How to Kill An Army: A Scenario

Sara Robinson

John McCain, who from the early 1980s worked hard to establish himself the one of the Senate’s shining champions of Vietnam veterans’ issues, completed his betrayal of the Iraq-era troops today. Brandon Friedman of vetvoice.com has the details:

Yesterday VoteVets.org delivered a petition with 30,000 signatures to the office of Senator John McCain. Through that petition, we asked him to support Senator Jim Webb’s new GI Bill. And less than 24 hours later, we have an answer:

“Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, seemed to give a thumbs down to bipartisan legislation that would greatly expand educational benefits for members of the military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan under the GI Bill….”

The reason for McCain’s refusal to support the bill is about the most disturbing rationale one could imagine….Officials in charge of Pentagon personnel worry that a more generous and expansive GI Bill would create an incentive for troops to get out of the military and go to college.

Friedman observes that McCain’s no-college-for-grunts position essentially says to the troops: “Thanks for your service and your three combat tours in five years. Now get back to work.”

Jim Webb has been trying to update the GI Bill to restore its original intention — which was to reward returning vets for their service by giving them a full education, lifetime health care, and the foundations on which to build a comfortable and successful civilian life. But, says Friedman, the Cons have apparently abandoned that noble goal. And in doing so, they’re unveiling an entirely different vision of our troops’ future relationship to the rest of America.

McCain makes it clear that he wants to make the GI Bill so weak and useless that troops will have no choice but to stay in the military for life. Friedman argues persuasively that this is not only a breach of a sacred trust Americans have upheld with their troops for over 60 years; it’s also a slap in the face to military recruiters, who ask families to give up their children to the war machine — and now have nothing compelling to offer them in return. And in the long run, it ensures that the military will become the career of last resort for those who have no other options.

Reading this, it strikes me that, as usual, the conservatives aren’t being nearly careful enough about what they wish for. In fact, it’s not hard at all to imagine a scenario in which this new relationship to our military—which forsakes the last vestiges of America’s traditional civilian militias and creates a new class of involuntarily indentured permanent soldiers—creates far-flung changes that may undermine the stability of our democracy.

How We Got Here
The GI Bill is recent — but the deal it represents is as old as history. It’s one of the great recurring patterns: in most times and places, the best way for a young man full of brains and ambition but short on money and connections to move up in the world was to join the military and distinguish himself. (The other typical mobility paths were to become a teacher, scholar, or priest.) It was a huge risk: the odds of becoming a combat hero and rising to the officers’ ranks were slim compared to those of coming home crippled—or not coming home at all. But the potential upside was equally enormous. If you wanted to get off the farm, marry well, and launch yourself into the ownership class, becoming a war hero has usually been your best way out.

With the GI Bill, America democratized this ancient deal. It guaranteed that same shot at a solid middle-class life to everyone who signed up and did their tour, regardless of what their service entailed (and, in doing so, also somewhat reduced the incentive for ambitious soldiers to secure their civilian futures by instigating unnecessary battles. Combat hero or clerk typist, you were part of the effort, and you’d still get yours.). In a country that had usually resisted the very idea of raising a standing army, the GI Bill fostered the new post-war military industrial complex by normalizing military service. It was the deal that allowed families to send their sons (and later, their daughters) off in the belief that the military would open the doors to a better life. It was also the sugar that—for a while, anyway—took some of the bitterness off of universal conscription.

Generous GI benefits became even more important in the aftermath of Vietnam, as the country abandoned the draft in favor of an all-volunteer army. The country’s war hawks approved of this move: The Vietnam-era draft had touched every family in America, regardless of class; and it was the middle and upper-middle classes’ unwillingness to consent to that sacrifice that had so forcefully politicized the war. A military comprising troops who’d voluntarily agreed to be there would not only be easier to discipline and manage; they’d be much easier to deploy without creating major political upheavals.

The brass also knew from the start that going all-volunteer would increase the class divisions in the military. The bulk of those new recruits—both non-coms and officers—would be kids from working-class families looking for a shot at college. As the conservatives cut back on government-backed college grants and loans, the GI Bill and ROTC would step up to become the country’s new college-aid programs. Given that this realignment happened alongside the re-tooling of a new high-tech military that required an extremely skilled and disciplined corps to function, this new model wouldn’t work—couldn’t work—unless the benefits and working conditions were good enough to attract a huge flow of smart, stable, high-quality volunteers.

Predictably, the number of volunteers has fallen off markedly in the Bush era, as the war has dramatically raised the risks associated with service, and the promised benefits have vanished. Working-class kids may not have many prospects left; but they can do the math, and they’re staying away in droves. To keep the warm bodies coming, the military has begun to compromise on quality. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the number of new recruits coming in on conduct waivers is up. So is the number of convicted felons, gang members, avowed racists, and people with substance abuse problems. The military is increasingly turning a blind eye to solider misconduct, because it can’t afford to lose the boots—so racist activity, rape, and other criminal acts are going largely unpunished.

Maybe McCain figures that this new crop of kids isn’t all that interested in college anyway. Maybe he’s decided that down here, with the bottom of the barrel coming into sight, we’re getting the kids for whom the military isn’t a ticket to college, or a way out of anything. It’s just a better alternative than a lifetime of unemployment—or worse, cycling in and out of jail. And maybe he’s being a realist about that. It’s certainly where we seem to be headed.

But we don’t have to go there. And if we think this all the way through, we’ll do whatever it takes not to go there. Because if McCain is serious about stripping away the barest promise of benefits and turning America’s high-tech army into a dumping ground for the country’s undereducated, pre-criminal, behaviorally unstable, and economically desperate—then there’s another possible future looming, and it’s the stuff of our worst nightmares.

