Strike the War’s Achilles Heel

The recent elections in Iraq — all of the feel-good pictures on TV and rhetoric about freedom and democracy — can’t change the reality that the US military is bogged down in a quagmire in Iraq for which there is no exit strategy. Recall that even though the US organized elections in South Vietnam in 1967, fighting dragged on for another 8 years anyway. There are more and more parallels between the war in Iraq and Vietnam — the US Army may be the most powerful in the world with overwhelming firepower and lots of gadgets, but in a guerrilla war, no amount of violence or killing can bring victory against a determined population. In fact, the presence of 150,000 US troops is widely believed to fuel and unite the insurgency.

While there are parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, there is one huge difference which may turn out to be the Achilles heel for the US regime — this time there is no draft: the Army is an “all-volunteer force.” Here in the US, those of us who stand against the US imperial machine need to seize on this weakness and figure out ways to corrode away US military might from the inside by depriving it of what it hungers for the most — fresh American men and women to fill the body bags.

Just like in Vietnam, American troops who originally went to Iraq hoping to help “rebuild” and “bring democracy and freedom” are now coming to realize that the Iraqis don’t want them there, that there is never rebuilding — only killing and destruction — and that all the glorious reasons for the war have turned out to be lies. Most troops just hope to get through their time in Iraq and make it home alive.

There are huge opportunities for US-based opponents of a Yankee empire to cooperate with US troops who are increasingly skeptical about the war. Vietnam ultimately became unwinable because the troops refused to fight — instead, they killed their officers, deserted, claimed Conscientious Objector status, published underground military papers, went on strike, or just stopped trying in a million tiny ways. Folks at home helped where they could — setting up anti-war coffee houses outside bases, doing draft and pre-enlistment counseling, assisting deserters along an underground railroad and undermining domestic support for the war.

A month before the Iraq war, millions of people around the world demonstrated — but Bush held the power, and his ears were closed. As the war drags on, we need to shift from a short-term strategy to a long-term one. Huge turnouts at grandly orchestrated demonstration rituals have not been effective in breaking Bush’s ability to fight. A majority of the population does not support the war — 54 percent according to a January 19 Los Angeles Times poll — yet it continues. Those in power won’t stop it. But if the troops stop fighting — or if the army can’t get fresh troops — Bush will be unable to continue. The troops have the ultimate power in this situation — we need to support our troops by supporting their resistance. The US is risking their lives for nothing — it’s time for them to fight back!

In addition to cooperating with troops already in the military, US-based activists can help cut off the supply of fresh recruits. The US’s military recruiting machine operates in every town, in every high school, across the USA. (See list of recruiting stations, page 14.) The recruitment machine is a soft-target. By carrying out actions at military recruiting outposts all over the US, we can bring the war home and make the real connections between the pointless war in Iraq and our own communities. Why should the US military machine get a free pass here at home?

Since the government ended the draft, the US military has depended on a “poverty draft” to fill the ranks of the military. While the military is theoretically “all-volunteer,” lack of economic opportunities push poorer people into the military — sometimes to get elusive money for college — while middle class kids go straight to college. The military spends $2.5 billion a year on recruiting efforts which primarily target low-income communities selling the message that the military is a good way out of poverty.

As a result, the highest number of recruits come from the poorest communities. For example, according to the American Friends Service Committee, “Puerto Rico is the Army’s number one recruiting territory. With an unemployment rate on the island of more than 40 percent, Army recruiting offices in Puerto Rico garner more than 4 times the number of recruits US based recruiting offices average on a yearly basis.” Blacks are also recruited disproportionately: 29.8 percent of those serving in the first Gulf War were black versus about 12 percent of the US population.

But with over 1,400 US troops killed and over 10,000 wounded in a pointless war — and more getting killed almost every day — the poverty draft is getting less and less effective. For the first time in 10 years, the Marines Corps, which has taken heavy casualties in Iraq, missed its monthly recruiting goal for January. The Army National Guard missed its goal of recruiting 56,000 troops for fiscal 2004, signing up only 49,210. Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said on January 26 that the Guard is 15,000 troops short of its normal strength of 350,000. In response, the National guard will add an additional 1,400 recruiters, and offer $15,000 signing bonuses. The regular army has so far met its recruitment goals, but all is not well in the ranks.

Stars & Stripes, a government-funded, military newspaper, surveyed 1,935 soldiers in Iraq during August 2003 for a series of articles published in October 2003 and found that 49 percent said they intended to leave the military as soon as possible. Only 18 percent said it was “very likely” they would remain. 55 percent of National Guard Reserve troops surveyed said it was “unlikely” or “very unlikely” that they would re-enlist. Since the article, the military has kept a tight lid on any other polls that would contradict Bush’s official version of reality.

One way the military has tried to maintain troop strength is by issuing “stop loss” orders that prevent soldiers from leaving the military when their contracts expire. Some troops have called the stop loss orders a “backdoor draft.”

