Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: “Irregular Army” by Matt Kennard (2012)

According to a British journalist, not only did the loosening of military standards intensify the madness of the Iraq War, it may have inadvertently made U.S. society a more violent country in general



One day before the 9/11 attacks, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave a speech titled “Bureaucracy to Battlefield.” The ironically-timed oration served as a symbolic national defense shift, marking the end of the “Powell Doctrine” and the beginning of a long - and controversy wrought - policy of military privatization.

Rewind the tape, and one may recall a 1998 contingency plan suggesting that at least 385,000 troops would be necessary for a “hypothetical” invasion of Iraq. Later on, General Tommy Franks stated that at least 275,000 troops would be required to “stabilize” Iraq, while General Eric Shinseki said the numbers would have to be at least 200,000.

But one look at the 2009 numbers indicate the severity of Rumsfeld’s “privatized forces” doctrine: only 95,900 troops were stationed in Iraq, while 95,461 private contractors were being employed to “stabilize” and “reconstruct” the region. 2002 U.S. Central Command documents prove that the Rumsfeld brass had quite a bit of belief in this little system of theirs; even in Aug. 2002, they believed that only 5,000 U.S. troops would remain in Iraq by 2006, pending an invasion would just, you know, kinda’ happen. By June 2005, however, actual U.S. military men were becoming minority in Baghdad, with private contractors from Blackwater and DynCorp, alongside NATO-backed troops, already beginning to take “control” of the region. Hell, just two year after the Iraq invasion began, an estimated 45 percent of the ground troops in the United States’ own armies in Iraq were National Guard call-ups.

I don’t know if you young Turks may remember it, but the Iraq War - despite what you may have heard in various Toby Keith ballads - wasn’t a very popular affair in the U.S. As national support for war efforts eroded, the military found itself struggling to even fill its depleted-by-design official ranks by the mid-2000s, which ultimately led to military forces greatly lowering their own standards for recruits.

In “Irregular Army: How the U.S. Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror” (a catchy subtitle, I know), Matt Kennard is quick to equate the U.S. military’s vast reduction in recruiting standards with the “barbarization” of the Roman armies of yore. Pressed to find anyone willing to risk their lives to defend Baghdad from insurgents, the U.S. military began accepting scores of individuals that, just a decade prior, would’ve been automatically disqualified from service by the time they submit their first application. As a result, Kennard postulates that as much as a quarter of the U.S. military stationed in Iraq were individuals coactively involving in extremist groups, drugs and weapons trafficking or gang activity.

Many white nationalists, Kennard writes, joined the military simply to get weapons training to prepare for potential domestic terror activities back home, citing a number of neo-Nazi groups that believe that a cataclysmic “rahowa” is on the horizon. Using “moral waivers” to get past tricky things like “histories of felonies,” a number of known gang-affiliated young men ended up getting accepted by the military and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, scores were found to be trafficking both heroin and military grade weaponry back to the city streets of America, with some combat veterans becoming hired guns for the Mexican drug trade once they returned stateside.

Not surprisingly, Kennard states the influx of less-than-reputable individuals in the U.S. military has resulted in quite a few war crimes, citing incidents such as the 2006 gang-rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by U.S. troops. He also brings up the story of Andrea Neutzling, an army specialist raped by her own “brothers in arms” in 2005. The statistics he provide are pretty damn telling; while 40 percent of sexual assault cases in the U.S. result in prosecutions, the number dips to just eight percent in the military. One in three women in the U.S. armed forces, he said, experience sexual assault at some point during their military careers. In all, women in the military are more likely to be raped by another soldier than killed by enemy fire during the tour of duties.

Kennard pinpoints an unusual culprit when analyzing just why so many horrific incidents were perpetrated by members of the U.S. armed forces during the Iraq War. According to official stats, about 43 percent of active personnel at the height of the Iraqi occupation reported episodes of binge drinking while on duty. Drunken air strikes and incidents involving plastered soldiers gunning down zoo animals quickly followed. The military brass were also fond of handing out gargantuan levels of Dexedrine to soldiers, and non-consensual  drug testing involving Chantix and other experimental pharmaceuticals were regular occurrences. In 2007 alone, the Department of Defense spent nearly $3 billion in pharmaceutical contracts, doling out about 50,000 narcotics prescriptions during the year. As part of the “Psychological Kevlar Act,” troops were given highly potent drugs like propranolol and even ecstasy; by 2008, approximately 40 percent of U.S. soldiers reported serious mental health issues, with the nation’s V.A. hospitals treating about 350,000 veterans annually in substance abuse programs.

Needless to say, mental health care for troops during and shortly after the end of U.S. occupation has been tragically inadequate. Kennard writes that there are about 500 mental health specialists entrusted to serve more than one million troops, noting a 2005 veteran’s health care funding shortfall of about $1 billion. Price hikes for prescription co-pays ended up forcing out about 192,000 veterans from obtaining healthcare, Kennard writes, with veterans representing nearly 12 percent of all uninsured individuals in the United States. Among others, failed Presidential candidate John McCain proposed privatizing veteran’s health care altogether to offset expenditures, while military medics were actually pressured to NOT report post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when diagnosing and treating troops. A 2008 Rand report, regardless, found that about 300,000 military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq had either PTSD or severe depression.

Things weren’t much better on the home front, Kennard states. During the Great Recession, approximately 15 percent of U.S. veterans found themselves unemployed, with 76,000 vets reported homeless in 2009. In 2011, Republicans attempted to completely eliminate HUD-VASH, a program designed to help veterans find housing. At the same time, private firms like Caterpillar were being granted $6 billion dollar contracts to build power plants in Iraq, Kennard writes.

Just how bad were military standards reduced during the Iraqi occupation? So much so that even physical and mental fitness standards were lowered. In 2006, nearly three-tenths of recruits were obese - not overweight - and recruits scoring in the tenth and 30th lowest percentiles on the AFQT were allowed to enlist. Military recruiters even drew up amazingly convoluted enlistment contracts that placed would-be troops in accelerated high school diploma programs; the catch being, as soon as they received a degree, they would have to sign a compulsory eight-year contract with the National Guard.

Troop deficits, Kennard writes, may have inadvertently proven to be boons to the “mainstreaming” of Hispanics and homosexuals in the U.S. military. In May 2010, almost 20,000 non-U.S. citizens were on active duty, with about 52,000 individuals becoming legalized citizens via military duty from 2001 until 2009. Even so, Kennard notes that many recruiters targeted Hispanics, tempting them to enlist via the promise of naturalization. Some recruiters, he writes, even wound up in Tijuana (as in, Tijuana, Mexico) looking for Hispanic young adults to sign up. Kennard goes on to state that the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” may in fact be the only “social positive” to emerge from both U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade.

A couple of other interesting tidbits from the book:

- According to economist Joseph Stiglitz, the total economic impact of the Iraq occupation was about $3 trillion. In early Feb. 2013, combined intra-government debts stood at approximately $4.9 trillion; had the U.S. never invaded Iraq, the combined National Debt today may have been reduced by almost 20 percent.

- The parallels between the U.S. backing of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the British backing of King Faisil in the 1920s are downright astonishing.

- A now-defunct think tank in D.C., The Project for the New American Century, was highly influential in goading the Bush Administration to take action against Hussein’s regime. Just days after 9/11, representatives from the group we’re already sending letters to George W. drumming up support for a “regime change” in the region.

- Jared Loughner, the individual that put a bullet in Gabrielle Giffords’ skull, was rejected by the U.S. military in 2008. Among the individuals considered fit for army duty, however? Kevin Harpham (a white nationalist that tried to blow up a Martin Luther King Day parade in 2011) and Nidal Malik Hasan, the individual responsible for 2009’s Fort Hood massacre. Kennard alleges that the military knew about Hasan’s extremist roots (including his correspondence with an imam with terror ties), but since the FBI declared him “not a threat” in an investigation, he was allotted entry in the military.

- Only two countries refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a global treaty that outlawed the use of child soldiers. One was Somalia. Take a wild guess who the other one was.

- How much does it cost to train just ONE U.S. troop? Kennard alleges that it costs anywhere from $90,000 to $150,000. By comparison, the same funding could give full-ride, four-year, all expenses paid college scholarships to 3 to 5 individuals.As it turns out, Kennard's estimates are actually extremely conservative: this CNN article states the cost of maintaining just ONE soldier in Afghanistan ranges from $850,000 to $1.4 MILLION.

- Could military homophobia be the catalyst for the rise of WikiLeaks? According to Kennard, Bradley Manning - the dude that illegally released a million trillion military files - did so because he was sick of being bullied by other troops for being gay. And because at some point in the future, you will probably need to know this: his instant messaging handle was the hilarious-in-context “bradass87.”

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