WireTap  
comments_image Comments

Don't Hate the Soldja, Hate the Game

My generation may know why the youth of the 1960s were divided by Vietnam, but things have changed. Now, even the most radical among us know: being anti-war doesn’t mean being anti-troops.
 
 
Share
 

My friend Derrick called a few days ago. We’ve both gone our separate ways since the days of serving lunch to hungry mobs of soccer moms and senior citizens in a department store café. Me, I got a gig in the non-profit world. Derrick works two jobs and goes to school, and, more and more often these days, is dispatched to “drill” – weekend trainings for the Marine Corps reserves.

When I left my job at the café, I gave Derrick my number, and told him to call me if he was called to go to Iraq.

Our lives aren’t exactly parallel, Derrick’s and mine. He’s a black guy who grew up in a lesser-known town off the San Francisco bay – I’m a white girl from the Colorado suburbs. Derrick busts his butt to help out his sister, and his mom, but you never hear him talk about it. He’s much more excited to tell you about the latest, greatest comic book or demonstrate the new things his cell phone can do. He’s good-natured and a little crazy, which is probably why we hit it off. But I wouldn’t exactly call us close.

After Derrick broke the news that he would be going to Iraq – “all roads are headed that way” is what a lieutenant colonel unofficially told him – I sat down on the concrete steps behind my workplace and thought about the parents, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, high school teachers, coaches, cousins, ex-girlfriends, professors, and entire communities that feel the impact when a young soldier is sent to Iraq. I wondered about the degree of separation – how many people in the U.S. have a connection to someone who’s in Iraq, is going to Iraq, was wounded in Iraq, or lost his or her life in Iraq? How long before we all do?

I live in a progressive city, and have mostly radical friends. We make a point to protest the war in Iraq with bumper stickers and T-shirts and we show up to meetings, protests and actively work to bring down the man by questioning things like the military industrial complex. It might be hard for my crew of friends to remember that a lot of the U.S. soldiers serving and dying in combat are our peers. Peers. Most of my friends are under 25, which means a significant number of them graduated from high school the same years we did, or later. Put a uniform on someone and they suddenly seem older, sure. But chances are, whether the soldiers serving in Iraq are pro-Bush or Pro-Kerry (or neither), they’d all probably all rather be home reading comic books and talking on cell phones.

My generation wasn’t there to see soldiers returning from the Vietnam War to protest and shouts of “baby killer,” – a word I now associate with the anti-abortion contingent. And we might be too busy mobilizing against the School of the Americas or fighting sweatshops to get caught up in the socio-political history of recent wars, but we’re pretty clear about one thing: being anti-war doesn’t have to mean being anti-troops.

***

The median age of soldiers in Vietnam was 20-21. This time around, the average is slightly higher. But for the most part, the people who fight wars are like me – young, ambitious, hoping to do something meaningful with their lives. They might want careers or jobs outside the armed forces, they might want (or already have) families. They might just want to come home and see a hip hop show.

Unfortunately, some soldiers don’t get that chance. 1,101 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the beginning of combat (as of Oct. 18, 2004) according to icasualities.org. Nearly 60 percent of those soldiers were 25 years old or younger – 637 soldiers. That’s roughly 1,250 moms and dads. About 25% of those troops are married, so that’s about 160 spouses. Then there’s the brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins… you get the idea. Yes. It could be worse, and, as the Bush administration is constantly reminding me, major combat operations of the past have seen much higher casualty rates. But I’m not seeing the grief in the media. And when glimpses do get through, I don’t have a frame of reference for that grief.

My generation of activists knows that war is bad, and we know it’s bad to kill innocent civilians. But we were born during the Reagan administration. We didn’t watch our friends coming home in boxes during Vietnam – most of us don’t even really remember the “first” Gulf War. And, thanks to Bush, et al, we aren’t allowed to see the coffins now. The Pentagon and Department of Defense are strictly enforcing a directive that prohibits media coverage of flag-draped coffins and teary-eyed families. We don’t see paraplegic 20-year-olds who used to be star athletes, either, which allows us to see the war in abstract terms. We might feel safe discussing Iraq using words like “neo-imperialism,” “globalization” and “familial vendetta.” But I have to wonder, if more of us saw the impact this war was having on the lives and families of people our age in this country, would we be less likely to judge a person on the street wearing fatigues?

***

A lot of people, like Lance Cpl. Michael David Gomez, of the U.S. Marine Corps, enlist in the armed forces with parental consent at 17. Michael’s sister Marta, a teacher’s aide from Gualala, Calif., remembers her brother’s initial enthusiasm for the military:

“He said to me that he absolutely LOVED being a Marine,” Marta told me recently in an email. “He said they are like a huge family and he had finally found the love and embrace that he had wanted from our parents and in school, but didn't fully get.”

