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The Military Recruiter's Lament

Scott Ritter, AlterNet

January 18, 2006.


It should come as no surprise to any observer of modern America that U.S. military recruiters are having a difficult time meeting their quotas. Last year, the U.S. Army fell 6,600 recruits short of its goal to enlist 80,000 new soldiers. An increase in recruitment incentives, including signing bonuses and increases in college scholarships, combined with the raising of the maximum enlistment age (to 39) and allowing high school dropouts to be recruited, have not helped reverse the tide. Even the vaunted U.S. Marines, the pinnacle of the all-volunteer U.S. military, which has prided itself on its ability to attract recruits with slogans like "If everyone could be a Marine, there wouldn't be Marines" versus money and other recruiting gimmickry, have failed to make their enlistment quota.

As recruiters struggle to overcome the national aversion to military service that has gripped the country, their superiors wrestle to pin down the underlying reasons behind this failure of the American people to heed the call of the trumpet. Some, like Gen. Richard Cody, the U.S. Army's Vice Chief of Staff, have turned the issue into one of fundamental patriotism.

"This recruiting problem is not just an Army problem, this is America's problem," Cody is quoted as saying. "And what we have to really do is talk about service to this nation -- and a sense of duty to this nation."

Fair enough. I'd like to take Gen. Cody up on the challenge and talk about this so-called inability or unwillingness on the part of America to live up to any sense of duty to the nation by turning its collective back on joining the U.S. military. Some observers of the recruitment crisis, including the recruiters themselves, have noted that a main reason for the drop off in numbers of new enlistees is the war in Iraq and the growing casualty figures attributed to the fighting in Iraq. This line of argument seems to draw a direct correlation between the costs associated with being a soldier and the decision to enlist.

I frankly couldn't think of a greater insult to the American people than to put forward an argument along those lines. When one examines the employment picture in America today, firefighting is listed as one of the most dangerous vocations. And yet America's youth are lining up to compete for firefighting jobs, despite the dangers. The reason for this is that danger aside, firefighting is seen as an honorable profession, one worthy of the sacrifice entailed.

Americans aren't afraid to put their lives on the line for a worthy cause. It is not military service that is being rejected, but rather military service in support of a cause not deemed worthy of the sacrifice expected. The military today has degenerated into an entity that is viewed by many in the American public as no longer serving the larger interests of the American people, but rather the play toy of a political elite who use the U.S. military as a tool to impose their ideology on others around the world, as opposed to "upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States," the mission assumed when one is sworn into military service.

It is not just the fighting and dying in Iraq that creates an image problem. The military today is involved in a variety of activities that not only insult American sensibilities abroad (such as the illegal invasion of sovereign states, and the illegitimate occupation and oppression of sovereign peoples), but also assault at home the very Constitution they are sworn to uphold and defend. Americans should not overlook the fact that the agency at the heart of the illegal warrant-less wiretaps that have been ordered by President Bush is the National Security Agency, or NSA, run out of the Department of Defense.

Likewise, a lesser known but equally disturbing attack on the individual civil liberties enjoyed by American citizens -- the ongoing collection of "domestic intelligence information" by a Department of Defense agency known as the Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA. CIFA has, for several years, been operating a new reporting mechanism known as TALON (for Threat and Local Observation Notice). TALONs report on "non-validated domestic threat information" derived from a variety of means, including a process known as 'data mining' -- a similar process used by the NSA to spy on American citizens as part of the president's illegal warrantless eavesdropping campaign. "Data mining" allows the agency involved to access as much data as it can from any and all available sources -- emails, internet chatter, phone calls, newspapers, etc. -- in an effort to collate and correlate information on suspected potential threats.

To date, the data mining efforts of CIFA have targeted such high-priority targets as university students and concerned Americans expressing their constitutional freedom of speech through participation in anti-war discussions and demonstrations. It should come as no surprise to Gen. Cody and others in the U.S. military that American citizens might very well balk at joining an organization that ostensibly is supposed to protect the constitutional freedoms of Americans but in reality serves to violate those freedoms.

The Pentagon's recruitment problems have spilled over into the political realm as well. Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., who was thrust into the center of the Iraq war debate when he declared last fall that the Iraq war (of which he was once a fervent supporter) was no longer winnable, and that America needed to leave Iraq immediately, added fuel to the fire when he recently noted that if he were a young man today, he would not join the U.S. military.