What Lies Ahead
What follows is a scenario—a little concatenation of what-if stories about what could happen if America breaks its historical pact of guaranteeing education, health care, and a middle-class future to its service men and women. It’s not a prediction. It’s just a look at some of the ways McCain’s new view of what we owe our troops could play out if we don’t change course.

Inside the military: As kids with any kind of prospects at all flee from recruiters who have nothing left to offer them, the sliding standards of the past few years become a fast tumble to the bottom. Soon, America’s military is nothing more than the employer of last resort. It’s society’s dumping ground for people with inadequate education, drug problems, criminal records, and unaddressed behavior issues—people who can’t even hold down McJobs, and for whom going to war and getting shot at is a marginally better choice to going to jail and getting knifed.

What happens from here is a scene from The Dirty Dozen—or the last years of Vietnam —writ large. Faced with battalions of armed misfits—including a large number of sociopaths for whom punishment is meaningless—officers can’t hold down the fort. The result is anarchy, followed by the rise of internal drug-running gangs, racist militias, God squads of fundamentalist holy warriors, and other assorted warlords. (Some of these have close ties to existing civilian organizations such as prison gangs, white supremacist militias, and far-right dominionist groups—as if any of these groups need to have their own government-trained army units.) Unit cohesion fails as these groups go freelance and compete for control of military resources. Fragging becomes common; and good officers become much harder to find. (Anybody with a college education will find something better and safer to do.) The goal of teaching them useful civilian life-skills is quickly abandoned.

In the name of American foreign policy, these troops are exported to other countries, where they set up operations abroad — thus bringing America’s worst authoritarians to the the world’s least stable corners, and giving them a prime government-subsidized opportunity to go global.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Of course, the intended goal of this system is to keep recruits inside it until they’re too old to do much damage. Once they do get out, though, the results look like another movie —and this time, it’s The Godfather.

Since these veterans have no connection to the larger culture—and no way of getting the education that will outfit them for anything else besides war—they have every incentive to organize themselves into civilian subsidiaries of the military gangs that sustained them. They get jobs as mercenaries, working abroad for private armies and cartels. Or they come home, and set up local outposts of this emerging global Mafia. Soon, city and state governments are dealing with a far bigger gang problem than they’ve ever seen before, and are completely unprepared to confront. Turf battles—or holy wars—erupt between the race- and religion-based gangs. In some towns, the gangs muscle out small businesses, start up extortion rackets, run their own candidates, and seize control of local politics. They also infiltrate whatever legitimate institutions will have them—just as the Mafia took over unions and the construction trades on the East Coast so long ago. Modern prison gangs are small mom-and-pop operations compared to the vast global criminal network that could arise in time.

This sounds far-fetched, but it’s the historical way of armies gone bad. When you have combat-hardened warriors who have no place in the civilian world—and governments that feel no further responsibility to the troops that risked their lives to defend them—they will make a place for themselves. And that place will usually be well beyond the reach of government.

The Citizens Respond: There are several ways Americans might respond to the broken-down military that results from the boneheaded decision to abandon the covenant represented by the GI Bill. Let’s look at the best case, the worst case, and the most likely case.

The best case is that Americans quickly realize that the military culture is fusing with the prison-based gang culture, and that the combined forces are threatening the foundations of the country. Driving this case is the fact is that we don’t generally fund government programs that only benefit people without political power. (That’s why it’s so important that even the rich get Social Security, and why the upper classes need to keep their kids in public schools.) As long as the most politically influential people see that these things benefit them, they’ll support them. As soon as these programs look like they’re just for the lower classes, the political will to sustain them vanishes.

Turning the military into a dumping ground for the unwanted underclass (not to mention a vast channel through which taxpayer dollars are funneled to organized crime) devalues it socially and politically. Nice people won’t send their kids there, any more than they’d voluntarily send them to prison for three or four years. Nobody with any brains will want to become an officer, either. And when the blowback from this long-term neglect begins washing up on the tree-lined streets of America’s suburbs, there could be strong political pressure to defund the military, reform it, or abolish a standing army entirely.

The worst case is that we don’t act in time, and the gangs simply take over. The government is overwhelmed, or corrupted. Democracy fails, along with domestic order. Security is in the hands of local strongmen. If that’s the way it goes, the story begins to look like something out of Mad Max, and it will take nothing short of a violent patriot uprising to eliminate the gangs and take back the country. (And the bad news is: They have all the weapons, and know how to use them.)

This scenario is scary. And it should be. Worst-case scenarios aren’t fun for me to write, not least because they can so easily become grim and over-the-top. What I find most frightening about this one is that you don’t have to be a futurist to see its plausibility; you just have to have read some history. Broken-down armies that come home and take it out on the home folks are as common as dirt. They’re stock characters in the stories where revolutions begin, and empires end. But we need to be aware that this could very easily happen to us—and blowing off our commitment to the troops the first tangible step down that road.

The most likely case is that we come to our senses in time, and realize that the GI Bill is not entitlement, not a privilege, and not a handout. It’s what we owe our troops for their service. It’s fulfilling our basic obligation to return them safely and sanely to civilian life, and to give them a fair stake in the country’s free and democratic future. And, as long as we choose to maintain a standing army and act as an empire, it’s an essential investment in our own domestic peace, security, and political stability that we cannot afford to scrimp on. If we think the price is too high, then we should reconsider whether we want to be an empire. But as long as we commission soldiers, defaulting on this debt is not an option.

No one who is willing to tear up that ancient contract between a nation and its veterans, and thus consign our nation’s defense to people so dangerously incompetent that Wal-Mart won’t even hire them, should ever be this country’s commander-in-chief. And McCain, of all people, should understand that better than anyone. It’s a shame that, after all these years building his career on the backs of veterans, he still doesn’t understand what’s at stake.

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