The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Viet Nam or Iraq:
It's Still a Rich Man's War, but a Poor Man or Woman's Army

Apr 23, 2007

Demonstrators marched to the Pentagon on March 17, protesting the U.S. war on Iraq, now entering its fifth year. The march was somewhat smaller than the earlier demonstration in Washington in January, but it nonetheless brought out a significant crowd, estimated by its organizers to be between 20,000 and 30,000.

But this demonstration was overshadowed by one, several hundred thousand strong, that had jammed into Washington nearly four decades earlier to march on the Pentagon in protest of the Viet Nam war. In fact, the organizers of the current march made the comparison inevitable when they linked the two demonstrations. Practically from the beginning of the war in Iraq, there have been comparisons made to the movement against the war in Viet Nam, pointing up the smaller sizes of today's demonstrations, as well as the lack of mobilization by college students.

In fact such comparisons are foolish because they ignore the differences in the social situation in which those demonstrations took place. And they also ignore an important difference between the two wars – the army. The war in Viet Nam was fought by a draft army; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought by a "volunteer" army. This has had a strong impact on the situation, if not always an evident one.

Viet Nam War: The End of the Draft Army

During the Viet Nam War, 8.6 million men served in the military, but only 2.1 million of them were sent to Viet Nam, the majority of them drafted. During those same years, 3.5 million men were deferred or exempted, and another 11.8 million "disqualified" for military service.

The vast range of exemptions meant that only a very small part of middle class people and hardly any of the very wealthy ever served. The college student deferment – adopted in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War – allowed students in the upper half of their class to be deferred until they finished their undergraduate degree, then to be deferred for another period of time while working on advanced degrees. There were all those professions considered "essential" and therefore justifying an exemption: engineers, scientists, politicians, business owners, ministers, rabbis and priests, etc. Not to mention the arbitrary way that people were disqualified for physical or mental reasons. Gauging by whom it disqualified, Selective Service must have believed that the wealthy were the most physically and mentally deficient.

And then there was the National Guard, which was the rich man's way to escape Viet Nam. More than one million men wormed their way into the National Guard during the Viet Nam war – but for those who had no connections, there were very long waiting lists. Only 37,000 of those who made it into the Guard (or Reserves) were ever mobilized, and only 15,000 ended up in Viet Nam. Of the 58,000 troops killed in Viet Nam, only 94 came from the Army National Guard.

General S.L.A. Marshall, in the late 1960s, gave this description of the army he had seen in Viet Nam: "In the average rifle company, the strength was 50% composed of Negroes, Southwestern Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Guamanians, Nisei and so on. But a real cross section of American youth? Almost never."

When the Viet Nam War began, black soldiers made up 31% of all combat units. In 1965, they accounted for 24% of all combat deaths – a death rate two and a half times the proportion of the black population to the total U.S. population. It quickly became a scandal and reinforced anger in black neighborhoods, which had already been exploding in the first big city insurrections (Birmingham and Philadelphia, 1963; Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, some New Jersey towns and Philadelphia, 1964; and Watts 1965.) The military moved to "adjust" front line units a little. But the vast increase in draft calls at this point also changed the composition of the army somewhat. By 1968, blacks accounted for "only" 13% of the deaths. By the last two years of the war, black casualty figures were in fact somewhat lower than their proportion in the population. Actions taken by top officials played some role in this reduction, but so did the actions of the black troops themselves: refusing orders to go out, intimidating their officers to avoid a fire fight or attacking them – especially after the 82nd Airborne was sent into Detroit in 1967. Those tanks in the streets of Detroit became a symbol of the two wars the black population found itself fighting, in Viet Nam and on the streets at home. H. Rap Brown undoubtedly reflected the growing attitude, not just in the American ghettos, but in the fields of Viet Nam when, speaking in Detroit shortly after the 1967 rebellion, he said, "the man who gives me a gun and tells me to go shoot an enemy I don't know, I"ll take that gun and shoot the man who gave it to me because I know that he's my enemy."

Black soldiers and other minorities were not the only ones over-represented in combat units. If Marshall's figures are accurate, that still left half the combat troops who were white, and most of them came from the working class – particularly in the ranks. Of the very few well-off whites who were found in combat, most were on the track up into the officer corps.

