The U.S. Military Under Stress

— Todd Ensign

JOHN KERRY'S CAMPAIGN tome should dispel any illusion that he has any significant differences with George Bush on the aggressive use of the U.S. military to defend the empire.

Besides voting for the October 2003 Congressional resolution which gave Bush a blank check to invade Iraq, both Kerry and his Veep candidate John Edwards recently voted to expand the active military by 40,000 troops in the near future.

Kerry criticizes the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld policy of preemptive war mainly because it has isolated the United States from traditional European allies.  He has repeatedly stated that it would be a grave mistake for the U.S. military to be withdrawn from Iraq "before peace has been restored."

The primary achievement of Bush's invasion of Afghanistan to date has been to allow that beleaguered country to reclaim its title as the world's leading opium exporter.  Yet Kerry has had little to say about Bush's reliance on conventional military force to fight terrorist organizations there or anywhere else.

THE UNITED STATES' armed forces are approaching a crisis which could rival the one in the last years of the Vietnam war. George W. Bush's unilateral invasion of Iraq (notwithstanding the heroic warriors supplied by such freedom-loving allies as Mongolia and El Salvador) has succeeded in bogging down 140,000 U.S. troops in a guerrilla war with no end in sight.

As the GI death toll climbs toward and soon past one thousand (total "coalition" deaths have already reached this plateau) with another 20,000 wounded, popular sentiment on the "American street" will turn increasingly against this illegal war.

Our armed forces are stretched so thin that the Pentagon has had to break its promise to limit combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to one year. Nearly half of the Army's 32 combat brigades are deployed to the Persian Gulf, with two more serving in Afghanistan.  Replacing them with fresh units will require cutting back on military deployments in other parts of the world.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has already endorsed, in principle, the reduction of U.S. force levels in South Korea and Germany.  Bush and his generals have also imposed "stop loss" orders that freeze discharges and separations for GIs serving in essential military jobs. This has allowed them to keep more than 50,000 GIs on active duty past their discharge date.

These "band-aid" measures may be effective in the short run, but they can only stave off deeper problems for so long. Troops who are subjected to lengthy or repeated combat tours will be less likely to enlist.  These measures may also have a chilling effect on enlisting new recruits.

Thousands of reservists, who signed up thinking they were committing to part-time duty, are being given an ever-larger share of the combat burden in Iraq. In July 2004, the Pentagon announced that it would reduce the number of active duty brigades in Iraq from twelve to nine, while increasing National Guard brigades from three to six.

This means that about 40% of all troops currently serving in Iraq are reservists who've been involuntarily activated.  In an effort to alleviate the manpower crunch, Rumsfeld recently ordered most reservists to spend an additional three to five months in Iraq. In the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld publicly castigated then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki for predicting that at least 300,000 U.S. troops would be needed to successfully occupy Iraq. He also ridiculed Shinseki's observation that Bush's initial plan didn't provide sufficient armored vehicles to protect the troops.

Reducing the Military "Footprint"

Another ploy to bridge the personnel shortages has been Bush and Rumsfeld's encouragement of "privatization" of the armed forces.  Originally this scheme consisted of turning over tasks such as food service, building maintenance, laundry and even guard duty to corporations who then hired civilian workers to replace GIs or civil servants while receiving minimal benefits and rock bottom wages.

Once Bush invaded Iraq, over 10,000 "private soldiers" or "security consultants" were hired, under lucrative no-bid contracts to conduct a wide range of military jobs in Iraq. These corporations no doubt found ways to show their gratitude by filling the coffers of various GOP campaign funds.

When the systematic torture of detainees by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib and other military prisons became major international news in April, 2004 it was disclosed that CACI and Titan, two large American consulting firms, had assigned the job of interrogating detainees to private "specialists" some of whom had earlier honed their skills in apartheid South Africa or Pinochet's Chile.

These mercenaries perform key war fighting roles while pretending to act only as advisers or instructors.  In fact, special forces units like the Army's Rangers or Green Berets have complained that their ranks are being thinned by corporate "raiders" who hire away their most experienced people by doubling or tripling their pay.

