America's Good Germans?
A Mercenary Society
by Robert Jensen
(Information Clearing House)
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
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.
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