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Soldiers' books cut through the lies
Inside the U.S. military machine

Review by Eric Ruder | March 18, 2005 | Page 9

Tod Ensign, America's Military Today: The Challenge of Militarism. New Press, 2004, 430 pages, $28.

Michael Moore, Will They Ever Trust Us Again? Letters from the War Zone. Simon and Schuster, 2004, 218 pages, $22.

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, an explosion of books about the "war on terror" has hit the bookstores. These books are filled with debates among foreign policy wonks and Pentagon air bags about how to fight this "new" war, and they share a common feature--total disregard for the U.S. soldiers and civilians who will be the victims of this new round of conflict.

Two new books, however, buck this trend and provide real insight into the building blocks out of which any military is made. Tod Ensign's America's Military Today packs a little something for everyone between its covers.

For the reader unfamiliar with military culture, Ensign includes a brilliant chapter by Christian Appy on the hellish world of basic training, which originally appeared in Appy's Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Even for those who've gone through basic training, Appy's descriptions may help put into words the contradictory experience of humiliation, indoctrination and redemption that drill sergeants have perfected as they seek to mold their recruits into a single unit that will show no hesitation in killing the enemy.

"Drill instructors tore down their recruits not only to generate the kind of fear that elicits obedience but also to inflame the sort of anger that might be channeled into aggressive soldiering," writes Appy. "Drill instructors were careful, however, to maintain control of the violence they provoked...The goal was to make their units essentially self-regulating and self-disciplining, enforcing among themselves the demands initially made by the drill instructors alone."

In the end, according to Ensign, military commanders have a single goal in mind--"to mold and shape combat soldiers so that, when ordered, they will overcome [the] reluctance to kill" that nearly all humans instinctively possess.

For those considering enlistment or already in the military, Ensign's book is a must-read. Not only does the book document the dark realities of discrimination and abuse that pervade military life--such as the vicious treatment of minorities, women and gays, lesbians and bisexuals--but it also gives a clear introduction to the basic principles and procedures of military justice, which are especially useful for any GI considering whether to file as a conscientious objector or to refuse deployment in order to avoid combat in Iraq.

Other chapters explore the history of the draft, the growing role played by the military in domestic policing despite constitutional prohibitions and a brief overview of the Pentagon's use of the draft to fight wars. Ensign's book also reprints several moving letters from active-duty GIs, including one from Camilo Mejia, one of the first soldiers to go public with his refusal to re-deploy whose defense was coordinated by Ensign's organization Citizen Soldier.

Michael Moore's Will They Ever Trust Us Again? consists primarily of letters written by active-duty GIs, veterans and family members of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose intensely personal experiences of these conflicts make for engaging reading.

"I was the lowest common denominator in 'President' Bush's foreign policy," writes Edward Dalton in early 2004 just after his return from Iraq. "I am just a working-class man who joined the army to pay off my student loans and all of a sudden 9/11 happens, and the next thing you know I wake up one day in Afghanistan. One year later I am in Iraq and cannot figure out what the fuck WE are doing there."

On page after page, soldiers and veterans transformed by the lies and arrogance of the Bush administration use their own words to express the anguish, the rage and the collective sense of betrayal that has no doubt sent a shiver down the spine of every Pentagon official that has dared to pick up this book.

But this otherwise powerful collection of letters is deeply marred by Moore's preoccupation with the 2004 presidential campaign, which was in full swing as he collected the entries for his book. As a consequence, the book ends up straying from its strength as a portrait of the men and women in the armed services who seethe with resentment and instead oozes with Moore's compulsion to portray himself as a patriot bent on restoring the public's trust in government--as if evicting Bush by campaigning for John Kerry, who proclaimed himself every bit as committed to waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, could do anything but further demoralize people who desperately want an alternative to Bushism.

Supplement Ensign with Appy's Working Class War for a well-rounded picture of the centrifugal forces pulling at the U.S. military today.

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