Who is left to fight wars when they are not for national survival? Who dies and who survives with terrifying mental and physical wounds when armed conflict becomes a battle for hegemony, profit and spheres of influence?
Tom Engelhardt, publisher of They Were Soldiers, describes how author Ann Jones "explores her relations with Americans from the time she was helping Afghan civilians with casualties caused by American convoys to the time, at age 73, that she donned body armor and combat boots and embedded at a US forward combat outpost, to her most recent odyssey - following the grievously war-wounded from a trauma hospital in Afghanistan to another kind of battlefield in the US."
Heroics in wars abroad are praised by politicians and generals, but the returning wounded are largely forgotten and shunted aside, only infrequently covered by the national press or discussed by government officials. Ann Jones sets the record straight.
Get a copy of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars - The Untold Story with a minimum contribution of $25 to Truthout. Click here now.
The following is an excerpt from "The Sacrificial Soldier," the last chapter of They Were Soldiers:
Most of those boys and girls numbered their options on the
fingers of one hand with fingers to spare. The only stories they had
to tell me about their lives before they joined the military were
painfully circumscribed, and most were a version of the basic scenario
I already knew: "My family was poor. I was poor." For the
Poor - immigrants, Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, and
whites alike - the military often offers what looks like the only way
up and out. A white girl in Pennsylvania, just finishing high school,
dreamed of college, not soldiering, but she didn't know how to
apply. Her parents couldn't help her, and she felt too ashamed to
ask her teachers. A military recruiter who haunted her high school
told her she had the makings of a Marine. "I knew the Marines
were really tough," she says, "and I wanted to be part of that club
of really tough people. I guess I was kind of angry that I couldn't
go to college, like I wanted."
A black girl in South Carolina finished near the top of her high
school class. Determined not to repeat her mother's life, she enrolled
in a state college. To attend, she had to rent a room in the
college town and get a job at Walmart to pay for it. There was no
public bus, so she needed a car to travel to her job. She couldn't
break even, but somehow, with help from her mom, she managed
this arrangement for two years before the hard work wore her out,
and she began to talk to the Army recruiters who hung around the
mall. She told me her story when we met on a firing range in
Afghanistan. She was homesick.
In Boston, at a predominantly black high school, a senior who
had already signed up for the Army told me he wanted to escape the
violence of city streets. "I got no future here," he said. "I might as well
be in Afghanistan." Only a few weeks before he joined, one of his best
friends had been killed in a convenience store just down the block
from the school, caught in the crossfire of somebody else's fight. His
chances of survival, he was convinced, would be better in
Afghanistan than in his own neighborhood. He said, "I've got to finish
high school before I can go. I just hope I can make it to the war."
Kids like these were hustled through basic training and speedily
deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, only to find another army already
there - the shadow army of private for-profit defense contractors.
Most of them were contracted to do a long list of chores that uniformed
soldiers used to do for themselves when, courtesy of conscription,
there were a lot more of them. To maximize their profits
and minimize their work, however, the private contractors hired
subcontractors who, in turn, hired subcontractors from third world
countries to ship in laborers to do on the cheap the actual grunt
work of hauling water and food supplies, cleaning latrines, collecting
garbage, burning trash, preparing food, washing laundry, fixing
electrical grids, doing construction, and staffing the fast food
stands and beauty salons that sold tacos and pedicures to the
troops. Tens of thousands of workers, recruited often with false
promises of high wages in posh places like Dubai, paid high fees
to recruiters only to find themselves in Iraq or Afghanistan, confined
within bases, often stripped of their passports, with no recourse
but to work for next to nothing.
These TCNs (third-country nationals) were trafficked in with
no way out, often subjected to repeated sexual assaults, effectively
enslaved, and kept under wraps. In the midst of the Iraq war, thousands
of underfed TCNs rioted, demanding food, and tore up
American bases. Yet, because of the lack of journalists on the scene,
American taxpayers remained largely unaware of the extraordinary
human rights violations they were funding. Newly arriving soldiers
were surprised to see all the "foreigners" serving food in the
DFAC or tending the fire at the burn pit where so much waste went
up in smoke. But without this private shadow army of highly paid
managers and badly paid workers, the invasion and occupation of
Iraq and Afghanistan would not have been possible.
Armed private security contractors showed up on the military
bases, as well, striding around in civilian clothes - black T-shirts
and shades were popular - doing nobody knew what. Secretive
paramilitary security contractors like Blackwater and DynCorp
were believed to be providing guards and guns for hire to the government
Washington was supporting and the U.S. military, as well
as private bigwigs, politicos, and corporate brass. But mostly they
weren't saying, and that information can't be learned from official
reports of the Department of Defense because "DOD does not report
the breakdown of services that contractors provide in
Afghanistan." It used to name their services in Iraq but only in
sweeping terms like "logistics" or "transportation" or "security."