The military offers housing, a chance to travel the world, funds and scholarships for college, tax-free shopping, in addition to the validation and sense of belonging a lot of young people need but don’t get elsewhere. When the threat of guerilla warfare and RPGs seems unlikely, it’s no wonder so many young people enlist in the armed forces.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d laugh outright if anyone in uniform walked up to me on the street and invited me to join the “service.” I’d probably make a snide comment about the state of the country and saunter away, thinking myself very punk rock. But a lot of folks don’t have that option – and military recruiters have cold cash money on their side. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the U.S. Department of Defense spends about $4 billion annually on new recruits. For every person that’s joined the service, the military spent an average of $15,000 making it enticing. That’s per person. The Department of Defense spent $595 million on recruitment advertising in 2003 alone – up from $271 in 1998. And the GAO added another $12 million to the advertising budget for 2005.

That explains why, as Ed Morales noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Army can spend a ton of money spray-painting a yellow humvee with stars, stripes, and military images, then drive it around black and Latino communities wearing backward baseball caps and blasting hip hop.
Last year, he reported that the U.S. Army took it even further. Like a record company or an underground art movement, they launched a street team. They hired a black-owned advertising firm called the Viral Marketing group and started the “Taking it to The Streets” campaign, in an effort to recruit black and Latino youth. Morales writes:

“Since its 2003 debut, ‘Taking It to the Streets’ has shown up at MTV's ‘Spring Break,’ BET's ‘Spring Bling’ and various NAACP functions…This spring, ‘Taking It to the Streets’ is planning to storm gatherings like Miami's Calle Ocho festival, Black College Reunion in Daytona, Fla., the Black Heritage Fest in New Orleans and the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York.”

Incidentally, once you’re in the service, hip hop is out. Bill Holland of Billboard reported last year that hip hop acts and Black and Latino performers were far less likely to be asked to entertain the troops on United Service Organization celebrity tours to Iraq. This is interesting, as the percentage of African Americans, Latinos and other people of color in the military is higher than their respective civilian populations.

News that the military pursues people of color and kids from low-income families isn’t new. However, the desire for economic stability and higher education aligned with the military’s recruitment plan paves a powerful conclusion: If you’re young, poor, and/or of color and hope to trade poverty for career opportunities and higher education, the military may be one of your only options.

I hate the Bush administration for plenty of good reasons, but sometimes I try to imagine things through the eyes of a soldier. I imagine fighting in a war zone and realizing private contractors were getting paid way more than me, then hearing that Cheney and Bush wanted to cut my pay. Or I think about being told to stay in Iraq a year longer than expected, or being sent back right after coming home. In July of this year, the Pentagon issued a “stop loss” order. Also known as the “back door draft,” the order requires many soldiers to stay in the armed forces despite the end of their contracts to serve.

It would be especially frustrating to be a soldier from, say, Puerto Rico. Then I could fight for Bush, but I couldn’t vote for (or, ahem, against) him. Even if I was an undocumented immigrant, I could still end up dying for Uncle Sam.

Thanks to recent legislation, it’s actually beneficial for immigrants to fight under the red, white, and blue. As a result of the war in Iraq, undocumented immigrants can speed up their naturalization process and become citizens after just one year in the service. Great, excepting the immigrant soldiers who died in combat. They were granted citizenship… posthumously. God Bless America.

Even if I disagree with the reasons for invading Iraq, and even if I’m painfully conscious that the number of Iraqi civilians dying far outnumbers coalition casualties, it feels more traitorous to harshly judge the soldiers fighting this war than it does to form an unexpected alliance with them.

John Kerry and George Bush have both mentioned “our kids over there” or “our young men and women.” They say that they want to bring them home, but then what are they going to do for people like Derrick, who’s holding down several jobs and taking classes at community college?

Are they going to cut education costs so we don’t have to enlist in the military or reserves to go to college? Are they going to raise the minimum wage to a livable wage so we can actually feed ourselves, and, for some of us, our children, despite our work experience? Sure, seniors and children are going to get health care, but what if we don’t work for an organization that offers benefits? The armed forces provides all these things and more – but why is it one of very few options for young adults trying to be economically independent?

I don’t doubt that many of the people enlisted in the Armed Forces are proud to serve their country. But the whole “all-volunteer service” thing is such a farce. Lawmakers have avoided re-instating the draft because, after the Vietnam War, it was seen as “publicly unpopular.” What was unpopular was the sheer chance of it: a rich, white suburban kid from Boston was just as likely to get drafted as a poor kid from Appalachia or a young black kid from Philly. So the rich, mostly white parents and kids raised a little hell, and the “all-volunteer” armed forces was born.

Apparently, working class individuals and people of color don’t count as the public, and they should be grateful to freeload off Uncle Sam in exchange for shouldering a weapon once in awhile. Let’s face it – the “all-volunteer” status of the armed forces has less to do with volunteering than it does with coercion, racial targeting and economic need.

For young people, like Derrick, with few economic options, the military does seem promising. The government wants to seduce them with hip-hop and yellow hummers. They want them to see the military as a great opportunity.

But for people like me and my crew, radical kids in a big city trying to damn the man, they want us to see our peers in the military as flag-waving patriots – and nothing like us. They’re hoping we don’t wonder where the coffins are. In fact, they’re relying on us not to care.

Nicole Makris, 24, works for the SPIN Project and is a regular contributor to Hyphen Magazine . She is also the associate Publisher for LiP Magazine .