Every study that's been done shows that death in Viet Nam was the "privilege" of the working class. Even a 1992 study published by the "Operations Research Society," which set out to prove that the wealthy also died in Viet Nam, was forced to admit that people who came from "less affluent" neighborhoods had a 60% greater chance of dying in Viet Nam than those who came from "more affluent" ones – and this, after wildly massaging the figures to get the answer the MIT researchers had set out to find.

Relatively early, the draft became an angry focus for working class and especially black soldiers. As early as 1965, a few politicians demagogically proposed to suppress the student deferment. This, ironically, was one of the things that gave a big push to the growing student movement. But the goal of many of the students who became active was basically to keep their student deferment; the war was a secondary issue. Even the most radical students were somewhat unwilling to raise the overall issue of the draft and its basic unfairness, for fear of alienating other students. When a proposal was made at a national SDS convention to put this question to the forefront, it got only 1/5 of the votes. The same class bias showed itself in other ways, most notably in those who called the soldiers "baby killers," treating them as though they shared responsibility for the war with L.B. Johnson; or trying to surround troop transports in Oakland, as though they were the enemy, etc. This same class bias helped isolate the student anti-war movement from the opposition to the war that existed widespread in the army among working class soldiers, black and white. There were always those in the anti-war movement who tried to bridge that gap, particularly the Socialist Workers Party, which had given a big impetus to the Student Mobilization Committee. But the gap was there, it was real and often very hostile.

Repairing a "Broken" Army

At the end of the Viet Nam war, the top military brass openly talked of an army that had been "broken." The military itself publicly recorded 520 incidents of fragging, that is, attacks with hand grenades or similar weapons on officers, with over 400 officers killed or wounded during 1969-71; 10 major mutinies and uncounted numbers of times when whole squads of soldiers or marines refused to go out; two large scale revolts in military prisons in Viet Nam in 1968, led by black troops; and the mutiny by sailors that forced the Navy to bring the USS Constitution back to San Diego. And this was only the tip of the iceberg that had been sinking the military's Titanic.

After the Viet Nam war, the military decided to get rid of the draft and moved to repair its "broken army." Doubling the money paid to enlisted personnel, they also promised wider access to the Veterans' Administration Hospital system once military service was over. They relaxed some of the most onerous restrictions on people's personal lives, making it easier for men and women to marry, live with their spouses, raise their families. But what was probably most significant, the military increased payments for a college education effectively up to the full amount, depending on the length of time in military service. Recruiters invaded urban high schools in working class areas or high schools in rural areas, loaded with promises of training, education, preparation for a job.

In fact, the military had always preferred volunteers to conscripts and used enticements to get them. During the Viet Nam era, for example, only about 20% of active duty troops were draftees; the rest were enlisted, that is volunteers. Of course, during the Viet Nam war, the biggest enticement was probably to get ahead of the draft, since a large proportion of draftees ended up in Viet Nam and in combat, while most enlistees never did.

By the late 1980s, the Army had seemingly recovered enough so that it could fill its ranks easily. It was able to increase its standards for recruitment, requiring higher marks on entrance tests and more schooling for those who enlisted, and still fill its enlistment quotas. But the military's improved recruitment was probably less the result of Army efforts and more the result of an enduring economic crisis that has eliminated prospects for good jobs for most working class youth.

A Volunteer Army – But Subject to an Economic Draft

The clearest picture, up to now, of who is in this army today has been given by casualty figures. What is notable, by contrast to the Viet Nam war, is the smaller number of black troops, in proportion to their numbers in the population, and much larger proportion of rural whites. In a study it made of casualty figures through the end of October 2006, the Carsey Institute, which studies rural America, reported that 27% of the deaths in Iraq occurred among soldiers who come from rural areas even though those areas account for only 19% of the adult population, and even less of the military age population. Black casualties were lower than their proportion in the population, and this was especially true in the first two years of the war.

Ironically, this speaks to the enormous social disadvantage still faced by large parts of the black population. When the military decided to raise its education and other requirements for enlistment, de facto this excluded sizeable numbers of black youth, as well as some whites – all those who came from the poorest of the poor areas. Given the astronomical drop-out rates in big city school systems like Detroit and Chicago, for example, the military effectively closed itself off as an avenue of "escape" from poverty for many youth growing up in those areas.

But there is another reason for the smaller numbers of black soldiers in Iraq: the higher level of scepticism among the black population toward anything the government says or does, and just generally more hostility to the various U.S. wars and military adventures. While 9/11 had its impact in Detroit and other cities like it, it didn't translate into the same push to join the army seen elsewhere.

