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An American Foreign Legion | The Nation

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An American Foreign Legion

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.

Fond of posing in flight suits, leather jackets, and related pseudo-military gear, President Bush might, on the other hand, have seemed overly invested in the military. Certainly, his tough war talk resonated within conservative circles, and he visibly relished speaking before masses of hooah-ing soldiers. Too often, however, Bush simply used them as patriotic props, while his administration did its best to hide their deaths from public view.

In that way, he and his top officials made our troops into foreigners, in part by making their ultimate sacrifice, their deaths, as foreign to us as was humanly possible. Put another way, his administration made the very idea of national "sacrifice" -- by anyone but our troops -- foreign to most Americans. In response to the 9/11 attacks, Americans were, as the President famously suggested only 16 days after the attacks, to show their grit by visiting Disney World and shopping till they dropped. Military service instills (and thrives on) an ethic of sacrifice that was, for more than seven years, consciously disavowed domestically.

As the Obama administration begins to deploy U.S. troops back to the Iraq or Afghan war zones for their fourth or fifth tours of duty, I remain amazed at the silent complicity of my country. Why have we been so quiet? Is it because the Bush administration was, in fact, successful in sending our military down the path to foreign legion-hood? Is the fate of our troops no longer of much importance to most Americans?

Even the military's recruitment and demographics are increasingly alien to much of the country. Troops are now regularly recruited in "foreign" places like South Central Los Angeles and Appalachia that more affluent Americans wouldn't be caught dead visiting. In some cases, those new recruits are quite literally "foreign" -- non-U.S. citizens allowed to seek a fast-track to citizenship by volunteering for frontline, war-zone duty in the U.S. Army or Marines. And when, in these last years, the military has fallen short of its recruitment goals -- less likely today thanks to the ongoing economic meltdown -- mercenaries have simply been hired at inflated prices from civilian contractors with names like Triple Canopy or Blackwater redolent of foreign adventures.

With respect to demographics, it'll take more than the sons of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin to redress inequities in burden-sharing. With startlingly few exceptions, America's sons and daughters dodging bullets remain the progeny of rural America, of immigrant America, of the working and lower middle classes. As long as our so-called best and brightest continue to be AWOL when it comes to serving among the rank-and-file, count on our foreign adventurism to continue to surge.

Diversity is now our societal byword. But how about more class diversity in our military? How about a combat regiment of rich young volunteers from uptown Manhattan? (After all, some of their great-grandfathers probably fought with New York's famed "Silk Stocking" regiment in World War I.) How about more Ivy League recruits like George H.W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, who respectively piloted a dive bomber and a PT boat in World War II? Heck, why not a few prominent Hollywood actors like Jimmy Stewart, who piloted heavy bombers in the flak-filled skies of Europe in that same war?

Instead of collective patriotic sacrifice, however, it's clear that the military will now be running the equivalent of a poverty and recession "draft" to fill the "all-volunteer" military. Those without jobs or down on their luck in terrible times will have the singular honor of fighting our future wars. Who would deny that drawing such recruits from dead-end situations in the hinterlands or central cities is strikingly Foreign Legion-esque?

Caught in the shock and awe of 9/11, we allowed our military to be transformed into a neocon imperial police force. Now, approaching our eighth year in Afghanistan and sixth year in Iraq, what exactly is that force defending? Before President Obama acts to double the number of American boots-on-the-ground in Afghanistan -- before even more of our troops are sucked deeper into yet another quagmire -- shouldn't we ask this question with renewed urgency? Shouldn't we wonder just why, despite all the reverent words about "our troops," we really seem to care so little about sending them back into the wilderness again and again?

Where indeed is the outcry?

The French Foreign Legionnaires knew better than to expect such an outcry: The elites for whom they fought didn't give a damn about what happened to them. Our military may not yet be a foreign legion -- but don't fool yourself, it's getting there.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught for six years at the Air Force Academy. He currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. A TomDispatch.com regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

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