The Pentagon immediately attacked Rep. Murtha's remarks. Gen. Pete Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the lead. Murtha's remark, Gen. Pace said, was "damaging to recruiting. It's damaging to morale of the troops who are deployed, and it's damaging to the morale of their families who believe in what they're doing to serve this country."

"We have almost 300 million Americans who are being protected by 2.4 [million] volunteer active, Guard and reserve members," the general went on to say. "We must recruit to that force. When a respected leader like Mr. Murtha, who has spent 37 extremely honorable years as a Marine, fought in two wars, has served the country extremely well in the Congress of the United States, when a respected individual like that says what he said, and 18- and 19-year-olds look to their leadership to determine how they are expected to act, they can get the wrong message." Gen. Pace said young people should be encouraged to join, not shun, the military, "especially when we're in a war where our enemy has stated intention of destroying our way of life."

It is very curious that Gen. Pace likened the war in Iraq to a struggle against a foe who has stated its intention to destroy the American way of life. The only "way of life" being destroyed today in Iraq is the Iraqi way of life, and the force responsible for this devastation is the U.S. military. The insurgency being waged in Iraq today is not anti-American, but rather anti-occupation. The more Americans reflect on the nature of the occupation ongoing in Iraq, the more they wrestle with the notion of how they would respond if a foreign power put its troops on the ground here at home. The answer, of course, is obvious. It is hard to recruit Americans who know that if they were in the shoes of the Iraqis, they would be doing the exact same thing as the insurgents -- fighting with every tool available to drive out the foreign occupier.

Gen. Pace and others miss the point completely when they appeal to American patriotism in trying to draw recruits to a U.S. military that is engaged in activities in Iraq that can only be seen as inherently un-American.

The very fact that the War in Iraq does NOT threaten the American way of life is the main reason why Americans, by and large, are refusing to walk away from the comforts afforded by the American way of life to join a military system comparatively Spartan in nature. While economic incentives have always played a role in rounding out the numbers in the all-volunteer force of the post-Vietnam War era, the fact is that military service was for many (including myself) a calling, a reflection of a desire to serve a higher cause than simple economic self-interest. In many ways, military service was (and is) inherently un-American, since it embraces core values that place the collective over the individual. These inconsistencies were accepted, however, since those serving in the military understood that the team they were joining represented that which guaranteed to all others the wherewithal to enjoy the freedoms associated with being an American. We knew when we joined the military that we had a social contract with our fellow Americans. We who served would forego the comforts and freedoms of civilian life so that we could guarantee that those very same civilians could live as Americans. We also knew that, when the time came, America would support us by not only providing us with the wherewithal to wage war, but also ensure that before asking us to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of a cause, that it was a cause worthy of that sacrifice.

Today, that contract lays broken and violated. America went to war in Iraq on the basis of false premises. Our troops fight and die for a cause most Americans cannot identify with. And the U.S. military is engaged in domestic spying operations against the very citizens it is sworn to defend.

The generals who criticize Congressman Murtha would do well to study recent history, especially some of the historical lessons drawn from books that they themselves encourage mid- to senior-level officers to read. Since its publication in 1998, U.S. Army Col. H. R. McMasters' "Dereliction of Duty," an indictment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the escalation of the Vietnam War, has been required reading for a generation of U.S. military leaders. Drawing upon recently declassified documents, McMasters outlines the betrayal of the American military during the Vietnam War by its own leaders, the general officers of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who put their own career ambitions ahead of the welfare and well-being of their troops, allowing the politicization of the Vietnam War to occur to the point that a war all knew to be unwinnable (and unjust) was sustained for many years by those afraid to speak out lest they threaten their career and reputation.

Gen. Pace and his fellow Joint Chiefs of Staff are the current manifestation of the same cowardice and dereliction of duty McMasters chronicled in his book, a trend that leads one to question whether there are any generals today who possess enough honor to speak out against a war, and its underlying policies, that not only destroys the men and institutions they represent as leaders, but threatens the very nation they are sworn to defend.

