Today’s anti-militarist GI confronts a military that has changed enormously since the first Gulf War 15 years ago. The behemoth conscript military of the Vietnam era, with 4 million-plus GIs, bears little resemblance to today’s model.
Today’s active duty force is smaller than ever; it has shrunk from 2.1 million during Gulf War One to just 1.4 million today. Another major shift is the combat role now played by the National Guard and Reserve units. During the Vietnam and first Gulf War no reservists were deployed in combat, whereas today about 40 percent of our “boots on the ground” in Iraq are reservists who’ve been called to active duty.
The demographics of today’s armed forces are also very different. Once segregated in clerical and nursing units, women now comprise 15 percent of active duty service members, with the exception of the Marine Corps. Twenty- five years ago, most low-ranking GIs were single, while today a majority are married with one or more children. Today, when a private finishes basic training, he or she is earning at least twice what they would from a minimum wage job. When free housing, food and medical care are added in, soldiers are no longer the economic underdogs that they once were.
Sept. 11 impact
The tragic events of September 11th have had a negative impact on our ability, as antiwar activists, to influence GIs. President Bush’s skillful manipulation of fears about terrorism has won uncritical support for his worldwide campaign to “defeat the terrorists.” I recently attended a graduation ceremony at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Recruits were bombarded with a video extravaganza that featured frightening images of the 9/11 attacks laced with testimonials from GIs who pledged to fight the terrorists abroad to keep their families safe at home. At the end, many of the newly minted sailors were reduced to tears.
Lies seep in
But despite Bush’s three-and-a-half year propaganda campaign, GIs are coming to understand the realities of our wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, military support groups like the GI Rights Hotline, Citizen Soldier and the Committee on Militarism and the Draft (COMD) have all experienced a sharp increase in requests for information and assistance from GIs and reservists.
Recruiting: the military’s Achilles’ heel
When Nixon established the all-volunteer military in 1973, experts predicted that enough GIs could be recruited to maintain a force level of 2 million if: (1) pay and benefits were increased to compete with comparable civilian jobs, (2) women were integrated into most military activities, and (3) the National Guard and Reserves were assigned central roles in any future combat. For three decades, this system worked reasonably well, although the military wasn’t required to fight any protracted wars. Today, they are facing a very different situation. With 1,700 killed and another 20,000 already wounded in Iraq alone, the Army and Marines are now finding it increasingly difficult to fill their ranks, especially the combat jobs.
For the first time in years, the Marines failed to meet their quota for January 2005. Army recruiting also fell short for the first three months of the year. Both services are rushing to put more recruiters in the field and are showering prospects with cash bonuses of up to $15,000 on enlisting. They are making the same pitch to those considering re-enlistment, although even more money is involved. The average re-enlistment bonus has jumped to $20,000, with GIs with critical skills receiving up to $35,000. Some Special Forces troops, who perform some of our military’s darkest deeds, are being offered a record-breaking $150,000 if they agree to another hitch.
The Pentagon has also imposed “stop loss” orders on over 50,000 GIs, which involuntarily extends their enlistment contracts past their discharge date. A federal judge rejected a legal challenge to this program by the Center for Constitutional Rights in early 2005. Further, the military has begun calling back to active duty 6,000 former GIs who had completed their service and were assigned to the “inactive” reserves.
A draft in our future?
In 1980, Congress reinstated peacetime draft registration. All males between 18-26 who reside in the U.S. (including noncitizens with and without green cards) are currently required to register with Selective Service. To enforce compliance, Congress adopted several laws that tie receipt of federal aid, including student loans, to proof of registration. In addition, over 30 states now require proof of registration before driver’s licenses are issued to young men. A comprehensive network of over 2,000 draft boards and appellate boards stands ready to spring into action. Detailed plans to process all inductees through the Military Entrance Processing Stations, which currently handle all military recruits, are ready for implementation.
