US Perspectives - Part Two: The Iraq War and Occupation

We are publishing Part Two of the US Perspectives document of the Workers International League (USA), which focuses on the Iraq war and its aftermath.


Last year’s US Perspectives document was written on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. How quickly things change! As predicted, the US imperialists were able to topple the Saddam Hussein regime in just a few weeks, but the post-war occupation of the country has rapidly turned into a quagmire, sucking in ever-more money and troops. Before the Iraq war, at a meeting of the Arab League, Secretary General Amr Moussa said that a US war on Iraq would “open the gates of hell." Much to the chagrin of Bush and his handlers, this prediction has come painfully true. Not only for the administration, whose days of triumphant arrogance are fast becoming a thing of the past, but also for the troops in the Middle East, their families back at home, and the American working class as a whole, which will have to pay off this mess for decades.

Before the war started, there was an unprecedented explosion of outrage and anger against the impending invasion. As we explained in the introduction to last year’s document: “The relatively short war cut across the anti-war movement and prevented it from becoming more generalized at that point in time. But the truly mass character of the protests (larger than even at the height of the Vietnam War), which took place even before the war started is significant. For millions, this was the first time they had taken to the streets to make their views known. In a significant development, it was not just the ‘usual suspects’ – the activists and ‘rrradicals’ who participated in these demonstrations, but people from literally all walks of life. In the coming years of increasing instability, this experience will serve as the starting point for millions of Americans in their struggle to fight back against the depredations of capitalism.”

Most of those on the demonstrations were working people, most of them unorganized in unions, and only loosely organized by the various anti-war coalitions. Significantly, US Labor Against the War was founded, an important step in the politicization of the labor movement. However, the start of the war and the relatively quick “victory” cut across this movement, as the call to “support the troops” rallied millions of those who opposed the war, but felt it would be “unpatriotic” to oppose it openly once troops had been put in harm’s way. Millions of Americans genuinely thought they could stop the war through their presence on the streets. The start of the war dampened their spirits, as they felt they had failed, despite it being clear that Bush and co. had made the decision to invade Iraq long before September 11. In June of last year, with the start of the guerrilla war against the US-led coalition, the mood in the US soured against the war, but by the holiday season, it seemed things were back on track for the US occupation, at least on the surface.

But Bush and co. counted their chickens before their eggs were hatched. More US troops were killed in the first 3 weeks of April 2004 than during the official “war”. Under pressure from the masses at home, Spain, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic are withdrawing their troops from Iraq, and other “coalition” members are sure to follow. Whereas they at first rejected the very existence of an organized guerilla opposition, the US military has been forced to negotiate with insurgents in Falluja and Najaf. More than a year since Bush announced the conclusion of “major combat operations”, swooping onto an aircraft carrier emblazoned with a “mission accomplished” banner, the mood in the US is once again pessimistic about the legitimacy and prospects for the continued occupation of Iraq. Iraq has been plunged into chaos with rampant murders, indiscriminate suicide bombings, and economic privation affecting every nearly part of the country. In a presidential election year, the current situation in Iraq is a nightmare scenario for Bush and his advisors, who will do their best to sugar coat the real state of affairs in the run up to November.

What is important to keep in mind is the rapidity of the changing mood. During the Vietnam War, it took years before the masses turned against the war. We haven’t yet reached a decisive level of opposition, and even though they are not on the streets as they were before the Iraq war began, it is certain that more Americans are opposed or at least much more uncomfortable about the situation in Iraq than before the invasion began. Ron Kovic, the paralyzed Vietnam veteran who became a symbol of protest with his book Born on the Fourth of July recently said, "There is potential here for the most powerful anti-war movement in the history of the United States and the world.”

The euphoria of a quick victory with only a handful of casualties evaporated in less than a year. It is important also to keep in mind the economic backdrop of these events. The 1960s was the end of the golden age of US capitalism. In a situation of improving wages and conditions, the class struggle was dampened for an entire period. It took years before opposition to the war took on a generalized form. Now, on the basis of the economic stagnation described above, the pent up frustration and anger at how things are going in general is being expressed in opposition to the war. Americans from all walks of life are opposed to the war, but are still not sure what to do about it. In an election year, they are focusing on electing “anyone but Bush” – but as we will see further down, Kerry is not a real alternative for working people and those opposed to the occupation of Iraq. What is needed is a working class program and leadership – only the working class can end the war and occupation.

