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22 January 2007

Bush’s blue-collar war

The US soldiers in Iraq come overwhelmingly from poor backgrounds and only five members of Congress

By Andrew Stephen

There was a peculiar effrontery about the 10 January press release from the Pentagon. “The Department of Defence,” it said blithely, “announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.” By my reckoning, 22-year-old Eric Caldwell was the 3,008th US military victim to die in the war that has brought terror rather than freedom to Iraq: his uncle Vince Cerniglia told me that the “trustworthy and kind” kid, who had been legally allowed to drink for only 18 months, was the gunner in a Humvee in south-west Baghdad on 7 January when a sniper ended his life.

In many ways, I discovered from his uncle, Caldwell fitted an all-too-familiar US military profile. He came from a dysfunctional, peripat etic background: his divorced parents held separate services for him in the days leading up to his military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, and he was brought up mostly by his grandparents. He was “not a smart kid”, in the words of his uncle; before the Iraq war he would probably not have been accepted into the army, having failed to win a high-school diploma and then having had great difficulty in passing the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). His ambition was to be a truck mechanic in the army.

But in one crucial way his background diverged from the pattern. Notwithstanding Caldwell’s difficult life, Cerniglia told me, his grandfather and surrogate dad was an attorney – and his “devastated” twin sister, Andrea, is currently a student at Loyola University in New Orleans. In short, his background was middle class.

Why is that unusual? The answer is that perhaps the most defining and crucial feature of the Iraq war, certainly from a domestic perspective, is that it is now the longest war in American history to be fought by a volunteer army. By definition, this means that – without the conscription which was such a big factor in all previous major American wars and, in particular, in Vietnam – the middle and wealthier classes have been largely insulated from the bloody reality that hit the Caldwell family this month. For most of America, it has been a voyeuristic war, to be tut-tutted about over TV screens and water-coolers.

This is why 76-year-old Representative Charlie Rangel, the decorated war veteran and congressman who has represented part of Harlem for 36 years and is the new chairman of the powerful House ways and means committee, is in the process of introducing a bill to bring back conscription (which was abolished in 1973) for all men between the ages of 18 and 42. Crucially, there would be no deferments allowed beyond high school, and thus no college deferments of the kind that allowed the likes of Dick Cheney to escape being sent to Vietnam on six occasions.

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“The reason is my belief that if Americans are to be placed in harm’s way, all of us, from every income group and position in society, must share the burden of war,” explains Rangel, who is resolutely opposed to the Iraq war. This, indeed, is his way of ending it; the death knell for American public support for Vietnam, as he remembers well, came when the Pentagon embarked on plans to abolish college deferments.

Poorest zip codes

That was it for heartland America, in fact: groups such as “Philadelphia Businessmen Opposed to the Vietnam War” sprung up, and outrage over Vietnam went mainstream. Public opinion polls have shown support for the Iraq war steadily decreasing across America, but there has been little of the primal anger that flared over Vietnam. That is because the Iraq war is a conflict that is personally affecting a far smaller percentage of Americans than, say, Vietnam, Korea, or the First and Second World Wars; 8.76 million Americans performed military service during the Vietnam era, and, of these, two million actually fought there.

Today, in the words of the late and much- decorated military historian Colonel David Hackworth, “most of our warriors [are from] blue-collar families from Small Town, USA”. Using figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, I looked up the counties of the US where recruitment per 1,000 potential recruits was highest nationally in 2005, the most recent year for which figures were available. They were Harmon County in Oklahoma, Galax in Virginia, Geary County in Kansas, and Grant, Oregon; I had never heard of any of them.

Then I looked up recruitment in my own Washington zip (pos tal) code of 2007 – an area that encompasses Georgetown and is overwhelmingly white – and discovered that the number of recruits in 2005 was precisely one. In DC as a whole, however, 87.8 per cent of recruits were black. Curiously, at first sight, the very poorest zip codes have very low recruitment figures – the reason turned out to be that a large number of them are actually sites of college campuses populated by impoverished students. Recruitment is at its highest from homes where the median income for the entire household is just $47,837; it declines steadily as households become wealthier.

Even though the Pentagon now spends a staggering $1.8bn a year on recruitment advertising and has all manner of lures (such as $40,000 scholarships) to entice recruits, it has had to lower aptitude standards for its active-duty personnel significantly since the Iraq war began. It defines what it calls “high-quality” recruits – poor Eric Caldwell would not have qualified – as those who have a high-school diploma and scored in the top 50 percentile in the AFQT.

In 2004, the year after the Iraq invasion, 13.1 per cent of recruits did not have a high-school diploma; by 2006, that figure had more than doubled. Last year, the Pentagon also issued 13,600 medical or “moral character” exemptions – 2,500 up from the previous year – which meant (among other things) that more than a thousand men and women admitted to the armed services had previously been guilty of “serious misconduct”, such as major drug offences or violence involving weapons. If it had not lowered its standards in this way, the Pentagon could not have met its goal of 80,000 recruits last year.

Which brings us back to the politicians. It is a paradox of our times that the most enthusiastic advocates of the Iraq war evaded military service themselves, while those with military experience – Rangel, John Kerry, the former senator Max Cleland (who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam) – are opponents who are dismissed as wusses. Rangel was eviscerated last November for suggesting that “if a young fellow has an option of having a decent career or joining the army to fight in Iraq, you can bet your life that he would not be in Iraq”.

Now, though, it is getting personal. This is precisely what Rangel believes will bring about change. Senator Barbara Boxer of California told the unmarried Condoleezza Rice at a Senate committee hearing a few days ago that “my kids are too old, and my grandchild is too young” to fight in Iraq, but “you’re not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an immediate family”. By my last count, of the 535 members of Congress, just five have sons or daughters serving in Iraq.

The most conspicuous is the brand-new Democratic senator Jim Webb of Virginia, 61 next month, for whom the epithet “tough guy” might have been invented. Webb was a marine corps infantry officer in Vietnam who won the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts; he went on to be secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration. His son Jimmy currently serves as a marine infantry lance corporal in Iraq.

Webb says George Bush has “committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory” by invading Iraq. When the president held a reception for new members of Congress in November, Webb refused to join the line to have his photograph taken with him. That did not stop Bush approaching him later and asking, “How’s your boy?” Webb’s son had been all but killed in Iraq. Webb replied politely that he wanted his son and the other troops brought home.

Not intimidated

Bush, visibly angered by such èse-majesté, riposted: “That’s not what I asked you. How’s your boy?” Webb, one of the few in Washington not to be intimidated by presidential flummery, responded: “That’s between me and my boy, Mr President.” Webb told friends later that he was within milliseconds of “slugging” America’s 43rd president. That would have been a sight worth buying tickets for, but – more importantly – it would have brought home to Bush the depths of feeling his war has aroused but which have hitherto been largely confined to the poor, and certainly not articulated by people given audiences with the US president in the grand reception rooms of the White House.

By the time you read this, Eric Caldwell will have been buried. The bugle call “Taps” will have been played. The American flag will have been taken from his coffin, ceremonially folded, and handed to the person nominated as his executor and beneficiary when he was heading into combat – his twin sister, Andrea. Grieving family and friends will doubtless have wept in much the same way as more than 3,000 other, huddled groups have done before them.

Yet one person, we can be sure, will not have been there: President George W Bush, who has yet to attend the funeral of a single fallen soldier or marine. But now that the Democrats have taken Congress and the likes of Rangel and Webb have come to the forefront, we can hear the beginnings of the kind of primal anger that triggered the end of the Vietnam war.

And, as Webb so nearly showed the president, it’s all getting uncomfortably close to the man who started it all in the first place.

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