Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, June 04, 2005


by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (June 2005)

All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. - President George W Bush

Whoever wrote the hero's boast into the President's second Inaugural Address at least had sense enough to omit the antecedents for the pronouns. Why spoil the effect by naming protagonists who might or might not show up for the medal ceremonies on the White House lawn? The precaution has proved the better part of valor during the months subsequent to the January speech, the "you" being seen to refer to a quorum of potentially oil-rich politicians in Iraq, the "we" to the infantry squad sent with Tom Hanks to save Private Ryan. President Bush looks to Hollywood for his lessons in geopolitics, and apparently he likes to think of himself as a military commander in the romantic tradition of Generals George A Custer and George S Patton. His adjutants find it hard to say anything in his presence that doesn't go well with the sound of bugles, but before he declares war on Mexico somebody ought to tell him that the American Army is best equipped to stand and serve not as an invincible combat force but as the world's largest and most heavily armed day-care center.

The several degrees of separation between the mission and the presidential mission statement furnished the national news media in February, March, and April with a steady supply of headlines from sources both foreign and domestic. No lack of "tyranny and hopelessness" abroad, almost all of it excused or ignored because where was the profit to be gained or the glory to be won by standing up for liberty in China, North Korea, Chechnya, Israel, Zimbabwe, or the Sudan? Meanwhile, at home, no end of reports about the scarcity of volunteers eager to play the game of capture the flag in the Atlas Mountains or the Khyber Pass. The latter set of dispatches brought word of the rewards currently being offered to the prospective boots on the ground - bonuses of $90,000 over three years ($20,000 in cash, $70,000 in supplemental benefits), forgiveness of college loans, the promise of citizenship to foreign nationals (currently estimated at three percent of the American Army), the acceptance of older recruits (now eligible to the age of thirty-nine), a general lowering of the intellectual and physical requirements (waivers granted for poor test scores, for chronic illness, in some instances for the disability of a criminal record), the chance of a generous pension, an opportunity to study the art of restaurant management.

And yet, despite the inducements and the Army's annual $300 million appropriation for a seductive advertising campaign, the ranks continue to dwindle and thin. Generals speak of "exhausted", "degenerating", "broken" force levels. Recruiting officers give way to unmanly bouts of depression when they fail to enlist more than one soldier for every 120 prospects to whom they show the promotional brochures; so do the reserve units returned, on short notice and without explanation, to another year directing traffic in Iraq and Afghanistan. The desertion rate now stands at 3.1 percent of the active service inductions; of the new recruits coming into camp, thirty percent depart within six months of their arrival.

The flow of dispiriting news provided the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation with a casus belli for a seminar staged in New York during the first week of April under the banner "Bearing Arms: Who Should Serve?" As a director of the foundation, I had the chance over the course of two days to hear the question answered by a number of people as strongly opinionated as they were well informed, among them Victor Davis Hanson, the military historian, Charles Moskos, the Northwestern University sociologist and adviser to the Pentagon, Josiah Bunting, president of the Foundation and formerly superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, US Congressman Charles Rangel (D, NY), who in 2003 proposed legislation to reestablish the military draft. The conversations encompassed a broad range of ancillary topics - America's military history, weapons both ancient and modern, the changes brought about by the enlistment of women in the armed services - but the questions that supplied the energy to the discussion were the ones touching on the reluctance of the country's privileged and well-educated youth (for the most part presumed lost in the desert of materialism) to go to war. Why had the Princeton class of 1956 sent 400 of its 900 graduates to the Army, the class of 2004 only nine of 1,100? What had become of the homegrown courage that went ashore with "the greatest generation" on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima? Where else if not in the Army was it possible to "share the burden of citizenship", learn the meaning of democracy, find a cure for the disease of selfishness that rots the country's soul?

Although admiring of the reflections derived from the works of Teddy Roosevelt ("Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords"), I was struck by the fact that nobody took the trouble to consider the nature of the army that young Americans are now being invited to join. What is its purpose, and at whose pleasure does it serve? Judging by the uses to which the all-volunteer army has been put since it was formed in 1973, the defense of the United States ranks very low on its list of priorities. So does the business of waging foreign wars. The domestic political response to the high number of American casualties in Vietnam (57,000 killed, 153,000 wounded) forced the Pentagon to the discovery that it was best to leave the world's noblest sport to well-trained machines and randomly chosen civilians. Although paid for with public money, the Army now operates for the benefit of a primarily private interest, distributing expensive gifts to venal defense contractors, rounding up goons for the oil companies doing merger and acquisition deals in hostile environments, functioning as a prop in presidential-election campaigns, managing a large-scale public-works project that finds employment for the unemployable. The privatization of what was once a public service undoubtedly adds to the country's prestige as well as to the net worth of the consortiums that build planes that don't fly and tanks that sink in the sand, but it cannot be said to constitute a noble cause for which young Americans of any social-economic class - rich, poor, privileged, underachieving - sally gladly forth to fight and die.

The comparison to a day-care center serves both as metaphor and as statement of simple fact. The estimated cost of the life-long health benefits owing to retired veterans and their families over the next ten years now comes up to the sum of $150 billion, which exceeds by $50 billion the Pentagon's annual expenditure on the design of new weapons and the purchase of live ammunition. One of the panelists at the foundation's seminar told of his recent tour of an aircraft carrier in company with its chief medical officer, who pointed out the many and improbable map coordinates at which the ship's crew schedules the hasty assignations of Mars with Venus. He came away from the briefing with the impression of a floating rabbit hutch. Another of the panelists reported forty percent of our enlisted personnel married to fellow soldiers, an arrangement he thought favorable to women otherwise at a loss to secure the health and education of their children. The recruiting posters and television commercials embody the strength and spirit of the Army as a young man outward bound in a blaze of bravery; the two figures that have come to symbolize the war in Iraq are Lynndie England and Jessica Lynch, both looking not for a way into the halls of military glory but for a way out of the hollows of Appalachian poverty.

