The Politics of War

The Iraq war, like most American wars, is a "poor man's fight."

"The great error of nearly all studies of war...has been to consider war as an episode in foreign policies, when it is especially an act of interior politics; and the most atrocious of all." —Simone Weil

We made a sorry company the other morning standing on the snowbank where the local mall road joins the interstate holding up our "Honk To Stop the War" signs—for there were only six of us, our average age was 60, and we looked frail hunched against the cutting wind. Still, our signs stimulated seventy-five honks in an hour. They more than offset the fingers we got, and the teenage girls who brayed "Go home, hippies!" made us laugh. We were scared –I was—by the rough-looking man who stopped, rolled down his passenger-side window, and, answering the question—"Four Years of War, What For?"—asked on our big sign, shouted, "For your freedom, you fucking assholes!"

We joked grimly that we’d be back next year and the year after that and beyond if any of the declared Republican presidential candidates wins in 2008 or if Hillary Clinton, who says she will keep troops in Iraq through her term, wins for the Democrats. Of course, by then the Army will have run out of soldiers. Already it’s accepting high school dropouts and young men who served time. One-third of servicewomen report being sexually-assaulted by male soldiers; imagine the statistics when, as seems inevitable if the war lasts, the Army gets down to the sociopaths and the border-line psychotics. It’s already let in something like five-hundred white supremacists, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. More can be expected. Racist web sites are urging haters to join up to learn how to handle heavy weapons for the coming race war.

The shooting gallery in Iraq is rendering the military toxic (one hopes) to the suggestible kids in America’s rural towns and urban barrios who make up the "all-volunteer" army. As examples of official callousness (the mice and mold at Walter Reed) and traumatic maiming (the public "acting-out" by untreated psychiatric casualties, the sight of young men with hooks for hands, high-tech legs, and bad skin grafts) mount, recruiting will be further impeded. Men who would be dead in earlier wars are surviving this one—the ratio of wounded to dead is 16 to 1. How they’ll manage after they leave the operating room — or when the nightmares begin—is the real question, since this is the first time so many men so grievously harmed by war have come home . What jobs for the PTSD sufferers? How many employers will take a chance on them? One Pennsylvania man unlikely to find work was profiled in the New York Times a year or two into the war. Blinded and brain-damaged by flying metal, he has bouts of intense anger. His swearing dismayed his parents. They care for him now, but What will happen when we’re gone?, his mother wondered. Unless he gets married, chances are he’ll be warehoused in a substandard nursing home like thousands of others who "answered the call" of a country in which the gap between what’s owed to the government in taxes vs. what’s actually paid totaled $347 billion in 2001, and in which businesses legally evade taxation by "offshoring" their headquarters to tax havens like the Cayman Islands (where one five-story building is the mailing address for 10,000 corporations). Businesses and rich people illegally offshore $100 billion in taxable income a year. It is painful to learn that a private company (led by a former Halliburton executive!) ran parts of the infamous outpatient department at Walter Reed. Under Bush, public functions become private sector opportunities for those ponying up campaign contributions.

Money brings us to the “internal politics” of war — its "atrocious" class politics, to quote Simone Weil. You can write the history of a war as "a history of flesh," in Paul Fussell’s words; or ask Lenin’s question: Who benefits?  Who benefits by the Pennsylvania vet’s lacerated flesh? Top of my list sits Iran. Under Saddam, Iraq was its mortal enemy; thanks to the USA, it’s now ruled (if that’s the word) by an Iran-friendly Shiite regime. Then there’s Halliburton billing the pliant Pentagon for towels bearing the monogram of one of its subsidiaries and serving bad water to the thirsty troops; there’s the oil companies set to sign Production Sharing Agreements with the Iraqi government (guaranteeing them 25 years of profits as high as 75% in exchange for modernizing Iraq’s oil fields); there’s  the convicted bank embezzler and neo-con darling Ahmed Chalabi, now installed in the Iraqi government, and one of these days likely to make a major contribution to the American Enterprise Institute; and there’s George W. Bush.  He probably owes his reelection to the invasion of Iraq. As Donald Rumsfeld complained, Afghanistan did not have enough targets to bomb and so could not make the public forget the chain of blunders surrounding September 11. Bush needed Iraq to change the subject from the now-open scandal of his incompetence.

But wait…What about our "freedom?" Isn’t that what the troops are dying for in Iraq? Only those who have to believe still believe that.

From the archives:

"Low-Class Conclusions" (April 1993)
A widely reported study claiming that all classes shared the burden of the Vietnam War is preposterous. By James Fallows

The U.S. Military
Atlantic writings from 1878 to 2004.

Like this war, most of America’s wars, and nearly all of Europe’s, have been "poor man’s fights." In the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War, plantation owners and their sons were exempt from conscription if they owned twenty slaves under the "20-Nigger-Law." Conscripted southerners with means could hire poor men to fight for them. In the North, "substitutes" cost as much as $1,500—roughly four years’ wages for a factory worker. In World War I, college students who enrolled in the "Student Army Training Corps" could avoid induction for three years. "By the time the deferments had expired," write Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss in their classic study, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, The War, and the Vietnam Generation (1978), "the war was over." After Pearl Harbor 100,000 college students won deferments, but subsequently they were reserved for men "preparing for critical occupations." As the war ground on, the draft nearly emptied college campuses. This led to worries that a universal draft jeopardized the nation’s best and brightest. So in 1950 the Selective Service adopted the "student deferment": college students could stay out of the service by ranking in the top half of their class—an elite within an elite. The story of  student deferments during Vietnam is well-known.  Baskir and Strauss quote the "mother of a draft-deferred son" who "spoke for millions when she boasted that he was ‘a boy who knew how to take advantage of his opportunities.’" Dick Cheney sure knew his. He timed his entry into graduate school, his marriage, and the birth of at least one of his children to avoid Vietnam, a war he supported and better men fought. Notoriously, as he callously remarked, Cheney "had other priorities." Whereas hundreds of men from Harvard’s class of 1940 served in World War II and 35 died, only 56 of the 1,200 in the class of 1970 served in the military, just two in Vietnam. Overall, 9% of college graduates saw combat in Vietnam as against 17% of high-school grads. Men from "low-income" families represented 19% of those sent to Vietnam and 15% of combat soldiers or marines; by contrast, men from "high-income" families, represented 9% and 7% respectively. As for minorities, 24% of the men who died in combat in 1965 were black. General S. L. A. Marshall found that "in the average rifle company, the strength was 50% composed of Negroes, Southwestern Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Nisei, and so on.  But a real-cross-section of American youth? Almost never."

Today’s Army is hardly "a real cross-section of American youth" either. If the sons and daughters of the elite had to serve, we would not have invaded Iraq. It was easy for Bush to do with the socially anonymous young men and women at hand, never mind that most had signed up in hopes of moving up in an increasingly stratified society that offered them few other choices.  Hey, they "volunteered." So while a draft is desirable not only for the sake of social equality but as a brake on foreign-policy adventurism, it would also spread the worst of military culture—submission to those manipulable man-eating abstractions: duty, honor, and country. Unless we invade Iran, the draft won’t return. Instead, Iraq will break the army, and by Hillary’s second term, recruiters, using the bait of U.S citizenship, will have to troll the Third World for soldiers. An army without a country will protect Exxon-Mobil's Iraq pipelines for a country without an army. For more details, see Cullen Murphy’s forthcoming book, Are We Rome?