Millions of Americans, many of whom formerly supported the war wholeheartedly, have now begun to doubt the validity of the war’s proclaimed aims and the progress of the war itself. The White House was forced to admit that many of their pre-war claims and justifications were based on baseless or forged evidence. The open-armed welcome of the Iraqis was limited at best, and did not last more than a few weeks. The complete absence of the “imminently threatening” weapons of mass destruction has cast much doubt on the sincerity of Bush’s war aims. Even before US officials conceded more troops might be needed (a reversal of earlier claims to the contrary), eight out of ten in polled by Post-ABC said they were very or somewhat concerned that the United States “will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping mission.”

Although GW Bush allegedly went AWOL for a year during his Vietnam-era stint in the Air National Guard, and Dick Cheney had “better things to do” while 58,000 of their fellow Americans were killed in that tragedy, they believe it is quite an honor to “die for your country”. Curiously enough, the sons and daughters of the rich are not lining up to meet such a glorious end in the defense of “their country”. Most of those dying in Iraq are minorities and the poor in general, while the children of the rich profit handsomely off the billions in government subsidies to the war industry. Ironically, one of the first American soldiers killed in Iraq wasn’t even a US citizen, but a Mexican immigrant who had been promised citizenship if he “did his duty” for the United States.

The staggering cost of the war is estimated at over $4.7 billion per month, not including operations in Afghanistan. Just extending the Iraq tours of 20,000 troops will cost the Pentagon about $700 million more over the next three months. Bush is set to ask for more “emergency” money before the old appropriation runs out in September – between $50 and $75 billion - but would desperately like to delay this until after the elections. This has had a direct effect on the quality of life of millions of American workers here at home. As explained above, the budget deficit has led to massive cuts in social spending, and this is already leading to a backlash against the costs of the occupation, which has only just begun. The only ones to benefit are the massive corporations getting billions in tax dollars in no-competition contracts with the government. It’s no surprise that many of the companies, such as Halliburton and Brown & Root, are intimately linked with the Bush administration and the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century.

It is true that Bush and his cronies have unprecedented power, technology, and resources concentrated in their hands, but they are not invincible or all-powerful. On the contrary – they are extremely vulnerable. There is a much more powerful force on the planet. Despite the considerable dangers facing US troops in Iraq – the heat, sand flies, rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices, Sunni insurgents, Shiia clerics and their militias, etc, the real threat to Bush and the US imperialists is right here at home – the US working class. Trotsky explained that the US would emerge from WWII as the most powerful country on earth, but that it would have dynamite built into its foundations. That dynamite is the working class - only the working class can end the war on workers at home and abroad.

Iraq and the Vietnam War

Senator Ted Kennedy recently called Iraq “Bush’s Vietnam”, and many others have picked up the theme. Even right-wing isolationist Pat Buchanan has declared, "what Falluja and the Shiia attacks tell us is that failure is now an option." To be sure, there are many differences, but it is impossible not to make comparisons with the US experience in Vietnam. The specter of the Vietnam War has haunted the US military and ruling class since their ignominious withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. It took the US imperialists 30 years to recover enough from “Vietnam Syndrome” to be able to embark on the blatantly predatory campaigns of the past few years. Although the US enjoyed overwhelming military superiority in Vietnam, American forces were ultimately forced to withdraw with their tails between their legs. This was due to a combination of the progressive and heroic national liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people, and even more decisively, the growing opposition to the war on the home front. Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap were certain they could outlast the US. Once the American working class turned against the war, it was all over for the US imperialists.

The most famous US commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, badly misjudged the tenacity and endurance of the Vietnamese people. He had the illusion that the US could “bleed” the endurance out of the Vietnamese in a “war of attrition”. But the Vietnamese were fighting for their own country, with popular support, against a mostly-conscripted occupation army of young kids who had no interest in being there. As Ho Chi Minh prophetically told his French adversaries in the late 1940s: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” After the war, General Westmoreland said, “Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would have been sacked overnight.” CIA analyst Patrick McGarvey summed up Giap’s strategy in 1969 when he noted that Giap measured the situation not by his own casualties, but by “the traffic in home bound American coffins.”

