The War at Home

by Joe Auciello


As U.S. fatalities in Iraq approach 1, 900, and as an ABC News/Washington Post poll reveals a majority of Americans now believe the Bush administration “deliberately misled” the nation into war, the military and political prospects for the U.S. government continue to worsen.  

President Bush’s approval rating has fallen to its lowest point ever. According to an August 6 Newsweek poll, now only 34% agree with Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, and 61% disapprove. More importantly for the president, he is losing the one opinion poll that matters most: This year the volunteer army won’t recruit enough volunteers.

Testifying before a House Armed Services subcommittee, Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army’s top personnel officer, said the Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard would fail, for the first time since 1999, to reach their annual enlistment quotas (New York Times, July 24, 2005).

This forecast was confirmed by the senior personnel official for the Pentagon, David S.C. Chu, who stated, “Due to the realities of war [that is, getting shot, blown up, wounded, or killed] there is less encouragement today from parents, teachers and other influencers to join the military.”

Statistics bear out these reports. In the first six months of this year, 47, 121 recruits enlisted, far fewer than the Army goal of 80, 000. In April alone, Army recruitment fell short by 42%.

This shortage has caused panic and outrage among the military brass. Active-duty generals are constrained from speaking freely, but their retired brethren have been quite vocal in expressing their wounded sentiments.

Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffery fears the U.S. military is “starting to unravel” (Wall Street Journal, July 2). Charles A. Krohn, a retired Lt. Colonel and formerly Army deputy chief of public affairs, believes the military is in “jeopardy” and says a “commission could consider why recruiting incentives seem insufficient to attract today’s youth” (Washington Post, July 3).

Others among the brass are more certain of the answers. Another retired general, Thomas McInerney, speaking on Fox News, blamed the media for presenting an “overly negative picture” of the Iraq war and “scaring off potential recruits.”

Certainly the mainstream media has not been able to paint a rosy picture of the war. Typical is a front-page article of “The Week in Review” section of the August 14 Sunday New York Times, where an Iraq-based reporter writes, “But in this third summer of war, the American project in Iraq has never seemed so wilted and sapped of life. It’s not just the guerrillas, who are churning away at their relentless pace, attacking American forces about 65 times a day. It is most everything else, too.”

Of course, it’s absurd to blame the U.S. media for the fact that the majority of Iraqis reject the U.S. occupation and that therefore the Bush administration is unable to “control Iraq” after defeating Saddam Hussein. The resistance movement of the Iraqi people was not created by the U.S. media, which reluctantly reports, to some degree, what is actually happening. Since only 40% of Americans now believe the U.S. is “making progress” in Iraq, according to the Aug. 6 Newsweek poll, and 50% believe the U.S. is “losing ground,” it seems more likely that press coverage of the war—at first almost totally favorable to the Bush administration position, but now more critical—is only following the tide of public opinion.

And public opinion cannot be manufactured on order of the generals, as much as they would wish it so. Yet the military does try. Army Reserve officer Philip Carter, writing in the July 6 New York Times, seems to think the American people simply need a good scolding. “Young Americans (and their parents),” Carter wrote, “need to be told that they have a duty to shoulder the burden of military service when our nation is at war, and that doing so is essential for the preservation of freedom and democracy at home and abroad.”

But the public has already been told. Speaking at Fort Bragg on June 28, President Bush claimed there is “no higher calling than service in our armed forces.” The problem for the military is that while young Americans are hearing the call, they are increasingly reluctant to answer it. Many young people may have no principled opposition to the Iraq war, but they have no enthusiasm for it, either. They are not eager to enlist.

Speaking to Boston Globe reporters, teens from working class towns in Massachusetts spoke of the war as an “unappealing option” (7/5/05). One young man said, “It doesn’t seem fun or interesting to be going over to Iraq to fight people and kill them. And the whole thought of dying when you’re 18 sounds pretty bad.” Another teen said, “I respect what the military does, but I don’t think I’m the one to do it.” A sixteen-year-old added, “My mom said I’m not allowed.”

