Jorge Mariscal

Jorge MariscalJorge Mariscal is the grandson of Mexican immigrants and the son of a U.S. Marine who fought in World War II. He served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego.

The Making of an American Soldier: Why Young People Join the Military

Jorge Mariscal -

In today's political climate, with two wars being fought with no end in sight, it can be difficult for some people to understand why young folks enlist in our military.

The conservative claim that most youth enlist due to patriotism and the desire to "serve one's country" is misleading. The Pentagon's own surveys show that something vague and abstract called "duty to country" motivates only a portion of enlistees.

The vast majority of young people wind up in the military for different reasons, ranging from economic pressure to the desire to escape a dead-end situation at home to the promise of citizenship.

Over all, disenfranchisement may be one of the most accurate words for why some youth enlist.

When mandatory military service ended in 1973, the volunteer military was born. By the early 1980s, the term "poverty draft" had gained currency to connote the belief that the enlisted ranks of the military were made up of young people with limited economic opportunities.

Today, military recruiters react angrily to the term "poverty draft." They parse terms in order to argue that "the poor" are not good recruiting material because they lack the necessary education. Any inference that those currently serving do so because they have few other options is met with a sharp rebuke, as Sen. John Kerry learned last November when he seemed to tell a group of college students they could either work hard in school or "get stuck in Iraq."

President Bush led the bipartisan charge against Kerry: "The men and women who serve in our all-volunteer armed forces are plenty smart and are serving because they are patriots -- and Sen. Kerry owes them an apology."

In reality, Kerry's "botched joke" -- Kerry said he was talking about President Bush and not the troops -- contained a kernel of truth. It is not so much that one either studies hard or winds up in Iraq but rather that many U.S. troops enlist because access to higher education is closed off to them. Although they may be "plenty smart," financial hardship drives many to view the military's promise of money for college as their only hope to study beyond high school.

Recruiters may not explicitly target "the poor," but there is mounting evidence that they target those whose career options are severely limited. According to a 2007 Associated Press analysis, "nearly three-fourths of [U.S. troops] killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average."

It perhaps should come as no surprise that the Army GED Plus Enlistment Program, in which applicants without high school diplomas are allowed to enlist while they complete a high school equivalency certificate, is focused on inner-city areas.

When working-class youth make it to their local community college, they often encounter military recruiters working hard to discourage them. "You're not going anywhere here," recruiters say. "This place is a dead end. I can offer you more." Pentagon-sponsored studies -- such as the RAND Corporation's "Recruiting Youth in the College Market: Current Practices and Future Policy Options" -- speak openly about college as the recruiter's number one competitor for the youth market.

Add in race as a supplemental factor for how class determines the propensity to enlist and you begin to understand why communities of color believe military recruiters disproportionately target their children. Recruiters swear they don't target by race. But the millions of Pentagon dollars spent on special recruiting campaigns for Latino and African-American youth contradicts their claim.

According to an Army Web site, the goal of the "Hispanic H2 Tour" was to "Build confidence, trust, and preference of the Army within the Hispanic community." The "Takin' it to the Streets Tour" was designed to accelerate recruitment in the African-American community where recruiters are particularly hard-pressed and faced with declining interest in the military as a career. In short, the nexus between class, race, and the "volunteer armed forces" is an unavoidable fact.

Not all recruits, of course, are driven by financial need. In working-class communities of every color, there are often long-standing traditions of military service and links between service and privileged forms of masculinity. For communities often marked as "foreign," such as Latinos and Asians, there is pressure to serve in order to prove that one is "American." For recent immigrants, there is the lure of gaining legal resident status or citizenship.

Economic pressure, however, is an undeniable motivation -- yet to assert that fact in public often leads to confrontations with conservatives who ask, "How dare you question our troops' patriotism?"

But any simplistic understanding of "patriotism" does not begin to capture the myriad of subjective motivations that often coexist alongside economic motives. Altruism -- or as youth often put it, "I want to make a difference" -- is also a major reason a significant number of people enlist.