The American people always rally around the troops when a war begins. But that mood cannot last forever. As General Fred Weyland, the last American commander in Vietnam explained: “When the army is committed the American people are committed; when the American people lose their commitment it is futile to try to keep the army committed.” After the war, Colonel Harry Summers, Jr. met with a North Vietnamese colonel and said the following: “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which his counterpart replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” This will be the case in Iraq as it was in Vietnam.

It is also worth mentioning that both wars were initiated on false pretenses: the Gulf of Tonkin incident was used to justify major combat operations in Vietnam in order to stop the spread of “communism”; Saddam’s alleged WMDs were used to justify the invasion in order to stop the spread of “terrorism”. In Vietnam, the US was “bringing democracy” to the people by propping up a corrupt, hand picked regime. It is precisely the same situation in Iraq.

However, while similar in many ways, there are some fundamental differences that need to be taken into account. In Vietnam, North Vietnamese Army regulars backed the Viet Cong guerrillas in the south. They had a stable base of operations in North Vietnam, an intricate supply route through the jungles of Laos and Cambodia, military, food, energy, and financial support from the USSR and China, and were fighting a war the aims of which were clear to the multi-millioned Vietnamese rural population: kicking out the imperialist occupiers and abolishing landlordism. Despite being led by nationalist Stalinists, and not a genuine internationalist Bolshevik party, these immediate goals rallied the masses against the haughty occupiers. Despite the overwhelming military superiority of the South, the corrupt and endlessly intriguing pro-US regime could not inspire its troops to fight the insurgents.

On the surface, then, it would appear that the differences are fundamental: The Iraqi insurgents do not have the support of a regular army or a unified command structure; they do not have a stable base from which to operate; they do not have the massive financing of a major world power engaged in a global cold war against US imperialism; they do not have even a deformed “socialist” leadership fighting to bring about significant social reform; and they do not even have jungles to hide in. However, most military-age males in Iraq have had some form of military training, and there are literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of unemployed former soldiers; they are defending their own families, homes, and land, and there are indications they receive some support from neighboring countries such as Iran and Syria; they do have clerics like Moqtada al-Sadr who, in the absence of other avenues for political expression under Saddam, have brought their relatively astute and progressive ideas into the realm of religion; and though they have no jungles, they have the sprawling, labyrinthine slums of the many large Iraqi cities.

But the most important similarity is the following: in Iraq as in Vietnam, the insurgents have the overwhelming support of the local population, who after one year of “democracy” and “freedom” are quite ready to kick out their “saviors” and their local puppets. As in Vietnam, the foreign occupiers are finding it hard to find local surrogates to effectively take over the fighting. In the siege of Sunni Falluja, US-trained Iraqi defense forces refused to fight fellow Iraqis, and some even went over to fight with the insurgents against the US. It is reported that up to 40 percent of them simply walked off the job. This will further complicate any plans for a smooth withdrawal from Iraq. Unable to effectively seal Iraq’s borders, and uninterested in killing their fellow Iraqis, Bush has said he is “disappointed” in the performance of Iraqi troops.

The US was able for a time to contain the resistance to the “Sunni triangle”. But now that large numbers of the majority Shiia (who make up 60 percent of the population) have joined in the resistance, the prospects for the US occupation are increasingly bleak. Moqtada al-Sadr, the young cleric whose Mehdi Army started the Shiia offensive against the occupiers had the following to say, reflecting the mood of the masses: “If that means breaking the law of the American tyranny and its filthy constitution (for Iraq), I'm proud of that and that is why I'm in revolt.” Slogans calling for Sunni and Shiia unity against the occupiers, and Sadr’s call to the US working class for solidarity with the Iraqi people is a mortal threat to the US imperialists and their plans to exploit the people and resources of Iraq.