If Bush decided that a draft was necessary to maintain force levels, Congress could restore his authority to induct in a matter of hours. If Congress also decided to draft females (as I believe it would), a few extra weeks would be needed for them to register. Bush and his inner circle are known to fear that a return to conscription would ignite waves of protest on college and high school campuses across the country. To avoid this, they will gladly spend tens of millions to bribe economically distressed recruits and active duty GIs to put on or continue to wear the uniform. While the growing counter-recruitment movement plays an important educational role, I don’t think that it can prevent a wily Pentagon from filling its ranks.
However, if the administration sees its choice as withdrawing from Iraq or returning to a draft, they will take the latter course, despite the great political risks it involves.
According to the Pentagon, the number of GIs applying for CO status has dropped to record lows in recent years. They report that there were 31 applicants in 2002, 91 in 2003, and 75 for the first 10 months of 2004. Apparently, fewer than half of those applying were successful. Twenty years ago, when the active duty force was nearly twice as large, 750-1,000 CO claims were filed annually. It would be hard to prove, but I believe that GIs find it more difficult to learn about the CO application process today. Several have told me that chaplains and other officers were not helpful when they sought information.
Both Army and Marine commanders have told CO applicants that they must obey deployment orders for Iraq or Afghanistan, even if the processing of their claim is incomplete. This means that some claimants have had their personal hearing while serving in a war zone. Legally, this is a questionable practice since under the regulations applicants have the right to have a civilian attorney present at their hearing and to call personal witnesses who can testify as to their sincerity. A group of former military COs recently created a web site (www.peace-out.com) which explains in detail how they wrote successful applications. The site reportedly received 3,000 hits on its first day of operation.
There has been a small but steady flow of GIs who have chosen to desert rather than obey orders to deploy. Some, of these cases, like those of Camilo Mejia, Stephen Funk, Kevin Benderman and Abdullah Webster, have been widely reported. Hundreds of others, however, simply walked away, content to live, for now, in obscurity. These numbers don’t begin to compare to those of the Vietnam era, when over 100,000 soldiers deserted (from a military that was over three times as large). However, the great bulk of Vietnam desertions occurred after America’s war had raged for three years and after the Tet Offensive had demonstrated to the American people that there was “no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Refuge in Canada
A small number of dissident GIs have begun to show up in Canada, following the example of thousands of resisters who emigrated there during the Vietnam War. However, Canada has changed its immigration rules so that today deserters can’t apply for “landed immigrant” status upon their arrival there. Lacking an alternative, some of the deserters have applied for recognition as “political refugees.” In the past, no American citizen has ever been granted this status.
Sgt. Jeremy Hinzman, a deserter from the 82d Airborne, was the first to apply as a political refugee in January 2004. Since then, a number of other GIs have followed his example. In March 2005, after refusing to allow him to offer any evidence of illegal operations by the U.S. military, the review board denied Hinsman’s claim. He can remain in Canada while his appeal is considered. Canadian antiwar activists are mobilizing support for changes to Canada’s immigration laws. (For more info: www.
At recent conferences, activists have begun to discuss how we can more effectively reach GIs by establishing a greater antiwar presence near key military bases. Some have raised the possibility of creating a new network of GI newspapers and coffeehouses, which functioned outside 20 or so military bases during the Vietnam War. These movement centers typically attracted GIs with an array of political, cultural and social events. In some towns, they also featured a bookstore that sold antiwar and Black liberation books and pamphlets. Some GIs were probably attracted as much by the “counter-cultural” tone of these projects as they were by the left-wing politics that were espoused. The most successful projects were those that succeeded in involving active-duty soldiers in all aspects of the work, especially the newspaper.
This network, which had considerable impact on the Vietnam era military, could not have existed apart from a very large movement for social change. As noted above, social conditions for rank- and-file GIs today bear little resemblance to the past. If such projects are to come into being again, it will require great ingenuity and creativity from today’s anti-militarist movement.
Tod Ensign is director of Citizen Soldier (www.citizen-soldier.org) and author of “America’s Military Today: the Challenge of Militarism” (New Press).