Some important stories have appeared recently about
disagreements between military commanders and the Bush administration
over whether to begin a significant withdrawal of U.S. forces
from Iraq in 2006. A related development is the recent call for
an immediate withdrawal by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA). Murtha is
a decorated combat veteran who is also considered a military hawk
and one of the closest congressional allies of the high-level
Peace organizations have been quick to add Murtha’s name
to the growing list of those calling for an end to the U.S. occupation
of Iraq, but they’ve given scant attention to the true significance
of his voice and the very potent implications of stories about
military commanders’ dissatisfaction with their mission.
A more in-depth analysis of these developments and related issues
can offer some important lessons on how the peace movement can
hasten the end of the occupation and move proactively beyond the
limited goal of ending one war.
Military Generals and the Peace Movement
For a couple of years now, some of us have been arguing that
the turning point for the peace movement will come when it recognizes
that counter-recruitment organizing is the most practical way
to tangibly affect current U.S. foreign policy.
The argument is based on simple but compelling logic: The Bush
administration and conservative-dominated Congress can continue
to ignore anti-war demonstrations and other symbolic forms of
protest, but they cannot ignore the fact that without enough soldiers,
it is impossible to sustain a large, long-term occupation in a
country like Iraq.
An additional assumption is that if the recruitment climate becomes
sufficiently hostile, the military leadership will foresee serious,
long-term damage to both the functionality and influence of their
institution and will act to protect its interests. The combined
criticism of military leaders and their allies in Congress could
then produce a crisis that would force an accelerated withdrawal
from Iraq and also diminish the likelihood of other U.S. invasions
in the region. In essence, an “Iraq syndrome” would
replace the deceased “Vietnam syndrome.”
In recent months, some elements of this equation have begun to
come together. After an ominous shortfall in first-time enlistments
last fiscal year, re-enlistment rates are now falling below quota,
and some parts of the armed forces, especially the Army, continue
to fall behind in overall recruiting. The prospects for turning
this trend around look extremely poor for 2006, and according
to reported comments by military insiders, the Pentagon is beginning
to panic. This is apparently forcing the Bush administration to
budge on its “stay the course” approach and begin
talking about troop reductions in the near future.
Journalists Paul Richter and Tyler Marshall wrote the following
in a Los Angeles Times article titled “U.S. Starts
Laying Groundwork for Significant Troop Pullout From Iraq”:
Some analysts believe the potential long-term damage to
the armed forces, not political pressure, could be the decisive
factor for Bush and his advisors.
Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon official who heads
the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent
defense research group in Washington, argues that these strains
have become a key factor informing administration thinking.
Unlike the Vietnam era, when the military had a nearly
endless supply of draftees, the Iraq experience has sharply
reduced the flow of recruits into the volunteer armed forces
and attrition rates are alarmingly high, Krepinevich noted.
Other factors, such as federal restrictions on the frequency
of National Guard deployments, also limit available personnel.
This summer, differences between the White House and some
military commanders over troop reductions were the result of
these problems, analysts believe. Although divisions remain
within the administration, there are increasing signs that Bush
may be calculating that a faster drawdown carries fewer long-term
“I think the administration will yield to the reality
of an Army that is apparently beginning to buckle under the
strain of these long-term deployments,” Krepinevich said.
The problem for military leaders wishing to express themselves
publicly about this issue is that as long as they are still commissioned
officers, they are discouraged by military convention and law
from doing anything that could be seen as undermining the authority
of their commander-in-chief, George W. Bush. If they wish to avoid
legal and professional risks for speaking out, they have to find
indirect ways to communicate their criticisms. This, in fact,
is what some Pentagon insiders say was being done through Rep.
Murtha. As noted by Alexander Cockburn in a piece posted at CounterPunch.org,
“The immense significance of Rep. John Murtha's November
17 speech calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq is that it
signals mutiny in the U.S. senior officer corps.” (See “The
Revolt of the Generals,” Counter Punch, Dec. 3,
Included in Murtha’s speech was the following statement,
undoubtedly based on briefings he received from his Pentagon confidants:
The future of our military is at risk. Our military and
our families are stretched thin. Many say the Army is broken.
Some of our troops are on a third deployment. Recruitment is
down even as the military has lowered its standards. They expect
to take 20 percent category 4, which is the lowest [intelligence]
category, which they said they'd never take. They have been
forced to do that to try to meet a reduced quota.