Estimates of desertions from the war or AWOL troops range from 600 to 5,500 — the Pentagon refuses to provide any data. Canada is currently considering whether to grant refugee status to a handful of US soldiers fleeing service in Iraq.

Moreover, reports of resistance amongst US troops are beginning to surface. On October 13, 2004, 19 National Guard troops refused orders to drive unarmored fuel tankers to Baghdad — they considered it a “suicide mission.” It was the first reported mutiny in Iraq and was only made public because the soldiers called their families from a detention tent. We’ll probably never know about other mutiny incidents in Iraq.

Troop support for the policies underlying the war has also evaporated. In response to the Stars and Stripes question, “How worthwhile do you think fighting this war was for America?,” 31 percent said it was of “little value” or “not worthwhile at all,” while 48 percent responded that it was “worthwhile” or “very worthwhile.” Thirty-five percent answered that they were either “mostly unclear” or “not clear at all” about why they were in Iraq.

Because of the war, there are increasing murmurs that an official draft — not just the poverty draft — may be needed if the US is to continue the occupation of Iraq. A draft may be even more necessary if the Bush Administration hopes to invade Iran, Syria and/or North Korea over the next four years, as they would clearly like to do. The prospect of a draft rightly scares a lot of draft-age people who don’t much like the idea of either giving their lives for Bush’s adventures or going to jail.

But looking beyond the fear factor, if the military is forced into a draft, it could help crystallize opposition to Bush and his wars. The January 19 Los Angeles Times poll found that only 39 percent of respondents said the “situation in Iraq was worth going to war over,” — with 56 percent saying it was not. What if all segments of American society — not primarily the poor — had sons and daughters in Iraq or headed that way? If voluntary recruitment declines and troops returning from Iraq refuse to re-enlist, Bush is left with a real crisis — if he tries a draft in the context of such an unpopular war, he would be putting domestic social stability at grave risk.

When I saw the new movie about the Weather Underground last year, one line stuck with me. A guy tried to explain his state of mind during the Vietnam war by saying that for years and years, every day he woke up and the first thing he thought was that there was a war on, that people were getting slaughtered for nothing, that the government of the place where he lived was killing them. And so every morning he would think, “What am I going to do today to stop the war?”

And the last few months, I’ve increasingly been waking up the same way. What can I do — what will I do — today to stop the war? Stopping this particular war isn’t just about Iraq — this is about folks who live here in the United States joining the world against the US empire and figuring out how we can turn the fact that we’re here in the belly of the beast to maximum advantage. Even if the US starts to pull its troops out of Iraq, we have to assume that the US just hopes to regroup so it can invade somewhere else.

I like the idea of dogging the military recruiting stations around the country because every town and city has one and you don’t need a big budget or a huge scripted ANSWER rally or anything to go down there and give ‘em hell. You can pick a regular time — say every Saturday — and do a picket. Or you can go at an unpredictable time every week so they never know when it’s going to happen. You can go alone, or with friends, or organize a big group. You can send out a press release and make it a public thing, or you can make your action covert. It can be a picket, handing out flyers, holding posters with gory photos from Iraq à la anti-abortion protests, having street theater, running inside for some light disruption or total outrageous mayhem with fake blood, coffins and a marching band. A lot of different social groups in a community could all hassle the same station in a variety of ways. Perhaps one day there would be veterans, one day high school students, one day mothers, one day clergy, etc. Maybe if your town has 3 high schools, they could run a contest to see which one can do the best protest. And since military recruiters go out to high schools and colleges on a regular basis, students can confront them on campus, too. On January 20, community college students in Seattle surrounded and trashed a recruiters table. The cops had to escort the recruiter’s to safety.

You know how so many towns have a Food Not Bombs chapter and a critical mass bike ride, etc. — what if all these towns went after the recruiters? Anywhere where there’s radicals, punks, free thinkers, freedom lovers — the military recruiters are gonna get hassled. Diversity, spontaneity and creativity are our key strengths in such efforts.

Bush shouldn’t be able to get away with this war just because “only” the poor have to fight it. If an official draft would lead to a national uprising, why are we letting the government get away with a poverty draft — why can’t we have the national uprising now! An all-volunteer Army can be a shield against pointless wars of aggression. To exploit this Achilles heel, we need to support the troops in their refusal and shut down the recruiters!

For more information or for flyers, materials, etc.: contact some of these folks:

• Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, 405 14th Street #205 Oakland, CA 94612 510-465-1617, www.objector.org; sponsors the GI Rights Hotline (800) 394-9544; (215) 563-4620.

• War Resisters League 339 Lafayette Street New York, NY 10012 (212) 228-0450 fax (212) 228-6193 wrl@warresisters.org

• Veterans for Peace, 216 S. Meramec Ave., St. Louis, MO 63130, (314) 725-6005, www.veteransforpeace.org