If you’ve been paying attention to the exclusively local media coverage of the funerals of the mostly young American servicemen and security contractors killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, you will have noticed that the families are increasingly finding it necessary to make public statements declaring the goodness and decency of their loved ones who have given their lives in the line of duty or in the service of the corporations that provide manpower to meet the Pentagon’s still growing demand for private security contractors.
“He was noble and always carried himself with honor. He was kind and gentle and always gave all he could without hesitation. He was a loving husband and father. [He] believed in his mission in Iraq. He was a strong man and stood up for what he knew was right.”
“[He] died serving his country and protecting our freedom. [He was] a loving husband and father, a devoted son and brother. He was the best of the best our country had to offer.”
And, in the case of a security contractor, “[He was] a true patriot, a beloved brother, son and friend. . . . It was [his] deep sense of patriotism and his abiding Christian faith that led him to work in Iraq. He wanted to go where good people needed help. He will be dearly missed.”
The sentiments expressed by these families reflect some of the most painful and deeply felt of all human emotions, and none can doubt the families’ sincerity. Surely very few Americans, perhaps especially those who oppose the war, many because they have personally experienced the horror and terrible loss that inevitably accompany war, feel anything other than an empathetic sorrow at these families’ grief.
Though few commentators have dared to broach the topic, it is almost impossible not to recognize that there is something else, something other than shock, loss, and grief at work in these public declarations of the goodness, decency, selflessness, and nobility of America’s fallen heroes. The public statements now in vogue are irrefutable evidence of the families, evidently felt need to defend the honor and integrity of their loved ones. There can be little doubt why the families of America’s war dead find it necessary to issue such statements. They are a response to the ugly, demoralizing truth about America’s so-called war on terror.
In the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, President Bush and his administration over-reacted. The cowboy president and his neoconservative cabal tossed aside the Geneva Conventions and more than half a century of progress in the area of human rights law. They privatized many of the functions of the U.S. military and pressured U.S. intelligence agencies and organizations to provide information favorable to their war plans. Then they and their willingly compliant media operatives used the public airways to stampede the nation into an unnecessary and illegal war in Iraq on the basis of unreliable and falsified intelligence findings.
In the days following September 11, as soon as he regained his typically arrogant bearing, the president, presumably as part of an effort to distract attention from his administration’s culpability in the massive intelligence failure that allowed the worst ever attack on the United States to succeed, publicly appealed to a vigilante ethic, the rough justice of the Old West that predates the established rule of law. “I want justice,” Bush said. “And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.'” (1) On September 17, 2001, the president sounded more like a frontier town marshal getting up a posse or a lynch mob than a president taking the modern world’s only superpower nation to war. That, as it turns out, was no accident.
The tone the president set early on, which appears to have been an accurate reflection of his personal convictions, has had a profound influence on his administration’s war on terror. It’s effects, the unsurprising but nonetheless shocking result of incompetence, malfeasance, haste, and excess in support of questionable ideological goals, can be seen everywhere: A demoralizing torture and abuse scandal of unprecedented proportions that continues to resist all the administration’s attempts at whitewash and cover-up; reluctant allies abandoning a bloody, destructive, and enormously expensive occupation gone-wrong in Iraq; and a counter-productive foreign policy driven by a war on terror that produces more terrorists than it eliminates, all with no end in sight.
When the president’s publicly stated rationale for the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was revealed as a pack of lies designed to deceive the American people, the occupation and those actively involved in it necessarily became somewhat suspect even though many of them doubtlessly trusted their president and believed the false and misleading statements with which he and his administration and its media operatives took the nation to war. Photographs of U.S. troops and private contractors engaged in the brutal abuse, torture, and sexual humiliation of Iraqis and others at Abu Ghraib revealed America’s ill-conceived foray into Iraq as something other than the noble effort to democratize the Middle East advertised by the Bush administration as the search for weapons of mass destruction proved fruitless. Several subsequent investigations, even as they have sought to absolve higher-ups in the chain of command, have revealed persuasive evidence of systematic, wide-spread abuse and torture as an integral element of the Bush administration’s war on terror. (2) By absolving the civilian leadership in the Pentagon of responsibility and rewarding the authors of the policies that led to torture and abuse, including former White House counsel and now Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Bush has protected the generals and his loyal political appointees by shifting blame and suspicion to the rank-and-file, those who actually risk their lives day after day in the war zones in behalf of his deeply-flawed policies.
