"Elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor."
August 9, 2013 10:03 AM   Subscribe

"We condition the poor and the working class to go to war. We promise them honor, status, glory, and adventure. We promise boys they will become men. We hold these promises up against the dead-end jobs of small-town life, the financial dislocations, credit card debt, bad marriages, lack of health insurance, and dread of unemployment. The military is the call of the Sirens, the enticement that has for generations seduced young Americans working in fast food restaurants or behind the counters of Walmarts to fight and die for war profiteers and elites."
-- War is Betrayal. Persistent Myths of Combat, an essay by Chris Hedges of Truthdig. Responses within.

Responses
* Roy Scranton (Veteran of the Iraq War, co-editor of the book Fire and Forget): Misreading War Literature
* Phillip Carter (Former US Army officer and Iraq war veteran): We Aren't Victims
* Joyce S. Goldberg (Associate Professor of History at the UT Arlington): False Masculinity
* Chris Lombardi (Writer): Veterans Who Dissent
* William Treseder (Served in the USMC in Iraq and Afghanistan): A False Portrait
posted by zarq (57 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Kind of shines a light on T.R., an elite who absolutely believed that war was something needed for all levels of society, at least until his son was shot down.
posted by Atreides at 10:06 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


The problem isn't that war is a myth, but a reality. It can make adults of children, provide an income, along with a sense of belonging to those who have little chance of that. That's the real tragedy.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:12 AM on August 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


By the way... I didn't quote the responses in the post or its title, but they're all quite good. They address the topic directly and point out some serious flaws / biases / overlooked points in Hedges' argument.
posted by zarq at 10:19 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think this is an accurate picture of combat-arms military demographics these days.

On the enlisted combat arms side, people who can get over the background check, ASVAB, fitness requirements, and training hurdles are the cream of the blue collar crop -- certainly people who can do much better than Wal-Mart and fast food in terms of their job opportunities pre-service, to say the least of post-service.

When you look at combat arms officers, that's an elite in and of itself. A college degree is required, along with even more exacting cognitive and physical fitness requirements and training to get over. There's a reason why top MBA programs would fill a sizable portion of their classes (and some actually do) with young veteran officers.
posted by MattD at 10:20 AM on August 9, 2013 [13 favorites]


We promise them honor, status, glory, and adventure.

Kinda resembles the elevated status of small-town high school varsity sports. Coincidence?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:21 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Kinda resembles the elevated status of small-town high school varsity sports. Coincidence?

Well they're both the kind of thing that the average Mefite intrinsically hates.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:25 AM on August 9, 2013 [17 favorites]


I perhaps should have said reflexively distrusts there. Hate is too strong a word.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:31 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think this is an accurate picture of combat-arms military demographics these days.

On the enlisted combat arms side, people who can get over the background check, ASVAB, fitness requirements, and training hurdles are the cream of the blue collar crop


One doesn't need a particularly high ASVAB score to go into combat arms. The ASVAB is not a difficult test anyway. The fitness requirements going in, are basically: don't be massively overweight and do like 10 or so pushups, at least for the Army. The cream of the blue collar crop is not going into combat arms, if they go into the military it's usually in more technical positions that require more study and more intelligence.

Officers are a separate category in my mind and can't really be compared to enlisted as far as demographics go.
posted by IvoShandor at 10:34 AM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


> They address the topic directly and point out some serious flaws / biases / overlooked points in Hedges' argument.

Eh, not really. Here's my summary:

* Roy Scranton (Veteran of the Iraq War, co-editor of the book Fire and Forget): Misreading War Literature: Hedges' remarks about war lit do not stand up to my professional lit crit scrutiny, therefore we can ignore his major point.

* Phillip Carter (Former US Army officer and Iraq war veteran): We Aren't Victims: his survey is one-sided and he doesn't quote people who think the military is peachy-keen, therefore we can ignore his major point.

* Joyce S. Goldberg (Associate Professor of History at the UT Arlington): False Masculinity: Hedges oversimplifies, therefore we can ignore his major point.

* Chris Lombardi (Writer): Veterans Who Dissent: good, thoughtful response

* William Treseder (Served in the USMC in Iraq and Afghanistan): A False Portrait: not all veterans are like that, therefore we can ignore his major point.

It's the easiest thing in the world to go through anything that's not, say, the Realencyclop├Ądie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft and find things that have been left out or discussed too summarily or present a bias of some kind (n.b.: everything a human being writes has a bias of some kind) and then make a dismissive gesture and get back to business as usual. His major point, just to restate it, is:
The allure of combat is a trap, a ploy, an old, dirty game of deception in which the powerful, who do not go to war, promise a mirage to those who do.
That is indisputable truth, and war is probably the greatest evil human beings perpetrate, and Hedges is trying to tell people that, and most people—especially those with a stake in the war-based system we live in—don't want to hear it or think about it.

Does he sometimes get shrill? Sure. Does he oversimplify? Yup. Should that disqualify him from being listened to? Not in my book.
posted by languagehat at 10:39 AM on August 9, 2013 [68 favorites]


Sign up after 9/11 to defend your country. Get used to wage an unrelated illegal invasion of a non-threat country by a warmongering government. To me, Iraq would be a betrayal.
There are some countries I could trust enough (to spend me wisely to protect my people) to enlist, but the US govt, even before Iraq had a bad track record, and is not one of them. But with the greater-good motivations frozen due to extreme untrustworthiness, that still leaves the other incentives - college tuition, career, opportunities, etc. A risk-reward decision. I wish good luck to any who feel that that may be their best way forward.
posted by anonymisc at 10:44 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Read Henry IV. Turn to the Iliad. The allure of combat is a trap, a ploy, an old, dirty game of deception in which the powerful, who do not go to war, promise a mirage to those who do.

