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Class, War and Education: an Interview with Erin Murphy

“The way we fund education, that’s at the heart of how this military recruits,” said Erin Murphy, whose 20-year old brother is serving in Iraq. “Without that leverage they would not be able to recruit people in such numbers.”

Like many others from their rural, working-class community in Illinois, Erin’s brother joined the National Guard to help pay for college. He was sent to Iraq in February 2004.

Below is a conversation with Erin about the very personal intersections of class, war and education: (Erin asked that her brother’s name not be used.)

Did your brother think he would have to fight?

My brother signed up before 9/11 so I don’t think so. It was to pay for college.

When I went to college, the economy was booming. My parents worked at a car dealership. It was not as much of a hardship. Plus I took out a lot of loans.

The economy started going down. [College was a] huge economic hardship for my other siblings. My brother saw all that constant stress about that.

He’s been really independent. He doesn’t like depending on anyone. He saw this as a way to be independent and then two weeks later 9/11 happened.

Are you concerned about your brother’s ability to readjust?

Extremely concerned. I mean I don’t know what he’s seen. I don’t know how easy or how hard it’s going to be for him to come back to normal life. He’s really excited to try and come home. He is supposed to get leave.

His only request is we do something really fun. I know he’s really looking forward to that leave. I’m sure we’ll find out more from him then. His leave is August 22–September 6. I’ll believe he gets his leave when I am hugging him at the airport.

His truck-mate has a digital camera. We’ve seen some pictures of him. He looks healthy.

Are you very active in anti-war work?

I’m not really a joiner. I’ve gone to some meetings and rallies around town. I write to senators, congress, and sign petitions I talk to my family. My parents used to be republican. My parents won’t vote for Bush.

Why are they not going to vote for Bush?

I had been working on them before. A combination of the Iraq war, lies, the obvious contradictions and hypocrisy… and having their son over there. He was at Baghdad International Airport when one guy died in his platoon. It’s extremely personal, all this political stuff. Bush doesn’t know anyone over there fighting this war.

At the University of Illinois–I don’t know anyone in or beyond my program who knows of anybody over there. Most academic analyses examine it] on the corporate level, the economics behind it…considering contracts, and patterns of misinformation…It’s not that this is wrong or unimportant, but the actual people over there fighting and dying get overlooked until someone says the word “draft” or now “torture.” It seems soldiers are left out of the analysis.

What is the role of class in the Iraq war?

The important thing to me is for other anti-war people to not discount the role of class and the workers in this war–the soldiers–and the ones running the war, “the power elite”.

I’m afraid for [my brother] and his life, all the people he knows. It’s politically painfully clear how the personal is political, especially in this situation. Just to know I didn’t believe this to begin with, especially the way Bush did it, unilaterally, not going through the UN.

All my worst fears are starting to come to light.

The class divisions are glaring and angering. [People in Congress] don’t know the people over there fighting for them, fighting for their contracts. If they knew people over there they’d have a completely different outlook, from the beginning there would have been much more scrutiny and careful consideration. The conflation of government and capitalism is hard for me personally to take….

For my brother, he was just getting his political consciousness. He had just read Howard Zinn’s “Peoples History.” He was fascinated by that. At the same time he was able to go to college because of the National Guard…

What’s so fascinating about the privatization of the military and especially the civilian contractors that act as guards for high profile guys like Paul Bremer, is that they are paid a substantial amount more than the actual soldiers per day. (I don’t know exact amount but I would like to). They are paid something like $1500 per day out of the same $80 billion contract that pays the soldiers, but they are civilians, retired soldiers, who can’t be court martialed but are also fighting this war.

Where does that fall in the Geneva Convention? This compromises the safety of the soldiers over there because these “shadow soldiers” aren’t held accountable to the same laws. It also compromises the safety of civilians. It is the collapse between a democratic government and capitalist economy. It is war for profit with records to show it, disguised as democracy and the makeup is running.

What is your response to the recent evidence that this war was waged on the basis of “misinformation”? Do you feel betrayed?

I didn’t support going to Iraq from the outset. I didn’t feel they had made a case on their own grounds to begin with. Not surprised. More than anything, I feel sad that “misinformation” was used to gain support from Americans, which has played a large part in this political rift we’re seeing. Some people feel that since they supported the war at the outset they have to continue to support it, like you can’t turn around midstream. They don’t want to believe that the president would twist and stretch the truth until it breaks. Others feel betrayed and jaded by politics and really angry. I’m also angry, but since I didn’t believe the reasons to begin with there was no betrayal…

Now that we’re there, what do we do? How do we get out? I want someone to figure out a way to get out of there. I want my brother home…

What are your brother’s views on the war?

It’s gotten more confusing because he’s over there fighting for his life. He did tell me he drives out there and sees little kids playing soccer in the fields; [there are] little kids giving thumbs up sign; they want us here; they want a stable life; they don’t want to have to hear gunshots and bombings. He identifies with those people more than anything. He thinks that there should be less controlling and more helping to get them on their way to self-government.

Before he went we would talk about it. Since he’s been over there I don’t want to bring it up.

I didn’t want him to doubt that I support him–if we are going to be over in Iraq, they do need good people. Its Bush’s policy I didn’t support.

What does it mean to support the troops?

I think it means take care of their families at home so they don’t have to have food stamps to survive, to make sure family can pay their bills, to make sure they have proper equipment over there to complete jobs they need to complete, to make sure they and their families have proper health care, to make sure they are given full disclosure on what they have been exposed to so they can seek appropriate treatment, to make sure they are debriefed and given a chance to reintegrate into civilian life, to not treat as scapegoats for the policies of the higher ranked officers. I think it means to take their requests seriously, not to abuse them by extending their time over there, which in effect amounts to a draft. I’ve heard stories of soldiers who are on the bus, ready to go home and then told, by the way, you can’t go home–these are reservists and guard. You have to stay 3, 6 months longer. That is psychologically damaging. That is not supporting the troops.

What would you say to a young person who was thinking about joining the military?

I would just ask them questions–why? What are you trying to accomplish? What are your reasons? Are you well informed about actual military life? What do they say they can give you? Have you talked to actual military families and soldiers? Are you prepared to do what they may require of you? I don’t tell people what to do. They go they get 17-, 18- year olds; they recruit you in high school as part of No Child Left Behind. They recruit kids who don’t have political consciousness. Look at the demographic data. They’re overwhelmingly young. I’d venture to guess they’re disproportionately from rural and inner-city working class background too.

Now that they’re over there more families and veterans [are speaking out against the war]–To me this is historic.

Because of that I think that the politicians are not able to ignore the needs of the troops. This is historic because now you actually have veterans of previous wars mobilized against this war. This started to happen during Vietnam, but now you have veterans from many wars organized against this war in Iraq. This is historic because families with soldiers are also mobilized and organizing against this war in Iraq, even and perhaps especially if their loved one is over there.

The meaning “support the troops” no longer means to support the government and its policies without any distinction. The meaning “support the troops” has been better defined to support the actual soldiers and what is in their interests. What we are finding, families of soldiers and veterans, is that the interests of this government is not in the interest of the soldiers.

Elizabeth Weill-Greenburg is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism. My work has been published in In These Times, The Nation and Counterpunch.org. I am working on a book about military families who oppose the Iraq war. She can be reached at: e-weill-greenberg@northwestern.edu

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