News of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has come to constitute the macabre white noise of early twenty-first-century life. Matt Kennard’s recent book, Irregular Army, provides a complex insight into disturbing recruitment trends, and exposes the long-term effects of the manic drive to enlist soldiers in sufficient numbers to sustain the tragically protracted 'War on Terror'.
The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq created a need for soldiers which the existing recruitment systems simply could not satisfy. The already unpopular Bush administration could not risk repealing laws which prohibit involuntary conscription, following the deeply unpopular Vietnam draft, to make up for a desperate shortfall in volunteers. Private mercenary firms like the now infamous Blackwater and Dyncorp were unleashed, and NATO forces joined the fight, but the numbers still proved insufficient.
If recruitment targets were to be met, standards regulating the kinds of volunteers who would be allowed to join up would have to be relaxed, ignored or abandoned. At the same time, a number of surreptitious tactics and insidious abuses of individuals’ rights were perpetrated in order to get enough boots on the ground in the Gulf and Afghanistan. As ever, people enter the army to secure their future and obtain transferable skills; Irregular Army points out that this is still taking place, sometimes in the most sinister and socially-corrosive ways.
Within the army’s recruitment protocols, systems are in place to filter out extremists and applicants with criminal records. However, the use of ‘moral waivers’ has become increasingly widespread. Moral waivers are designed to give people a second chance so that past mistakes do not necessarily have to constitute a permanent blight on a potential soldier’s record. In a country where police are increasingly present in schools and private prisons are exerting influence to keep their prisons at high capacity in order to maximise profits, moral waivers can seem like a rather humane stipulation. Unfortunately, far from being reserved as an olive branch extended to good people who did bad things as kids, they are being deployed in greater numbers than ever in order to populate the ‘Million Man Army’ required to fight America’s oil wars.
There is widespread disapproval of the War on Terror within the far-right over a perceived collusion with a Zionist agenda. Still, a license to kill brown people with little possibility of punishment is a dream opportunity for violent racists. White supremacist groups which make the KKK seem moderate have infiltrated the armed forces, often being granted moral waivers when signs of a racist past might have prevented them from signing up in pre-occupation times.
Even white supremacists with a strong ideological opposition to the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are using the opportunity for training in weapons and tactics as well as access to the army’s unparalleled arsenal for their own advantage. Kennard paints a picture of a far-right building a knowledgeable, disciplined force courtesy of the same government it seeks to overthrow. Extremists have been discovered selling stolen military property (protective gear, instruction manuals and pain medication in addition to the more predictable guns and ammo). Kennard cites one case of a soldier caught trying to post a submachine gun back home the US (p.38). This all amounts to a situation where the US taxpayer is training and arming gangs whose endgame is nothing short of a domestic race war, and whose basic methodology involves intimidation, assault and sometimes murder within the rhetoric of preserving America’s freedom from terror.
Non-racist street gangs, including the infamous Crips and Bloods, are also infiltrating the army on an alarming scale. There are similar possibilities for detection; tattoos can signal gang affiliation, as can criminal record checks. And similar allowances in the form of moral waivers can be used to excuse them. Domestic beat cops barely stand a chance against gangsters with military weapons and tactical training.
Soldiers have also been discovered working with cartels to traffic drugs across borders in the Middle East as well as North America. The Mahmudiyah massacre was perpetrated by drunk, fatigued, ‘mission incapable’ soldiers (p.73). One was a high school drop-out with a criminal record who was able to serve as the recipient of a moral waiver; ‘the military has become the perfect place to be a criminal simply because in it normal constraints don’t apply’ (p.88).
On the other side of the story are the vulnerable who are taken advantage of to build America’s ‘Million Man Army’. Clauses buried deep in state education legislation (put in place by the Bush administration) permits army recruiters to access publicly funded schools, with an on-campus presence which includes use of class time. A private education, among other privileges, provides children of the wealthy de facto protection from the aggressive and often misleading recruitment propaganda to which low and middle income children are subject.
Kennard quotes the grave statistic that ‘one in nine black men between 20 and 34’ in the US are currently serving custodial sentences (p.81). A felony conviction makes it nearly impossible to find legitimate work following release. Despite regulations which would generally exclude convicted felons from serving in the army, moral waivers make this increasingly possible. The army has even reached the point of actively recruiting within prison careers events. Those who do not support US military aggression nevertheless have no similar opportunity for a regular income, healthcare benefits and a pension outside the army. Unfortunately, many returning veterans suffering from the most serious after-effects of service find no such moral waivers in the civilian world, no way into civilian employment, and often find themselves behind bars again.
There are, Kennard notes, encouraging movements on the part of targeted groups fighting back against these abuses. Student groups are organising to resist the occupation of their schools by aggressive recruiters, who tout free university education (a vast exaggeration of what is available under the Montgomery GI Bill), and vast signing-up bonuses, imploring children to sign documents which they are led to believe are legally binding (even if these are signed while they are minors). These grassroots efforts may seem flimsy in the face of the world’s biggest war machine, but the fact that they exist in spite of considerable intimidation is nothing short of inspirational.
Irregular Army is a grim but compelling reading, a book which exposes the apparently irredeemable position the US military has created. The reader is indeed left with a deeper sense of the horrors of the last decade of futile wars, and an understanding of how far-reaching their implications have already proven themselves to be. Irregular Army shows that the civilian casualties of the War on Terror are a more diverse cohort than we might have imagined. The full extent of the resultant collateral damage may not be revealed for years to come, and may become apparent closer to home than the Bush administration could have imagined.
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