Americans’ Sense of Superiority Takes a Beating in Iraq
by Manuel L. Quezon III
The statistics are galling. In two years since the war was declared over in Iraq, CNN calculates that the number of American troops killed rose by 43 percent; the number of wounded more than doubled, 598 soldiers have died. The number of American wounded increased from 3,732 between May 2003 and April 2004 to 7,748 in the following year, says the New York Times News Service. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, which reported these various summations, also quotes military expert Donald Abenheim, who explains the US military dilemma as follows: “We went into this wanting to fight our kind of war, which was a blitzkrieg…The trouble with that kind of war is that it can change into the kind of war you don’t want — which we have now — which is an insurgency, a war in which you are defending everything and consequently you are defending very little.” Most of all, the price of insurgency has been a drop in military recruitment.
The US armed forces have been sending out military recruiters for decades now. Each recruiter has a mission objective — bringing in two warm bodies a month. The problem is that increasingly, the recruiters aren’t meeting their mission objectives. Fewer recruits are signing up, and an increasing number of active duty and reserve soldiers aren’t signing up for more. Incidents of desertion or being away without leave are on the rise.
Phillip Carter and Owen West of Slate magazine write that the US Army has issued a directive that “attempts to alleviate the personnel crunch by retaining soldiers who are earmarked for early discharge during their first term of enlistment because of alcohol or drug abuse, unsatisfactory performance, or being overweight, among other reasons.” Fred Kaplan, of the same magazine, points out that, “The military’s big challenge today, it turns out, is not developing a new generation of weapons; it’s finding a new generation of soldiers.” A tall order, even in the best of times, and a tough mission under present conditions.
During the Vietnam War, a criticism leveled against soldiers drafted into service — an army created from a levee en masse, as the French historically called it — was that the US Army of the time overrepresented minorities such as blacks, and failed to include a proportional number of the wealthy, white, and well-connected. Unlike the US Civil War, for example, when the wealthy could simply pay for a substitute to fight for them, the America of the 1960s and early 1970s aspired to be like the army of World War II, which was a truly citizen’s army, with under-representation for minorities.
The scrapping of the draft and the return to an all-volunteer army brought back military service to what it has traditionally been to many peoples in many nations: A means to escape poverty, and commensurately, rise in society. Putting forward military service as a means to improve one’s standing in life made it acceptable — even predictable — that soldiers would come from the American underclasses: Racial minorities and the more economically backward portions of white America, where a more martial tradition was stronger, anyway. Soldiers were no longer grunts, they were technicians. Technicians not only equipped with better armaments and tactics, but better-equipped, as well, to stay alive. After the long, depressing, list of soldiers killed or wounded in action, a resurgent America crowed about how few soldiers actually died in action.
All along down the line, these proud boasts are getting a hammering. It is tragic and disgraceful enough that body armor isn’t as plentiful as it should be, and that Humvees lack the additional protection they require; far worse is the questioning, from enlisted men and women to officers, that the tactics of the American military have proven deficient. As Douglas MacArthur famously said in war, there is no substitute for victory. The victories haven’t been as abundant, or enduring, as expected.
The traditional criticism of democracy, stretching as far back as the eras of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, was that it was often too soft, too spoiled, and too cowardly, to protect itself from contending ideologies. The answer was to fuse industrial superiority with a belief in democracy to prove authoritarian ideologies as unscientific propaganda. For all the pretensions of Nazism or Communism that they were world-historical forces representing the vanguard of human development, democracy presented itself as actually the more competent, scientific, and popular. Nazi Germany may have invented the V-2 rocket, but America sent humans to the moon; the Nazis may have invented blitzkrieg or lightning war, the Americans perfected it, most recently in Iraq.
Suggestions that Americans are over-concerned with casualties are back: The authoritarian contempt for the whining nature of democracy echoed, this time, by many Americans themselves. The self-assurance born of technical and scientific advantages over any conceivable enemy seems more fragile than ever before; or was it always this fragile? This is what Americans seem to be asking themselves, though their enemies made up their minds as to the correct answer, long ago.