How the Pentagon Turns Working-Class Men into the Deadliest Killers on the Planet

By David Swanson,


The following is an excerpt from David Swanson’s self-published new book War is a Lie (David Swanson, 2010).

Since the Vietnam War, the United States has dropped all pretense of a military draft equally applied to all. Instead we spend billions of dollars on recruitment, increase military pay, and offer signing bonuses until enough people "voluntarily" join by signing contracts that allow the military to change the terms at will. If more troops are needed, just extend the contracts of the ones you've got. Need more still? Federalize the National Guard and send kids off to war who signed up thinking they'd be helping hurricane victims. Still not enough? Hire contractors for transportation, cooking, cleaning, and construction. Let the soldiers be pure soldiers whose only job is to kill, just like the knights of old. Boom, you've instantly doubled the size of your force, and nobody's noticed except the profiteers.

Still need more killers? Hire mercenaries. Hire foreign mercenaries. Not enough? Spend trillions of dollars on technology to maximize the power of each person. Use unmanned aircraft so nobody gets hurt. Promise immigrants they'll be citizens if they join. Change the standards for enlistment: take 'em older, fatter, in worse health, with less education, with criminal records. Make high schools give recruiters aptitude test results and students' contact information, and promise students they can pursue their chosen field within the wonderful world of death, and that you'll send them to college if they live — hey, just promising it costs you nothing. If they're resistant, you started too late. Put military video games in shopping malls. Send uniformed generals into kindergartens to warm the children up to the idea of truly and properly swearing allegiance to that flag. Spend 10 times the money on recruiting each new soldier as we spend educating each child. Do anything, anything, anything other than starting a draft.

But there's a name for this practice of avoiding a traditional draft. It's called a poverty draft. Because people tend not to want to participate in wars, those who have other career options tend to choose those other options. Those who see the military as one of their only choices, their only shot at a college education, or their only way to escape their troubled lives are more likely to enlist. According to the Not Your Soldier Project:

"The majority of military recruits come from below-median income neighborhoods.

"In 2004, 71 percent of black recruits, 65 percent of Latino recruits, and 58 percent of white recruits came from below-median income neighborhoods. "The percentage of recruits who were regular high school graduates dropped from 86 percent in 2004 to 73 percent in 2006. "[The recruiters] never mention that the college money is difficult to come by – only 16 percent of enlisted personnel who completed four years of military duty ever received money for schooling. They don't say that the job skills they promise won't transfer into the real world. Only 12 percent of male veterans and 6 percent of female veterans use skills learned in the military in their current jobs. And of course, they downplay the risk of being killed while on duty."

In a 2007 article Jorge Mariscal cited analysis by the Associated Press that found that "nearly three-fourths of [U.S. troops] killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average."

"It perhaps should come as no surprise," wrote Mariscal,"that the Army GED Plus Enlistment Program, in which applicants without high school diplomas are allowed to enlist while they complete a high school equivalency certificate, is focused on inner-city areas.

"When working-class youth make it to their local community college, they often encounter military recruiters working hard to discourage them. 'You're not going anywhere here,' recruiters say. 'This place is a dead end. I can offer you more.' Pentagon-sponsored studies — such as the RAND Corporation's 'Recruiting Youth in the College Market: Current Practices and Future Policy Options' — speak openly about college as the recruiter's number one competitor for the youth market….

"Not all recruits, of course, are driven by financial need. In working-class communities of every color, there are often long- standing traditions of military service and links between service and privileged forms of masculinity. For communities oft en marked as 'foreign,' such as Latinos and Asians, there is pressure to serve in order to prove that one is 'American.' For recent immigrants, there is the lure of gaining legal resident status or citizenship. Economic pressure, however, is an undeniable motivation. . . ."

Mariscal understands that there are many other motivations as well, including the desire to do something useful and important for others. But he believes those generous impulses are being misdirected:

"In this scenario, the desire to 'make a difference,' once inserted into the military apparatus, means young Americans may have to kill innocent people or become brutalized by the realities of combat. Take the tragic example of Sgt. Paul Cortez, who graduated in 2000 from Central High School in the working-class town of Barstow, Calif., joined the Army, and was sent to Iraq. On March 12, 2006, he participated in the gang rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her entire family.

"When asked about Cortez, a classmate said: 'He would never do something like that. He would never hurt a female. He would never hit one or even raise his hand to one. Fighting for his country is one thing, but not when it comes to raping and murdering. That's not him.' Let us accept the claim that 'that's not him.' Nevertheless, because of a series of unspeakable and unpardonable events within the context of an illegal and immoral war, 'that' is what he became. On February 21, 2007, Cortez pled guilty to the rape and four counts of felony murder. He was convicted a few days later, sentenced to life in prison and a lifetime in his own personal hell."