By contrast, patriotism, which is more common in white rural areas, may be part of the reason so many of rural youth join up. But the poverty that threatens rural working class youth certainly plays a role. They may not be enmeshed in the depths of poverty that exist in the midst of the biggest cities, but their situation is not all that much better. From 1997 to 2003, when this war began, 1.5 million rural workers lost their jobs because their workplace closed, permanently reduced its workforce or moved. Manufacturing, mining and lumbering, the most common jobs in rural areas, have been particularly hard hit in the recent period. And only one quarter of those in the age bracket for volunteering for the military (18 to 24) have full time jobs.

Of course, poverty doesn't afflict only those in rural areas. An AP analysis concluded that three quarters of those killed came from towns or cities where the per capita income was below the national average, and half came from towns or cities where the percentage of people living in poverty was higher than the national average.

In any case, many of those who joined the army came with hopes, if not illusions in the military. The papers have been filled with statements by surviving relatives about the son or daughter who couldn't find a job, who went in to get money for college, or re-enlisted in order to accumulate enough to finish."You don't see anyone who has money putting their children into the military" – those were the bitter words of a McKeesport Pennsylvania woman whose son had re-enlisted in 2001 to get the $10,000 signing bonus and money for college, only to die some months before he was to get out.

Whether the military fills its ranks by conscription or by enlistment, the fact remains that working class youth are the ones in those ranks – and today, it's not only the young. As of the beginning of April this year, almost a quarter of those who died were people older than 30.

Even those with ties to the military admit the class bias in the casualty figures from Iraq. Former Colonel Larry Wilkerson, part of Colin Powell's staff, when asked about that disproportion, commented: "Nothing could better illustrate the alienation of America's armed forces from the college-going Americans for whom the Iraq war has meant tax cuts, SUVs and nice holidays."

That fact is ironically reflected in the National Guard – the entity that in Viet Nam was the refuge of the privileged. When the military decided to "professionalize" the Army, it also reduced its active ranks by two-thirds, while preparing the Guard for combat.

Most of those who sign up for the National Guard today go in for economic reasons. The Guard is a second job, supplementing income. The National Guardsmen and women are older. Most are married with children.

Before Iraq, Guard units were called up for occasional active duty, but usually in domestic emergencies. There were occasional military actions, but the Guard was usually in support positions. Not so, with the war in Iraq. In the third year of the war, with the military already beginning to scrape for replacements, 30% of all the troops serving in Iraq were from the National Guard. According to "Military Families Speak Out," the National Guard suffered 10% of the casualties in 2003, 20% in 2004 and 36% in the first nine months of 2005. Even if those rates decreased in 2006, when Guard numbers decreased, it's obvious that the National Guard that Bush sent to Iraq does not play the same role as the one he was part of.

One final point should be made about the Army's attempt to entice volunteers, and that is Bush's blatant offer of blood money to immigrants: speeded-up citizenship or the implicit offer of legal papers, stacked up against the gamble of dying in Iraq. According to the Dallas Morning News, more than 100 have been awarded citizenship posthumously. How many overall have been enticed with the promise of citizenship or legal papers? The military isn't saying. But the statistics for Hispanic deaths speak to that, since they are close to the proportion of all Hispanics in the population – which includes nearly nine million people without papers.

There is an enormous disparity today between those who join the Army – who are really economic conscripts – and that large middle class layer who have never given the military a second thought, except to cheer for its wars. It seems very likely that the disparity of war-time sacrifice is bigger today than it was in the Viet Nam period, given that the draft during Viet Nam did grab at least a fraction of the young men from more privileged backgrounds.

And that disparity is about to get larger. With the military today finding it harder to fulfill its troop level quotas, it has been moving quietly to "lower standards"for recruitment. The Army has once again opened its doors to people without a high school diploma – about 30% in the last six months of 2006, compared to only 10% before these wars started. It lowered the cut-off point it uses on the Army entrance exams. And it eased the bar on taking people who had served time in prison. It has made a special push at high schools in the very poorest neighborhoods, which in the past it ignored. Its recruiters are going into schools with a very high proportion of immigrants, including quite obviously, undocumented immigrants, or their children.

Faced with an army that is breaking up, and a situation in Iraq it can't contain, the U.S. military is turning once again to the most disadvantaged layers of the population for its cannon fodder.