Henry IV and the Iliad are surely not great examples of the the powerful and wealthy not going to war.

I also find it interesting that this seems to be an enormous difference between American boarding schools and the English schools on which they're modelled:

I do not know of a single member of my graduating prep school class who went into the military.
posted by atrazine at 10:55 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


The call to unnecessary wars has always appealed to those who are easily manipulated by slogans - whether those slogans appeal to the enlistee's need for a "secure future"; "unique skills training"; or, "defending one's homeland". National ignorance is a cornerstone of this manipulation.

The really sad part is that a country like America is drowning is historical ignorance, and therefore lacks historical perspective - which makes it easier to manipulate the young. We are a society that is doomed to repeat stupidity, because we are focused on "culture lite", the kind that lets the lessons of history recede comfortably into the next commercial for whatever bling one happens to covet.

That said, sometimes war is necessary, but truth be told most wars would and could be a whole lot shorter and less devastating if the elites at the center of most of the conditions that lead to wars would be conscripted and forced to participate in the outrage they have a large hand in bringing about.
posted by Vibrissae at 10:58 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


languagehat: " * Phillip Carter (Former US Army officer and Iraq war veteran): We Aren't Victims: his survey is one-sided and he doesn't quote people who think the military is peachy-keen, therefore we can ignore his major point."

I think that's not exactly the point Carter was making. First, he's saying that there are real benefits to military service that Hedges is dismissing. The people Hedges quotes are no doubt used because they support his argument. Which is fine, but whenever someone paints such a black and white picture it presents the audience with a one-sided perspective.

The second point Carter makes is that all war veterans are not damaged victims of their time in the military. But also that portraying them as such can be harmful to veterans.

I don't think any of these points refute Hedges' essay. Indeed, I'm not sure I agree with them. But I liked (and included) this and the other responses because they add nuance to what Hedges is saying. Even if at times said nuance is unintentional. There's value, I think, in looking at whether there's a net gain for those who volunteer. Or at the role of 'macho' heroic stereotypes in modern American culture and how the military may use them in conscription and propaganda. I don't think they should be discounted.
posted by zarq at 11:12 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


This all dovetails nicely with what I've noticed as a decided upswing in advertising for "hire a vet" "healthcare for vets" "education for vets" "affordable housing for vets" etc. etc. programs and organizations. At a time when young people are struggling with things like jobs, healthcare, affording education, et.al., there sure seems to be a strong-yet-subtle "service guarantees citizenship" vibe being broadcast.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Military Recruiting Standards: Demographics of Military Personnel:
Who serves in the active-duty ranks of the U.S. all-volunteer military? Conventional wisdom holds that military service disproportionately attracts minorities and men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many believe that troops enlist because they have few options, not because they want to serve their country.

1.U.S. military service disproportionately attracts enlisted personnel and officers who do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Previous Heritage Foundation research demonstrated that the quality of enlisted troops has increased since the start of the Iraq war. This report demonstrates that the same is true of the officer corps.

2.Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods. Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 percent came from the wealthiest quintile. These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods-a number that has increased substantially over the past four years.

3.American soldiers are more educated than their peers. A little more than 1 percent of enlisted personnel lack a high school degree, compared to 21 percent of men 18-24 years old, and 95 percent of officer accessions have at least a bachelor's degree.

4.Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers. Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of overrepresentation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007. New recruits are also disproportionately likely to come from the South, which is in line with the history of Southern military tradition.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:17 AM on August 9, 2013 [18 favorites]


Another interesting thing about war is that it kills people.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 11:18 AM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


The really sad part is that a country like America is drowning is historical ignorance, and therefore lacks historical perspective - which makes it easier to manipulate the young. We are a society that is doomed to repeat stupidity, because we are focused on "culture lite", the kind that lets the lessons of history recede comfortably into the next commercial for whatever bling one happens to covet.

Well the problem is that for the every day American in the United States is that the damage done to the nation is not generally a physically manifest thing, except for physical bodies. Our cities are not bombed (and when they are, we clean up and build on over - but throw up a memorial of some sort), and the veterans who are damaged, physically and/or psychologically, are expected to do everything they can not to remind us of what we asked them to do. The United States as a country has not been ravaged by war on an industrial scale since 1865, unlike nearly every other major nation (and many small nations) in the world. Our last two massive undertakings in war (home front massively put into service to support) took place across the seas and when it was over, it was back to norm.

I think it's not a matter of saying that Americans are historically ignorant, but instead, have by chance of geography and fate been spared the great periodic life shattering, scarring a generation, reminders that the rest of the world has endured. He somewhat addresses this, but only in the terms of not spotlighting the veterans.

I think he also hurts his argument by shifting gears. He begins his article attacking how it is a matter of class, but sort of slips into a general war is hell and we never discuss or confront this reality due to patriotic representations (which is how the slip began, it's a natural turn from tricking the poor to war).

However, I just don't agree with this line:

"Any story of war is a story of elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor. I do not know of a single member of my graduating prep school class who went into the military. You could not say this about the high school class that graduated the same year in Mechanic Falls, Maine."