Volunteer Force for Peacetime Only?

Some of the problems confronting the American military today were foreseeable when Congress established the "all volunteer force" (AVF) over thirty years ago. AVF planners predicted that an active force of two million volunteers could be recruited if three basic reforms were adopted: first, that pay and benefits be raised to compete with civilian jobs; second, that females be aggressively recruited (today, they constitute about 16% of all GIs); and third, that reservists be trained to fight with the active duty force when war breaks out.

For three decades, the AVF plan worked fairly well. Although enough GIs were recruited to fill the ranks, there were often high rates of attrition.  However, since the United States waged only one brief war, in the Persian Gulf in 1991, the shaky motivation or poor military skills of some recruits didn't pose a serious problem.  (The 1980s invasions of Grenada and Panama weren't significant combat; the Marines suffered major casualties in the 1983 Lebanon barracks bombing but were quickly withdrawn.) Over time, the steadily escalating pay hikes, generous bonuses and college assistance being dispensed to volunteers forced the Pentagon to make a choice.  Since Congress continued to demand that billions be spent on big ticket military hardware manufactured by contractors in their home districts, eventually the Pentagon budget makers were forced to cut the active force.

In 1991 there were 2.1 million active duty GKs, but by 2003, this force had been scaled down to 1.4 million.  Since the military's far flung workload in 130 foreign countries remained unchanged, this reduction predictably has affected both the readiness and deployability of the force.

Female Soldiers: Second Class Citizens?

One in every six GIs (one in five in the Air Force) on active duty today is female.  Surveys of female GIs in all branches consistently report high rates of sexual harassment and assault by their male counterparts.

Yet their commanders seem unable (or unwilling) to use the criminal justice system to root out such behavior.  This may be partially the result of a clash of values between a macho military mindset which reveres "warrior values" and females who demand respectful treatment as equals.

As the Bush gang pushes its "war on terrorism" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dark arts of its "special operations" soldiers gain new status and influence.  Elite units such as the Rangers, SEALS, or secretive Delta Force stoke a robust machismo within their closed circle.  For these soldiers, any label which even hints at femininity is the grossest of insults.

The Master Plan

Although it was rarely discussed during the 2000 campaign, Bush's circle had hatched a master plan for rebuilding a military they believed President Clinton had allowed to deteriorate.  This plan, entitled "Rebuilding America's Defenses" was originally designed by a right wing "think tank" to serve as a blueprint to ensure that America's military remained dominant in a post-Soviet world.  Its preface describes the core objective as follows: "At present, the United States faces no global rival.  America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible."

Since being elected, President Bush has been able to implement some of the plan's key recommendations.  He dropped the ultra-costly Comanche helicopter and placed the accident-plagued V-22 "Osprey" heli-plane on hold. He has vigorously funded the "Star Wars" missile defense shield project, which if fully deployed will consume tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars.

By skillfully exploiting the fear and anger caused by the September 11 attacks he achieved another objective—Congressional approval for annual increases of $15-20 billion in the Pentagon's budget.  The huge outlays needed to pay for Bush's Iraq war will be in addition to these increases.  Note that the Kerry-Edwards campaign has already endorsed this steady increase in military spending.  Resistance within the Ranks

A popular movement against Bush's war plans grew up very quickly throughout the world.  On the weekend of February 15, 2003, several million protesters mobilized in over a hundred cities worldwide.  The largest antiwar movement in history continued to express opposition to America's occupation of Iraq in one way or another.  However, this broad antiwar sentiment has not translated into acts of resistance by any significant number of active-duty GIs. To date, only four GIs have publicly refused to deploy to Iraq. Marine Corporal Steven Funk and Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia both went AWOL in defiance of orders to fight in Iraq.

In Mejia's case, which received worldwide attention, he based his legal defense on his duty, under international law, to refuse to commit war crimes he'd already witnessed during an earlier combat tour in Iraq. Both resisters were tried by special court martials and each received the maximum one-year jail sentence and a Bad Conduct discharge.

