The media frenzy surrounding Trump’s political posturing about his wall during the latest government shutdown should not distract us from the fact that 5,000 active duty soldiers remain stationed at the border. This deployment is wasteful, not only of taxpayer dollars, but of potential, valuable experiences that the working people who are our troops could be receiving.
Why engage in this venture? According to now former Defense Secretary Mattis, “in terms of readiness, it’s actually, I believe, so far improving our readiness for deployments.” While that hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement, one must ask what deployments might the administration be planning and why? It is even more bizarre given that Trump has decided to remove soldiers from Afghanistan and Syria.
Such mixed signals highlight the mission’s lack of a clear purpose. Even its name – originally called Operation Faithful Patriot – has changed due to disputes over the reason for the troop’s presence on the border to confront a few thousand Central American asylum seekers. Some have alleged that the deployment was an attempt to rally political support before the midterm elections. Regardless, the deployment’s lack of a coherent objective, as President Trump has given no specifics, has hurt troop morale. With an estimated cost of $200 to $300 million, this use of tax dollars is impossible to justify, as is the waste of soldiers’ time.
What is clear is that military enlistment is potentially a vehicle for upward mobility. Now, perhaps more than ever, this is relevant for who is joining up. Active duty soldiers in the United States Armed Forces are disproportionately rural, people of color, and middle class. According to one study, 44% of military recruits come from rural areas, whereas less than 20% of the country’s total population reside in the countryside. People of color – African-American, Latino, and Asian – make up over 40% of enlisted personnel. Economically, middle-class people enlist at a higher rate than either the poor or the rich.
Whether they reside in rural areas, are people of color, or members of the middle class, working families in the United States currently struggle with job insecurity, an ever-increasing cost of living, and the reality that economically they will do worse than past generations.
Military service is about, or at least it should be about, more than war. It is a way to gain job experience in professions, including engineering, mechanics, and nursing. From the military, working people acquire skills that they put to use in the service of our country and then later, to get ahead in life.
In this deployment, what have the soldiers done at the border? According to one report, “very little.” They live in tents with little electricity and without hot meals and they receive no special pay for this operation because there is no combat. Troops cannot actively assist in border security given that the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act restricts the ability of the military to enforce domestic law – immigration law included. This was made clear on November 25th, when a group of migrants allegedly rushed the Tijuana/San Diego border to enter the United States. It was not military personnel, but border patrol agents, who shot tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.
If troops are to be deployed within the United States, then why not set them to work at sites in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the fires that ravaged California, or the hurricanes that devastated Florida and Puerto Rico? There’s plenty of opportunity for military personnel to use and hone their skills in a positive way. Stringing barbed wire for a mission with unclear objectives is hardly the highest and best use of their time.
The reality is that military personnel work for their country and their families. Unfortunately for them, this current operation contributes nothing to their training, as they labor for little more than stroking the President’s vanity and boosting his political ambitions.