Already, many of the most rabid supporters of the Iraq War are no longer focused on the potential gains of a successful occupation, but rather on minimizing the damage in the event of failure. Some right-wing commentators are already calling for a “face-saving” withdrawal in order to preserve the military capability of the US imperialists – a stark reminder of Nixon’s plan for “peace with honor”. Arch-conservative Morton Abramowitz argues: "America's pre-eminent power position in the world can endure an early withdrawal from Iraq. US forces are so overstretched that a withdrawal might enhance our overall power position and our capacity to do more about Osama bin Laden and other terrorist groups." Of course, his interest is in more effectively pursuing the “war on terror” – an open-ended war on the poor of the world that will never end as long as there is poverty and destitution in the world. What is astonishing, however, is that people like Abramowitz and former Vietnam-hawk Robert McNamara are expressing themselves in this way just a year after the invasion.

If the Vietnam War had a long-term effect on the military adventures of the American ruling class, a humiliating withdrawal from Iraq would be ten times worse. If another major war were to erupt right now, it is doubtful the already overstretched military could handle it. But such is the hubris of the Bush cabal, that little things such as the facts cannot be allowed to get in the way. Speaking on the siege of Falluja, Donald Rumsfeld summed up the Bush administration’s complete myopia and misunderstanding of the real situation: “Thugs and assassins and former Saddam henchmen will not be allowed to carve out portions of that city and to oppose peace and freedom.”

This shows just how divorced from reality these people are. True, there may be a handful of foreign-born jihadis in Falluja, but a handful of people do not fight off the US Marine Corps! Literally thousands of residents of Falluja are armed and prepared to die defending their homes and loved ones. Hatim and Abd al-Razak, two young Iraqis not directly involved with the insurgents summed up the thoughts of millions of Iraqis in a recent interview in Baghdad. "What America doesn’t understand is that they cannot take over our mosques, our institutions, our cities, and think that Iraqis will just sit by and watch. Look at the people in Falluja, they, like all Iraqis, are a proud people. They do not like having foreigners invading their land and forcing them into their homes. That is our new democracy? That is our new freedom? Look at them. They drive around our streets like they own the country; they have no respect for us, no respect for our culture, no respect for our traditions, or our religion.” Rasool Gurawi, a spokesman for al-Sadr at an office in the vast Shiia slums of Baghdad had the following words for a reporter: "This is the freedom? This is democracy? Attacking peaceful demonstrations? Killing people and destroying buildings?" Shaykh Sadun al-Shemary, a former member of the Iraqi army who participated in the 1991 uprising and now a spokesman for the al-Sadr organization in Shuala said, "Things are exactly the same as in Saddam's time - maybe worse."

In spite of the differences between Vietnam and Iraq, the end result is very similar: the US is being sucked further and further into a quagmire with no end in sight. But the neo-conservative leaders in Washington did not foresee these problems because their arrogance blinded them to a very simple truth which we explained even before the invasion: winning a war militarily is one thing; to occupy millions of people who do not want you there is another altogether.

Reasons for the War

One of the main reasons justifying the current occupation of Iraq is difficult for Bush is due to the shifting and unclear reasons given by Bush and his hawks to justify the war in the first place. In the buildup to the Iraq War, Bush and his pals whipped up the nationalist feelings and passions of the American people. Tens of thousands of young people were being sent to suffer and die in the hot and sandy Iraqi war zone, and the administration needed to give them and their families a good reason why. Oil and geopolitical domination of the Middle East were clearly not good enough reasons to give the US public. Therefore, imminent threat of annihilation by Saddam’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction, the “war on terror”, “freedom”, and the defense of “democracy” against a cruel dictator were found to be much more suitable. But a year into the occupation, it is common knowledge that there were no WMDs, that the Iraqis do not want the “freedom” so graciously imposed on them by Washington, and that there is no democracy whatsoever.
As we predicted, the invasion of Iraq served only to intensify the contradictions and instability in the entire region and around the world. The threat of another September 11-style attack in the US is as high or higher than it was on September 10, 2001. Billions have been spent on “Homeland Security” to no real effect. The trains bombed in Madrid in response to Aznar’s support for Bush’s war are a graphic reminder that Al Qaeda and its supporters are far from being defeated by the “war on terror”. Ironically, whereas Al Qaeda had no presence in Saddam’s largely secular Iraq, they and possibly other fundamentalist terrorist groups have set up shop there in the vacuum created by the US. This is not to say that the insurgents are mostly foreign jihadis – on the contrary, the real danger to the US forces on the ground in Iraq is the broad popular opposition to the presence of the imperialist occupiers.

Of course, no one fighting in the interests of the world working class mourns the fall of Saddam’s cruel and despotic regime. But to oppose Saddam does not mean support for US pro-consul Paul Bremer and the occupation authority. Iraq is now controlled by a handpicked, rubber-stamping council, whose decisions must be approved by Mr. Bremer. Plans to transfer “sovereignty” to the Iraqis involves handing power to another un-elected group of handpicked pro-US Iraqis, on the basis of a Constitution written by the Americans themselves. The US military will continue to operate in Iraq, and even the national security advisor is to be appointed by the US. Now, even the cynical excuse that the US was bringing “democracy” to the Iraqis has been dropped – now the occupying authorities speak only of “freedom”. But what good is freedom without freedom of speech, the press, and assembly? What good is “freedom” without jobs, healthcare, housing, education, transportation, or even electricity?

The American public is rapidly coming to the conclusion that they were duped – that Bush and co. had been planning for this even before September 11. It has been alleged that funds earmarked for the war in Afghanistan were secretly diverted into planning for the Iraq war well before this aim was made public. The Project for a New American Century – the right-wing think-tank intimately connected to the Bush administration – had plans for the invasion of Iraq and unilateral extension of US power through pre-emptive wars long before the September 11 tragedy. Immediately after S11, the Bush cabal set their sites on Iraq, but decided to invade Afghanistan first as their case for invading Iraq was still too weak in the public mind.

Even after an intense media barrage to justify the war, millions of Americans remained opposed to the impending invasion. The start of the war cut across this mood, as the calls to “support the troops” rallied the working class behind the young workers in uniform being sent into harm’s way. But how have these troops been treated since they were given a hero’s send-off? For all the talk of “supporting the troops”, the millionaires who sent hundreds to their deaths and thousands to be disfigured and traumatized for life do not really “support the troops” at all. Bush hasn’t even attended the funeral of a single soldier killed in Iraq. It’s big business and corporate profits that they support, in times of war as in times of “peace” - the war against working people is always going on although it is never openly declared. This is gradually having an effect on the consciousness of the troops in Iraq, their families, and the US working class as a whole. Big shifts in mood in against the war and occupation are inherent in the situation.

Hiding the Wounded

Due to the Vietnam experience, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and co. are aware that the American people have a limited threshold for casualties. At a certain point, the quantitative accumulation of those killed and wounded is qualitatively transformed into mass opposition to the war and occupation. This is why they have worked so hard to present the war in as sanitized a form as possible, with terms such as “smart bombs” and “collateral damage”. During the Vietnam War, the nightly news showed dead US soldiers in the jungles and cities of Vietnam, and endless flag-draped coffins returning home. You won’t see a single image like this in today’s media. The government has imposed a total blackout on images of those killed and of coffins returning from the war zone. They understand that although casualties remain relatively low when compared with the 58,000 killed in Vietnam, the longer the occupation continues, the more negative an effect the steady stream of dead and wounded will have on the American people. In an election year, this cannot be allowed!

So far, some 700 US troops have been killed, with over 3,600 wounded, according to Pentagon officials. As tragic as this is, this is still not a critical level by most standards; but the potential for that number to rise rapidly is there. From sporadic small arms attacks and roadside bombs, the insurgents have begun to mount larger and more sustained attacks with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and surface to air missiles. They are now targeting everything from coalition troops, the Iraqi police, foreign “contractors” and businessmen, aid workers, oil pipelines, prisons, police stations, hotels, etc. It is impossible for the coalition troops to guard everything. In the first weeks of April, when the Shiia uprising and siege of Falluja began, more US troops were killed than during the war that toppled Saddam. The last time US troops experienced a similar two-week loss was October 1971, two years before US ground involvement ended in Vietnam.

One factor that hides the number of military personnel killed or injured is the broad use of “private security contractors” – i.e. mercenaries. Some experts estimate that they are the second-largest contingent of armed occupiers in Iraq, surpassing even the British. And of course, mention of the many thousands of Iraqi casualties is given very little coverage. But the main reason there are so “few” US deaths in Iraq, is the advanced state of modern battlefield medicine. Wounds that would have meant almost certain death in the Vietnam era are now survivable – although the injured are often left horribly disfigured for life. From a military point of view, wounding enemy soldiers is sometimes preferable to killing them outright. A wounded soldier must be attended to by others, effectively reducing the number who are actively participating in a firefight. A wounded soldier also continues to drain economic and medical resources. By wounding so many troops, the Iraqi resistance forces are slowly bleeding the morale and resources of the armies of occupation.
Just as they do their best to hide the war dead from public view, the Bush administration conceals the high number of wounded, regularly treating these soldiers as second-class citizens in the process. We generally only hear about those that are wounded when they are wounded in incidents in which other soldiers are killed. The hundreds of soldiers wounded in the countless isolated attacks across the country are off the public radar. Many of these have only minor injuries and return to duty right away. These are therefore not counted among the wounded. According to William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, the military has made 18,004 medical evacuations during the first year of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” due to wounds, illness, or other battlefield reasons. But the precise numbers of wounded and the severity of their wounds is still not known.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, asked Donald Rumsfeld for the “total number of American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq.” He also asked: “What is the official Pentagon definition of wounded in action? What is the procedure for releasing this information in a timely way to the public and the criteria for awarding a Purple Heart [awarded to those wounded in combat or posthumously to the next of kin of those killed or those who die of wounds received in action]?” The reply he received was astonishing: “The Department of Defense does not have the requested information.” Are we to believe that the world’s largest military machine, with massive bases and troops all around the world cannot even keep track of how many Purple Heart medals are being awarded in this war?

Treatment of the Wounded and Veterans

We have all heard the stories of homeless, disabled Vietnam War veterans freezing to death in Washington DC because they “slipped through the system”; of veterans too traumatized by their wartime experiences to hold down a regular job and maintain a stable home. That’s all changed, right? The government now takes care of those who have sacrificed for their country, right? Wrong. Not only are the numbers of casualties being kept from public view, many combat veterans wounded in Iraq are physically marginalized and kept from the quality care they are entitled to. Other soldiers reported being sent into combat with serious medical conditions, only to receive poor and erratic care upon returning. According to one officer, they are “being treated like dogs”. Many wounded veterans have had to wait in “medical hold” for “weeks and months at places such as Fort Stewart military base in Georgia, for proper medical help,” often under conditions “unacceptable for sick and injured soldiers.” More than 1,000 National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers, including hundreds who had served in Iraq were forced to wait in hot concrete barracks with no air conditioning or running water. According to one Sergeant, it “took months to get appointments . . . We were made to feel like we had failed the Army.”

Retired Army Reserve First Sgt. Gerry Mosley, who served in Iraq, recently said the government’s outlook is to “use people, strip them of all human dignity, disrespect them, wear them down, and be pleased when soldiers no longer have the physical and mental capacities to continue to fight to have the same rights and respect as those American citizens for whom we have fought to preserve those entitlements." Mosley said that after returning from Iraq last summer, he has had to drive 195 miles each way at his own expense to see a specialist. He said the Army put him out of service without compensating him for a neck injury or vertigo apparently triggered from mortar explosions. He can no longer work his civilian job. Since being put out of the Army, he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

And while the US military can easily defeat any opponent militarily, it’s a whole other ballgame to occupy a country and hold territory. Although the situation is not yet as bad as it is in Afghanistan, there are no safe “rear” areas in Iraq. Occupation troops are surrounded by a hostile population, and can be attacked at any time. Increasingly, there are entire neighborhoods and even cities where foreign troops dare not enter. Even the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, and the head of the US Central Command and the US forces in Iraq, John Abizaid, have come under attack in recent months. Many troops are stationed far from the cities, living for months at a time in tents and eating pre-packaged food. On top of this, many of these soldiers are being put into policing or bomb-clearing roles which they are not trained for. The mother of one soldier killed by a roadside bomb wanted to know “why my son was playing with bombs when that’s not what he was trained to do. It’s not a declared war so what did my son die for? It’s time for us to get out of there. No parent should have to go through this.”