As a matter of historical record, the experience of the two young women from West Virginia is more nearly representative of the American attitude toward war than the handsome schoolbook illustrations of Andrew Jackson directing the Battle of New Orleans, Robert E Lee astride his horse at Gettysburg. Contrary to the claims of the stern moralists who hurl sandbags of furious commentary into the pages of The Wall Street Journal and National Review, Americans never have had much liking for the heroics cherished by the ancient Romans. Given a good or necessary reason to deploy the military virtues of courage and self-sacrifice, we can rise to the occasion at Bastogne or Guadalcanal, but as a general rule we don't poke around in the cannon's mouth for the Easter eggs of fame and fortune, and if given any choice in the matter, we prefer the civilian virtues - the fast shuffle, the sharp angle, the safe bet.

The shortage of patriots during the Revolutionary War obliged the Continental Army to reward its seasonal help with a 160-acre gift of land; the troops who crossed the Delaware River with George Washington on Christmas Eve, 1776, completed their terms of service on New Year's Day, 1777, refusing to march north to the Battle of Princeton on January 3 until each of them had been paid $10 in gold for another six weeks of labor on the field of honor. President James Madison encountered similar difficulties in July 1814 when a British army arrived in Maryland, intent upon laying waste to the countryside. Madison issued a requisition for 93,500 militiamen from what were then the eighteen American states; approximately 6,000 volunteers showed up for the battle of Bladensburg, where they were promptly dispersed like a flock of birds rising on the sound of a single gunshot.

The moral of the tale was not lost on John Quincy Adams. Speaking as the American secretary of state in 1821, he opposed the sending of the American Navy to liberate the oppressed and long-suffering peoples of Chile and Colombia from the tyranny of Spain. Washington that year was seized with delusions of imperial grandeur not unlike the ones currently walking the White House dogs; the Spanish viceroys were said to be as cruel and corrupt as Saddam Hussein, and majorities in both houses of Congress were eager to carry the flag of freedom south for God, the coffee plantations, and the happiness of all mankind. Adams thought the sentiment fatuous and the policy self-defeating.

America, he said, "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy ... She would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of Her Policy would insensibly change from liberty to force."

The sons of liberty were as wary of the Civil War as they had been careful to avoid enlistment in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Once it was understood that the march on Richmond wasn't the holiday jaunt anticipated by the orators north of the Potomac, the federal government was hard-pressed to find soldiers willing to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath were stored. Between July 1863 and April 1865, the Lincoln Administration sent draft notices to a total of 776,892 men; 161,244 failed to report, 86,724 paid commutation fees ($3,750 at the current rate of exchange), 73,607 provided substitutes, 315,509 were examined and ruled exempt; only 46,347 were herded into uniform.

The notion of a citizen army, readily and enthusiastically assembled under the flags of honor, duty, country, emerged from the circumstances of the Second World War. America had been attacked, by Japan at Pearl Harbor and by Germany in the Atlantic Ocean. Peace was not an option, and the American people didn't need to be reminded by a clucking of newspaper columnists that our enemies possessed weapons of mass destruction and that their objectives were murderous. The sense of a common purpose and a national identity bound together in the nucleus of war sustained the government's demand for ten million conscripts in the years 1941-1945.

The force structure collapsed under the weight of the lies told to the American people by three American presidents trying to find a decent reason for the expedition to Vietnam. Our victory was declared inoperative in April 1975, and for the next quarter of a century when mustering the roll of the all-volunteer Army, the recruiting officers took pains to liken it to a reality-television show. Not the kind of outfit that takes casualties - a vocational school, a summer camp, a means of self-improvement for young men and women lacking the advantages (a decent education, health care, foreign travel) available to Princeton graduates. It had come to be understood that the Pentagon was in the advertising business, projecting images of supreme power in sufficiently heavy calibers to shock a French intellectual and awe an American president. Nobody on the production staff was supposed to get hurt.

Recent events in Iraq have wrecked the sales pitch, which is why the Bush Administration now seeks to carry on its crusade against all the world's evil-doers with an army of robots. In Washington on March 26, an Army spokesman described the wonders of the Future Combat Systems (aka the "technological bridge" to tomorrow-land), equipped, at an initial cost of $145 billion over the life expectancy of the miracle, with radio-controlled cannons, tanks, and mortars so godlike in their power and performance as to require next to nothing in the way of food, armor, water, ammunition, or sexual companionship.

The proposal is not without merit. Certainly it meets all the specifications of a government social-welfare program - no military personnel at risk, the day-care centers refurbished and enhanced, enough money lying around loose to win the heart and mind of every proud American in Congress and the weapons trade.

Even so, and not wishing to cast doubts on anybody's patriotism, I think the country might be better served if the corporations fielded their own private armies. The practice is not without precedent. The merchant princes of the Italian Renaissance had as much of a talent for collecting barbarous soldiers as they did for commissioning noble works of art and architecture. If in Michelangelo and Botticelli they could appreciate the presence of genius, so also in the condottieri under the command of Muzio Attendolo and Sigismondo Malatesta they could recognize the high quality of men "insensible to the fear of God", who knew how to "set places on fire, to rob churches ... imprison priests". Citicorp and ExxonMobil would do well to follow in the footsteps of the Medici - the military operations conceived as venture-capital deals, the soldiers promoted to the rank of shareholders and dressed in uniforms bearing the corporate insignia, the print and broadcast rights firmly under the control of the publicists, the loot divided in accordance with the rules governing the orders of battle in the National Football League.

Bill Totten


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