The other two, Army Specialist Jeremy Hinzman and Pvt. Brandon Hughey, have both sought exile status in Canada as political refugees after going AWOL from their stateside units.  Their applications are pending before a Canadian immigration panel; unlike those during the Vietnam war, however, military deserters can no longer seek "landed immigrant status" after they've arrived in Canada.

I think there are several factors which help explain why, at least to date, there has been considerably less public opposition to this war by GIs occurred during the first Gulf war. First, the terrorist attacks of September 11th deeply stunned America and convinced many that it is necessity and just to "fight fire with fire."

Recently, I got into a discussion about the current war with a woman in a New York coffee shop. After arguing for a few minutes, she stood up and pointed south to where the World Trade Towers once stood.  "That's my reason for supporting this war," she shouted.  Second, in 1990-91, America had not endured a major war in nearly a quarter of a century.  The rapid military mobilization which sent nearly 700,000 GIs half way around the world came as a shock to many, especially military reservists who'd never seen combat in any form.

Third, because of the tough economic conditions faced by many youth entering the job market, I think young soldiers today are more willing to put up with injustice and abuse.  Finally, there were over four times as many troops deployed to the Gulf during the 1990-91 war as serve there now.

One counselling service, the GI Rights Hotline, which is operated by the Central Committee of Conscientious Objectors and other peace groups, reports that it has been receiving about 3,000 phone inquiries a month from GIs during 2004.  This is up from an average of 2,400 monthly calls the previous year.

The Quaker House, which is located outside Ft. Bragg, N.C., reports that it has been talking with about 200 GIs each month.  Citizen Soldier has also received dozens of calls from anxious GIs and their families.

Numbers released by the Army suggest that the rate at which GIs go AWOL or file Conscientious Objector (CO) applications have not been rising during the Iraq war. According to a Chicago Tribune story published in March, 2004, the Army reported 2,713 desertions (defined as being AWOL more than 30 days) in the fiscal year ending last September 30, 2003.  They had had 4,013 desertions in fiscal year 2002 and 4,598 in 2001.

The Army told the newspaper that in fiscal 2003 it had received only eleven CO applications, of which five were approved.  The previous year, 17 out of 23 applications were accepted.  This low rate may be partially explained by the difficulty many GIs report in getting accurate and timely information about applying for CO status from their command.

As the occupation of Iraq drags on, there may be a change.  The British newspaper, The Guardian, reported in their August 18th issue that for the first five months of 2004, the Pentagon listed 1470 AWOLs.  If this rate held steady for the rest of the year, it would indicate an approximate 25% rise in desertions over the previous year.

A Draft in Our Future?

Bush's unilateral invasion of Iraq, aided only by British troops, has placed a severe strain on the military's ability to deploy for its worldwide missions.  Two left-liberal Black Congressional representatives, Charles Rangel (D-NY) and John Conyers (D-MI), anticipated this personnel crunch and proposed a return to a Draft at the end of 2002.

Three months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, they introduced their Universal Service Act, which would require every able bodied American male and female between the ages of 18-26 to perform two years of compulsory service either in the military or the public sector.

The President would determine the number of military draftees needed and the means for selecting them. There would be no deferments for college or "critical skills" as there were during the Vietnam war.

"If our great nation becomes involved in all out war," Rangel argued, "the sacrifice must be shared equally.  For those who say the poor fight better, I say, give the rich a chance."  In an op ed in the New York Times, Rangel added, "I believe that if those calling for war knew that their children were more likely to serve and be placed in harm's way, there would be more caution and a greater willingness to work with the international community (on) Iraq."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld responded defiantly, with a declaration that there was no absolutely no need for a Draft.  "The disadvantages of using conscription to bring in men and women are notable," he told reporters.

He also attacked Rangel's claim that Congress or Bush officials might be more willing to support a war if their children or those of friends didn't have to fight it. "I don't know anyone in this building (the Pentagon) who thinks that (we) should go to war lightly."