He needs to emphasize that this is the story of war in the modern age, or even better, the industrial age. Any glance at the history of warfare, the ruling elite were the ruling elite because they were the ones who were adept at warfare and it was in part their willingness to at least appear on the battlefield, if not lead the charge, that encouraged everyone else to follow. This is true from Roman times when the elite of Rome were raised with an expectation of certain martial successes to help achieve political fortunes (and generally, when a Roman army was defeated, their elite leadership went down with the ship - willingly or not), and also true of the wonderful gray area when pre-industrial war became industrial, like the American Civil War.

What is true is that the elite made sure that their military hierarchy reflected the class divisions of their society. If they were going to be forced to war, then by god, they were going to experience it in the best possible means, be it by leadership or the comforts that leadership bestowed. When war on an industrial scale became possible, and the machine of war became a beast that could be directed from afar, perhaps as Hedges argues, by myth-inducing volunteerism or uncontested conscription (based on the same mythological constructs), it all changed. More so, while military service does offer some boost to political ambitions, it's no longer the apparent and necessary springboard to success that it was, that those who seek such power or other success are no longer drawn to it.
posted by Atreides at 11:30 AM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Today's military personnel are more likely than comparable age groups in the civilian population to have graduated from high school (after all, with rare exceptions, military recruits must have high school degrees or GEDs)."

"Today's military is distinctly middle class. In part, this is because military requirements render many of the nation's poorest young people ineligible: The poorest Americans are the least likely to finish high school or gain a GED, for instance, and poverty also correlates with ill health, obesity, and the likelihood of serious run-ins with the criminal justice system, all of which are disqualifying factors for the military."

From this article in Foreign Policy
posted by otto42 at 11:36 AM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


Chocolate Pickle: "Military Recruiting Standards: Demographics of Military Personnel: "

I'd love to see an analysis that wasn't from a huge conservative think tank whose self-declared role is to "formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." Heritage has a vested interest in promoting the military and attacking criticism of it.

4.Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers. Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of overrepresentation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007. New recruits are also disproportionately likely to come from the South, which is in line with the history of Southern military tradition.

Asians and Latins are under-represented in the military. African Americans have consistently been over-represented. And since 2008, the downward trend it mentions (which, by the way had not "declined each year from 2004 to 2007" in the military as a whole) has reversed and outpaced the previous 3 years.

Scroll down in this doc to see the chart called, "Military Recruitment - Demographics by Year"
        Black	White	Asian/PI Native	Other	Hispanic	
FY05	15.0%	80.4%	3.4%	1.2%	0.0%	11.8%					
FY06	14.4%	80.4%	3.5%	1.1%	0.5%	11.1%					
FY07	14.9%	80.8%	3.2%	1.0%	0.1%	10.7%		
FY08	16.6%	79.2%	3.3%	1.0%	0.0%	10.9%		
FY09	17.2%	78.1%	3.8%	0.9%	0.0%	10.9%	
FY10	18.9%	75.6%	4.8%	0.8%	0.0%	11.9%	
US Demographics as of 2010 (Source: Wikipedia)
White: 72.4%
Black or African American: 12.6%
Asian American: 4.8%
American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.9%
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander: 0.2%
Some other race: 6.2%
Hispanic: 16.4%
The National Priorities chart shows that the trend mentioned in the Heritage study reversed itself after the bank crash, and the military's overrepresentation of African Americans has increased.
posted by zarq at 11:40 AM on August 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


I'm always reminded of what Doris Lessing wrote about her observations of the Second World War: that everyone was having a great time. The down side was that you could be killed, if you were an actual soldier, RAF pilot, etc - but outside of the actual combat situations, the officers, the women associated with the war effort, even the enlisted men were having a high old time. She talks about having people describe it later as wonderful, exciting, meaningful.

And of course, we all know that the British were healthier under rationing than at most other times.

War is hell if you're in the trenches (WWI memoirs seem pretty clear on that). War is hell if you're in constant danger (but lots of people aren't). War is hell if you're losing (I have a terrific, horrible book of accounts of Japanese experiences during WWII, civilian and soldier - and honestly, what people went through just makes you want to be dead so that you won't have to know about it any more). And of course, war seems like it's pretty hellish if you're a morally sensitive person and can't handle blowing up your fellow human beings or hazing them or sitting in a windowless room running drone attacks. But everyone else doesn't mind at all. That's the horrible part, I think - a lot of people like war just fine, just like a lot of people enjoy beating or killing minorities and taking their stuff, just like a lot of people really enjoy harassing or beating women. And a lot more people like war because it provides purpose, employment (on the home front too) and a moral narrative.

Humans aren't any good, that's all.
posted by Frowner at 11:42 AM on August 9, 2013 [26 favorites]


Not much new in this, surely. The call to patriotism rightly or wrongly has been an old standby for signing up the youth, and bemoaning this truism is pretty much Hedges' schtick. Nothing wrong with that.

But in the post-war years, we've other factors.

Basically, it's follow the money. Yes, signing up could mean getting shunted to a rifle company in a bad part of the world; but combat troops are less than ten percent of the military. (I like to examine the service ribbons of current military career types for evidence that they have ever heard a shot fired in anger.) Lot of opportunity in that other 90%, which can look pretty attractive to a population where a high-school diploma does go as far as it used to go. Military time is cheaper than college, looks good on the resume, helps pay for more education (and facilitates getting that education), and if you stay for twenty years offers a nice little pension to supplement a second career. Plus, currently, the military can afford to be choosy, so you won't necessarily appear to be the loser type that enlistees did in earlier decades.