The Pentagon’s bureaucratic reshuffling of troops to Iraq has not been sufficient. In 2004 more than 60,000 soldiers were quietly reassigned to Iraq from Europe and South Korea. National Guard units saw their tours of duty extended. Soldiers who had been discharged have been involuntarily reactivated. The Army has ordered its field commanders to cease discharging soldiers for alcohol and drug use. The age of enlistment has been raised. None of these measures has compensated for the lack of recruits.

Faced with these problems, the military, backed by Congress, has responded aggressively and with at least temporary success. The Army has put 1,200 additional recruiters on the streets for the summer. Recruitment even extends to the U.S. protectorates of Guam, Saipan, and Samoa. According to the July 31 New York Times, “The Army has found fertile ground in the poverty pockets of the Pacific,” where per capita income can be as low as $2,000.

As enlistments decline, monetary incentives increase. The Army minimum signing bonus is $5,000 and could reach $20, 000 for high-demand jobs. The Army’s new package of incentives, including loan repayment programs and college grants, could reach up to $104, 000 for a recruit. The result is that in June the Army finally was able to meet enlistment totals and is likely to repeat its success rate in July. But the result is that the volunteer army is becoming a mercenary army. And already the Iraq war comes with a financial cost of $5 billion a month.

The U.S. military could solve their shortage of soldiers by reinstituting a draft, but Congress in 2004 overwhelmingly defeated a legislative measure for a draft that had been proposed by two Democrats, Congressman Charles Rangel and Senator Fritz Hollings. The reason is simple enough. The political cost of a draft would be too high and too risky—a draft would turn passive supporters of the Iraq war into active opponents and would reignite the antiwar movement. The U.S. government derives enormous political advantage in claiming that soldiers stationed in Iraq had all volunteered for service in the armed forces.

But for all practical purposes, a de facto military draft already exists. Like the draft of 40 years ago, its burden falls disproportionately on the poor, mostly African Americans and Latinos in the ghettos and barrios, but also rural poor whites. The driving force of this draft is not the law but lack of opportunity. As jobs disappear and as education costs soar, the military becomes the way out for youth with the fewest choices. Recruiters prey on the poor with promises of cash, education, job training, even mortgage payments. The money is delivered upfront, while the risk of dismemberment and death lurks around the corner. So those who can, go to college or land a good-paying job; those who can’t, go to the Army and land in Iraq. In this war, it’s a draft of class and color.

An in-depth profile of one military family makes this conclusion quite clear. “[Jeff Sorenson] had enlisted after disappointing jobs at Wal-Mart and Subway, and Sorenson was drawn by the $5,000 enlistment bonus, the $150 monthly training pay and the tuition assistance.

“In Williston [North Dakota], where the median household income is less than $30, 000, the money mattered” (New York Times, July 4, 2005).

The ruling powers in America present military service as a fine opportunity for young men and women who are poor and who are desperate to seize some chance for a better future. But the choice between a certain dead-end job at home or a potential death in Iraq is a cynical offer, at best. Teen-agers are invited to gamble with their lives. More and more, Republicans and Democrats and their con artists in uniform are finding that this shell game is a tough sell.

For the last two years the Pew Research Center has asked respondents if people they know are becoming less invested with the Iraq war. In May 2004 only 26% answered yes; a year later that number had risen to 44%. A June 2005 Gallup poll showed that only 52% of parents would support their child’s decision to enlist, a much smaller percentage than in previous years.

The Army brass has good reason to worry. The tide of public opinion is shifting against the war. In July, both the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO, for the first time, passed resolutions against the war and urging withdrawal of U.S. troops.

An increasing number of Americans are demanding an end to this war. Dissident voices are raised not only in Crawford, Texas, but all across the country. Mimi Evans, a mother whose Marine son is soon to be shipped out to Falluja, is typical of the emerging majority. As Ms. Evans recently told a meeting at Cape Cod Community College, “The best way to support the troops and protect my son and your daughters is to get them the hell out of there now.”