To no one's surprise, Rangel and Conyers' bold proposal gained no other supporters.  The silence of their Democratic colleagues in Congress, including Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, has been deafening.  The Democratic candidates have carefully avoided even mentioning the dreaded "D" word or other alternatives that might be required if our occupation of Iraq (which they support) drags on indefinitely.

On July 21, 2004, a New York Times story reported that the Army was being forced to accelerate the process of bringing recruits onto active duty because of manpower shortages.  In the past, recruits have remained in the Delayed Entry Program for up to twelve months before being placed on active duty.

"I worry about recruiting and retention every single day, " Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck told The Times.  "We are recruiting a volunteer force during a time of war. We've never done that before."

Registration for the draft has been required for male youth since President Carter reinstated it in 1980.  Males between 18 and 26 must provide their names and current addresses to the Selective Service System.  Congress could broaden the registration requirement to include women with a simple resolution.

A comprehensive network of thousands of draft boards and appeal boards is already in place.  They could resume the drafting of conscripts in a matter of weeks.  The only unresolved issue is whether the President and Congress can reach consensus on the need to resume conscription to attract at least some military recruits.

The Iraquagmire

For over thirty years, every institution of government, including the military has treated the "all volunteer force" concept as a sacred cow. However, once the 2004 election returns are in, either Bush or Kerry is going to have to take a long, hard look at its continued viability.

This writer believes that the odds are still against a political consensus forming to support the resumption of the Draft, but if unforeseen developments impose new pressures on the military this could change, as soldiers like to say, "in a heartbeat."  It is difficult to see how the Pentagon can reduce its military stake in Iraq, at least in the short term. The type of low intensity warfare it's now waging there depends not on "smart bombs" or high-tech weaponry but on the skill and courage of ordinary foot soldiers using age-old small unit tactics.  Military contractors led by Boeing were drooling over a $92 billion program which would fill their order books for years to come. Although the project's designers claim that the delays are unrelated to our Iraqi or Afghani interventions, it seems obvious that the claims of those wars on defense dollars have forced at least a postponement.

Richard Clarke, the former terrorism expert in Bush's White House, recently wrote in the New York Times: "We are seriously threatened by an ideological war within Islam.  Radical Islamists are striking out at the West and at moderate Muslims.  It is a battle not only of bombs and bullets but chiefly of ideas.  It is a war that we are losing as more and more of the Islamic world develops antipathy toward the United States."

With a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a bloody civil war among various Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions may ensue.  Al Qaeda-type terrorists might well find the Iraqi sanctuary which they've lacked in the past. But absent any viable alternative, the American people may reach a point where their demand for unilateral withdrawal can no longer be denied.

So far, the U.S. antiwar movement hasn't developed an effective strategy for reaching out to GIs or supporting those who might consider personal acts of resistance to the war in Iraq. A few counselling groups such as Citizen Soldier, the GI Rights Hotline, and the Quaker House at Ft. Bragg, N.C., have been shouldering nearly all the burden of providing antiwar-minded GIs with information about their legal options.

As the Vietnam war ground on relentlessly, American antiwar activists organized a loosely knit support network which reached out to GIs serving at most of the major U.S. Army and Marine bases.  In addition, there were support projects in Heidelberg, Germany and on Okinawa.

These "GI coffeehouses" functioned as radical bookstores, social centers and legal counselling centers.  Most of the projects also produced a regular newspaper or newsletter that brought countercultural themes as well as an antiwar message to the military rank and file. These publications enjoyed wide credibility and support since GIs were actively involved in their production and distribution.

If a network of GI support centers were in place today it seems likely that AWOL desertion rates would rise, especially among those deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.  The number of applications for discharge as Conscientious Objectors (COs) would likely increase.

Has the three plus decades of the "all volunteer force" effectively isolated the antiwar movement from the young workers who predominate in today's military?  That was clearly one of the motivations in establishing the AVF. We shall see if the barriers to effective outreach to GIs are insurmountable to most activists, or whether there are ways we can reach out to today's GIs.


Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier, a GI rights group, is author of the forthcoming "America's Military Today" to be published by the New Press in November 2004 (for updates consult www.citizen-soldier.org).

ATC 112, September-October 2004