On the face of it, privatized war is an inherently evil and fundamentally un-American enterprise. There is little that is noble about war. Ask any combat veteran. There is even less that is noble about the Bush administration’s war-for-profit scheme that has, by some estimates, taken the lives of over 100,000 Iraqis since the 2003 invasion began. Private companies have always been allowed to make a reasonable profit from defense contracts, but the Bush administration has turned war into a get-rich-quick scheme in which “no-bid (3) and “cost-plus (4) contracts worth millions and billions of tax dollars go with minimal supervision to corporations such as Blackwater USA, CACI, Custer Battles, and Kellogg, Brown & Root, the engineering arm of Halliburton, which was formerly headed by vice-president Cheney, who is widely reported to have been the driving force behind the neoconservative cabal’s determined effort to manufacture intelligence findings favorable to the administration’s plans for war. (5)
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has outsourced many military duties to private security firms that offer a wide variety of services, allowing the Bush administration to increase the size and scope of its military operations without resorting to a politically unpopular draft. Private security firms provide highly-skilled and experienced former military personnel for especially risky operations, for which some former U.S. special forces soldiers and officers trained at taxpayer expense reportedly charge as much as $1,500 per day. Many of some 35 private security firms with contracts in Iraq employ foreign nationals, including former members of the apartheid-era South African military and police forces. Blackwater USA, a major private security firm, reportedly employs about 60 ex-commandos trained by the regime of former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, now under indictment for human rights crimes. (6)
In the era of privatization, private security firms, which operate behind a veil of secrecy (7), wield substantial influence in official Washington not least because of the huge sums of money they are able to demand for their services. No less an American hero than Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th president and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII, so intensely distrusted what is euphemistically called the defense establishment that he offered this prescient warning to Americans as he left the White House:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. (8)
Reliable estimates have put the number of private security contractors employed by the Pentagon in Iraq at about 20,000. Some 5,000 of those are heavily armed, while others engaged in vital military logistical support roles such as driving, maintenance, training, communications, and interrogating prisoners are less heavily armed. All are paid very handsomely for their services. Private security firms have given new meaning to the term “soldier of fortune, and money is typically a very important factor in the contractors’ decisions to risk their lives for the Bush administration’s plan to democratize Iraq at gun point and secure that country’s oil reserves for U.S. oil companies. A Washington Post article reported last month that security contract personnel in Iraq average $500 to $600 per day for their services:
As the Blackwater convoy sped down the airport highway, John “Tool” Freeman, a red-headed ex-Marine, was at the wheel of the lead Mamba, a high-riding, $70,000 armored vehicle designed to withstand antitank mines. Used by the South African military in Angola, the vehicle is Blackwater’s primary means of zipping State Department employees and other nations’ diplomats to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. For additional protection, the convoys are shadowed by helicopters with armed guards perched at the open doors scanning for potential attackers. Freeman, of Portsmouth, Va., said he joined Blackwater after seeing some Marines on television during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “I’d been missing it for a while,” he recalled. “I said ‘Man, I really need to get back into this.'” But with average pay of $500 to $600 a day, he said, the money was also a big draw for him and his buddies. He said he planned to work for Blackwater for three years to save up cash for retirement and a sailboat. Most of us have a plan it’s like, make hay while the sun shines,” he said. (9)
Saving up cash for retirement and to buy a sailboat are, to put it mildly, not traditional American reasons for going off to fight foreign wars. The lure of high-paying jobs that promise young men more money in six months than they can earn at home in two years is strong. But there is something unsavory and distinctly un-American about the very idea of going to war for mercenary motives, and that has not escaped most Americans despite the Bush administration’s deceptive, jingoistic sales pitch. That’s why, from the beginning, the president and his glib spokespersons adamantly insisted that the invasion of Iraq was all about defending America from Saddam Hussein’s deadly and non-existent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, not about gaining exclusive access to and control over Iraq’s huge oil reserves.
On December 15, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked by CBS’s 60 Minutes presenter Steve Croft, “Mr. Secretary, what do you say to people who think this is about oil? Rumsfeld responded: “Nonsense. It just isn,t. There there there are certain things like that, myths that are floating around. I,m glad you asked. I it has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil. (10) Yet, during the invasion and in its aftermath, U.S. troops acted immediately to secure Iraq’s oil industry infrastructure and little else. Rumsfeld’s army stood passively by as looters ransacked the rest of the country, including arms and munitions storage facilities, with abandon. Later, rather than employ Iraqis desperately in need of work, combat-booted Coalition Provisional Authority honcho Paul Bremer arbitrarily disbanded the Iraqi army and left its soldiers to their own devices in order to provide lucrative jobs for private contractors, a great many of them from the southern U.S. states that form the core of Bush’s ideological base. American troops have paid and continue to pay a terrible price in blood for the neoconservative Bush administration’s ideologically-inspired mistakes, misjudgments, and miscalculations.