It is a terrible irony that contemporary American society provides working-class youth with few other outlets besides the military for their desire for agency, personal empowerment, and social commitment. It is especially tragic whenever U.S. foreign policy turns away from national defense and back toward the imperial tradition of military adventurism, as it did in Vietnam and Iraq.

Within a worldview of pre-emptive war and wars of choice, the altruism and good intentions of young people become one more sentiment to be manipulated and exploited in order to further the aims of a small group of policymakers.

In this scenario, the desire to "make a difference," once inserted into the military apparatus, means young Americans may have to kill innocent people or become brutalized by the realities of combat.

Take the tragic example of Sgt. Paul Cortez, who graduated in 2000 from Central High School in the working-class town of Barstow, Calif., joined the Army, and was sent to Iraq. On March 12, 2006, he participated in the gang rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her entire family.

When asked about Cortez, a classmate said: "He would never do something like that. He would never hurt a female. He would never hit one or even raise his hand to one. Fighting for his country is one thing, but not when it comes to raping and murdering. That's not him."

Let us accept the claim that "that's not him." Nevertheless, because of a series of unspeakable and unpardonable events within the context of an illegal and immoral war, "that" is what he became. On February 21, 2007, Cortez pled guilty to the rape and four counts of felony murder. He was convicted a few days later, sentenced to life in prison and a lifetime in his own personal hell.

As ex-Marine Martin Smith wrote recently in Counterpunch: "It speaks volumes that in order for young working-class men and women to gain self-confidence or self-worth, they seek to join an institution that trains them how to destroy, maim, and kill. The desire to become a Marine -- as a journey to one's manhood or as a path to self-improvement -- is a stinging indictment of the pathology of our class-ridden world."

Like a large mammal insensitive to its offspring's needs and whereabouts, America is rolling over on the aspirations of its children and crushing them in the process.

Many U.S. troops crack under the pressure of combat and its aftershocks. At least one in eight of all Iraq veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, according to a 2004 Pentagon study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, stated that the study's results were far too conservative. As the war in Iraq drags on, many more young veterans will experience some debilitating form of PTSD.

Others are opting for conscientious objector (CO) status. Hundreds of troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have either begun or completed the CO process. According to Bill Galvin of the Center on Conscience and War: "For some people, the training gets to them. From stabbing dummies, to shouting 'Kill!' or 'Blood makes the grass grow!' But in the last year or two, we've been hearing people talking about their experiences in the war, or talking about the children they've witnessed being killed, or the civilians that were murdered. Some of them are wrestling with the guilt about people they may have killed or families they may have ruined."

Most people are not predisposed to kill, and so it should concern us that our children are being increasingly militarized in their schools and the culture as a whole. To take only one example: What does it mean for a society to put young people from ages 8 to 18 in military uniforms and call it "leadership training"? This is precisely what each of the more than 300 units of the Young Marines program is doing at a neighborhood school near you.

From rural America to the urban cores of deindustrialized cities, a military caste system is slowly taking shape. If recent history is any indication, our politicians will use our military less for national defense than for adventures premised on control of resources, strategic advantage, and ideological fantasies. As in the final decades of every declining empire, it's likely that many wars loom in our future.

Exactly who will have to fight and die in those wars will be determined by economic class. In order to accomplish their goals, the recruiters and politicians will exploit the hopes and dreams of mostly well-intentioned youth from humble origins who are looking for a way to contribute to a society that has lost its moral compass. As they did in Vietnam and again in Iraq, young women and men will serve their country. But how well will their country have served them?

Source: http://www.alternet.org/story/52233/the_making_of_an_american_soldier%3A_why_young_people_join_the_military


Jorge Mariscal is the grandson of Mexican immigrants and the son of a U.S. Marine who fought in World War II. He served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego.

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The Militarization of U.S. Culture

2003-05-03

Jorge Mariscal -

"Lethal and Compassionate" The Militarization of US Culture

The story of Jesus Gonzalez is a cautionary tale for the future. A young Chicano born in Mexico and raised in California, Gonzalez grew up surrounded by relatives who were active in the United Farm Worker’s, the labor union founded by pacifist Cesar Chavez. In high school, he organized against Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant initiative, and in support of Native American environmental causes. Despite his early childhood formation within progressive circles, Gonzalez surprised everyone who knew him when he decided to drop out of college because he had to be a marine. "I know school is important," he told his parents, "but I need to do this" (Jennifer Mena, "Fallen Marine Is Recalled as Pacifist, Activist," L.A. Times 4/24/03).

In the simple phrase "But I need to do this" lie the dire consequences of militarization’s power and success. Drawing upon distorted notions of masculinity, the glamour of the uniform, and the myth of rugged individualism, military recruitment ads-a solitary marine scaling the face of a mountain, for example-cast a spell to which working class youth are especially susceptible. A relative lack of economic and educational opportunities seals the ideological deal. In Gonzalez’s case, the fantasy of military service simply overwhelmed the humanistic values with which he had been raised. On April 12, 2003, he was killed by small arms fire at a checkpoint somewhere in Iraq.

Scholar John Gillis contrasts older forms of militarism in which civil society is separate and subordinate to military authority with contemporary militarization. According to Gillis, militarization is the process by which "civil society organizes itself for the production of violence." Whereas militarism once was understood as a set of beliefs limited to specific social groups or sectors of the ruling class, militarization is a series of mechanisms that involve the entire social edifice.

In liberal democracies in particular, the values of militarism do not reside in a single group but are diffused across a wide variety of cultural locations. In twenty first-century America, no one is exempt from militaristic values because the processes of militarization allow those values to permeate the fabric of everyday life.

Examples are numerous and I will name only a few. The incursion of military recruiters and teachings into the public school system is well known. The proliferation of JROTC units in American schools began in the early 1990s and continues today. Television spots, print ads, and websites for all the service branches are sophisticated marketing tools designed to attract young people who are unsure of their future.

At marines.com, for example, after the initial sounds of gunfire open the home page the potential recruit reads: "At the core of every Marine is the warrior spirit, a person imbued with the special kind of personal character that has defined greatness and success for centuries. And in this organization, you will be regarded as family." "You are special, you are a fighter, we will take care of you"–this is an especially seductive message for young men and women without economic privilege and who often do not enjoy stability at home.

For middle class suburban youth, one of the fastest growing "sports" is "paintball" in which teenagers stalk and shoot each other on "battlefields" (In San Diego, paintball participants pay an additional $50 to hone their skills at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base). Far from the figurative violence of popular culture, the Bush administration is rewriting nuclear arms policy and plans to militarize outer space are moving forward without public scrutiny. At the level of media ritual, the president favors speaking to captive audiences at military bases, defense plants, and on aircraft carriers.

These and other practices that glorify the instruments of real and symbolic violence will have unforeseen and long-term consequences. In the meantime, billions of dollars for the military-corporate-educational complex ($399 billion for the Pentagon alone according to the administration’s FY2004 Discretionary Budget Request), color-coded "terrorist alerts," police and "homeland security" raids on immigrant communities, and FOX news bulletins for even the most mundane Defense Department briefing all work to create a climate of fear and anxiety that is unprecedented in U.S. history.

If we feel less safe today than ever before, it is because the entire culture has organized itself with the dual objective of either perpetrating violence or defending itself from violence. Given the current administration’s proposed budget cuts (including major reductions in veterans’s benefits), it appears that self-defense is a less worthy objective than arsenal building. One commentator recently put it this way: "George W. Bush has inspired new terrorist threats to the United States–according to the official testimony of his own CIA–where none existed. At the same time, he purposely starves those localities and institutions on which the complex and expensive task of terrorist protection ultimately falls and yet the increasingly Foxified media tell a story only of heroism: of the US military, of the American people and of the President of the United States, who has so far managed to avoid service to either one" (Eric Alterman, "Bush goes AWOL," The Nation 4/17/03).

In the United States, where elaborate formal structures of representative democracy, a free press, and pluralism exist (at least on paper), militarization’s primary structures must take shape through lies and the obfuscation of reality. The Bush administration has taken the art of the lie and the control of information, strategies that sustain all large bureaucracies, to a new level. Colin Powell’s performance at the United Nations before the invasion of Iraq was only the most spectacular example of the Bush regime’s willingness to lie to the world.

Frustrated by the pattern of deceit that led to the invasion of Iraq, a leading economist writing in the New York Times was compelled to pose the question: "Aren’t the leaders of a democratic nation supposed to tell their citizens the truth?" (Paul Krugman, "Matters of Emphasis," 4/29/03). Or as one journalist predicts: "We’re heading for big trouble as a nation if we aren’t even concerned that our heads of state may be manipulating us by manipulating the truth. In a nation where hypocrisy is rewarded, expect more lies" (Robert Steinback, "Did Our Leaders Lie to Us? Do We Even Care?," Miami Herald 4/30/03).

Militarization and open democratic societies, then, do not make a good match, the former producing pathologies at both the individual and collective levels. The face of militarization on the ground is perhaps most disturbing insofar as it reveals a disconnected hardening of individuals to human suffering. The most highly militarized sector of U.S. society-the armed forces -attempts to deny this by concocting a self-image premised on humanitarian concern for their victims. From Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld down to officers in the field, the illusion is that the U.S. military is the most effective and destructive in history even as it is the most concerned with avoiding civilian deaths.

From this bizarre cocktail of contradictory missions comes the novel phase "lethal and compassionate." The phrase is deployed to erase from the historical record hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan civilian casualties (the exact number of which we will never know) or to congratulate ourselves for airlifting an Iraqi boy to a hospital in Kuwait. There is no mention of the "lethal" side of the equation-the fact that the boy lost his entire family and both his arms to U.S. bombs.

"Lethal and compassionate" may work as a public relations slogan and a psychological sleight of hand for some in the military but recent accounts of combat in Iraq suggest that the brutality of warfare cannot be sanitized for long. Simply read Peter Maass’s devastating description of marine activities near Baghdad in which two journalists report how a squad leader, after his troops fired on several civilian vehicles, shouted: ”My men showed no mercy. Outstanding” ("Good Kills." New York Times 4/20/03) or the admission by recently returned marine reservist Gus Covarrubias that he executed in cold blood two Iraqi prisoners because some marines had been shot and "The Marines are my family" ("Marine Discusses Execution-Style Killing," Associated Press 4/26/03).

Or consider the case of Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Lujan who gave the order to shoot into a civilian truck at a checkpoint only to discover that his men had killed a woman and a young girl. "I’ve reconciled myself," Lujan said. "We did the right thing, even though it was wrong" (Geoffrey Mohan, "Memories Don’t Die So Easily," New York Times 4/18/03). For other GIs, militarized values will not be reconciled so easily with the values instilled by family and church. The psychic and social costs of these dreadful ironies are hidden in a flurry of flag-waving and patriotic zeal.

As James Carroll brilliantly put it: "Photographic celebrations of our young warriors, glorifications of released American prisoners, heroic rituals of the war dead all take on the character of crass exploitation of the men and women in uniform. First they were forced into a dubious circumstance, and now they are themselves being mythologized as its main post-facto justification — as if the United States went to Iraq not to seize Saddam (disappeared), or to dispose of weapons of mass destruction (missing), or to save the Iraqi people (chaos), but ”to support the troops.” War thus becomes its own justification. Such confusion on this grave point, as on the others, signifies a nation lost" ("A Nation Lost," Boston Globe 4/22/03).

Assuming the nation is not beyond redemption, people of good will who opposed the American invasion of Iraq ought to consider turning their attention to the long-term consequences of militarization. Unless militarization is systematically exposed and resisted at every site where it appears in the culture there will be more young men and women who follow the path of Jesus Gonzalez. What should become of the antiwar movement now? Perhaps yet another march and demonstration will prove less productive than focusing our energy on devising strategies to slow down a process that threatens both the future of our children and the soul of the nation.

JORGE MARISCAL is a member of Project YANO, a San Diego-based organization made up of veterans and activists who are working to demilitarize our schools.He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Source: http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/05/03/the-militarization-of-us-culture/

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