I do not know of a single member of my graduating prep school class who went into the military.

>Atrazine, you're quite right. Reason is that, unlike British public schools, American high-end private schools (like Hedges' own Loomis-Chaffee) aren't into the whole military prep thing. At least, not recently. Then too, consider his timing- he was born in 1956, let's assume he graduated in 1974 - the draft had ended a year earlier, the now unpopular war in Vietnam was winding down, ROTC was being thrown off of campuses, and disco was a-bornin'.

Go back just a few years earlier, and there were prep school johnnies John Kerry and Al Gore lining up to get into the thick of the action. Whether that was resume building purposes or not, you would have to be able to read their hearts, but by Hedges' time, the tide had long since turned.

the problem is that for the every day American in the United States is that the damage done to the nation is not generally a physically manifest thing, except for physical bodies.

This could get us into a whole new discussion on the post civil war south, but let's leave that for another time.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:49 AM on August 9, 2013


U.S. military service disproportionately attracts enlisted personnel and officers who do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Previous Heritage Foundation research demonstrated that the quality of enlisted troops has increased since the start of the Iraq war. This report demonstrates that the same is true of the officer corps.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the Heritage Foundation thinks that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are low-quality people, but this is a pretty blatant statement of it.

--

Also, I didn't know Chris Hedges was from Mechanic Falls, or even from Maine!

--

Gordon Lightfoot,'s The Patriot's Dream kind of sums it up.
posted by eviemath at 11:50 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it's not a matter of saying that Americans are historically ignorant, but instead, have by chance of geography and fate been spared the great periodic life shattering, scarring a generation, reminders that the rest of the world has endured.

I think it's also that the USA was created with a war, so the history taught at an impressionable age is that war is something that really works and brings real freedom and creates really great things, like this great nation. Everything you have comes from the goodness of war.
But historically, not only is that pretty unusual, but even right next door, Canada didn't war for independence and yet Canadians enjoy arguably more freedom.

I think classroom history makes Americans pre-disposed to viewing war as something that builds great things. In Europe by contrast, as you point out, the history is more that war means everything gets destroyed.
posted by anonymisc at 11:51 AM on August 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Aizkolari: "I perhaps should have said reflexively distrusts there. Hate is too strong a word."

Nah - not for me. I'll take that label just fine, thanks. Maybe for others. But not me.
posted by symbioid at 11:53 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was in the Army post-9/11 and I don't think I met anyone who signed up to "defend their country." At least in anything but a very vague well-that's-a-nice-bonus / maybe-it'll-get-me-laid sort of way. Everyone has their own reasons but generally they're a lot more specific and personal than that.

It's entirely possible that things may have changed and I'm sure individual recruiters have different spiels that they use on different people, but in general the attitude I always heard from officers and NCOs to new soldiers was very much about being a professional soldier, the "profession of arms", etc. Do your job and do it well, not because of politics or patriotism necessarily, but because that's your job.

Which makes sense, because on a day-to-day basis the tasks of an average soldier are mostly pretty repetitive and boring, without a whole lot of obvious connection to geopolitics one way or another. As a management style, "everybody shut up and do your job" probably works a lot better than trying to pretend that everything you're doing is some sort of patriotic mitzvah.

Again this could have just been the command that I was part of, but it was honestly not that dissimilar to any large corporation's internal PR. There was occasionally some rah-rah stuff about why we're all here, why the mission is so important, etc., but day-to-day the message was mostly about being professional, doing your job really well, and not letting everyone else down by fucking up. It's a job, you're professionals, be the best, etc. Sure, it's a job where (if you actively seek out such a role and try hard and get into one, cf. MattD's comment) you could end up shooting at other people and/or getting shot at, but fundamentally it's a job.

it's not a matter of saying that Americans are historically ignorant, but instead, have by chance of geography and fate been spared the [...] reminders that the rest of the world has endured.

Exactly this. The shine became a bit dulled with Vietnam, and perhaps it will a bit more depending on how Afghanistan and Iraq turn out, long-term, and Korea was admittedly a mess ... but America has done pretty well in the past as a result of going to war, at least based on the official history and the wars most Americans are actually aware of. (Revolutionary War? Wouldn't exist without it. Civil War? Bloody but justified. Spanish-American War? Worked out well for us. World War One? Saved Europe, became a major world power. World War Two? Saved Europe again, became a superpower.) It's very tough to argue against militarism when you keep winning, and when war is almost without exception something that you do to foreigners on the other side of the world.

IMO, the important historical lesson that has not been fully internalized in the US is that the cost of power projection eventually becomes too much for even the most lopsidedly powerful empires (e.g. Rome vs. the tribes on the frontier), and even when maintaining a continuous stream of military victories you can still easily bankrupt your civilization. We have, and are in the process of, squandering what could have been generations of global cultural and economic dominance, as a result of a combination of insane military spending and strip-mining of the domestic economy by politically-savvy elites.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:14 PM on August 9, 2013 [19 favorites]


OK - sorry - I hate the SYSTEMS that produce this.
posted by symbioid at 12:16 PM on August 9, 2013


The USA is war-like because of deep conflicts within the so-called "united" states. Conflicts that pre-date the Revolutionary war, the USA has always been a fractured and feuding place. Regional powers and alliances struggle for control of the federal government. Foreign wars are often proxies (or safety valves) for internal dispute.
posted by stbalbach at 12:17 PM on August 9, 2013


> The really sad part is that a country like America is drowning is historical ignorance, and therefore lacks historical perspective - which makes it easier to manipulate the young.

