Soldiers of Misfortune: Contrivance vs. Reality in the U.S. Military

The USA has never excepted itself from the timeworn tradition whereby a nation uses its poor people to fight its wars. When country calls, the underemployed and underpaid flood into the front lines, while young folks with connections to power and money tend to be busy doing other things. In dictatorships as well as in putative democracies, the fact that foot-soldiers are disproportionately drawn from the working and indigent classes is almost universally accepted as an uncondoned reality. Hardly anybody talks about it except socialists and sociologists. The media discusses the make-up of the military almost not at all, pandering instead to a vague, unexamined consensual presumption that we who share the same landmass are more or less equally likely to die in its name.Politicians invariably use the royal we when extolling the sacrifices made by recruits and their families, yet in all of both houses of Congress, there are only two lawmakers who have children in the military. One cannot help but feel that the implications of this statistic are not fully appreciated by blue-collar supporters of the war party. Were it not for the collective fantasy that all Americans live and die democratically, surely the privileged policymakers who stand in front of the cameras and bloviate about the heroism of “our sons and daughters” would be denounced as hypocrites of the most tasteless and tactless sort. One imagines members of military families in the audience nudging each other and quoting the old joke where Tonto says to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean we, white man?”

It is a law of group psychology that members of an underclass tend to identify with their oppressors. Here we have the reverse: the oppressors are pretending to identify with the underclass. It almost goes without saying that none of the scions of the corporate aristocracy who comprise Bush’s inner circle has served a day in the armed forces. That George (“Bring-’em-on”) Bush was himself a no-show during the Viet Nam war is no secret; his stint going AWOL from the cushiest imaginable military duty in 1972 is the stuff of late-night comedy monologues. In what is perhaps the only point of agreement in an increasingly polarized war debate, everyone seems to understand that the architects of the dirty, bloody conflict in Iraq have no intention of getting dirty and bloody themselves.

Occasionally, the big guys at the top and the little guys at the bottom do meet up, sort of. Bush left Washington for a quick visit to California this past summer (at least it was speculated to be Bush, behind a dark window of one of the limos that passed near the crowd). Outside the hotel where his gazillion-dollar-a-plate fundraising luncheon was to take place, there were lots of everyday folks lining the streets, standing politely behind the secret service barricades, holding little flags in their hands and carrying babies upon their shoulders with little flags in their hands. Smiling and applauding, many among the faithful seemed genuinely moved to be in the quasi-presence of their commander-in-chief. A majority of them seemed to be from the segment of the population most likely to supply its young as cannon fodder in the greatest numbers.

This is a profound irony of demographic politics, one which has not gotten as much attention as it would seem to warrant. Why is there not more of a public outcry, among Bush’s non-wealthy supporters, in reaction to the ravine of difference between what he says and what he does? It is a disparity which grows more enormous daily, right along with the numbers of billions Bechtel is making from reconstruction and the numbers of body bags shipped back from the desert. What barricades of the mind keep so many Americans from noticing a credibility gap as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon?

Credulity and faith are separated by a thin line, especially when the stakes are as high as they are in war; and political speechwriters no less than Madison Avenue trend-crafters know that the psychology of persuasion works upon emotion, not upon logic. Once a good salesman has identified his customer’s crucial emotional button, he need only match it with the right phrase or image, and push it again and again.

The language used by the government and the media to talk about the military is very telling. Consider the slogan support the troops, with which war promoters have hit the mother lode. It is a phrase whose denotation has been completely replaced with a tailored set of connotations. Associated in the vernacular with patriotism and empathy, the phrase has become so emotionally freighted that it seems to pre-empt normal linguistic brain function. Common sense would suggest that if one wanted to actually support a life-imperiled young soldier in a sweltering desert, one would help him out of his battle gear, pay him handsomely and send him home. But buzz phrases like this one, piously and repeatedly deployed, are not intended to convey literal meaning, but to imply, in some cases, the very opposite of what the words express. Support the troops has been pimped by the propagandists into meaning support the administration’s war.

From the designers of today’s “war on terrorism”, we hear catchphrases appropriated from a simpler, more innocent era — or at least a more ignorant one. Chief among these is the call to defend democracy, evoking a Cold War refrain that made little sense then, and makes none at all now. World War II imagery is also making a comeback with Washington spinmeisters, who are doubtless hoping that any comparison with the relative moral clarity of the last “just war” — when it was at least obvious who the enemy was and why we were fighting them– will soften public perception of the chaotic sink-hole that is Iraq.