In the 230-year history of our country it has never before been necessary to pay Americans exorbitant salaries to get them to defend their homes, their families, and their country in time of war. Americans have willingly fought and bravely died for little or no pay when the cause was just, freedom was at risk, and war was necessary. Today, military recruiters are failing to meet their quotas, not because Americans are unpatriotic, cowardly, or lazy, but because Americans increasingly find it difficult to trust a government that threw the rulebook out the window, rushed the country into war with a frenzied media campaign based on lies, sent troops with substandard equipment and no protective gear into combat to fight and to die, and then, when questioned, said, “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” (11) Consider for a moment how men and women who enlisted in “not the army you might want or wish to have to serve their country in its time of need might feel when they see private citizens and foreign nationals doing jobs very similar to their own in the war zone for salaries that exceed their own by $100,000 or more per year.
When America goes to war because her elected leaders have no choice but to send troops in harm’s way to defend the country against “an imminent threat (12) to national security, the families of those who make the ultimate sacrifice for home, family, and country feel no need to publicly declare the goodness, decency, nobility, and patriotism of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins, because the honor of their cause and the qualities that endear them to us and ensure our survival are never in doubt. But when America goes to war because dishonest and corrupt leaders want to tighten and maintain their hold on power, provide a boost for a sagging economy, and make it possible for their inordinately wealthy friends to reap windfall profits at the expense of the troops and their families, cruelly divisive and demoralizing dynamics obtain. Mass round-ups and detentions of innocent civilians, torture and abuse of prisoners and detainees, America’s honor and prestige at the lowest point ever, and investigations that whitewash the president’s men and blame it all on the enlisted personnel. Thus the obscene spectacle of the grieving families at funerals forced by the president’s dishonesty to defend the honor of their dead even as they mourn: “He was noble and always carried himself with honor. “[He was] a loving husband and father, a devoted son and brother. “He wanted to go where good people needed help. “He will be dearly missed. Small wonder that the president, desperately attempting to hide behind a façade of rigid religiosity that glorifies war (13) and false patriotism that exalts the very evils it claims to despise, never attends the funerals of those who have died in the line of duty. How could he?
As flag-draped coffins continue to stream back to America under cover of darkness and a media blackout, as the funerals for the war dead continue to receive only local news coverage, as voices of dissent are systematically excluded by mainstream media, last week in North Carolina, the state that is home to Blackwater USA, there occurred an obscene spectacle of another sort in a Baptist church when a group of deacons voted to expel church members who don,t support President Bush and his policies. (14)
Bush supporters in the congregation reportedly stood and applauded as excommunicated Democrats walked out of their church. Bush made no public statement distancing himself from the events in North Carolina. He and his neoconservative cabal seem not to understand or care that theocracy, one-party government in which only those who hold certain religious views are allowed to participate, is antithetical to our form of government and our way of life. In fact, the president’s silence signals his support for House Resolution 235, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act sponsored by Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina. (15) HR 235, which now has 165 co-sponsors, all of whom wish to see religion further politicized, would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow churches and other religious organizations to engage in explicitly partisan political activity, including endorsing favored candidates and demonizing others, while maintaining their tax exempt status. If HR 235 becomes law, the only possible outcome is an America ever more deeply and dangerously divided.
The violence the Bush administration has done and seems to be determined to continue doing to the American body politic, the injury to the intelligence community and to the military, the harm to the ethos of honesty and integrity in government and the rule of law, and, not least, the insult to America’s fallen heroes and their families, all of this is as inexcusable and as unforgivable as the chaos, death, and destruction visited upon Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians and others as a direct result of the president’s counterproductive war on terror and the unfolding disaster that passes for a neoconservative foreign policy. (16)
America desperately needs leaders who are courageous enough to put principles before partisan politics, leaders who can be trusted not to sacrifice the lives and the honor of American civilian and military personnel and private citizens on the altar of corporate greed in wars of conquest and national aggrandizement, leaders who can be trusted to resist the temptation to politicize religion and turn the United States of America into a warrior theocracy bent on world domination or the apocalyptic glory of death and destruction, whichever comes first.
MICHAEL GILLESPIE can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org