One thing the Army has done to temporarily try to keep the recruiting
crisis from snowballing is lower its recruiting quotas for the
early part of fiscal year 2006 (33% less than the same period
in 2005). This and the acceptance of larger numbers of less qualified
recruits have allowed it, so far, to claim success in meeting
its quotas; but it is really only a temporary public relations
move, since the reduced numbers will have to be made up later
in the year. One can only assume that the Army is hoping that
the recruiting climate will change by then, and more young people
will be willing to enlist. But short of another major attack on
U.S. soil, the only thing that is likely to bring such a change
is a significant withdrawal of troops from the war zone.
The Peace Movement’s Perceptions of the Issue
All of this is important for the peace movement to understand
because it corrects the simplistic assumption often made on the
Left that Bush, Cheney and the neocons are totally in control
and will have their way. As this view holds, the occupation of
Iraq will last at least a decade, Iran and Syria will be attacked,
we'll probably have a draft, and, on the extreme side, some even
say fascism will be the inevitable result. However, the reality
illustrated by the differences between the generals and politicians
is that the U.S. government is not as monolithic as many people
think, and the power structure has factions that are often seriously
at odds with each other.
As we are seeing right now, there are limits to how far Bush
and the neocons can go with their plan for global hegemony when
the resources for it are running low. Fortunately, we are in a
position to help diminish those resources more IF we apply our
own efforts with a sharper focus and stronger commitment to countering
military recruiting. It would further limit the government’s
capacity to wage other aggressive wars and, at the same time,
give the generals more motivation to become, essentially, our
A hopeful sign is that college and community peace activists
have been giving military recruiting more attention lately. Over
the last two years, for example, membership in a key discussion
list for counter-recruitment organizing (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/counter-recruitment)
has approximately doubled to 573, and the list's message traffic
has tripled to 334 postings per month. All across the country,
small grassroots efforts are springing up sometimes attached
to existing anti-war organizations, sometimes independent of any
other local group. Their effectiveness can be seen in accounts
of schools that have tightened up recruiter access and opened
their doors to counter-recruiters, and in reports of more frequent
protests at recruiting stations and during recruiter visits to
Nevertheless, there are two weaknesses in what has developed
so far. One is that the peace movement in general, including its
financial support base, is still focusing primarily on vigils,
rallies and other symbolic forms of protest that are not directly
related to military recruiting and are having no material effect.
And second, among those who are turning their attention to recruiting,
many activists see it only as a tactic for opposing the occupation
of Iraq, and they would cease their counter-recruitment work as
soon as the troops came home.
It is imperative that this issue be given a higher priority and
be seen as strategic rather than tactical. The larger context
that surrounds it goes well beyond Iraq and relates to, among
other things, economic class, race, ethnicity, immigration status
and other socio-economic factors that help determine who winds
up being sacrificed in our country’s wars. Responding to
this aspect of the problem necessitates, for example, compiling
information at the grassroots level on employment and educational
alternatives that can lessen the pressure on non-affluent youths
to join the military. Taking that step, as some of the more thoughtful
counter-recruitment groups have done, is an important way to forge
links with communities that have traditionally not been reached
effectively by the peace movement.
Another important aspect of the problem that needs to be understood
and addressed by the peace movement is the ongoing militarization
of the educational system that is being driven by the military’s
push to recruit. The ideal of democratic, civilian control is
literally under assault as our schools are increasingly invaded
by programs that teach military values, instead of critical thinking,
to future generations of voters and government leaders. Programs
like Jr. ROTC have taken over entire high schools in some cities
and now have 500,000 students enrolled as “cadets”
nationwide. Units of the Young Marines have spread into hundreds
of middle schools, and there is a growing network of other military/school
partnerships that propagandize students throughout the K-12 system.
Teaching military values in civilian schools is not just grooming
a few children to become future soldiers. It is already affecting
the general public’s increased acceptance of war as a valid
response to the perception of attack. It is numbing the minds
of civilians so that they do not ask even the most obvious questions
when the government says we must invade another country. It is
turning the country further to the right and making it difficult
for people to see the direct link between such choices and the
lack of healthcare, safe housing, rewarding jobs, and good educations
for everyone here at home.
The challenge for the peace movement, then, is to recognize the
critical nature of counter-recruitment and the position of strength
it offers us if we devote more attention and resources to it.
Furthermore, counter-recruitment should be embraced as an important
opportunity for addressing the disproportionate impact of war
on those who are politically and economically less privileged
than the traditional membership of the peace movement. And finally,
the full scope of the problem including the general militarization
of schools and youth culture should be taken up for the
long term, not just until the present military crisis subsides.
By working as long as it takes to reverse militarization at this
level, we can become a proactive peace movement that is capable
of preventing war instead of only reacting when it becomes inevitable.
Information sources: Los Angeles Times, November
26, 2005; www.CounterPunch.org; Christian Science Monitor,
December 15, 2005.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org)