October 12, 2007

The True Meaning of Class Warfare

As the furor over the actions of private security contractors in Iraq has grown - with the United Nations (U.N.) now calling for a probe to determine whether companies like Blackwater USA are guilty of war crimes - questions about the reasons contractors are necessary in the first place have been getting even less attention than usual. Expressed simply, the presence of private armed forces in Iraq is a byproduct of the Bush Administration's determination to keep the Iraq War a luxury conflict; one that relies solely on a volunteer military and avoids conscription, no matter the consequences to the institutions of the armed forces or the people who serve in them.

Calls to increase the size of the military to offset extended deployments and commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan have been proposed, but as a one-time Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense explains:
“It is better to take a smaller force than to lower your standards,” said Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon personnel official now affiliated with the Center for Defense Information and the Center for American Progress.

“The current use of ground forces in Iraq represents a complete misuse of the all-volunteer military,” he said.

The all-volunteer force was never designed for a protracted ground war, but that is exactly what it faces, he said.

“If the United States is going to have a significant component of its ground forces in Iraq over the next five, 10, 15 or 30 years, then the responsible course is for the president and those supporting this open-ended and escalated presence in Iraq to call for reinstating the draft.”

Despite both deep public opposition to the war in Iraq and realistic assessments like Mr. Korb's, the military has still been able to meet recruiting goals, albeit with increasing difficulty and a marked degradation in the quality of new troops. Not only has the percentage of army recruits with high school diplomas dropped to 73% (against a goal of 90%), but the number of felons allowed to enter the army doubled between 2004 and 2006, and 59,000 drug abusers were admitted during the same period. Clearly, there are consequences to this path:

Army General Barry McCaffrey, an international relations professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., described what he sees as the “disastrous state” of ground forces, a broken commitment to troops because of broken equipment, missed training and his sense that the 95,000 increase in Army and Marine Corps personnel planned over the next five years isn’t fast enough to provide relief.

The 95,000 - 65,000 soldiers and 30,000 Marines by 2012 - are not enough, he said, because of the extraordinary means used to field forces. This includes having 20,000 Navy and Air Force personnel assigned to traditionally ground-force missions such as convoy duties and guarding detainees, using stop-loss to prevent people from leaving the military when their obligation has ended, recalling people from the Individual Ready Reserve — who “in many cases” did not even have a relevant military skill, McCaffrey said — and relying on contractors and civilians to replace military personnel, both in combat theaters and even for stateside assignments such as being instructors for military training.

“For the first time since Vietnam, we are caught with no strategic reserve. We simply do not have a strategic fallback position for the crisis that will come inevitably,” McCaffrey warned.

McCaffrey, like Korb, worries about the quality of recruits.

“Ten percent of Army recruits are of low caliber and do not belong in uniform,” he said, noting that the number of moral waivers has increased, the percentage of high school graduates has dropped, and the average age of first-time enlistees is rising.

Further, despite claims by neoconservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation that their research "could not substantiate any degradation in troop quality," more rigorous and non-partisan examination of the data demonstrates not only that such degradation has occurred, but that the burden of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being disproportionately borne by the poor and uneducated.

The Department of Defense defines a "high quality" recruit as one who has both a regular high school diploma or above, and who has scored in the upper half of the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). While in 2004, 61% of recruits were "high quality," by 2006, less than half were so rated, representing a decline of almost one quarter.

Likewise, men and women from wealthy areas are increasingly under-represented in recruiting. Poorer geographies were over-represented to begin with, but data for 2004 - 2006 indicates that it is a phenomenon that has become greater in recent years. (See chart below.) Worse, the data may in fact be masking the magnitude of the problem, since many college dropouts who join the military use their college addresses rather than their home addresses when enlisting, and campuses are disproportionately located in areas with median incomes above the national average. (To be clear, the increasingly poor and uneducated nature of recruiting classes does not necessarily mean that they will produce shoddy soldiers. However, the military's own guidelines - for instance its definition of a "high quality recruit" - are based on empirical experience.)

[Click on the image above to see the larger, original version with explanatory text.]

More importantly, the trends in recruiting reveal what ought to be some uncomfortable truths about the nature of the "War on Terror." During the American Revolution - just as in World War II - this nation and the people who defended it were facing death and the destruction of their very way of life at the hands of foes powerful enough to bring about the end of the United States as a nation. The idea that al-Qaeda is somehow capable of inflicting anything like the damage that King George III or Adolph Hitler could have caused doesn't stand up under even cursory examination, and the enlistment activity of the nation's wealthy put the lie to the White House's declarations we are engaged in the defining conflict of our times.

If the battle against radical Islam were truly as vital to our survival as is repeatedly claimed, there would be a draft instead of a backdoor effort to enlist illegal aliens by tempting them with a path to citizenship. If fighting al-Qaeda actually meant defending ourselves from the imposition of sharia law, the president would have asked people to volunteer rather than telling them to go shopping. If we were really serious about the ideals of equality and duty to country that we espouse as a nation, we wouldn't be fighting a criminally negligent, luxury war on the backs of the poor and the uneducated, supplemented by mercenaries.

Below is a clip from a documentary by The Guardian's award-winning photographer and filmmaker Sean Smith, who spent two months embedded with U.S. troops operating on extended deployments in Baghdad and Anbar province. It is a harrowing firsthand look at the exhaustion and disillusionment of the soldiers on the ground in Iraq, and a window into the state of our over-stretched armed forces.

No comments: