USA - Vietnam and Iraq: poor men's armies fighting rich men's wars

Jul/Aug 2007

Below we publish an article from the US group "Spark" (Class Struggle #55 - 05/2007) which discusses the US army, its class make-up and its soldiers' attitude to war - comparing the period of the Vietnam war 1964-1975 and the Iraq war and occupation.

This is particularly relevant in view of Blair's final reference, as PM, to British soldiers in Iraq, before he departed from the House of Commons for good: he said, "I am truly sorry for the danger they face today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know some people think they face those dangers in vain. I don't and I never will." In fact, "some people" just happens to be the majority of the population in Britain and a significant number inside the British armed forces as well.

As this article explains, there is a growing outcry in the US over the role of the army in Iraq and Afghanistan - amongst the US population in general and particularly troops themselves.

Practically from the beginning of the war in Iraq, there have been comparisons made with the war in Viet Nam. There may be parallels to be drawn. However the social and political contexts of these two wars, separated in time by four decades of history, are very different. But there is another important difference between the two wars - the army. The war in Viet Nam was fought by a conscripted 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. This article will attempt to discuss the nature of the US army, then and now.

Viet Nam war: the end of the draft army

During the decade of direct US intervention in Viet Nam, 8.6 million men served in the military. 2.1 million of them were sent to Viet Nam, the majority of them "drafted" - that is compulsorily called up for service, or conscripted. During those same years, 3.5 million men were deferred or exempted. Another 11.8 million were disqualified from military service.

The vast range exemptions which could be applied, meant that only a very small section 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 degrees. If they were working on advanced degrees, they were deferred for a further period of time.

Certain professions were considered "essential" and therefore were exempted: engineers, scientists, politicians, business owners, ministers, rabbis and priests, etc. Those with documented mental and physical incapacity were also exempted. But the Selective Service responsible for making exemptions seems to have believed that a disproportionate number among the upper classes were physically and mentally deficient.

And then there was the National Guard, which was the most frequent way for rich young men to escape having to go to Viet Nam - including for the current US president, George Bush. More than one million managed to get taken 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 mobilised, 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 SLA 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, [from Guam] Nisei [of Japanese extraction] 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 US population. This quickly became a scandal and reinforced anger in black neighbourhoods, 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, black soldiers 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 soldiers themselves: refusing orders to go out, intimidating their officers in order to avoid a fire fight, or actually attacking the officers - 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 available study 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" neighbourhoods 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 university researchers had set out to find.

Relatively early, the draft had become 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 against the Viet Nam war. But the goal of many of the students who became active was basically the retention of student deferment; the war itself was a secondary issue. And 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 Students for a Democratic Society (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 among those who called the soldiers "baby killers," treating them as though they shared responsibility for the war with LB Johnson, then US President. This helped isolate the student anti-war movement from the opposition to the war that was 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, nevertheless, and it was 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, against officers. Over 400 officers were killed or wounded during 1969-71 due to such incidents. There were 10 major mutinies and countless incidents of whole squads of soldiers or marines refusing to go out on operations. Two large scale revolts occurred in military prisons in Viet Nam in 1968, led by black troops. There was a mutiny by sailors that forced the Navy to bring the USS Constitution back to San Diego. But 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". The salaries paid to the now voluntarily enlisted personnel were doubled. Wider access to the Veterans' Administration Hospital system was promised once military service was over. Some of the most onerous restrictions on people's personal lives were relaxed, making it easier for men and women to marry, live with their spouses, and raise their families. But what was probably most significant, was the increase in payments for a college education - effectively up to the full cost, 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 and preparation for a job.

In fact, the military had always preferred volunteers to conscripts and had used enticements to get them. During the Viet Nam era, for example, only about 20% of active duty troops were draftees; the rest enlisted themselves, that is, volunteered. 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 had 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 up to 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 sections 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 urban 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 US wars and military adventures. While 9/11 had its impact in Detroit and other cities like it, it didn't translate into a push to join the army.

By contrast, patriotism, which is more common in white rural areas, may be part of the reason why so many 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 workplaces either closed, permanently reduced their workforces, 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.

The papers have been filled with statements by surviving relatives about the son or daughter who couldn't find a job, who enlisted in order 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 over 30 years.

Even those with ties to the military admit to 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 during the Viet Nam war was the refuge of the privileged. When the military decided to "professionalise" the Army, it also reduced its active ranks by two-thirds, while preparing the Guard for a combat role.

Today the profile of the National Guard has changed. Most of those who sign up, do so 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 only 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 soldiers 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 this disparity is about to get larger. With the military today finding it harder to fulfil 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 also 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 neighbourhoods, 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 US military is turning once again to the most disadvantaged layers of the population for its cannon fodder.

Illusions lost in the reality of war

Volunteers may have joined up 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 then the reality of the war hit them in the face.

In fact, almost right from the beginning, soldiers have been registering their disillusion with the war. This was particularly so by late 2003, when hostilities began to hot up again, putting lie to Bush's claim of "Mission Accomplished".

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 soldiers would not come 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. The mother of a soldier who deserted by going to Canada in 2005, 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 US."

As the war ground on, less and less did the troops pay attention to the gagging order from the top brass. The expression of their feelings of having been betrayed 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 soldiers, 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 Military 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 theatre of action in this "volunteer" army are no longer volunteering. In fact they have left active service. Those who served in Iraq are, as the saying goes, voting with their feet. Many want out - over 35% of the 1.4 million who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have left the service as soon as they could. (These figures were provided to the Los Angeles Times in January 2007, 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 US fatalities than did the Viet Nam war, somewhat over 3,300 so far; or 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 there being better equipment and big advances in battlefield medicine, so that people who would have died in previous wars survive today. Maybe so, but this has had big consequences when the troops come home. These veterans, shattered for the rest of their lives, are going home with permanently disabling injuries, amputations, brain injuries, loss of vision - not to mention all the psychological problems that push some soldiers to commit 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. [Note from editor: Walter Reed is a 113-acre military hospital not far from the White House, which was known as the "jewel in the crown" of military medicine. Except it has turned into a "holding ground", with ever-deteriorating, cockroach-infested conditions, for physically and mentally damaged soldiers and marines - 700 of whom had been discharged but for whom no appropriate next step could be arranged. This was exposed by the Washington Post in February this year.]

The jobs that army service was supposed to prepare for them for aren't there. But homelessness already is. The organisation, Veterans for America, had already documented at the end of 2006, more than 1,000 cases of homelessness among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Widespread opposition from 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, in 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 this was a much steeper decline.

Marty Newell, of the Centre 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 for 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 organisation against the war on college campuses does not mean there is no opposition to this war amongst the population. On the contrary.

Almost as soon as the troops left home, organisations of families and friends had formed. At first, to support the troops, and those groups almost always also supported the war itself. But as the troops began sending back their impressions of the war, some of these organisations began to take a stand against the war. In addition, relatives of serving soldiers began to form organisations for the purposes of registering their opposition, including Gold Star Mothers, an organisation of mothers whose sons and daughters had been killed in Iraq, and Military Families Speak Out.

There may not (yet) have been the massive demonstrations of the later years of the Viet Nam war, but there have 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 to support 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 organise opposition to this war. Perhaps not all that many students have joined in 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 estimated the loss of more than 650,000 Iraqi lives. And US plans for "breaking the insurgency" with a new "surge of troops" can only bring about a much greater loss. The growing civil war may account for part of this disaster, but the US invasion and occupation is the cause 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 replacing them - these things speak to the fact that the Army, if not "breaking" yet, is certainly bending. This weighs on the ability of the US government to carry out its wars, limiting what US 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 US is doing to the Iraqi population.