Rumsfeld et al are refusing to release the numbers of injured G.I.s in this war, nor do they seem to want the public to know who, exactly, is fighting. Hard facts and figures might convey a realistic picture of today’s military, and the White House prefers to convey a soft and fuzzy picture. The seasoned old rallying cry “support the troops” is meant to suggest a full-draft platoon of middle-class soldiers — maybe not your son, specifically, but definitely the boy-next-door — marching off to fight some distinctly foreign foe; i.e. idealistic young white boys up against a foe of a different race. To this end, news stories tend to be illustrated with pictures of Anglo soldiers far more frequently than the statistics would suggest, given that forty per cent of soldiers in today’s volunteer army are African American, and a significant proportion of the rest are Spanish-speaking aliens. (In one of the more bizarre developments of the post-Sept.11 military, the Pentagon has mounted a recruiting campaign aimed at illegal residents, promising them that joining the army will speed up their access to a green card. In a cruel synchronicity, Ashcroft’s stringent new citizenship rules are making it prohibitively difficult for young immigrants to find civilian work; with the result that thousands of young people are being funneled into signing up with their selectively-adoptive Uncle Sam as a deadly employer of last resort.)

Meanwhile, dollars-and-cents support for the troops is actually being taken away. Flicking away a tear for his brave soldiers with one hand, Bush has been trying to cut their pay with the other. And in a side note that would be farcical if it weren’t so tragic, when the wounded come home they are likely to get a cold shoulder from the Veterans’ Administration. As a fall-back strategy, the VA has been labeling as officially undiagnosable the most virulent of the various postwar maladies brought on by the Pentagon’s latest munitions (“Gulf War Syndrome” is now widely believed to be code for depleted uranium poisoning), thus abdicating responsibility both for treating and for causing an unconscionable radiological scourge which, if admitted, would constitute a war crime.

Yet millions of Americans view the army as an all-but-infallible institution set up to safeguard everything they hold dear, including the lives of their sons and daughters. Aided by a round-the-clock flood of corporate-media disinformation, the popular perception of the military seems to be resolutely cleaving to the contrivance rather than to the reality.

The contrivance is perhaps best exemplified by the Jessica Lynch story, a ludicrously transparent bit of Pentagon mythmaking which began as an outsized photo-op and was transformed by an opportunistic media into a fatuous TV drama, despite the fact that the story was exposed as being a fabrication from start to finish.

The reality, of course, is that a small number of severely demented men are sending young people from our nation’s socioeconomic fringes all over the world for the purpose, as Eddie Izzard has so succinctly put it, of stealing countries. What is happening in Iraq is a rather bald case of colonialism, though the post-modern packaging seems to have fooled many observers in this country (Americans may be more familiar with colonialism in its classical trappings, as portrayed in Masterpiece Theatre dramas featuring British commanders taking their tea while pitting one indigenous tribe against another in the name of the Queen). Instead of seeing our own generals as upper-class invaders who are pitting our own people-of-color against those of other countries, the American public as a whole prefers the official version of our national intentions: the one in which we are the generous exporters of a fine, upstanding political system which we are introducing to various benighted countries, one by one, via the (armed) services of a broad spectrum of American youth.

“My son’s over there risking his life for our freedom,” a GI’s mother was quoted in the newspaper as saying the other day. It is a simple-sounding and deeply-felt pronouncement, masking a bevy of rationalizations as complex and torturously layered as baklava. What is particularly heartbreaking to this writer is the realization that if I were that woman, I too would probably go to the ends of human logic and beyond, into mad surrealism, in order to suspend disbelief. If I were a mother who knew that any day I might suffer the most intolerable loss in human experience — the death of a child — I think there would be strict limits upon how much reality I could stand. With my son far away in a landscape exploding with snipers and bombs, I would be teetering along a very thin edge, just bearing up day to day. I doubt if I would be in the mood to discuss dissenting opinions as to the course upon which the president, and by extension my son, and by extension I myself, had decided to embark. I imagine I would find unwelcome any viewpoint which could be construed as suggesting that my precious child was just a pawn in some unspeakably cynical and unjust campaign. To take even the smallest step along that line of inquiry might lead to answers too grotesque to take in.
I do believe I might instead reach for one of the little flags that were being handed out, and then stand in line for the parade. I would probably hang on every word coming from the well-dressed man behind the podium. I would attend with terrible gratitude to this person of power and authority saying that he cares about my boy; that my boy’s life is important, and is part of something important; that all this horror has some kind of meaning.

As if my sanity depended upon it, I would strain to hear between the lines the message that if the unimaginable happened, it would not have happened in vain.