The old guys with the big bellies are most conspicuous on the
bases. Some insurance clause in their contracts requires them to
be the first into bunkers and the last out when the base is hit. On
forward bases those contractors might spend the better part of the
day amid the sandbags. Soldiers passing by laugh at them but envy
their pay. They grow to hate them, too. A truck-driving soldier who
hauled supplies along the deadly roads of blistering Iraqi deserts
told me he had to fight the urge to lob bricks through the windows
of contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root's (KBR) slick air-conditioned
trucks. He didn't do it only because he and his buddies often
had to drive those trucks themselves. KBR hadn't hired enough private
drivers, so the soldiers did double duty with no extra pay and
the sickening suspicion that KBR would double-bill the Pentagon
for their services.
Yet many a soldier I talked to over the years in Afghanistan
dreamed of leaving the Army and coming back as a contractor with,
as one put it, "a fat wallet and a shitload of chicks." In the Afghan
capital Kabul and on military bases elsewhere in the country, I
sometimes ran into guys who had done just that. We would have a
friendly chat that invariably shifted to a different key when I asked
who they were working for. It seems the military has become a pathway
to the greener pastures of private contracting. A soldier can do
a tour of duty with the Army or Marines and then, having been
trained at taxpayer expense, ascend to the happy land where the
same government will pay him many times his old salary for much
easier work. And, hey, nobody needs to know his business.
Whatever contractors were up to, their ranks grew during a
decade of war until, in our war zones, they outnumbered uniformed
soldiers on the ground. In March 2011, the Department of
Defense reported that its soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan numbered
145,000, its contractors 155,000, or 52 percent of the "workforce"
of those wars. The percentages shift as deployments change,
making for slippery and often deceptive statistics. For example, the
report noted that only 45,000 American troops were then left in
Iraq, but it somehow neglected to mention that a shadow army of
64,250 private contractors still remained.
By 2010, contractors outnumbered uniformed soldiers on casualty
lists, as well, though nobody but their parents mistook them
for noble "warriors." Newspapers carried no stories of heroic contractors.
Television commentators did not celebrate their "sacrifice."
Even when they lost their lives on the job, they remained
unsung and suspect.
When questioned about its use of these shadowy private contractors
to conduct its wars, the Pentagon responded that it needed more
manpower and that it was more efficient and economical to hire them
and then dismiss them when a job was done, without obligation, benefits,
or responsibility. In fact, for favored private contractors, new
deals were always just around the corner. So strong has the Pentagon's
preference for this privatized arrangement been that even when a contractor -
Blackwater - faced an investigation for war crimes, or -
Blackwater renamed Academi LLC - federal criminal charges for
violating "important laws and regulations concerning how we as a
country interact with our international allies and adversaries," or -
Halliburton, for one - simply "lost" untold millions of taxpayer dollars,
it was likely to be handed another multimillion or multibillion
dollar, no-bid contract on the grounds of its "experience."
In 2008, a BBC investigation of American contractors estimated
that "around $23 billion may have been lost, stolen, or just
not properly accounted for in Iraq." Despite such "carelessness,"
private contractors in Iraq to that date had taken home $138 billion
in profits, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, while Halliburton alone
snatched $39.5 billion. The wars, it seemed, had become a remarkably
efficient engine for transferring the wealth of the nation from
the public treasury to the pockets of the already rich. Democratic
Congressman Henry Waxman, who chairs the House committee
on oversight and government reform, called the contractors' staggering
gains possibly "the largest war profiteering in history." Could there be any
connection between the size of those corporate profits and Washington's
patriotic dedication to eternal wartime?
That great transfer of wealth certainly helps explain how the gap
between rich and poor in America has become an ever-widening
canyon. The financial dynamics of war-making are rarely mentioned
in connection with America's economic woes, but from the profiteers'
point of view, widening income inequality might be seen as a contribution
to national security. During the past 12 years of wars, defined
from the start as "endless," the ranks of the poor have increased
exponentially, while public services like the education system that
once enabled them to rise have decayed, ensuring that a supply of
deluded kids, impoverished in every way, will don the uniforms of
soldiers and perform the next round of America's unnecessary wars.
In 2011, as American forces left Iraq, Vermont independent
Senator Bernie Sanders made public a Defense Department report
prepared at his request: 300 defense contractors in Iraq providing
products or services to the Pentagon had been involved in fraud,
including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both rewarded
with even bigger multibillion dollar contracts after paying
small fines. During the decade of war, the Pentagon had forked
over to the top 37 fraudulent corporations alone $1.1 trillion.
Such are the advantages of an increasingly privatized army that operates
in the shadows. Corporations bring home the bacon. Soldiers,
on the other hand, bring home only medals.
Eventually, when a war officially ends, all those contractors come
home, too—guys mostly, seeking high-paying work, and still young
enough to be looking for more of the risky macho fun and adrenaline
rush of the war zone. These are men who went to the war zones
strictly for the money, but greed is no protection from the kinds of
things that screw up soldiers trying to "reintegrate": the jumpiness
and wariness, the explosive rage. Returning soldiers have a hard time
getting help from the VA for the "changes" that keep them from truly
coming home; returning contractors don't even have a VA.