Illusions Ground up in the Maw of War

The volunteers may have gone in out of patriotism, especially after 9/11, or out of the simple need to get a training not otherwise available to them, or out of the desire to get citizenship papers for themselves and their families. But the war hit them flat across the face.

The troops themselves have been registering their disillusion with this war, almost from the beginning. As early as 2003, when hostilities began to heat up again, putting the lie to Bush's claim of "Mission Accomplished," there were rumblings among the troops.

As casualties began to mount and the Pentagon extended tours of duty, the top brass banned comments by the soldiers to the press. So their families began to make them public.

In early 2004, when families were told their soldiers were not coming home as expected, army wives at Fort Stewart, Georgia staged a near-mutiny. A colonel, who had been sent to soothe a meeting of 800 of them, had to be escorted out of the hall under a torrent of jeers and angry questions.

E-mails and letters sent home found their way into the media here. The mother of a soldier who deserted in 2005, going to Canada, told Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now" program: "I believe everything my son told me. [He] said the people he fought were killing American soldiers because they don't know who we are. All they know is that we"re going through their cities with tanks. Our soldiers are imprisoning them. When we take people off to Abu Ghraib, we don't tell their families. He said they took boys and fathers off, and the wives and sisters never knew what happened for weeks at a time. We"d be outraged if that happened in the U.S."

As the war ground on, less and less did the troops pay attention to the muzzle order from the top brass. Their expressions of betrayal found their way into the press. The Los Angeles Times, at the end of 2006, quoted a soldier leaving after serving his second tour in Iraq: "We"ve been here doing the same thing for 3½ years. We did a lot but it was all in vain. And the guys we lost, we lost in vain."

In October 2006, two Navy men set up a website, "Appeal for Redress," on which they posted a statement calling for the "prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq." It was soon signed by more than a thousand of the troops, 60% of whom had served in Iraq. Given the possibility of retribution, legal or otherwise, it seems likely that the men and women who signed are not the only ones to feel that way.

In December 2006, a survey done by Military Times, the military's semi-official newspaper, reported that only 41% of respondents still agreed with the decision to go into Iraq.

There has been a rapid increase this year in the number of "deserters' – although what the actual numbers are no one can say – including the Army, whose spokesperson recently explained that the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon destroyed records, so they don't really know how many troops they have and how many are missing! In the most recent restatement of official records, the Army alone admitted to over 8,000 who had deserted from 2004 through 2006. The Army may try to downplay this, but the fact that it has more than doubled prosecutions for desertion speaks to its real concern, even if the rate of desertions hasn't nearly reached the level seen during Viet Nam.

More significant is the fact that half a million people who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan or the surrounding theaters of action in this "volunteer" army are no longer volunteering – they left active service. Those who served in Iraq are, as the saying goes, speaking with their feet. And an awful lot of them are saying they want out – over 35% of the 1.4 million who served in those areas have left service as soon as they could. (These figures were provided to the Los Angeles Times in January of this year by a researcher for Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Linda Bilmes, who has done a series of studies about the various costs of the war.)

Bringing the War Back Home – in a Wheelchair

The war in Iraq has produced a much lower level of U.S. fatalities than did the Viet Nam war, somewhat over 3,300 so far; over 3,700, counting Afghanistan. But, by contrast to Viet Nam, when there were less than 3 wounded for every fatality, in Iraq the proportion is at least 10 wounded for every fatality, if not 16 to 1, depending on how the military defines "wounded." In reality, there are many tens of thousands more wounded or otherwise harmed by the war than either of these figures indicate. As of December 2006, 150,000 troops had filed for disability payments based on their service in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 100,000 of them had already been granted.

The military explains this vast increase in the number wounded by the fact of better equipment and big advances in battlefield medicine, so that people who would have died in previous wars survive today. Perhaps, but this has had big consequences when the troops come home. These vets, shattered for the rest of their lives, are going home with permanently disabling injuries, amputations, brains injuries, loss of vision – not to mention all the psychological problems that translate for many troops into suicide. The Army recorded 91 suicides last year alone, most while still in Iraq.