In a 2010 book called The Casualty Gap, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen look at the data from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. They found that only in World War II was a fair draft employed, while the other three wars drew disproportionately from poorer and less educated Americans, opening a "casualty gap" that grew dramatically larger in Korea, again in Vietnam, and yet again in the War on Iraq as the military shifted from conscription to "volunteer." The authors also cite a survey showing that as Americans become aware of this casualty gap, they become less supportive of wars.

The transition from war primarily by the rich to war primarily by the poor has been a very gradual one and is far from complete. For one thing, those in the highest positions of power in the military are more likely to have come from privileged backgrounds. And regardless of their background, top officers are the least likely to see dangerous combat. Leading the troops into battle is not how it works anymore, except in our imaginations. Both presidents Bush saw their approval ratings soar in public opinion polls when they fought wars — at least at first when the wars were still new and magnificent. Never mind that these presidents fought their wars from the air-conditioned Oval Office. One result of this is that those making the decisions upon which the most lives hang are the least likely to see war death up close, or to have ever seen it.

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

The first President Bush had seen World War II from an airplane, already a distance away from the dying, although not as far away as Reagan who had avoided going to war. Just as thinking of enemies as subhuman makes it easier to kill them, bombing them from high in the sky is much easier psychologically than participating in a knife fight or shooting a traitor standing blindfolded beside a wall. Presidents Clinton and Bush Jr. avoided the Vietnam War, Clinton through educational privilege, Bush through being the son of his father. President Obama never went to war. Vice Presidents Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden, like Clinton and Bush Jr., dodged the draft. Vice President Al Gore went to the Vietnam War briefly, but as an army journalist, not a soldier who saw combat.

Rarely does someone deciding that thousands must die have the experience of having seen it happen. On August 15, 1941, the Nazis had already killed a lot of people. But Heinrich Himmler, one of the top military bigwigs in the country who would oversee the murder of six million Jews, had never seen anyone die. He asked to watch a shooting in Minsk. Jews were told to jump into a ditch where they were shot and covered with dirt. Then more were told to jump in. They were shot and covered. Himmler stood right at the edge watching, until something from someone's head splashed onto his coat. He turned pale and turned away. The local commander said to him:

"Look at the eyes of the men in this Kommando. What kind of followers are we training here? Either neurotics or savages!"

Himmler told them to do their duty even if it was hard. He returned to doing his from the comfort of a desk.

Shalt Thou Kill or Not?

Killing sounds a lot easier than it is. Throughout history, men have risked their own lives to avoid having to take part in wars:

"Men have fled their homelands, served lengthy prison terms, hacked off limbs, shot off feet or index fingers, feigned illness or insanity, or, if they could afford to, paid surrogates to fight in their stead. 'Some draw their teeth, some blind themselves, and others maim themselves, on their way to us,' the governor of Egypt complained of his peasant recruits in the early nineteenth century. So unreliable was the rank and file of the eighteenth-century Prussian army that military manuals forbade camping near a woods or forest. The troops would simply melt away into the trees."

Although killing non-human animals comes easily to most people, killing one's fellow human beings is so radically outside the normal focus of one's life which involves co-existing with people that many cultures have developed rituals to transform a normal person into a warrior, and sometimes back again following a war. The ancient Greeks, Aztecs, Chinese, Yanomamo Indians, and Scythians also used alcohol or other drugs to facilitate killing.

Very few people kill outside of the military, and most of them are extremely disturbed individuals. James Gilligan, in his book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, diagnosed the root cause of murderous or suicidal violence as deep shame and humiliation, a desperate need for respect and status (and, fundamentally love and care) so intense that only killing (oneself and/or others) could ease the pain — or, rather, the lack of feeling.

When a person becomes so ashamed of his needs (and of being ashamed), Gilligan writes, and when he sees no nonviolent solutions, and when he lacks the ability to feel love or guilt or fear, the result can be violence. But what if violence is the start? What if you condition healthy people to kill without thought? Can the result be a mental state resembling that of the person who's internally driven to kill?

The choice to engage in violence outside of war is not a rational one, and often involves magical thinking, as Gilligan explains by analyzing the meaning of crimes in which murderers have mutilated their victims' bodies or their own. "I am convinced," he writes,"that violent behavior, even at its most apparently senseless, incomprehensible, and psychotic, is an understandable response to an identifiable, specifiable set of conditions; and that even when it seems motivated by 'rational' self-interest, it is the end product of a series of irrational, self-destructive, and unconscious motives that can be studied, identified, and understood."

