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Join the Marines... for the Summer | The Nation

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Join the Marines... for the Summer

The other day, the college-age daughter of a friend received an e-letter from a Marine Corps Officer Selection Officer, inviting her to "an awesome summer training program called the Platoon Leader's Course." Think of it as Marine Corps summer camp. No uniforms ("This is not ROTC!"), but reasonable amounts of moolah. Here's some of what was on offer to her, part of a desperate military's Iraq-era appeal to citizenly duty:

"You will earn approximately $2,400 (six weeks) or $4,000 (ten weeks) plus room and board during the training. How's that for a summer job?.... You will not incur any obligation to the Marine Corps even after completing the training. (You can choose whether or not to continue with the program).... Tuition assistance will be available to you after you complete training this summer. You could potentially earn $8,000 to $25,000 for school, depending on graduation date."

Imagine! The Marine Corps is willing to pay young people to go to a uniform-less summer camp to test their "leadership potential," with no commitment to the Corps necessary. Consider that; then consider what was certainly the President's only significant decision of the holiday season past--to permanently expand the US military by as many as 70,000 troops.

Now, as in some old math problem, the question is: How do you connect these two points. (Hint: Not with a straight line.)

Faced with a December shot across the bow in testimony before Congress by Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker, who warned that the Army "will break" under present war-zone rotation needs, President Bush responded by addressing the "stressed" nature of the US Armed Forces. He said, "I'm inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops--the Army, the Marines. And I talked about this to Secretary [Robert A.] Gates, and he is going to spend some time talking to the folks in the building [the Pentagon], come back with a recommendation to me about how to proceed forward on this idea." All this was, he added, "to meet the challenges of a long-term global struggle against terrorists."

Ah... that makes things clearer.

Of course, to get those new "volunteer" officers and men, who have generally been none too eager to volunteer for the Army and the Marines in the midst of a disastrous, far-away, increasingly incomprehensible set of double wars, you'll have to pay even more kids more money to go to no-commitment summer camp; and, while you're at it, you'll have to lower standards for the military radically. You'll have to let in even more volunteers without high school diplomas but with "moral" and medical "waivers" for criminal records and mental problems. You'll have to fast-track even more new immigrants willing to join for the benefits of quick citizenship; you'll have to ramp up already high cash bonuses of all sorts; you'll have to push the top-notch ad agency recently hired on a five-year contract for a cool billion dollars to rev up its new "Army Strong" recruitment drive even higher; you'll certainly have to jack up the numbers of military recruiters radically, to the tune of perhaps a couple of hundred million more dollars; and maybe just for the heck of it, you better start planning for the possibility of recruiting significant numbers of potential immigrants before they even think to leave their own countries. After all, it's darn romantic to imagine a future American all-volunteer force that will look more like the old French Foreign Legion--or an army of mercenaries anyway. All in all, you'll have to commit to the fact that your future soldier in your basic future war will cost staggering sums of money to hire and even more staggering sums to retain after he or she has had a taste of what "leadership potential" really entails.

Put another way, as long as Iraq remains a classic quagmire for the Army and Marines, any plan to expand the U.S. military in order to make it easier to fight such wars in the future, threatens to become a classic financial quagmire as well. In other words, Iraq and military expansion don't fit together well at all. And yet, looking at the state of our military in Iraq in a certain light, expansion seems so… well, logical.

After all, the American military, now at just over 500,000 troops, stood, at the time of the First Gulf War, at 703,000. (Of course, no one now counts the quite expensive hired mercenaries who envelop our military -- the privatized, Halliburton-style adjuncts, who cook the food, build the bases, do the cleaning, deliver the mail and supplies, perform interrogation duties, and so on, and whose increase has been striking as has the growth of rent-a-mercenary corporations whose armed employees are, for instance, all over Iraq.) In addition, it has long been clear that the Armed Forces could not take the strain of failing wars in Central Asia and the Middle East forever, not to speak of increased "commitments" in the Persian Gulf and the normal massive global basing and policing that the Pentagon regularly refers to as our "footprint" on the planet. Added to this, the President seems to be leaning towards increasingly the pressure on military manpower needs by "surging"--the Vietnam era word would, of course, have been "escalating"--up to 30,000 troops into Baghdad and al-Anbar province, while naval and air forces (with an obvious eye to Iran) are simultaneously ramped up in the Persian Gulf.

In light of Iraq, military manpower needs cry out to be dealt with. In light of Iraq, dealing with them any time soon will be prohibitively expensive.