While this is true, it's not really relevant, in the sense that it seems to be an absolute universal that people everywhere go into a state of blind, patriotic war fever whenever war is declared. You could hardly call Western Europeans a century ago "drowning in historical ignorance," and many of them despised war and patriotism and were bent on joining hands with proletarians the world over... and yet as soon as war was declared, they all flocked to the colors and signed up, even the internationalist socialists.

> But I liked (and included) this and the other responses because they add nuance to what Hedges is saying.

Oh, sure, and I'm glad you included them; I'm sorry if I came across as saying otherwise. I just wanted to make my opinion of them clear.

The older I get, the more sickened I am by war and the culture of war and the harder I find it to accept that people seem doomed to keep getting suckered into it, in saecula saeculorum. I don't give a good goddam about how it can help people become men or find themselves or learn to cooperate or whatever the fuck virtues it's supposed to have; there are other ways to do those things that don't involve millions of deaths and terrible injuries and ruined lives and orphaned children and wrecked cities. Nothing is worth that. But, as Frowner so eloquently said:

> Humans aren't any good, that's all.
posted by languagehat at 12:21 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Foreign wars are often proxies (or safety valves) for internal dispute.

Um, so that's an ... interesting theory. Care to expound on it a little? What internal disputes are the current ongoing wars proxies for?
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:30 PM on August 9, 2013


Steve Earle wrote it better than I ever could: Just Another Poor Boy Off To Fight a Rich Man's War.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:36 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't give a good goddam about how it can help people become men or find themselves or learn to cooperate or whatever the fuck virtues it's supposed to have; there are other ways to do those things that don't involve millions of deaths and terrible injuries and ruined lives and orphaned children and wrecked cities. Nothing is worth that.

Exactly right. (Plus, it seems to me, many people who make a fetish of the military and war are very often people who have never been in either.)

Americans, aside from the folk who have returned from overseas with physical or mental injuries, have only ever paid the civilian consequences during the Civil war, and even then the consequences were largely dealt to the "bad guys" (in our historical narrative). Hell, look at the huge amount of grief and outrage the destruction of a couple of buildings wrought on 9/11, and that is a minor bit of damage compared to what would go down if there was a real army sitting outside of NY with the goal of "taking the city."

It's irresponsible and outrageous to have an opinion about military service or war without seeing first-hand the agony it spreads--and even in peacetime, supporting a huge military steals things from the rest of us, either your money via taxes if you're selfish, or services and care for the needy by spending said tax dollars on arms instead of, say, health care.
posted by maxwelton at 12:36 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kadin2048: " Um, so that's an ... interesting theory. Care to expound on it a little? What internal disputes are the current ongoing wars proxies for?"

Possibly the early 2000's mini-recession, which was somewhat forestalled by a ramp-up in military activity after 9/11. It also didn't prevent the larger recession from hitting in 2008 when the housing and credit bubble burst. See: "Aughts were a lost decade for U.S. economy, workers"

We went to war in Iraq for reasons that had nothing to do with reality. Our leaders knew they were lying to us about WMDs and Hussein's support for Bin Laden, and Al Queda's involvement, etc., etc. Afghanistan


languagehat: " Oh, sure, and I'm glad you included them; I'm sorry if I came across as saying otherwise. I just wanted to make my opinion of them clear."

Completely understand.
posted by zarq at 12:40 PM on August 9, 2013


What internal disputes are the current ongoing wars proxies for?

not proxies, but rehearsals - i think the government and corporate elites know that if they keep their current course that they're going to be facing violent insurrection and domestic terrorism - so they're practicing methods of subduing that overseas

they are scared to death of the american people and what they could do if they got angry enough - and with good reason

in 20 years we may not have to ask what it's like to live in a war torn country
posted by pyramid termite at 12:55 PM on August 9, 2013


And a lot more people like war because it provides purpose, employment (on the home front too) and a moral narrative.

One might even say that war is a force that gives us meaning.

Rupert Brooke wrote of the beginning of the first world war that his reaction and that of many of his compatriots was like that of "... swimmers into cleanness leaping,". That simplification of a world full of compromises and moral ambiguity to a world of duty, and a shared purpose is an attractive force. I think that's as likely to attract someone whose alternative is a banking job as it is someone for whom the alternative is working retail.

Of course, it doesn't often work out the way they might have hoped. Certainly Rupert Brooke didn't anticipate dying from an infected mosquito bite on his way to a campaign that became a byword for military futility and suffering.
posted by atrazine at 12:56 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


"credit card debt, bad marriages"
Because these things never happen to the rich. And "small town life"--oh the humanity! Hedges has lived most of his life among the elite media class, and I'm sure he can think of nothing worse than living on a military base with people who play video games and don't listen to music he likes. He might have a point or several, but his snobbishness is showing.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:05 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


they are scared to death of the american people and what they could do if they got angry enough - and with good reason

Yes, there might be even more sad "occupy" folding tables outside City Hall than there are now.

