A nation of mercenaries

Robert Jensen
School of Journalism
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
work: (512) 471-1990
fax: (512) 471-7979

copyright Robert Jensen 2005

Hindustan Times (India), August 15, 2005, p. 8. Also posted on Counterpunch.
by Robert Jensen
The failed war in Iraq -- and its effect on the U.S. military -- has the
potential to spark the U.S. public to fundamentally rethink the role of force
in U.S. foreign policy, and one of the central questions for the future of the
United States is whether this questioning can mature and deepen.
Can we in the so-called lone superpower face that we are now a nation of
As the bad news from Iraq continues to worsen by the day, it looks as if the
Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard all will miss their annual
recruitment goals. A 2004 study commissioned by the Army found that recruiting
has been undermined by casualties, objections to the war, and media coverage of
such events as the Abu Ghraib scandal.
These statistics signal an important shift, especially when combined with
anecdotal evidence suggesting that it is not just an aversion to physical risk
that is curtailing enlistment but an understanding that this war isnt worth
the risks. At the same time, however, public opinion polls reveal confusion and
contradictory trends as well. Recent polls show that more than half the public
believes the United States cant win the war and cant establish a stable
democracy in Iraq, but surveys also indicate that many continue to believe that
sending the troops was the right thing to do.
This suggests that a majority of the public can recognize that the United
has failed in the stated mission but cannot yet see that the stated
mission was a lie. This was never a war about weapons of mass destruction or
stopping terrorism (indeed, the war has created terrorism, on both sides), nor
is it at heart about establishing democracy in Iraq. The U.S. invasion of Iraq
is -- as all U.S. interventions in Middle East have been -- about extending
and deepening U.S. dominance in the region with the worlds most crucial energy
Part of the barrier to a clear understanding of this is the belief that the
United States, by definition, always acts benevolently in the world. But also
standing in the way of an honest analysis is the reality that the brutal
imperialist U.S. policies, while devised by elites, are being carried out by
ordinary Americans. Can we in the United States come to terms with the fact
that we are the good Germans of our era, routinely allowing pseudo-patriotic
loyalties to override moral decision-making? Can we look at ourselves honestly
in the mirror when so many of us are implicated in the imperialist system?
From the people who make the weapons to the military personnel who use them --
and all the other people whose livelihoods or networks of friends and family
connect them to the armed forces -- most of the U.S. public has some
relationship to the military. Any talk of closing a military base sparks almost
automatic resistance from neighboring communities that have become dependent on
the base economically. Large segments of the corporate sector rely on military
or military-related contracts, and executives and employees alike understand
what that means for profits and wages.
As U.S. anthropologist Catherine Lutz put it in her book Homefront, an
insightful study of the effects of the militarization on American life: We all
inhabit an army camp, mobilized to lend support to the permanent state of war
readiness Are we all military dependents, wearers of civilian camouflage?
The problem is not just that the United States now has a mercenary army but
that we are a mercenary society.
The problem is not just that our army fights imperialist wars, but that
virtually all of us are in some way implicated in that imperialist system.
It can be difficult to face the truth about an institution that has so deeply
insinuated itself into our lives. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. power
elite have done a masterful job of transforming the country into a militarized
state with a permanent wartime economy. There has always been resistance to
that project on the margins, but because the United States is an incredibly
affluent nation -- and these policies promise continued affluence -- there is
strong motivation for many to ignore the consequences of this militarization.
Ironically, it may turn out that the weak link in this system will be not the
civilian mercenaries but the military ones. Historically, colonial powers have
imported mercenary forces to do the dirty work of conquest and control. In the
United States, our own citizens are being forced into that role. If the armed
forces inability to meet recruitment goals continues, the effect may not be
simply new constraints on the ability of U.S. leaders to fight additional wars
but a more widespread questioning of the imperial system itself.
Consider these stories, told in the book Generation Kill about the Iraq war.
One Marine told author Evan Wright that a bunch of psycho officers sent us
into shit we never should have gone into. Another Marine, upon his return
home, was invited to speak to a wealthy community as a war hero. He told them:
I am not a hero. Guys like me are just a necessary part of things. To maintain
this way of life in a fine community like this, you need psychos like us to go
and drop a bomb on somebodys house.
How long can an army continue when combat personnel view both officers and
themselves as psychos? What will happen if that Marines recognition that
imperial wars are fought to protect affluence and privilege at home spreads on
the front lines of those wars?
U.S. political elites have few options. Barring a serious economic collapse
that forces more people into the military to survive, recruitment will continue
to be a problem. Reinstituting a draft is not an option; there would be a huge
political cost if middle- and upper-class Americans were asked to surrender
their children to direct participation in the military wing of the mercenary
machine. The offer of citizenship to immigrants who are willing to fight cant
make up the gap.
Right now there is incredible tension in U.S. culture. Many continue to hold on
tightly to the idea that the service personnel are being killed and maimed in
Iraq for a noble cause, which is hardly surprising; acknowledging that a loved
one was killed in the pursuit not of liberty and justice, but instead for elite
domination, can intensify the already deep pain of the loss. Others are
abandoning illusions and recognizing the motivations of the powerful.
Obituaries of dead soldiers talk of their great pride in serving their
country, while a collective sense that the Iraq War is nothing to be proud of
deepens every day. No one wants to demonize the front-line troops -- those with
the least power to change policy -- but the reality of why the U.S. military
fights, along with the brutal way in which the wars are fought, become
increasingly hard to ignore.
Tension can be creative, leading to deeper understanding and progressive social
change. Or it can be exploited to suppress that understanding and block change.
Elites almost always attempt the latter. The choice that the U.S. public makes
is crucial to our future, and the worlds.


Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center (http://thirdcoastactivist.org), and the author of The Heart of Whiteness:  Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.