Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Who Serves IV


Again -- you may have noticed -- the conscription issue.  I do not profess to be a military historian, but I know a number of them.  Military history is so often the rough, scaly  public surface of intelligence history, which slides privately along the slime of the unacknowledged.  I spent the eighties interacting with hundreds of spooks while writing The Old Boys.  Many had put in their time soldiering, and a number are friends to this day.

It might be worthwhile to look at the questions about who winds up in the military through the other end of the telescope, asking ourselves what as a nation we have had to confront over my lifetime and what were the tools that made any sense.  When I was a child isolationism was the creed of the respectable right, and it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to jolt the America Firsters into going to war, which the Axis Powers declared first on us.  By the early fifties, with the British Empire decomposing, demagogues on the right like Joe McCarthy joined the One World visionaries behind the likes of Henry Wallace to support such organizations as NATO, the tactics and strategy of which came straight out of Washington.  Like Hitler, Stalin was a threat.  We fought a war in Korea similar to the engagements nation-states had been fighting for millenia, warm bodies and fixed bayonets.  The machine gun made a difference, but it was still land armies against land armies, with each hemorrhaging blood to overrun the other side's territory. We managed a stand-off -- at best -- in Korea because Eisenhower threatened to take out the industrial cities of Eastern China with the Strategic Air Command unless Mao got reasonable.  Wars like that were now unwinnable.

With the advent of atomic weapons, strategic and tactical, we found ourselves attempting to contend -- unwisely, almost always -- with insurgencies.  You picked a side, and bombed hell out of the upstarts in the jungle.  During most of the Viet Nam War the draft produced the millions of grunts we needed, but it is very hard to subdue a swamp, and even a proxy war in Asia is essentially hopeless.  We got clobbered.

After that the draft army was quietly discontinued, for the first time since 1940, and the military was forced to fall back on the harum-scarum recruitment policies that have led to so many tragedies.  Such back-up entities as the Reserves and the National Guard, where George W. Bush and other genteel scions of his generation were permitted to hide out when the fighting was fierce in Asia, modulated into pools of ready combatants, now that the well placed didn't need such protection when their deferments ran out.  The problem here was that a couple of hours marching on rural parade grounds on Saturday did not prepare several generations of small-town enthusiasts for months at a time, deployment after deployment,  for the baking heat and roadside detonations of a hellhole like Iraq, let alone the anxieties of "nation-building."  Enter post-traumatic stress disorder

The problem was partly the enemy.  After 911, when -- immediately, suspiciously to anybody who understands how slow the intelligence mills normally grind, virtually in the next-day's news cycle --  the culprits were identified as twenty plus or minus mostly young Saudis, names and backgrounds supplied -- the cry went up immediately on the jingoist right for blood, for revenge.  Somebody new to detest, to fear, to crank up the armaments industry and go after. Al Qaeda!

It was quite evident all along that Saddam Hussein, never one to make alliances or share power, was unlikely to be backing as uncontrollable a collection of hotheads and fanatics as Bin Laden's organization.  But the right-wing press -- and for a while the Bush administration -- insisted on the connection.  We invaded Iraq. Everybody I knew at CIA insisted that the weapons of mass destruction charges were bogus, certainly any atomic installations were impossible to hide from satellites.  Joe Wilson wrote bravely in The New York Times that Iraq had not been importing yellow-cake uranium ore from Africa. Nevertheless -- in we went, producing massive civilian casualties, expensive -- for us -- but perfunctory "nation-building," gigantic contractor profits, a crack for our multinationals at Iraq's enormous oil fields, a trillion-dollars-worth of debt to load on our children.

I thought -- and said at the time -- that, if we really wanted to scotch Al Qaeda, instead of rolling the tanks into Baghdad, amputating a huge, important part of the Middle East and then trying withour success to sew it back together, we should practice oncology.  Expend our intelligence assets, perfect our Special Operations Forces, use up some chits, identify the specific organizers and propagandists and promotors and bankers who made this terrorist network possible.  Then take them out.  Drones, defunding, SEALS, assassinations -- whatever it takes.  Pretty much what the Obama administration has been trying to manage, and with signal success.  The truly professional army we will need from now on is coming into view.  I hope we have the judgement to select, nurture, and reimburse the troops.

We ought to stop making war on abstractions, like "Terror."  Attempting to police the world will destroy us ultimately and won't help anybody else much in the long run.  We are a single nation -- limited resources, deep-seated needs and problems of our own.  We are long past due when it comes to subordinating our larger purposes to those of the special interests that drive our politics.  We have sacrificed an unconscionable number of our young people to wars they were never intended to fight.

It is time to reconsider.

Burton Hersh 


1 comment:

  1. Modern war, as advertised on TV by our armed forces, is a testing ground for manly glory and courage, and lately, even, for compassion (nation building), if that doesn't turn the mechanized killing that is modern warfare on its head. And, of course, for womanly courage, as well.

    What must it have been like to volunteer to fight the Axis Powers in WWII, America's last war that did not involve a business choice?

    PTSD occurs, yes, from terror and stress (shell shock began, essentially, at Shiloh) but recent sufferers may well be increasing in numbers due to at least two factors you did not mention in your piece, Burton: Vanished battle lines and a "nobility deficit."

    A soldier cannot return fire upon an IED. The battle lines that survived at least up until the First Iraq War -- tanks, Humvees and troops advancing upon dug-in emplacements with humans that could fire back -- vanished in Bush II's Iraq war, as they have in Afghanistan (and did in Vietnam), as our troops entered cities and villages filled with insurgents indistinguishable from civilians. Any well-trained soldier learns controlled rage in order to be effective. By placing our fighting men and women in these last two conflicts, we have forced them to disperse that rage, through no fault of their own, onto everybody nearby. In order to stay alive, every man, woman and child must reasonably be viewed as a threat.

    In the Marne, the enemy stood, or was dug in, opposite the infantry soldier. Danger lay dead ahead. Unless flanked, bullets and shells did not come from behind or to the side; at least their direction could generally be relied upon, solely in terms of how a human being perceives the direction of danger. In our recent conflicts, however, threat comes from 360 degrees around the soldier, and from above and below, once he or she leaves the wire, and in cases of land mines and IED's, has no face or uniform. Such vanished battle lines, unfortunately, very much resemble everyday places. Streets. Houses. Fields. No wonder that some returning soldiers have difficulty with everyday places that are completely safe, here at home. Fight or flight is triggered by garbage along the median strip or a car pulling up a little too close behind on the freeway.

    "Nobility deficit" has nothing to do with the personal nobility of serving men and women, which I think in most cases among our military is quite high, but rather with our national motivations for war, which you mention in your post. Perhaps many soldiers still believe that their work is to follow orders and fight without regard to why, but in this modern age of conflicting media, surely soldiers find an increasing supply of reasons to doubt why they find themselves in rural villages among people who, in the main, deeply despise their presence and incomprehensible Western ways. Regarding battlegrounds such as Afghanistan, which, as soon as we leave will revert to its ancient habits despite our best intentions, we certainly can't blame our returning soldiers, even if they are unscathed physically or psychologically by their experiences there, from asking themselves, "What was that all about?"


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