In Washington, this conundrum leads nowhere in particular. Instead, in the spirit of imperial-mission logic (and with the urge to bash the Bush administration for being late to such an obvious support-our-troops position), Democrats simply leaped onto the expand-the-military bandwagon even faster than Republicans. In fact, leading Democrats had long been calling for just this sort of expansion. ("I am glad [the President] has realized the need for increasing the size of the armed forces... but this is where the Democrats have been for two years," commented Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the new House Democratic Caucus chairman.) The Democratic leadership promptly pledged to make such an expansion one of its top reform priorities in the New Year.

To get those numbers significantly higher will, it's estimated, take a decade and unimaginable sums of money (as well as those lowered standards). And, if the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan worsen, as they almost certainly will, and American casualties rise with no end in sight, you can start going through your multiplication tables. This could be considered but a form of ongoing blowback from American imperial shock-and-awe tactics in Iraq and presents some curious choices to our leaders. After all, to take but one example, those most eager to expand the military, with their eyes on the imperial future, should be eager to liquidate the Iraqi mission as soon as possible.

But a far more basic choice lurks--one rarely alluded to in the mainstream. If we voted on such things–-and, in truth, we vote on less and less that matters--the choice that actually lies behind the Marine e-letter to my friend's daughter might be put this way: Expand the military or shrink the mission?

This is the essential question that goes largely unmentioned--and largely unthought as well. In the meantime, money will continue to pour into military recruitment ad campaigns, bonuses, and summer camps. In the meantime, those Marine e-letters will continue to go out. In the meantime, money will continue to pour into the Pentagon and the national security world generally. In the meantime, we will continue to build our near billion-dollar embassy, the largest on the planet, in the heart of Baghdad's Green Zone. In the meantime, the imperial and military paths will continue to fuse, and the Pentagon will continue to take on new roles, even outside "declared war zones," in intelligence, diplomacy, "information operations," and other "self-assigned missions"; so that, as Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times recently described it, even our embassies will increasingly be militarized outposts in the global war on terror.

Shrinking the mission--choosing some path other than the imperial one (in part by redefining what exactly our national interests are)--would, of course, address many problems. It would make paying young people thousands of dollars to test their leadership potential or thinking about scouring Central America for a future Foreign Legion far less necessary. But no one in Washington--not in the Bush administration, not in James A. Baker's Iraq Study Group, which recently captured the Inside-the-Beltway "middle ground" on Iraq policy, not in the Democratic leadership--is faintly interested in shrinking the American global mission. No one in Washington, where a kind of communal voting does go on, is about to vote "no" to that mission, or cast a ballot for democracy rather than empire.

Expanding the military may seem like a no-brainer in response to the Iraq crisis. As it happens, it's anything but. Unfortunately, few ever discuss (as, for instance, Chalmers Johnson did in his book, The Sorrows of Empire) the 700-plus military and intelligence bases we retain around the world or ask why exactly we're garrisoning the planet. No one, in these last years, has seriously challenged the ever expanding Pentagon budget; nor the mushrooming supplemental requests for Iraq and Afghanistan, including the record-setting latest for almost $100 billion; nor, generally, the fact that paying for actual war-fighting is no longer considered an appropriate part of the Pentagon's normal budget process.

No one challenged it when, in 2002, the United States gained a new North American Command (Northcom), making U.S. citizens but another coequal part of the Pentagon's division of its imperial world, along with those who live in regions covered by Centcom, Paccom, and the just authorized Africa Command (Africom). No one challenged the vast expansion of Pentagon intelligence activities. No one offered a challenge as the military took on ever more civilian domestic duties, including planning for the potential arrival of a pandemic disease on our shores or for future Katrinas. No one seriously challenges the plans the Pentagon has on the drawing boards for exotic, futuristic hardware meant to come on line decades from now that, along with futuristic military tactics already being worked out, will help predetermine the wars most Americans don't even know we are going to fight--from the vast mega-slum-cities of the Third World to the borderlands of space.

No one considers what the Pentagonization of our world and the Homeland Securitization of our country is doing to us, because militarism here has never taken on the expectable forms--few vast military parades or displays (despite the almost full-scale militarization of Presidential funerals); few troops in the streets; no uniforms in the high councils of government. In fact, it's one of the ironies of our particular form of militarization that when our military--no longer really a citizen army--goes to war and troops begin to die, less Americans are touched by this than perhaps at any time in our recent history.

Shrink the mission or expand the military? Your choice?

Fat chance.

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