Friday, January 03, 2014

Matt Kennard: Irregular Army

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After the Iraq War was "over," George Bush decided and declared that Vietnam Syndrome was over, too. Popular opinion in America had swung back in favor of military might and Amuhricans were going to start believing that the army was a good thing- a reasonable career option, a duty that any young person would be honored to fulfill, something good people did. But, as usual, Bush was full of shit. The Iraq War wasn't over in 2003 (it's arguably still not over even if troops have been withdrawn and it's now 2014), and Americans are still wary of joining up and shipping out. I don't know if it's still Vietnam Syndrome or if it's something else- Persian Gulf Syndrome? Bush Family Syndrome? War Syndrome? We're not sacrificing our young poor and brown people anymore syndrome?

Whatever it is, Matt Kennard's "Irregular Army" tells the seamy back story behind the numbers. Americans may be wary of fighting, but the military is still out there doing what (someone decides) needs to be done. Changes were made across the board to maximize those willing to fight. Contractors (read: mercenaries) are being used in place of the army, which is why I'm suspicious of drawdowns- is it even possible to get real numbers of Americans left in countries that America has "left"? Recruitment is being targeted in the most desperate areas and, in some cases, outside of the US, although the army will deny this. Troops are being forced to stay in longer than before. And standards are being lowered: those who couldn't get in before get in and those who would have been kicked out stay in. This is the irregular army. And it's harmful to individuals, to home communities, to the force, and to the people at the receiving end of the guns. It's gross.

Think of a worst case scenario of people you can imagine being allowed into slash not getting kicked out of the army (or marines or navy or whatever). I'll start with some easy ones: people you might think of as too old or too fat to be in the army- basically, people who might not be healthy enough to run and shoot and fight and do those things that you think of when you think of whatever it is you think of when you think of warriors. Well, you can now enlist up until 42. The max allowed BMI has also grown, so you can be in the army and be overweight. Age-ism and fat-ism advocates are calling this a civil rights victory, but Kennard shows that really, it's not so great, even for the older and wider individuals or for their fellow fighters. Older recruits tend not to stay in as long as younger recruits and, according to Kennard (and common sense) don't have the same physical abilities as the younger recruits. Benchmarks are lowered. For example, "on recruitment, a seventeen-year-old... would be expected to do forty seven sit-ups and and thirty-five push-ups. For a forty-one-year-old this was a little easier with just twenty-nine sit-ups and twenty-four push-ups." As Kennard says, "bullets and IEDs don't discriminate in the same way." Getting in might require less strength or stamina, but war doesn't. 12.1 percent of the deaths in the war on terror were people over 35 years old, much larger than their representative numbers in the force. Similar issues with larger people. Civil rights or expedience?

The War on Terror also led to the repeal of the ban on being openly gay in the military. Don't Ask Don't Tell, that lovely Clintonian policy, had ended the ban on being gay in the military- sort of. But it turns out that, like age and weight, there was a cynical side to the lifting of DADT. In 2009 I mentioned that DADT might be getting repealed and that no one I knew, queer or otherwise, was really that excited about signing up for military in wartime. Well, that's the point- they weren't, and the irregular army needed every body they could get/keep. (Side note: At work we discuss "bodies" in the general, maybe common, way of staffing- oh, we don't need any specific skills, just bodies. Every time I read or write that the military needs bodies, this takes on a new meaning. The military needs bodies- literally for staffing- but also to sacrifice. The people I'm writing about- old people, fat people, queer people, brown people- their "difference" and previous undesirability- is embodied. And now it's desirable because it's another thing that can be thrown away- killed- by the government in a needless war. Back to book reporting.) Before DADT, a 1982 directive from the Department of Defense said that homosexuality was incompatible with military service. Then came DADT which said that you could serve until you couldn't- like when someone found out who you really were. The arguments against repealing DADT were despicable and at their core, about morality: homosexuality was like adultery: wrong. They claimed good ole straight people would leave if they knew gays were among them. They ignored militaries around the world that banned this kind of discrimination- not gay people themselves- who didn't have problems. They ignored the serious serious civil rights issue at hand: Go ahead, fight, kill and die for your country, but don't tell us who you are. Homophobia was the norm in the service. Witchhunts were standard (I'm guessing they still are, but it's not as kosher anymore- we'll get there.) Then the numbers issue came up, and really, was it SO immoral? Which was worse: having some gay people that were openly gay or not having enough people to fight wars? Kennard writes "In the Bush administration's order of priorities, a commitment to bigotry seems to have ranked pretty high, but meeting army recruitment targets was even more important." Eventually Barack Obama lived up to his campaign promise, sort of, and after Congress passed a law repealing DADT, signed it into law in 2010. I thought this was a qualified good at the time, as much good as can come out of a military win- themacinator missed a chance for cynicism- but didn't realize that war readiness was the real reason for the change. One last thing: The repeal does not make gay service members a protected class. If gay soldiers are discriminated against for being gay, they're shit out of luck under the equal opportunity legislation which means that another president can put DADT right back where it was. So, in peacetime, assuming that comes again, when the military isn't desperate for bodies, queer bodies could again become persona non grata.

I've touched on a couple of the distasteful moments in Kennard's book. I haven't even gone near the outright scary ones. Like gang members and white supremacists and convicted felons people who are so mentally unfit for combat that they beg not to be sent back or shouldn't have been allowed to enlist in the first place. These are people that have no business being around the kind of military equipment and training for their safety, the safety of their fellow officers and the safety of the people in the countries they're occupying/fighting against/doing whatever it is they're sent to do. There are tragedies beyond the tragedies we hear about and tragedies years later in the United States by people with military training and access to stolen military equipment (alarmingly easy to do) and minds messed up by military service- it's just awful. One of Kennard's stories describes a large number of troops that weren't able to move between domestic bases because the leaders were concerned that the two groups would have gang warfare if they met on base. Sound like prison? Yes, it does.

Kennard's book is not wonderful- it's not a deep investigation but it's a very important one. It opens the doors for a lot of questions and further reading. I've been thinking a lot about the Oakland Police Department staffing issues since reading the book and the recruiting and attrition problems the Department is having and the ways they're discussing addressing them in City Council. There is a strong feeling in Oakland and in the government that more cops should come from Oakland and discussion of how to do this. But OPD has it's own form of Vietnam syndrome going on: the reputation of the department is low and really, who wants to join this force who lives here? At some point, you run out of qualified candidates. When Council discusses ways to help get more Oakland residents to get through the recruitment process where they're failing, Kennard's loosening of standards come to mind. Will OPD start accepting people with poor writing skills? Less critical thinking skills? Convicted felons? People with severe physical limitations? Again: this is not a question of discriminating against any of these people- people with poor writing skills, critical thinking skills, convictions and physical limitations are fully qualified to do many jobs. But we set them and the department and the city up to fail in the same way that we set the army up to fail by putting them in jobs that put them in danger and the citizens they are supposed to police in danger. Kennard doesn't offer solutions and I certainly don't have any, because I don't think that military or policing is going to end anytime soon, and that's all I've got.