One only needs to look to Col. McMasters himself to find an answer to this question. McMasters, a major at the time of the publication of his book, is an officer of great courage and conviction, not to mention considerable military talent. He commanded an armored unit during the 1991 Gulf War, which engaged the Iraqi Republican Guard in a ferocious battle known as "73 Easting." During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, McMasters commanded an armored battalion with distinction. More recently, McMasters commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, where he participated in combat operations in northern Iraq, including a decisive battle in September 2005 for the city of Tall Afar, a city of some 200,000 people about 260 miles northwest of Baghdad and only 40 miles from Syria. This battle, Operation Restore Rights, was one of several waged by the U.S. military and its erstwhile Iraqi government allies against Iraqi insurgents in an effort to demonstrate that the Iraqi military was taking a lead in security and stability operations inside Iraq. In a briefing to journalists shortly after the fighting in Tall Afar wound down, McMasters referred to the insurgents as "terrorists" who were drawn to Tall Afar because of its location along routes between the Iraqi city of Mosul and Syria. According to McMasters, the "terrorists" considered it a good place to incite sectarian and ethnic violence and chaos that would preclude Iraqi governmental control.

When the terrorists took over Tall Afar, McMasters said, they replaced all the imams from the mosques with Islamic extremists, replaced all teachers from the schools with people who "preached hatred and intolerance," and kidnapped and murdered large numbers of people. "The enemy here did just the most horrible things you can imagine," McMasters said, "in one case murdering a child, placing a booby trap within the child's body, and waiting for the parent to come recover the body of their child and exploding it to kill the parents."

In the end, McMasters said, the "terrorists" who once ran the western Iraq city of Tall Afar were routed by American and Iraqi security forces.

The operation began in early May of 2005, McMasters noted, but fighting reached a climax in September. About 5,000 Iraqi security forces and around 3,500 U.S. troops participated in Tall Afar operation, according to McMasters, who noted that a "pall of fear" has been lifted from Tall Afar.

McMasters, in extolling the victory in Tall Afar, noted that the United States is employing "the right strategy" to defeat insurgents in Iraq by building up capable Iraqi security forces, including police, to eventually take over from coalition troops.

The colonel said the American people should be very proud of U.S. service members in Iraq, noting that they and their coalition and Iraqi partners have "the enemy on the run." The Iraqi people should know that America is "going to stand by them" until the insurgents have been defeated, McMasters said.

If one were ignorant of Col. McMasters' curriculum vitae, one might be excused for thinking that Gen. Pace or one of his clones had given the briefing, so in lock-step was the briefing with the political message being issued from the White House. According to McMasters' simplistic briefing, one would believe that the "terrorists" had imposed themselves on the people of Tall Afar, and not the U.S. military. Tell that to the Hassan children, orphaned by the U.S. Army in January 2005, when their car was shot up at a U.S. military roadblock inside Tall Afar. "If it were up to me, I'd kill the Americans and drink their blood", 14-year-old Jilian Hassan, who survived the shooting, is quoted as saying afterwards. The Hassans were Turkmen, natives of Tall Afar. I'd like to ask Col. McMasters what his sentiments would be if foreign troops shot up his car while he drove home in his own hometown, killing members of his family. I'm certain they would echo that of young Jilian.

But McMasters will be the first to tell you that there are unforeseen consequences to war, first and foremost being the tragic reality of what the military euphemistically refers to as "collateral damage" among the civilian population. But I will tell you that another casualty of war is the truth, and McMasters, the man who took the Joint Chiefs of Staff to task for their lack of honor when it came to selling the Vietnam War, seems to have taken a page directly from his own book.

McMasters failed to mention that his operation was an eerie repeat of a similar operation fought in Tall Afar almost exactly one year prior by members of the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade in September 2004. As with that effort, Operation Restore Rights found virtually no foreign fighters in Tall Afar, only Iraqi Turkmen native to the city. Almost all of those killed or captured during the battle for Tall Afar were native Turkmen.

McMasters also glosses over the reality of the Iraqi military, which fought alongside the U.S. soldiers in Tall Afar. Drawn primarily from the ranks of the Kurdish Peshmergh, who were (and are) waging their own pogrom of ethnic cleansing against Turkmen in the area of Kirkuk, the Iraqi military was engaged in nothing less than the wholesale terrorizing of an innocent civilian population which the U.S. military, including McMasters, allowed to be categorized as "criminal." Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi, a former lieutenant colonel in Saddam Hussein's army who fled Iraq in 1986, commenting on the "battle" of Tall Afar, said that it would be used as a model as his forces attacked other insurgent-held cities in quick succession. "We are warning those who have given shelter to terrorists that they must stop, kick them out, or else we will cut off their hands, heads and tongues as we did in Tall Afar," al-Dulaimi said.

Within a month of McMasters' press conference, U.S. forces in Tall Afar were trying to win over the deeply traumatized Turkmen population. Meetings were held with local school officials on how to reopen schools closed since the fighting in September.