The mutilation of bodies, whatever drives it in each case, is a fairly common practice in war, although engaged in mostly by people who were not inclined to murderous violence prior to joining the military. Numerous war trophy photos from the War on Iraq show corpses and body parts mutilated and displayed in close-up, laid out on a platter as if for cannibals. Many of these images were sent by American soldiers to a website that marketed pornography. Presumably, these images were viewed as war pornography. Presumably, they were created by people who had come to love war — not by the Himmlers or the Dick Cheneys who enjoy sending others, but by people who actually enjoyed being there, people who signed up for college money or adventure and were trained as sociopathic killers.

On June 9, 2006, the U.S. military killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took a photo of his dead head, blew it up to enormous proportions, and displayed it in a frame at a press conference. From the way it was framed, the head could have been connected to a body or not. Presumably this was meant to be not only proof of his death, but a kind of revenge for al-Zarqawi's beheading of Americans.

Gilligan's understanding of what motivates violence comes from working in prisons and mental health institutions, not from participating in war, and not from watching the news. He suggests that the obvious explanation for violence is usually wrong:

"Some people think that armed robbers commit their crimes in order to get money. And of course, sometimes, that is how they rationalize their behavior. But when you sit down and talk with people who repeatedly commit such crimes, what you hear is, 'I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I first pointed a gun at somebody,' or, 'You wouldn't believe how much respect you get when you have a gun pointed at some dude's face.' For men who have lived for a lifetime on a diet of contempt and disdain, the temptation to gain instant respect in this way can be worth far more than the cost of going to prison, or even of dying."

While violence, at least in the civilian world, may be irrational, Gilligan suggests clear ways in which it can be prevented or encouraged. If you wanted to increase violence, he writes, you would take the following steps that the United States has taken: Punish more and more people more and more harshly; ban drugs that inhibit violence and legalize and advertise those that stimulate it; use taxes and economic policies to widen disparities in wealth and income; deny the poor education; perpetuate racism; produce entertainment that glorifies violence; make lethal weapons readily available; maximize the polarization of social roles of men and women; encourage prejudice against homosexuality; use violence to punish children in school and at home; and keep unemployment sufficiently high. And why would you do that or tolerate it? Possibly because most victims of violence are poor, and the poor tend to organize and demand their rights better when they aren't terrorized by crime.

Gilligan looks at violent crimes, especially murder, and then turns his attention to our system of violent punishment, including the death penalty, prison rape, and solitary confinement. He views retributive punishment as the same sort of irrational violence as the crimes it is punishing. He sees structural violence and poverty as doing the most damage, but he does not address the subject of war. In scattered references Gilligan makes clear that he lumps war into his theory of violence, and yet in one place he opposes ending wars, and nowhere does he explain how his theory can be coherently applied.

Wars are created by governments, just like our criminal justice system. Do they have similar roots? Do soldiers and mercenaries and contractors and bureaucrats feel shame and humiliation? Do war propaganda and military training produce the idea that the enemy has disrespected the warrior who must now kill to recover his honor? Or is the humiliation of the drill sergeant intended to produce a reaction redirected against the enemy? What about the congress members and presidents, the generals and weapons corporation CEOs, and the corporate media ? those who actually decide to have a war and make it happen? Don't they have a high degree of status and respect already, even if they may have gone into politics because of their exceptional desire for such attention? Aren't there more mundane motivations, like financial profit, campaign financing, and vote winning at work here, even if the writings of the Project for the New American Century have a lot to say about boldness and dominance and control?

And what about the public at large, including all those nonviolent war supporters? Common slogans and bumper stickers include: "These colors don't run," "Proud to be an American," "Never back down," "Don't cut and run." Nothing could be more irrational or symbolic than a war on a tactic or an emotion, as in the "Global War on Terror," which was launched as revenge, even though the primary people against whom the revenge was desired were already dead. Do people think their pride and self-worth depend on the vengeance to be found in bombing Afghanistan until there's nobody left resisting U.S. dominance? If so, it will do not a bit of good to explain to them that such actions actually make us less safe. But what if people who crave respect find out that such behavior makes our country despised or a laughingstock, or that the government is playing them for fools, that Europeans have a higher standard of living as a result of not putting all their money into wars, or that a puppet president like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai has been making off with suitcases of American money?

Regardless, other research finds that only about two percent of people actually enjoy killing, and they are extremely mentally disturbed. The purpose of military training is to make normal people, including normal war supporters, into sociopaths, at least in the context of war, to get them to do in war what would be viewed as the single worst thing they could do at any other time or place. The way people can be predictably trained to kill in war is to simulate killing in training. Recruits who stab dummies to death, chant "Blood makes the grass grow!", and shoot target practice with human-looking targets, will kill in battle when they're scared out of their minds. They won't need their minds. Their reflexes will take over. "The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain," writes Dave Grossman, "is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning."

David Swanson is the author of the just published book War Is A Lie and Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. He blogs at Let’s Try Democracy and War Is a Crime.

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