Mic check!
posted by Tanizaki at 1:59 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


it can help people become men or find themselves or learn to cooperate or whatever the fuck virtues it's supposed to have

One of the things I found worst about the "Collateral Murder" video that Manning leaked was the bloodthirsty chatter of the pilots. It was awful that our war had turned those young people into brutes.
posted by Trochanter at 1:59 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the Marine Corps, the history of the institution and the story of certain Marines is an important part of training. That's where I learned about Chesty Puller and Smedly Butler.

Of course, one thing I didn't learn until a few years after I left was that General Butler wrote a book in 1935 entitled "War is a Racket"
In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few -- the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.
posted by heathkit at 2:20 PM on August 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


> Does he sometimes get shrill? Sure. Does he oversimplify? Yup. Should that disqualify him from being listened
> to? Not in my book.
> posted by languagehat at 1:39 PM on August 9 [27 favorites +] [!]

Well and charitably felt, hat. Plus, the same attitude universally applied (as charity should be) pretty much takes the sting out of your thumbnail critiques of zarq's list of response essays (as charity would.) S'all good.


But just in case it's not all good,

> Humans aren't any good, that's all.
> posted by Frowner at 2:42 PM on August 9 [7 favorites +] [!

Millions--no, billions--of individual homo saps are good, certainly better than me anyway. But you could easily get the "we're just no good" idea if you only think of all of us collectively; it's the characteristic despair justification of the collectivist who's ready to throw in the towel. (Inherited intact, I may note, from previous generations of class snobs.) Let me put it more concretely in words that might help the mechanic you called, or the attending physician on the case: we people are not really all members one of another, we don't have ESP, nobody reallyo trulyo feel the pain he causes. Just fix that and war will end in five minutes. No, instantly.

But you can't fix that. So you're left with the millions--no, billions--of homo saps who are good individually. Will that be enough? We'll just have to wait hopefully and find out. Which, unsatisfactory though it is, seems to me to be a better solution than deleting all the existing code and hoping somebody or something reimplements from scratch.
posted by jfuller at 2:30 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


"credit card debt, bad marriages"
Because these things never happen to the rich. And "small town life"--oh the humanity! Hedges has lived most of his life among the elite media class, and I'm sure he can think of nothing worse than living on a military base with people who play video games and don't listen to music he likes. He might have a point or several, but his snobbishness is showing.


The complete context of "the dead-end jobs of small-town life" is a bit more appropriate to reference, and it rings quite true--small towns, including those that satellite military bases, don't have very diverse economies (which I'll go ahead and say rings true to personal experience, having grown up on a chicken farm down the road from the LRAFB and Camp Robinson). That isn't snobbery, that's a pretty defensible statement.

Likewise, he says nothing about credit card debt and bad marriages not happening to the rich. The statement those words have been clipped from asserts that the military promotes itself as an antidote to financial and personal woes in ways that are much more alluring to the poor(er) than to the rich(er) among us.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:50 PM on August 9, 2013


Also, I didn't know Chris Hedges was from Mechanic Falls, or even from Maine!

He's not (although apparently some of his relatives are). He was born in St. Johnsbury VT, and according to this site now lives in Princeton NJ.
posted by LeLiLo at 5:56 PM on August 9, 2013


Relevant post from a year ago: Chris Hedges interviewed by Bill Moyers
posted by homunculus at 6:28 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Militarily enhanced foreign policy is good business. All this whining is unseemly. You need soldiers to do this stuff. Consider: It takes up the slack where Prison Privatization leaves off, fills in a few gaps that the War On Drugs doesn't cover, and detracts the public eye from Wall Street's profit-margins. It also feeds our politicians' need to find a job when they retire from public service. Many many companies are much much stronger because they got those valuable contracts.

All those dead guys make good news fodder. We can cry or we can spit on them, depends. This satisfies our need for polemics. Anyhow, to move on: we don't count their dead guys, because, you know, the pieces create too much subjectivity in the tally. And then, I'm pretty sure time discussing military demographics could be better spent investigating the newer role-playing games. I'm waiting for the one where you get to use a scythe to kill all the zombie critters, and have to stop now and then to change into a fresh shirt to recharge your power thingie and shapen your blade. We can dress the zombie critters like foreign people from one of those countries we currently want to drone into rubble. The drone game would be good, too....have to add a feature where you can machine-gun crowds, though. I want to see flying body parts and realistic spatter patterns. These gamer productions always underestimate how much blood humans have. Why, I have seen a tire track--well a muddy rut, actually--filled with about an inch or so of blood, maybe two feet long with the blood of just one guy.

Ellis spent a lot of time discussing the bad parts of military life. He's right. It has a lot of hard points. However, generalities about the individuals are about as useful as generalities about any given cross-section of the population. Some go for the education, or the Fun, the Travel, or the Adventure. Some go to play with the toys. Some go for the retirement package. Some go so they can be there if the opportunity to kill someone comes up. They all are surprised, though, because the experience is never quite what they had in mind.

I liked the part about them fucking yellow ribbons. Support the troops, ya'll. Have a nice Bar-B-Cue.
posted by mule98J at 6:51 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


The article suffers from its sweepingness - e.g. in the British WWI military experience, casualty and fatality rates were notably higher amongst upper class (virtually all officers ) and middle class personnel than working class personnel
posted by Bwithh at 7:31 PM on August 9, 2013


Humans aren't any good, that's all.

