of thousands of Americans who needlessly died from COVID. They remain a growing body count in a Culture War with no boundaries, fought with cruelty on a social battlefield.
Much like how China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s sought to solidify a dictatorship under Mao Zedong by reorienting Chinese society, America’s rightwing minority used similar tactics during the Trump Era from 2016 to 2021. White Nationalist politics were reinforced with authoritarian religious ideology in an effort to upend decades of established law and civil conventions in American society.
I have not served a combat photographer, nor was I ever embedded with troops on the frontlines. But I have been a war correspondent who visited forward areas in the aftermath of battle. Many of those situations parallel my experiences here in Milwaukee.
Those experiences offered reminders of the countless vigils I reported on in Milwaukee, some of local concern and other of support for a national tragedy. Working as a local photojournalist in my hometown had, in part, prepared me to cover the trauma of war. That observation made me reflect on experiences were in Milwaukee, and how we are taught by social conformity to think about the context of war.
White Americans, in their decades-long fear of racial equality and the diminishing dominance of White Nationalist culture, have gone to great lengths to rip the nation apart in order to keep their position of privilege.
They are the same people who have a doomsday bunker in their basement, stocked with automatic weapons and boxes of meals-ready-to-eat to survive the Apocalypse. Yet, they are the same individuals who, for the safety of their fellow citizens and themselves, could not be bothered to self-isolate for a few weeks in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those MAGA faithful expected to resurface from underground shelters to inherit a radioactive wasteland, but could not endure going a month in the comfort of home without a haircut – for which they nearly rioted.
America is not in an active war in the traditional sense. We are in a new kind of Cultural War that goes beyond just rhetoric. The media in particular does a poor job of connecting the dots. On a traditional battlefield with trained soldiers, pulling the trigger results in an immediate casualty.
In this new type of warfare, triggers are pulled all the time by cowards who hide behind the obscurity of social media. And when their
And while they do not use physical bullets, the munitions they unleash take many forms. When those impact, in the form of self-harm or hate crimes, there is no line-of-sight connection. They are essentially landmines that never cease being deadly, left behind by one generation for the next to trip on.
It is hard to find an analogy that best describes this situation. We often misjudge new conditions by old and outdated standards, because we want to classify everything by the familiar. In hindsight, historians may better summarize this time. A Cold War, a Cultural Revolution, a Civil War, or maybe they will ultimately invent a description.
The polarization of America, and its political structure, is not new. But how we talk about the condition treats it as a temporary thing, or downplays its deep-rooted foundations.
It would be inaccurate for me to say that I am a War Correspondent here in Milwaukee, because no one is hurling artillery shells over my head each night. In fact, it would be absurd to call Milwaukee a war zone.
But as I look back on my years of photojournalism in this city, such a statement – based on the extensive trauma I have witness and personally processed – it comes close only because there is not a better definition.
Milwaukee is just a microcosm of America, so I am not placing blame on the city. But we are part of American culture, and of that there is no escape. I grew up in a military household, with a respected Civil War historian. There was never any doubt about the righteous effort of the North to preserve the Union. But looking back, there was an uncomfortable amount of sympathy towards the South, and even an embrace of the “Myth of the Lost Cause.”
It is very similar to the environments I experienced in my youth that celebrated America’s victory against Germany during World War II. Yet also had great reverence for German tactics, often saying that if only this or that had happened, the Hitler could have won – like they were cheering for his victory.
It is as confusing for me now as it was then, to see the dichotomy of American exceptionalism at winning the war while also admiring the Nazis.
I grew up with many such divisions around me, and came to peace with them as I matured and went away for school. In those days, I chose to believe that everyone wanted to make the world a better place, just some people wanted to go faster and some wanted to go slower. They may have been at odds with ideas and strategies, but the ultimate goal was the same.
Only later in life did I have to admit the reality that many people, entrenched in their fear and hate, acted out of a narcissistic self-interest and not a common good. They wanted to make the world better only for themselves, not everyone else in the process. In fact, they wanted to benefit off the suffering they caused, and the more suffering the better.
How then are the institutions of White Nationalism not a form of terrorism? And not just on people of color, but anyone who does not conform with the power structure. What I learned about racism was that when people of color were absent to torment, bullies would look for the weakest White people. There was no loyalty, no community other than social subjugation driven by fear – and motivated by hate.
When terrible things happen, Americans react in disbelief and say this is not who Americans are. It is a reflection of their detachment from reality. These terrible things are often exactly who Americans are, and a reflection of what our values represent. In fact, they are the very foundations that the nation was built on to thrived economically.
In terms of war, we think of conflicts like World War II, or now with Ukraine, having clear lines of combat. America today feels in comparison like the guerrilla war in Vietnam. There are no frontlines, the enemy has infiltrated everywhere.
This assessment sounds bleak and in many ways is overly simplified. But it is an attempt to summarize the years of trauma I have seen, even if my articulation is crude.
America’s Culture War, and by extension the social complexities playing out in Milwaukee, seems like a conflict without end.
I would say it is the Christian nature to be loving, but the hearts of too many have been corrupted. The words of salvation preached by Jesus are more often used as clubs to condemn. How then can we find peace, or settle for something close to it, if such an ideal is not within our nature?
What I often find the hardest to process is not the trauma, but the banality that people live with to avoid reality. Our collective amnesia has already whitewashed COVID, and the countless lives lost. It is like blaming a person for not climbing up the stairs fast enough, while ignoring the fact that they are bound in a wheelchair.
We victimize people for their victimhood. Had Americans learned a lesson from the pandemic, all the pain and suffering would have at least served a purpose to help us reach enlightenment. It is a bitter pill to realize that nothing was learned, that sacrifices were wasted, and our country continues an undeclared war against itself. I continue to document that struggle in images.
“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” ― Mary Shelley