The Institutions of American Militarism: An excerpt from Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire

I learned, for example, the secret that contrary to all public declarations, President Eisenhower had delegated to major theater commanders the authority to initiate nuclear attacks under certain circumstances, such as outage of communications with Washington — an almost daily occurrence in those days — or presidential incapacitation (twice suffered by President Eisenhower). This delegation was unknown to President Kennedy’s assistant for national security, McGeorge Bundy — and thus to the president — in early 1961, after nearly a month in office, when I briefed him on the issue. Kennedy secretly continued the authorization, as did President Johnson.

Daniel Ellsberg,
Secrets (2002)

The army’s target for 2002 was to hire 79,500 young adults as new recruits. Demographics and salesmanship matter in trying to raise and retain an all-volunteer army, and, until recently, the main recruiting slogans were "Be all you can be" and "An Army of one" (meaning that the army is a collection of quintessential American individualists). A recent gimmick is a free computer game, called America’s Army, aimed directly at capturing the hearts and minds of technology-savvy teenagers. By the autumn of 2002, more than 500,000 copies had been downloaded from, and recruiters now have a two-CD set of the game to give away to likely prospects. During the summer of 2002, many video-game magazines included the CDs with issues.

The game differs from most other combat videos now on the market in that bullet hits are recorded only by little red puffs instead of gushers of blood and flying body parts. The army wants to avoid any suggestion that actual combat might be unpleasant. According to the game instructions, "When a soldier is killed, that soldier simply falls to the ground and is no longer part of the ongoing mission. The game does not include any dismemberment or disfigurement." In "Soldiers," the second part of the game, players progress through a virtual career in the army, serving in a variety of units and improving their ratings in categories like loyalty, honor, and personal courage as they go. Enemies are portrayed as both white- and black-skinned but have one trait in common — nearly all of them are unshaven. The government has so far spent $7.6 million to develop the game, and plans to devote about $2.5 million a year to updates and another $1.5 million to maintaining a multiplayer infrastructure. The army hoped to use it to attract 300 to 400 recruits in 2003.*

Another aspect of the attempt to interest adolescent boys in a military career is the army’s sponsorship of drag racing. Its twenty-four-foot, 6,000 horsepower dragster "The Sarge" is fueled with nitromethane at thirty dollars a gallon and has emblazoned in gold on its side, "GO ARMY." Anyone who has been to an auto speedway and seen (or heard) the car accelerate from 0 to 200 m.p.h. in 2.2 seconds will appreciate the mechanical machismo the army is using to attract young recruits. In the 1970s, the army had sponsored racing cars with its name on them but gave the effort up as a waste of money. In 1999, it began a new collaboration with the National Hot Rod Association, this time to enter its own car and to install recruiting booths at the racetracks with helicopters and assault vehicles for boys to climb on. In the 2002 season, to compete at twenty-three drag racing events, the army’s recruiting command invested about $5.5 million. All the drivers are professionals, though few are veterans of the armed forces. High schools around the country are encouraged to take their pupils out for a "day at the track." In 2001, of some 56,000 young people who were sent to a drag race by their schools, 300 joined the army.* One thing that does seem to work in attracting recruits is the military’s offer of up to $50,000 in grants to attend college, although few who enlist end up taking advantage of this program.

Video games and hot rods are both very American examples of the art of advertising, but they seem unlikely to change the composition of the armed forces very much. Race, socioeconomic class, and the state of the U.S. economy, as well as the possibility of an upcoming war, influence the decision to sign up, and women do not respond to video games or dragsters in the same way that men do. During the run-up to the second U.S. war with Iraq, military recruiters noted that virtually no one was joining up to serve the nation in an actual war.

A real deterrent to recruitment is the possibility that a new soldier will find himself or herself in combat. Roughly four out of five young Americans who enlist in our all-volunteer armed forces specifically choose non-combat jobs, becoming computer technicians, personnel managers, shipping clerks, truck mechanics, weather forecasters, intelligence analysts, cooks, forklift drivers — all jobs that carry a low risk of contact with an enemy. They often enlist because of a lack of good jobs in the civilian economy and thus take refuge in the military’s long-established system of state socialism — steady paychecks, decent housing, medical and dental benefits, job training, and the promise of a college education. The mother of one such recruit recently commented on her nineteen-year-old daughter, who was soon to become an army intelligence analyst. She was proud but also cynical: "Wealthy people don’t go into the military or take risks because why should they? They already got everything handed to them."*

These recruits do not expect to be shot at. Thus it must have been a shock to the noncombat rank and file when in March 2003 Iraqi guns opened up on an army supply convoy, killing eleven and taking another six prisoner, including Private First Class Jessica Lynch of Palestine, West Virginia, a supply clerk. The army’s response has been, "You don’t have to be in combat arms [of the military] to close with and kill the enemy." Despite her high-profile story, Jessica Lynch is still the exception to the rule. It is rare for noncombat military personnel to find themselves in a firefight. But that hardly means that soldiers doing noncombat duty are not at risk. What the Pentagon is not saying to the Private Lynches and their families is that all soldiers, regardless of their duties, stand a real chance of injury or death because they chose the military as a route of social mobility.

Our recent wars have produced serious unintended consequences, and these have fallen nearly as heavily on noncombat soldiers as on their frontline compatriots. The most important factor in that casualty rate is the malady that goes by the name Gulf War Syndrome, a potentially deadly medical disorder that first appeared among combat veterans of the 1990-91 conflict with Iraq. Just as the effects of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War were first explained away by the Pentagon as "post-traumatic stress disorder," "combat fatigue," or "shell shock," so the potential toxic side effects of the ammunition now widely used by the armed forces have been played down by the Bush administration. The implications are devastating, not just for America’s adversaries or civilians caught in their country turned battlefield but for American forces themselves (and even possibly their future offspring).

The first Iraq war produced four classes of casualties — killed in action, wounded in action, killed in accidents (including "friendly fire"), and injuries and illnesses that appeared only after the end of hostilities. During 1990 and 1991, some 696,778 individuals served in the Persian Gulf as elements of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Of these, 148 were killed in battle, 467 were wounded in action, and 145 were killed in accidents, producing a total of 760 casualties, quite a low number given the scale of the operations. As of May 2002, however, the Veterans Administration reported that an additional 8,306 soldiers had died and 159,705 were injured or ill as a result of service-connected "exposures" suffered during the war. Even more alarmingly, the VA revealed that 206,861 veterans, almost a third of General Norman Schwarzkopf’s entire army, had filed claims for medical care, compensation, and pension benefits based on injuries and illnesses caused by combat in 1991. After reviewing the cases, the agency has classified 168,011 applicants as "disabled veterans." In light of these deaths and disabilities, the casualty rate for the first Gulf War may actually be a staggering 29.3 percent.

*endnotes have been omitted

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