Most of the schools had been destroyed or damaged in the fighting, and those that remained intact served as barracks for the occupying U.S. military forces that remained behind in Tall Afar. School officials asked when the Americans might leave, so that they could return to a sense of normalcy. The U.S. military made it clear that the security situation in the city will dictate when the soldiers will leave the schools. "We hope we can leave those schools as soon as possible, but we do not want to do so too early and allow the criminals to come back," a U.S. military officer said.

Left unsaid was the reality that the "criminals" the officer referred to are in fact the very citizens he claims to be protecting. As McMasters and others know, the vast majority of the "terrorists" killed and detained during the fight for Tall Afar were natives of that town simply fighting to defend their homes. Like young Jilian, however, there can be little doubt about what will motivate them for the foreseeable future -- a burning desire to drive out an occupying force, that destroyed their homes and slaughtered their fellow townspeople. In an effort to win back the "hearts and minds" of the citizens of Tall Afar, Col. McMasters' 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment participated in a program in mid-November 2005 to distribute blankets to help ward off the cold of the coming winter. This action was reported by the Department of Defense's new "Defend America" website, part of a propaganda effort to feed to the American people the "good news" coming from Iraq. Tell that to the citizens of Tall Afar, who know that a few blankets and repaired schools can't undo the damage done by a brutal occupation run by officers like Col. McMasters who have lost all sense of history or responsibility when it comes to waging war in Iraq.

When Col. McMasters was a major, he authored a book that made me proud to say I was an officer in the service of the armed forces of the United States of America. Today, I cannot in all good faith say I share these sentiments. Col. McMasters seems to have forgotten the lessons Maj. McMasters penned in his book "Dereliction of Duty." After reviewing Col. McMasters' words and deeds regarding Tall Afar, I wonder if he could write such a book today, or instead has he become so enamored with his rank and position, and with his seemingly upward mobility in the ranks of the U.S. Army, that he has forgotten the important lessons he drew from the failure of leadership exhibited by the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. One could easily confuse Col. McMasters' briefing regarding operations in Tall Afar with similar briefings offered years ago by colonels concerning operations in the Au Shau Valley, or outside Danang, or anywhere else in Vietnam, just as one would have no problem drawing a direct comparison with the politicized posturing of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Vietnam with the similar behavior of Gen. Pace and his colleagues today regarding Iraq.

All of this only serves to solidify my endorsement of Congressman Murtha's statement encouraging America's youth to avoid service in the military today. America's youth would do well to enlist in an armed forces led by men not afraid to put their careers on the line when it comes to telling the truth about a war in which these same youth are called upon to give their lives in increasing numbers. As Congressman Murtha knows, it is not the number of casualties that presents the problem. Marines lost thousands on Iwo Jima and other islands in the Pacific during the war to defeat Imperial Japan. Hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives to defeat the forces of fascism and empire. These were losses justified by the cause. In Iraq, it is not the numbers, but the cause. If the Iraq war were just, then America should (and I believe, would) be prepared to lose as many as it takes to get the job done. But since the Iraq war is not a just war, one soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is too great a price, let alone more than 2,270.

As the recent decision to authorize unwarranted wiretaps illustrates, the Bush administration has exploited the abrogation of constitutional responsibility by the U.S. Congress to position the executive branch of government as an Imperial Presidency. As long as this is the case, and those who wield the reigns of power view the American armed forces as their personal legions useful in the spreading of American imperial power, then I could not in good faith encourage anyone to enlist in the ranks of such a legion. Once the American people have reigned in the excesses of power that have propelled the United States into an unjust war in Iraq, and the increasing possibility of a similar war of aggression against Iran, I could think of no greater waste of patriotic expression than to serve in a military so abused.

I am hopeful that the current course undertaken by America can be reversed, and that someday (soon) Americans can enlist with pride in a military not only sworn to defend the Constitution, but also actively engaged in legitimate activities designed to do just that. Then, perhaps, a new generation of American military officers will sit down and pen the successor volume to H.R. McMasters' masterpiece, telling the story of the leadership failures exhibited by senior U.S. military officers during the course of the Iraq war. I can only hope that Col. McMasters will be the one either writing such a volume, or assisting in its preparation, as opposed to being the subject of the narrative.

Scott Ritter served as a chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 until his resignation in 1998. He is the author of, most recently, "Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein" (Nation Books, 2005).


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