If you accept this premise, then you have nothing to complain about. If "humans aren't any good," then there is no tragedy in exterminating them, is there?
posted by SPrintF at 11:15 PM on August 9, 2013


The allure of combat is a trap, a ploy, an old, dirty game of deception in which the powerful, who do not go to war, promise a mirage to those who do.

As a veteran, let me tell you that people are never going to get anywhere in reducing the amount of combats, or lowering its allure, if they insist on failing to understand the realities, or creating strawmen to tilt against. The most important thing to learn is that the promises are not a mirage.

What do you learn in combat? A lot, actually. You learn to risk. You learn loyalty. You make connections - a network that is incredibly hard to break once you get back. You learn to deal with events under crisis. You learn to push past the natural paralysis of inaction, and move towards the best of the options available.

Are soldiers that come home suffering? Absolutely. But they are not suffering because combat always alters someone for the worse. They are, whether you or anyone else likes it or not, suffering because they are not in combat. They are suffering because they have become highly adapted for crisis, and living in America is less a succession of acute crises than it is a slow sapping of will, a slow death of spirit and body.

And then there's the material benefits. How much would you value heathcare for your entire family at less than 500$ a year? How much would you value a free four year education plus living expenses - that you can transfer to your kids? A guaranteed loan that makes it easier to get a mortgage? The ability to borrow money for emergencies interest free? Free legal services? Tax-free shopping? Cheaper gas and hotels while you travel? Free flights to Europe? The ability to retire and spend the rest of your life doing only work that makes you happy at 37?

People say that coming into the military are the cream of the working-class crop. That may even be true. But show me a single other job that provides all of those benefits. Show me a single other job that when you have more kids, gives you a bigger house. In fact, a single other job that provides you with free housing, food, clothing, and utilities for the duration of your employment such that all of your income could be discretionary. A single other job that provides quality daycare for a newborn at 300$ a month.

Going into military service is an enormous risk. You may not come back. You may come back wounded. But more than anything else it is a bet - that you can make it through, grab the brass ring, and live well for the rest of your life. Will you live with nightmares? Often. Will you, every time you walk into a room, think about how effectively it could be defended? Probably. Will your body be strained? Will your stare frighten people? Maybe. But the thing we have to understand is that as a pure practical consideration, it is often worth it.

Now there are other factors, intangible ones. Do you want to make your living - your profession - killing people or assisting to kill people? That price may be too high for some. Do you want to never, ever, think of life as sacrosanct in quite the same way again? That price may, again, be too high. Do you want to be able to contemplate horrific situations dispassionately for the rest of your life, to watch your friends kill themselves as the years go on and they cannot adapt not to the war but back to civilian life? Maybe that price is, again, too high.

But look at war like it is. Don't insist there is no practical benefit whatsoever to it.
posted by corb at 6:36 AM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


I also agree completely with Chris Lombardi -especially about soldiers wanting to be a part of something - but should also probably disclaim that I know her and may be biased on that score.
posted by corb at 6:41 AM on August 10, 2013


But look at war like it is. Don't insist there is no practical benefit whatsoever to it.

No offence, corb, but it sounds like you're saying a good job has benefits and war destroys at least a percentage of minds.

I have no problem with national service. Sound like a good idea to me. A peace corps that operates within the country. Building dams and roads and schools and teamwork and spewing benefits.

Killing people doesn't stop sucking if your mind survives it. And the fact that you've dehumanized your enemy to allow your mind to survive is part of the problem. War blows.

What is it good for! HUH!!
posted by Trochanter at 9:40 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think what I'm trying to say is not that war necessarily has to be a good job (though I think it should be if you're asking people to kill people) but that it currently is a good job, and one of the best jobs someone can get straight out of high school without even an interview. So that people who think it's a good job aren't necessarily wrong.

I will note, though, that it is possible to kill without dehumanizing your enemy to allow your mind to survive. But it does cause a bit of a fatalistic outlook on all human life, including yours.
posted by corb at 2:28 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's hard to find anyone who'll admit to liking war. Or, more specifically, liking the idea of close combat. One of the nasty little secrets is how...attractive...it is, to pull the trigger, feel the recoil, know you've just participated a supremely esoteric act. The peripherals are fairly easy to grasp, even easy to describe with varying degrees of emphasis: standing your ground, holding your buddy's life in your hands, putting your life in his, emerging bonds of trust. All these things, small yet made of steel. They are idealized of course, because this shit is never what it is, it's what it means. Collateral damage doesn't equate. Don't think about it. Also, you can sort out the politics later, if you must.

Back home you want to tell the stories, but your civilian friends just want to watch the fucking movie, and, frankly, they don't deserve to know. You don't want to carry some of the images, but you must. You don't want to remember certain things, but that's your job. Maybe you'd like to know how come the existential crapshoot worked out the way it did, but you never will. Some guys make up reasons. They gather around touchstones: In my day they hate the hanoijane (or the hippies or the quizling congress that quit the course), and make up reasons to fuel that which burns, because if the flame dies, then they won't have anything left to keep them going. That's just one example. Like I tried to say, you don't paint all of us with the same brush.

But the liking it gets masked under a veneer of civilized behavior, unless you reside in the community that openly thrives on hate and bigotry, where it's okay to hate, okay, even, to kill "them" so long as you have a clearly defined them to kill. Sometimes skin is a good marker. Religion or nationality works. So long as they aren't us. But that's just one brush's vision of the warrior, so to speak. So you agree that war sucks, and let it go at that, because your PC friends, like the other guys, just want to watch the goddam movie; not what it is, what it means to them, fuel for their particular fires.

