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How Washington's warlords are...
Sending the poor to war

July 4, 2003 | Page 5

SINCE THE U.S. conquered Baghdad and declared victory over Iraq in early April, George W. Bush's handlers have lined up numerous photo ops for the former draft dodger to pose in front of U.S. troops. But for all of Bush's rhetoric about "America's heroes" who fought to "liberate an oppressed people," actions speak louder than words. As JUSTIN AKERS shows, the daily lives of rank-and-file U.S. military personnel set them far apart from the rich and powerful Washington warlords who order them into battle.

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CUTTING-EDGE satellite technology was used to make sure that American TV viewers saw Pentagon-approved images of U.S. soldiers in Iraq throughout the invasion. But there was no footage from home--of the wrenching poverty that many military families face every day.

The lower ranks of the U.S. military are filled by the working poor--young men and women who entered the military because of the promise of job training, government subsidies for college and an alternative to minimum-wage jobs. This is the impact of the "poverty draft"--what the military has relied on to drum up volunteers since conscription ended in the 1970s. But the economic problems that drive many people into the military often follow them into the barracks.

A recent Defense Department study concluded that 40 percent of low-ranking soldiers face "substantial financial difficulties." And no wonder. While the average officer in the higher-ranking grades can count on fixed pay and a benefit package that can rise into the six-figure range, the majority of enlisted soldiers receive no more than a poverty wage--on average, around $1,300 a month.

Like so many working people on the bottom end of the income ladder, military families have to become experts at stretching a tiny budget to meet many needs. Even with housing and food subsidies, it's common for soldiers and their spouses to take on extra part-time jobs.

But often enough, that isn't enough. Amy Levesque, a former military wife, now runs a food pantry in Watertown, N.Y.--a short drive from the Fort Drum military base. She says that military families make up 20 percent of the needy who show up daily for hot meals. Likewise, at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in San Diego, it's common for many families to rely on local food pantries and soup kitchens when they run short of money at the end of the month.

In fact, poverty among U.S. soldiers has become so critical that the international charity organization Feed the Children has developed a special campaign to deal with the issue. Called the Emergency Military Family Fund, it's a relief program for families who are plunged into poverty when a wage-earning parent is sent off to war. Since December, the organization has delivered 600,000 pounds of food to more than 6,200 families at 12 different bases.

Another consequence of class inequality in the military can be seen in the disproportionate numbers of minorities. African Americans and Latinos are heavily concentrated in the lower ranks, while deeply entrenched racism ensures that no more than a token number of minorities climb the ranks into the officer corps.

While Blacks make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise 22 percent of the military. Half of the enlisted women in the military are Black. It was therefore no surprise that 20 percent of U.S. casualties from the invasion of Iraq until the fall of Baghdad were Black. Together, Blacks and Latinos accounted for more than one-third of the casualties.

Latinos make up only 8 percent of U.S. military personnel--less than their numbers in the population as a whole. But Latinos are the most over-represented group at the base of the military hierarchy.

In a mirror reflection of U.S. society, Blacks and Latinos tend to get the worst work. They are heavily concentrated in service jobs and the infantry--but almost nonexistent higher up the ladder. For instance, Blacks make up only 2 percent of military pilots and around 5 percent of the highly touted Special Operations forces.

A third and virtually invisible group in the military are the growing ranks of non-citizens who enlist to get citizenship. About 37,000 immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, fought in Iraq.

Dubbed "green card" soldiers, they see military service--for a term of three years--as the only way to gain U.S. citizenship in the face of rigid immigration restrictions. In Iraq, this group paid dearly for that promise--accounting for one in 10 U.S. casualties.

This is the truth about the ordinary soldiers sent to Iraq to kill--and be killed. And with resistance to the U.S. occupation rising among ordinary Iraqis, even the mainstream media that led the cheers for the U.S. war has admitted that many soldiers are asking questions.

"Six months after arriving in Kuwait and almost three months after entering Iraq, they were ready to go home," a New York Times reporter wrote of the Army's Third Infantry Division, one of the first to ride into Baghdad. "Some are haunted by the deaths they caused--and suffered--and have sought counseling. All are tired and hot and increasingly bitter. Morale has plummeted as sharply as the temperature has risen."

George Bush's praise for U.S. soldiers is as an insult to the working poor men and women who face poverty and oppression as part of one of the system's most racist and rigid class institutions. The real "mission of liberation" will begin when these soldiers recognize that their real enemies aren't in Iraq. They're at home.

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