This report, first posted at TomDispatch.com, comes from historian and retired Lieutenant Colonel William J. Astore:
A leaner, meaner, higher tech force — that was what George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld promised to transform the American military into. Instead, they came close to turning it into a foreign legion. Foreign as in being constantly deployed overseas on imperial errands; foreign as in being ever more reliant on private military contractors; foreign as in being increasingly segregated from the elites that profit most from its actions, yet serve the least in its ranks.
Now would be a good time for President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to begin to reclaim that military for its proper purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Now would be a good time to ask exactly why, and for whom, our troops are currently fighting and dying in the urban jungles of Iraq and the hostile hills of Afghanistan.
A few fortnights and forever ago, in the Bush years, our "expeditionary" military came remarkably close to resembling an updated version of the French Foreign Legion in the ways it was conceived and used by those in power — and even, to some extent, in its makeup.
For the metropolitan French elite of an earlier era, the Foreign Legion — best known to Americans from countless old action films — was an assemblage of military adventurers and rootless romantics, volunteers willing to man an army fighting colonial wars in far-flung places. Those wars served the narrow interests of people who weren’t particularly concerned about the fate of the legion itself.
It’s easy enough to imagine one of them saying, à la Rumsfeld, "You go to war with the legion you have, not the legion you might want or wish to have." Such a blithe statement would have been uncontroversial back then, since the French Foreign Legion was — well — so foreign. Its members, recruited worldwide, but especially from French colonial possessions, were considered expendable, a fate captured in its grim, sardonic motto: "You joined the Legion to die. The Legion will send you where you can die!"
Looking back on the last eight years, what’s remarkable is the degree to which Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration treated the U.S. military in a similarly dismissive manner. Bullying his generals and ignoring their concerns, the Secretary of Defense even dismissed the vulnerability of the troops in Iraq, who, in the early years, motored about in inadequately armored Humvees and other thin-skinned vehicles.
Last year, Vice President Dick Cheney offered another Legionnaire-worthy version of such dismissiveness. Informed that most Americans no longer supported the war in Iraq, he infamously and succinctly countered, "So?" — as if the U.S. military weren’t the American people’s instrument, but his own private army, fed and supplied by private contractor KBR, the former Halliburton subsidiary whose former CEO was the very same Dick Cheney.