I don't subscribe to the soldier as warrior notion, for example, or the all soldiers are heroes notion. Soldiers are just us in funny clothes, and they are the real life wet dream you have when you fire up the old gaming console. Those guys in the above paragraph try to take solace in hate, or in downgrading a "them" so they are easier to notice at night, between the times you sleep and the times you dream. Lots of times there is no relief for anybody, and you just deal with it as best you can.

For example, I used to drive along the highway, and automatically notice good places to set up ambushes, and sometimes I'd even work out a sector analysis, where to put the claymores, the flankers, or maybe the rally points. Technical stuff. Noticing the good spots to deploy the ambush is one thing, but imagining the enemy was there is another. I wasn't like that.

For many years, I did get a thrill out of hearing a helicopter, though, or a Phantom (Phantoms make a unique sound, and they...they showed up for us several times, when we called for them. I remember, one time, after a napalm run, the pilot circled around and overflew my team, upside down, mind you, and waved at us. This was at an altitude of maybe a hundred feed, at a speed of, I dunno, a hundred miles an hour. He waved. Goggles hid his eyes but I could see his teeth. Maybe I didn't see his teeth, but I saw him wave. Maybe I just think he was grinning, because I know I was.)

We used to say, "War is fun. Sleeping in the mud--that's what is hell." I don't know that I really believe that, but I'm certain I never ever had a civilian experience that I found as compelling, or addictive. No way to describe certain things, because they just don't make sense: deep affection and absolute trust for a person you wouldn't like to have hanging around your family. Just doesn't make sense. Also, I know stuff I'd rather not know, but I can't figure out how I would go about not knowing this stuff, and wouldn't un-know it if I had to give up things I know on account of it.

War sucks all right. It's bad, and even evil. I couldn't agree more with that sentiment.

Okay, break's over. BTW, I am enjoying the expositions, and I believe I almost get it, how video games aren't linked to violence. Give me a little more time work on it. Right now I have worked it out where the virtual part sings harmony, and you keep your fingers in your ears so you don't hear the dissonant notes in the melody. Something like that.
posted by mule98J at 9:37 AM on August 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


"The fighting man is disinclined to repent his deeds of violence. Men who in private life are scrupulous about conventional justice and right are able to destroy the lives and happiness of others in war without compunction. At least to other eyes they seem to have no regrets. It is understandable, of course, why soldiers in combat would not suffer pangs of conscience when they battle for their lives against others who are trying to kill them...But modern wars are notorious for the destruction of nonparticipants...Add to this the unnumbered acts of injustice so omnipresent in war, which may not result in death but inevitably bring pain and grief, and the impartial observer may wonder how the participants in such deeds could ever smile again and be free of care."

-J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle
posted by clavdivs at 10:07 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's hard to find anyone who'll admit to liking war

Patton, Lee, Napoleon...
posted by clavdivs at 10:08 AM on August 11, 2013


I Miss Iraq. I Miss My Gun. I Miss My War. A year after coming home from a tour in Iraq, a soldier returns home to find out he left something behind.

Previously.
posted by homunculus at 10:12 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


> It's hard to find anyone who'll admit to liking war. Or, more specifically, liking the idea of close combat.

That's not really true, but of course it depends on the company they're in. I've read lots of accounts much like your (excellent) comment, and heard some too.

> Soldiers are just us in funny clothes

Exactly, which is one reason I was a conscientious objector: it wasn't that I thought "oh dear me, I'm not that sort of person, I could never..."—it was that even as a teenager with almost no life experience, I somehow knew I could wind up getting into it, bonding with my platoon and dehumanizing the enemy (how else are you going to kill them?) and having all the experiences, good and bad, you're talking about. And I knew it was wrong. I don't mean soldiers are bad, I mean war and killing are bad. Soldiers are just us in funny clothes, and if we put on those clothes and accept the abdication of our moral agency (which is what being a soldier involves), we wind up doing terrible things. Even as a dumb teenager I knew better than to dis the fighting men on either side (I used to argue with my fellow hippie-radical-protestor types about that), but I hated war and I hated the entire cultural and legal machinery that kept feeding young men into the meat grinder, and I still do. I wish I could believe we could grow out of it, but I don't think we have time.
posted by languagehat at 1:58 PM on August 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


mule98j, I have flagged your comment as fantastic. Thanks for telling a story I have never lived.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:19 PM on August 11, 2013


L-Hat...
You are right on about everything except the part where you have to dehumanize them to kill them. You don't have to. I didn't. They are cartoons, shadows, myths, until after you search the first body. After that, they are just you, but on the pointy end of the stick.

Your instincts were correct. You get that way by first acting that way. I looked like a soldier before I actually got to be one. The Army has good ideas about how that works. By the time I went to war I was ready, even eager, for it.

The guys who say they liked it--mostly I reserved that for peers. For a long time. It was almost 15 years before I talked about any of it with fellow vets. Many other things carried more voltage for us at the time than the notion that combat is thrilling. We sort of left that part in the field, because, well, war sucks, so why confuse the issue by being the only monster in the room?
posted by mule98J at 10:51 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Mule98J is absolutely correct. Except more eloquent than I. Also flagged for awesome.
posted by corb at 5:15 AM on August 12, 2013


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