Those troops who finally do make it home discover, as the recent scandal at Walter Reed demonstrated, that the military is perfectly ready to throw them away when their military usefulness has been used up. The jobs that army service was supposed to prepare them for aren't there. But homelessness already is. The organization, Veterans for America, had already documented at the end of 2006, more than 1,000 cases of homelessness among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Widespread Opposition in the Population

Three-fourths of people in rural areas know someone who is or has been either in Afghanistan or Iraq – this is the conclusion of a survey done by the Center for Rural Strategies, based in Kentucky. Dee Davis, from the Center, said "in small towns and rural communities, the war is not an abstraction. You have a visceral idea of what this war means."

This war was never popular in urban areas. One year into the war, April 2004, an AP-Ipsos poll had recorded that only 43% of the urban population continued to support the war. By February of this year, that figure was only 30%. But there is a growing revulsion in rural areas too, just coming a little later. One year after the start of the war, in April 2004, 73% in rural areas still expressed support for the war. But by this February, that support had dwindled to only 39%, somewhat higher than in urban areas, but marking a much steeper decline.

Marty Newell, of the Center for Rural Strategies, had this to say about the rural decline: "The reason that support is dwindling now is the same reason that support would"ve been strong before is that we know someone who is fighting there. We know a lot more about it now. We know what the real costs are and we know what the real story is....Every day there's another small town that has one of their own come home less than whole, and there are a lot of small towns like that."

Today, overall, barely over a third of the population expresses support for continuing the war. To put that figure in context: during the Viet Nam years, it took until 1971, six years from the start of the big 1965 buildup in Viet Nam, for overall support to the war to drop below 40%. (This was according to Howard Zinn in his political autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.)

To say that demonstrations against the war have been smaller that those during Viet Nam and that there is little organization against the war on college campuses does not mean there is no opposition to this war in the population. To the contrary.

Almost as soon as the troops left, organizations of families and friends had formed – at the beginning to support the troops, and those almost always supported the war. But as the troops began sending back their impressions of the war, some of these organizations began to take a stand against the war, and other relatives began to form organizations for the purposes of registering their opposition, including Gold Star Mothers, an organization of mothers whose sons and daughters had been killed in Iraq, and Military Families Speak Out.

There may not have been the massive central demonstrations of the later years of the Viet Nam war, but there has been a steady series of vigils and small protests in small towns around the country – every Friday night, or every first Monday, or whatever other arrangements people establish locally. There are the symbolic graveyards parents built up in front of some politician's office, the empty boots put out to shame Bush as he passes. Not everyone could do what Cindy Sheehan started after her son died, but when she camped out by Bush's ranch, she drew many hundreds if not thousands of other families who came out to be at her side, and many thousands more people who wrote in support of her. The families may not have been as free as students would have been to go to Washington to demonstrate, but that has not prevented them from registering their protest on local streets, or by letters to local newspapers or by signing onto the various web sites. In many cases, it's the people closest to the soldiers who have taken the initiative in protesting, even if there are many others who joined them or who on their own attempted to organize opposition to this war. Perhaps not all that many students have joined so far – maybe they don't feel threatened by the prospect of being drafted and sent to this war – but it doesn't mean that students can't join this protest in larger numbers. After all, intellectuals are supposed to be able to see beyond their own little nook. In any case, working people have every reason to continue opposing this war.

The unspeakable horrors already rained on the Iraqi people are not over. The study done last summer by Johns Hopkins University in conjunction with Iraqi public health researchers documented the loss of more than 650,000 Iraqi lives. And U.S. plans for "breaking the insurgency" can only bring about a much greater loss. The growing civil war may account for part of this disaster, but the U.S. invasion and occupation is at the root of that civil war.

Just like Viet Nam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are rich men's wars fought to maintain the hold of American capital over another area of the world, fought by the sons and daughters of the working class.

And just as it was during Viet Nam, the current opposition to these wars is part of the overall political situation, with this important difference: there is no obvious gulf between those protesting and the soldiers coming back.

Quite obviously, the population is not rallying to the war. Nor, overall, are the ranks of the army itself. Troops are getting out as soon as they can and the Pentagon is having more difficulty to replace them – these things speak to the fact that the Army, if not "breaking" yet, is certainly bending. This weighs on the ability of the U.S. government to carry out its wars, limiting what U.S. policy makers can choose to do – in Iraq, Afghanistan... Iran, and other places, now and in the future.

Fighting to bring the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, as the families are doing and the rest of the working class should be doing, is also the way to oppose what the U.S. is doing to the Iraqi population.