Wednesday, January 13, 2010

War As Profit Opportunity

Why we need a military draft, why we won't get one

On Monday, Fresh Air host Terry Gross introduced an interview (on-line here) about civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan by quoting a severely injured contractor who said, "It's almost like we are an invisible, discardable army."

This particular contractor got both legs blown off by a roadside bomb and subsequently discovered that he was not entitled to any sort of federal compensation for his loss or for his health care. He had to fight his private insurance company to get a shot at prosthetic legs. I didn't hear all of the interview with reporter T. Christian Miller, so I don't know if the conversation pursued the deeper point that while the US maintains both an all-volunteer army and a private mercenary army, war becomes a profit opportunity that is largely shielded from effective political opposition.

Here we are, involved in two of the longest wars in American history, at a cost to the federal government of over one trillion dollars and climbing, with minimal effective public and Congressional opposition to those wars. The Vietnam War, in its many phases--military advisers and trainers, CIA mercenary armies, the mobilization of a fighting force over 600,000 strong, and secret bombings and incursions in Cambodia and Laos--was longer and killed far more American soldiers than have been killed to date in Iraq and Afghanistan (more information here and here). The Vietnam War also killed more civilians than the current wars have killed so far, but the difference is not worth applauding.

But here's the thing: the Vietnam War was pursued by two presidents in the face of relentlessly increasing public opposition. Though that opposition did not end the war in a timely way, say, 1969 or '70, rather than 1975, active resistance and public disapproval forced both Presidents Johnson and Nixon to conduct portions of the war in secrecy and otherwise compromise war aims. Arguably, public and Congressional opposition is also forcing compromise on President Obama, but it seems more likely that weapons manufacturers and military contractors are currently forcing political compromises that will prolong those wars.

Indeed, the influence of the military-industrial complex might right now be at an all-time high, at least in proportion to the influence of the public and anti-war organizations. In each of the six complete election cycles since 1998, the contributions of corporations in the war business have climbed 10 to 20 percent, with the exception of the 2008 cycle when the increase was
more than 20 percent (go here to explore the ugly truth, note that the 2010 cycle promises to break all previous records). In a 1997 article, "Guns r' Us" in In These Times, a magazine I worked at for two years, writer Martha Honey recounts the many ways that weapons manufacturers seek to increase markets for their products. Ten+ years later, the situation is worse.

Of course, anti-war opposition has limited some of the options of those who would rather pursue the current wars more vigorously. But the practices of maintaining an all-volunteer army, and employing contractors to reduce the direct cost of war, have obvious roots in the lessons that political, military and corporate chiefs learned from the civil unrest and mass opposition that they confronted during the Vietnam War.

First, make sure that large numbers of people do not serve in the front-lines in a manner that is obviously against their will. This lesson was initially applied with the end of active conscription in December 1972. To ensure an adequate supply of volunteers, regular pay for members of the armed forces was increased significantly in 1971. By itself, the pay increase would not have been sufficient, but by the mid-'70s, the economy began to stagnate and the real value of workers pay began to drop; to drop far enough, in fact, that many women not in the workforce at the time, began to work in order to maintain household income. Thus began a cascade of economic changes (including relative reductions in unemployment compensation, financial aid for higher education, cuts in welfare payments and childcare) that has often made enlistment in the all-volunteer army an economically coerced decision. This state of affairs has made it much more difficult for many working people to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the use of private companies providing personnel for security and other non-military services (like transport, food prep and garbage services) has helped to reduce war visibility and exported some of the costs of the war onto the shoulders of those least able to afford it and powerless to do much about it. These are the individuals who work under contract with the Blackwaters and Brown & Roots who pull down tens of millions of dollars annually from the Pentagon. These individuals, like the man quoted at the beginning of Fresh Air, are among those coerced by economic conditions at home to serve in harm's way abroad. And they do so, largely at their own risk.

I started at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1965. The spring before I got to Ann Arbor, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first teach-in against the war. At the time, there was still very little public opposition to the war, and little need for the military to resort to an active draft to maintain the then relatively low force levels in Vietnam. But Ann Arbor and the U of M were a center of anti-war fever and it didn't take very long for me to succumb to the virus. In point of fact, focused as I was on what could be learned outside of class, I quickly lost interest in maintaining my student status. I opposed the war and, soon after, began active opposition to the draft.

Even then it was obvious that some companies would profit from the war. President Eisenhower, soon to leave office, had given a speech in 1961 warning the country of the existence of a "military industrial complex" with interests separate from a broader national interest. And, as the Vietnam War heated up and middle-class students enrolled at colleges and universities escaped service, it also became obvious that the brunt of war fighting and dying was falling largely on minorities and the white working class. In that context, maintaining a student deferment became a moral conundrum that troubled many young men who had such deferments, and troubled many working people who saw family members fighting and dying in Vietnam while others went to college.

The obvious solution to those who would prefer to fight wars less encumbered by controversy would be to reduce the flash points, and nothing flashes quite like being forced to leave home to fight and die. That is why there will be no draft. And the absence of a draft is also one of the reasons why obvious elements of economic justice, like a reasonable minimum wage, an adequate supply of affordable housing, and universal health care are not a part of this democracy.

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