The failed war in Iraq — and its effect on the U.S. military — has the potential to spark the U.S. public to fundamentally rethink the role of force in U.S. foreign policy, and one of the central questions for the future of the United States is whether this questioning can mature and deepen.
Can we in the so-called “lone superpower” face that we are now a nation of mercenaries?
As the bad news from Iraq continues to worsen by the day, it looks as if the Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard all will miss their annual recruitment goals. A 2004 study commissioned by the Army found that recruiting has been undermined by casualties, objections to the war, and media coverage of such events as the Abu Ghraib scandal.
These statistics signal an important shift, especially when combined with anecdotal evidence suggesting that it is not just an aversion to physical risk that is curtailing enlistment but an understanding that this war isn’t worth the risks. At the same time, however, public opinion polls reveal confusion and contradictory trends as well. Recent polls show that more than half the public believes the United States can’t win the war and can’t establish a stable democracy in Iraq, but surveys also indicate that many continue to believe that sending the troops was the right thing to do.
This suggests that a majority of the public can recognize that the United States has failed in the stated mission but cannot yet see that the stated mission was a lie. This was never a war about weapons of mass destruction or stopping terrorism (indeed, the war has created terrorism, on both sides), nor is it at heart about establishing democracy in Iraq. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is — as all U.S. interventions in Middle East have been — about extending and deepening U.S. dominance in the region with the world’s most crucial energy resources.
Part of the barrier to a clear understanding of this is the belief that the United States, by definition, always acts benevolently in the world. But also standing in the way of an honest analysis is the reality that the brutal imperialist U.S. policies, while devised by elites, are being carried out by ordinary Americans. Can we in the United States come to terms with the fact that we are the “good Germans” of our era, routinely allowing pseudo-patriotic loyalties to override moral decision-making? Can we look at ourselves honestly in the mirror when so many of us are implicated in the imperialist system?
From the people who make the weapons to the military personnel who use them — and all the other people whose livelihoods or networks of friends and family connect them to the armed forces — most of the U.S. public has some relationship to the military. Any talk of closing a military base sparks almost automatic resistance from neighboring communities that have become dependent on the base economically. Large segments of the corporate sector rely on military or military-related contracts, and executives and employees alike understand what that means for profits and wages.
As U.S. anthropologist Catherine Lutz put it in her book “Homefront”, an insightful study of the effects of the militarization on American life: “We all inhabit an army camp, mobilized to lend support to the permanent state of war readiness Are we all military dependents, wearers of civilian camouflage?”
The problem is not just that the United States now has a mercenary army but that we are a mercenary society.
The problem is not just that our army fights imperialist wars, but that virtually all of us are in some way implicated in that imperialist system.
It can be difficult to face the truth about an institution that has so deeply insinuated itself into our lives. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. power elite have done a masterful job of transforming the country into a militarized state with a permanent wartime economy. There has always been resistance to that project on the margins, but because the United States is an incredibly affluent nation — and these policies promise continued affluence — there is strong motivation for many to ignore the consequences of this militarization.
Ironically, it may turn out that the weak link in this system will be not the civilian mercenaries but the military ones. Historically, colonial powers have imported mercenary forces to do the dirty work of conquest and control. In the United States, our own citizens are being forced into that role. If the armed forces, inability to meet recruitment goals continues, the effect may not be simply new constraints on the ability of U.S. leaders to fight additional wars but a more widespread questioning of the imperial system itself.
Consider these stories, told in the book “Generation Kill” about the Iraq war. One Marine told author Evan Wright that a “bunch of psycho officers sent us into shit we never should have gone into.” Another Marine, upon his return home, was invited to speak to a wealthy community as a war hero. He told them: “I am not a hero. Guys like me are just a necessary part of things. To maintain this way of life in a fine community like this, you need psychos like us to go and drop a bomb on somebody’s house.”
How long can an army continue when combat personnel view both officers and themselves as psychos? What will happen if that Marine’s recognition that imperial wars are fought to protect affluence and privilege at home spreads on the front lines of those wars?
U.S. political elites have few options. Barring a serious economic collapse that forces more people into the military to survive, recruitment will continue to be a problem. Reinstituting a draft is not an option; there would be a huge political cost if middle- and upper-class Americans were asked to surrender their children to direct participation in the military wing of the mercenary machine. The offer of citizenship to immigrants who are willing to fight can’t make up the gap.
Right now there is incredible tension in U.S. culture. Many continue to hold on tightly to the idea that the service personnel are being killed and maimed in Iraq for a noble cause, which is hardly surprising; acknowledging that a loved one was killed in the pursuit not of liberty and justice, but instead for elite domination, can intensify the already deep pain of the loss. Others are abandoning illusions and recognizing the motivations of the powerful. Obituaries of dead soldiers talk of their “great pride in serving their country, while a collective sense that the Iraq War is nothing to be proud of deepens every day. No one wants to demonize the front-line troops — those with the least power to change policy — but the reality of why the U.S. military fights, along with the brutal way in which the wars are fought, become increasingly hard to ignore.
Tension can be creative, leading to deeper understanding and progressive social change. Or it can be exploited to suppress that understanding and block change. Elites almost always attempt the latter. The choice that the U.S. public makes is crucial to our future, and the world’s.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, and the author of “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.