I grew up on or near military bases. From Maryland to Pakistan; from Germany to Alaska, my youth involved moving every couple years, carrying a military identification card that listed me as a dependent and gave me access to facilities on any US military base in the world. I never really questioned this status in my younger years. It was just the way it was. Some kids’ fathers worked construction, some sold insurance, some were doctors and some delivered the mail. My father was in the military. That meant we went where he was told to go.
I never really resented the moving around. My parents were not the more typical US military couple who moved to a base overseas and then rarely if ever ventured out into the local economy. In fact, my mother embraced the world on the other side of the base entrance. For example, when we lived in Peshawar, Pakistan during the mid-1960s we spent at least one weekend a month in the city of Peshawar, visiting merchants in the bazaar and experiencing the hustle and hustlers that come with such marketplaces. In the early 1970s in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, I spent plenty of time hanging out at the Goethe Universitat listening to rock music and political speeches. In addition, much of my time was also spent attending cultural events in the city and just being in the city. My parents and siblings did their own share of shopping and enjoying the local culture too.
Having lived the life of a military dependent and observed the institution itself almost daily, I knew I never wanted to join the ranks. Once I became aware of the US war in Vietnam, this certainty was exponentially reinforced. When my father came back from his time in Vietnam in February 1970, I was in high school and already making plans to avoid the draft. I wasn’t alone. There wasn’t much glory in the uniform among my friends. Those who weren’t as politically minded as me just didn’t want to go to Vietnam or some other war. Later, a few of them ended up in the military after that war ended and before the next one began. For the most part, they joined because it was the best (or the only) option left open to them in their mid-twenties during the recession that began in 1973.
Then came the nationalist resurgence of the 1980s. Ronald Reagan and his coterie of propagandists and makeup artists contrived a charade that updated the mythos of the United States, waving the red, white and blue in the world’s face, lying to Congress in his fight against democracy in Central America, and pouring the nation’s wealth into the coffers of the Pentagon and the industries that produce its weapons. There was not a lot of substance to his bluster, but Americans fell for it just like they went for the blow dried hair prevalent at the time. He called it morning in America, as if the decades before had been some kind of night complete with nightmares. Of course, there were nightmares; just ask the people of Vietnam. However, they were different than the ones Mr. Reagan and his backers had dreamed.
“Be All You Can Be.” This was the Pentagon’s mantra throughout the 1980s. With the draft gone since 1973, the military’s advertising budget grew. We’ll never know how effective the advertising actually was, but recruitment goals were reached every year through the 1980s. Reasons for this varied, but the uncertain civilian job market and the fact that there was little chance regular troops would be involved in combat are two such reasons. The 1990s began with the first major US war since Vietnam. The attack on Iraq and the subsequent campaign was brief and deadly mostly to the people being attacked. Other than in the antiwar community, the military was championed across the board, with generals tossing the first baseball at professional ball games and towns hosting parades. The veterans themselves were left to fend for themselves, with many ending up in the streets of cities around the nation. This scenario has repeated itself ever since. That is a period which includes at least two more wars and dozens of other military escapades.
The events of 9-11 stirred some young people to join for reasons that were not monetary. They are the ones most likely to be the most nationalistic. Simultaneously, they are also the most likely to be disillusioned should they discover the truth of their service. In other words, if they realize they are being used by forces who really do not give a damn about them. The task of what remains of the antiwar movement is to provide information that might lead these troops and those who joined for pecuniary reasons to that conclusion.
After a decline in enlistments during the peak period of US deaths during the second Iraq war, advertising agencies paid by the Pentagon came up with the slogan “An army of one.” This slogan attempts to incorporate the hyper individualist ethos sold to today’s youth into the hierarchical single minded unit the military hopes to be. Each individual, from the Navy Seal to the infantryman, is supposed to incorporate the idea that the desires and demands of the elites the military defends should become their desires too. According to this scenario, each kill becomes the individual troop’s victory and, like the gangster boss who insists his lessers involve themselves in murder to insure their loyalty, makes the soldier an accomplice in the Pentagon’s murder spree.
As Army General Dempsey channels his inner William Westmoreland and tells Congress that troops could end up back on the ground in Iraq (and perhaps Syria), one can only hope the young people of the US reject his lies. It is up to the antiwar movement to encourage that rejection.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.