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Paul G. Buchanan: Cracks In The Façade

Cracks in the Façade

by Paul G. Buchanan
Delray Beach, Florida

The barbeques are sizzling, flags are fluttering everywhere, patriotic parades and speeches are the course of the day. Although large biting fish have deterred swimmers on the East Coast, people have flocked to parks, beaches and lakes to celebrate the 229th anniversary of America’s independence. But there is something missing this year. It is largely intangible, more of a feeling or mood in the air, but it is also palpable and very real. It is, in a word, a sense of withdrawal.

Slowly, grudgingly, that popular optimism that is so characteristic of US society seems to be slipping away. The reasons are many but appear to be rooted in increasing doubt that the Iraq occupation will end anytime soon while US casualty figures mount, coupled with a resurgent Taliban-al Qaeda presence in Eastern Afghanistan that makes that exercise in nation-building look increasingly tenuous as well. It also seems to be anchored in a sense that long-term economic prosperity is increasingly unachievable in a climate characterized by increasing oil prices, out-of-control federal deficit spending to sustain the war efforts, and a trillion dollar public debt (to which can be added an equally large private debt caused by wanton credit spending and rising commodity prices). The tried and true hedge against uncertainty, real estate, has seen an explosion of speculation sales that has reached the point where renting is actually cheaper than buying, so even the old homestead is becoming unaffordable for many.

By far the most ominous sign that things are not going well in the heart of America is recent military related trends. They begin with an erosion of public support for the occupation, with nearly sixty percent of Americans polled now claiming the war was not worth fighting. It continues through steady drops in President Bush’s leadership ratings, which have slipped to under the fifty percent mark on the heels of the various disinformation revelations connected to the Iraq War, and which continue with the recent publication of the so-called “Downing Street Memo” in which advisors to Tony Blair are quoted as claiming that the US was intent on waging war on Saddam Hussein regardless of cause.

But the real grim news is within the military itself. Contrary to administration claims that the Iraq insurgency is comprised of “dead-enders” who are in the throes of defeat, the Commander in Chief of US forces in the Middle East has stated in public testimony to Congress that insurgent numbers are equal if not more than a year ago, and that their weapons, tactics and training have improved in that time (as they have in Afghanistan). Confronted by this very public contradiction of White House assertions by a much decorated four star general (which is most remarkable given the military penchant for discretion), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now admits that the insurgency will take five to twelve years to defeat. Given that most insurgencies wax and wane over the course of decades, he may still be too optimistic in his assessment. Even if true, his revised estimate implies that, again, contrary to the “mission accomplished” banner George W Bush used as a prop after the fall of Baghdad, the mission will be extended for some time to come. With over 1750 US troops killed and 13,000 wounded since the invasion, and with the total number of coalition killed reaching 2000, the timeline for grief has been extended by a decade.

In the face of this, military recruiters are now failing to meet their already reduced monthly goals, with the Army (which has the bulk of occupation duty) particularly unable to reach its recruitment objectives (which among other things has led to scandals involving the recruitment of felons, drug addicts and mental incompetents). Special Operations forces now receive re-signing bonuses of US$150,000, which is worrisome because these troops are ostensibly the most motivated, patriotic and competent of the entire US force structure. If they need financial incentives to fight, what does this say about the overall commitment of troops to the current wars?

Junior officer retention rates—that is, retention rates among lieutenants and captains with six years or less of active duty service and which include large numbers of military academy graduates who ostensibly join to embark on military careers—are at their lowest levels since the end of the Vietnam War. Since most of these officers, especially those in the Army and Marines, have combat experience as platoon and company commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, this means that the land-based component of the US strategic triad will soon be running a deficit in battle-hardened field grade officers.

The US now heavily depends on ready reserve and National Guard units to supplement active duty forces in foreign combat zones, which has placed a large burden on families dependent on these “weekend warriors” for financial security and emotional sustenance. Not surprisingly, bankruptcy and divorce rates among active duty and reserve units deployed abroad have increased exponentially during the last two years. Incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder, to include over 40 suicides among and a dozen murders committed by returning soldiers, are at post Vietnam highs. No wonder the mood was surprisingly subdued when the president renewed his commitment to “no retreat” at Fort Bragg this past week.

Many others, officers and enlisted alike, have opted to retire and join private security firms where the commitment is less, the pay is better and the regulatory environment is much looser. They may be better than mercenaries in terms of professionalism, but in irregular wars such as those of Afghanistan and Iraq, that means little.

These trends have seen a renewal of public discussion about reinstitution of universal conscription. Administration officials deny any such intent or that it is needed, but revelations that the Pentagon is compiling data banks of personal information on “military age” individuals (18-30 year olds) suggest that long-term planning for such an eventuality is underway if for no other reason that for prudence sake.

All of this raises parallels with Vietnam, and there are many politicians, particularly Democrats, who relish the opportunity to use terms like “quagmire” “exit strategy” and “time table for withdrawal” for partisan advantage. But the parallel is incorrect or at least overdrawn, and the US military commanders know it. The closest precedent for what is occurring in Iraq is not Vietnam but the Algerian revolution. To that end, US military commanders—most of whom did not serve in Vietnam and so are no more versed in that conflict than any other prior to their enlistment—have taken to screening the Costa-Gravas film “Battle of Algiers” to the troops. That film, which recently was shown in New Zealand in support of Ahmed Zaoui, depicts the ruinous course of action taken by the French as they confronted the Algerian resistance in the years leading up to the 1959 granting of independence to that Arab state.

To be sure, that Algerian resistance was fighting for independence from colonial rule and were secular socialists rather than Islamicists, but in the brutality of urban guerrilla warfare and the French counter-insurgency campaign as well as in the inevitable defeat of French forces betrayed as much by their own politicians and lack of public support as by their ineffective and counter-productive tactics, the parallel with the US occupation of Iraq can be made. That it is US military commanders who are making it is very telling.

Thus, on this Fourth of July, amid the summer sales and sun tan lotion, there is a sense of unease among the US population. Because, if the US military is starting to show signs that, at least in Iraq, it is in a fight that it did not want, warned against, did not adequately prepare for and now is stuck with, then no amount of calls for courage and defence of freedom can obviate the fact that Americans were duped and lied to in pursuit of something other than the rights they hold to be self-evident.


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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