Nobody checks on their reintegration into American life. They
come home one by one, losing all at once whatever band of macho
brothers they ran around with in the war zone. They are open to
recruitment by any person or organization that can promise some
adventure and perhaps some big bucks if all goes well. A little fun
down there on the Mexican border perhaps, or in Colombia
maybe, or Venezuela—how's that war on drugs coming along? Or
on one of the great array of American military bases encircling the
world. There's bound to be some trouble going on there. Or maybe
right here at home with some local militia or neo-Nazi gang or Islamophobic
crusade. If you stop to think about it, these armies of
men used to being accountable to no one, vulnerable to the pitch
of any wacko extremist group, returning to an American homeland
already armed and fearful—well, that could keep you up at night.
America's soldiers return with enough troubles to last the rest of
their lives, and many of those lives will be short, as we've seen in
this book. But all through these wars we've heard the patriotic tales
of heroism and sacrifice, refashioning the suffering of soldiers and
their families into the national narrative we know so well - the one
about the greatest nation, the greatest military force, the greatest
generation the world has ever known.
I often think of the young Chinook crews I talked with on that
flight down to Bagram in the spring of 2011, and the Chinook the
Taliban shot down that August. I don't believe it was their Chinook
because the fatal plane was said to carry 30 Navy SEALs and eight
Afghan soldiers, but frankly I've been reluctant to look into it. Let's
talk about those Navy SEALs. President Obama promised their
families that their deaths "shall not have been in vain." Abraham
Lincoln's memorable turn of phrase may have made sense at Gettysburg
where the cause for which men fought was clear to soldiers
on both sides of the battle and to citizens north and south. But who
can say with confidence what cause those SEALs were fighting for
when the Taliban cancelled their mission? They are all dead. And
their bodies were so conjoined in death with the wreckage of that
Chinook that, as the president later explained to their families, the
remains of individual men could not be separated out and returned
in their own personal flag-draped coffins.
Nevertheless, these dead soldiers now serve rhetorically as an
incitement to continue the fight so that their sacrifice "shall not
have been in vain." There may be a rare American, inside or outside
military service, who can state with certainty what we now fight
for, but when soldiers fight only because soldiers before them have
fought, when soldiers die only because soldiers before them have
died, then war truly becomes an endless loop.
The war in Iraq has officially ended, and is largely forgotten in
America. Meanwhile, in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan
the nation's uniformed Warriors go on enacting, for the domestication
of the public, a familiar war narrative of selfless sacrifice that
will be trumpeted in presidential rhetoric, Sunday sermons, and
press releases from the Pentagon. Thanks to Hollywood we even
know what war is supposed to look like, and how proud and patriotic
it is supposed to make us feel.
The performance of war - the surges and night raids and air
strikes - may mask the real war: the everlasting privatized and secret
one. But the sacrifice of the real soldiers is real enough. Today,
somewhere in the country a local newspaper reporter is writing a
sad, inspirational story about a small-town soldier wounded or
dead. It may one day be picked up by national politicians and newscasters
as part of the great patriotic narrative intended to persuade
us that the personal sacrifice of soldiers gives meaning to our lost
wars. Historically, in the trenches of the Marne, as on the beaches
of Normandy and Guadalcanal, it was the justness of the cause for
which soldiers fought that ennobled their sacrifice - not the other
way around. Which means that the death, dismemberment, and
disintegration of misled young men and women should not redeem
the misbegotten "wars of choice" chosen for us by leaders who have
never been to war. Still, those sacrificial soldiers do lay claim to our
conscience: all those kids who drank the recruiters' Kool-Aid and
died, and those who still bravely soldier on with their brand-new
titanium legs and blasted genitals and decommissioned brains.
At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in 2011, I met a woman
from a small town in West Virginia, the mother of a 19-year-old
soldier whose legs and genitals were blasted to pulp in Afghanistan.
She quit her job and moved to a motel near the hospital, then in
Washington D.C., to care for him, while her husband worked a second
job at home to make up for part of her lost wages. She had
been at the hospital for six months. She hoped to bring her son
home someday - perhaps in another year or so - and she expected
to take care of him for the rest of his life, or hers. She said, "People
expect me to be happy that he survived, and I believe I am, but I
can't really remember what happy feels like."
If her son had been killed, she would be expected to feel
"proud." But that wasn't a word she used. She told me, "My other
son, his older brother, was about to graduate from high school. He
was going around looking for a job. One day he came home and
said, 'I can't get a job in this town, so I joined the Navy.' He was
ashamed to come home and tell his dad and me that he couldn't
find work. We're not a military family, but there wasn't anything
we could do about it - he was 18 - and he's made a good job of the
Navy. He's still in. But then when our younger son was finishing
high school, of course he had to outdo his big brother, so without
telling us, he joined the Marines - and bam."
Overcome, she sat quietly for a few minutes, looking at her
hands, collecting herself. Then she turned her eyes to me again and
said, "We don't know how any of this happened to our kids."
Get a copy of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars - The Untold Story with a minimum contribution of $25 to Truthout. Click here now.
Copyright of Ann Jones. Not to be reproduced without permission of the publishers, Haymarket Books and Dispatch Books.