Why We Need More Than An Antiwar Movement.
Kenneth W. Warren
Department of English
University of Chicago
January 16, 2003
Last August while visiting family in New Mexico, my wife, our children, and I viewed a video sent to my brother-in-law by the U.S. Air Force. Something of a group letter home, the video included footage of new recruits—my nephew included—getting haircuts, going through drills, and saying their hellos to parents, siblings, girlfriends, and boyfriends. Each recruit was given a chance to speak directly to the camera, and on occasion some gave their reasons for enlisting-- getting college tuition paid for, making money to help out the family, and proving themselves. No one I saw (and this was less than a year after 9/11) mentioned fighting terror or a desire to participate in the ousting of Saddam Hussein as a significant motivating factor for having joined up. And of all the reasons given, free college tuition was cited most often.
The Air Force appeared to have gotten the message because the successful completion of six weeks of basic training was treated with the pomp and solemnity of a college commencement. With parents and family in attendance, the newly minted airmen were showered with gifts, while video and still cameras recorded the moment for posterity—the celebratory atmosphere a far cry from what my father experienced in the late 1940s when as a 17 year old (he had lied about his age to the recruiter) he had enlisted in the Air Force, not to fight the Cold War but rather to escape the unattractive alternative of plowing and planting the several acres my grandfather farmed in northeastern Arkansas as a sharecropper. Yet whatever their differences, my father and my nephew were aware that for them the most readily available path to the good life many Americans expect was a term of enlistment in the U.S. military.
Perhaps the video I saw was not representative of the attitudes and situations of most new recruits into our military, but at the very least it tracked with a significant fact too little remarked about the first War for Oil prosecuted by George Part I and its all-too-likely sequel courtesy of George Part II, namely that both Chief Executives could deploy fighting forces of approximately 500,000 and 250,000 soldiers, respectively, without conscripting a single U.S. citizen. There’s nothing accidental about any of this. The relentless campaign to reduce the size of government and destroy the nation’s social welfare system, a campaign that began with Ronald Reagan and was slowed only marginally during the Clinton years, has been coincident with the nation’s move to an “all-volunteer” military--so has the disappearance of Pell Grants, the precipitous rise in college tuitions, the attachment of origination fees to student loans, and the increasing proportion of undergraduate financial aid provided by loans rather than scholarships or grants. It is simply harder for many lower and middle-income families to shoulder the expenses necessary to send their sons and daughters to college. But if these young men and women will agree to shoulder a rifle for a few years then Uncle Sam will help with the bill. Add to this the significant number of men and women serving as reservists merely as a way of bolstering family income and the picture becomes clearer: We’ve created the 21st-century version of the Hessian fighters whom the British employed over two centuries ago to defend their empire. Our new Hessian, though has been dragooned from the ranks of our poorer citizens—citizens who have been cut out of significant portions of the social contract by two decades of regressive social and economic policies.
What this has meant for the foreign policy of Bush I and II is that they have always assumed (and indeed have had) the capacity to wage a major war absent the consent of the public and Congress. Both administrations have sought consent only for reasons of political calculation and most decidedly not because they needed it in order to go forward with their plans. (The much ballyhooed Congressional debate before the first War for Oil occurred only after a half million troops had already been sent to the Persian Gulf. If anyone truly believes that there was a chance of calling those troops back without their having fired a shot, I’ve got a lake just east of Chicago that I can get you a good deal on.) Those of us who oppose this new war need to take this factor into account.
The antiwar movement of the 1960s was fueled largely by the draft, whose very existence meant that even to have the capacity to wage war the administration needed to go directly to its citizens in a fundamental way. Rep. Charles Rangel’s recent calls for reinstating the draft stems from a similar observation as well as from the astute recognition that if carrying out this proposed War for Oil required wealthy and middle-class Americans to send their sons and daughters to Iraq rather than to the Ivy League, then this whole business would be a non-starter.
We do need vigorously to oppose this war. But we also need to recognize that the best way to wean rogue administrations like the one currently occupying the White House from an addiction to warmongering is to invest our public resources heavily into improving the social welfare of our citizens who would then choose military service because they wanted to and not because they had to. Unable to assume a ready supply of bribed GIs that he could fling willy-nilly across the globe, our court-installed Chief Executive would be constrained to pursue a more legitimate foreign policy that the nation’s citizens might genuinely support.