On top of the military threats, are concerns for the long-term physical and mental health of those serving in Iraq. As explained in previous articles, there has been widespread use of depleted uranium in Iraq. If the experience of the first Gulf War is any indicator, US troops will suffer terrible long-term damage, this time on a much wider scale. Already, 10,000 Gulf War veterans have died of the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome. This time around, with more extended contact with the 17,000 tons of radioactive waste left by the use of depleted uranium ammunition, the results are sure to be more devastating (there are entire villages that are off limits unless proper protective gear is used). And of course, the effects on the Iraq population will be a thousand times more horrific. Then there is the “Baghdad Boil” which has affected hundreds if not thousands of troops. Transmitted by sand flies, this disease produces painful open boils that can leave permanent scars.

The conditions facing most of the soldiers occupying Iraq are extremely difficult and stressful, which explains the high rate of suicide and depression. This is compounded by uncertainties over the duration of their stay in Iraq, the situation with their families and jobs back home, etc. Since the war in Iraq began in March 2003, 24 soldiers have committed suicide, an average of about two per month. The suicide rate for Army soldiers in Iraq in 2003 was 15.8 per 100,000, higher than the Army average of 12.2 for 2003 and 11.9 from 1995-2002. A recent survey found More than 60 percent of soldiers in Iraq reported "low morale." Almost all of the soldiers who committed suicide were young, white enlisted troops, the study showed. Most were having problems with relationships, money or legal difficulties. About 15 percent of all Army soldiers surveyed in Iraq said they sought help for combat stress. The most common reasons cited were viewing large numbers of dead bodies during battle, anxiety over being ambushed and stress associated with transitioning from a combat force to an occupying force. Two soldiers said better access to mental health services might have prevented two suicide attempts at two separate bases, and asserted that soldiers are sometimes prescribed powerful drugs by military health professionals in place of medical care. The soldiers also described widespread concern about being put out of the military without fair compensation for wounds and illnesses they received during service.
All of this comes as no real surprise in a country that cannot provide universal, quality health care for all of its citizens while the HMOs and pharmaceutical companies pocket billions in profits. But these are not just any citizens. These are Bush’s “heroic” veterans who have placed their lives on the line, many of them suffering disability and loss of limb in order to defend “democracy” and the “American way of life”. Again, this cynicism is not at all surprising, considering the Republican-dominated Congress’ plans to slash veteran’s benefits by $15 billion over the next ten years. They plan across-the-board cuts of 3.8 percent in mandatory spending on entitlements such as compensation for service-connected disabilities, burial benefits, means-tested pensions for permanently disabled low-income veterans, and education benefits like the Montgomery GI Bill. These benefits comprise 93 percent of the funding for programs under the jurisdiction of the Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Committee.

For many veterans, this could mean eliminating burial benefits and reducing the cost of living allowance (COLA) increases in compensation payments with service-connected disabilities for the next six to ten years. This could mean 168,000 fewer veterans with health benefits, 400,000 fewer hospital bed days of care for veterans, or 8,700 fewer nurses in VA hospitals. These cuts would arrive right at the same time that aging veterans become even-more dependent upon governmental veterans’ health care programs. If they are so callous and greedy as to cut veteran’s benefits in this way, it is easy to imagine the cuts they are preparing for the working class as a whole in the coming years. In the end, the ruling class treats workers in uniform the same way it treats all other workers – as factors of production in the pursuit of profits.

The Morale of the US Military

Morale is a decisive factor in war. How one treats one’s soldiers both before and after the war can affect the long-term prospects for success or failure. Even with the most advanced technology in the world, ground troops are the backbone of any army. In Vietnam, morale collapsed as the endless, seemingly pointless war dragged on and on. The anti-war protests in the US spread to the troops in the field, many of whom wore peace symbols and refused to go into combat. Insubordination and even the murder of officers grew rampant. It is estimated that as many as a third of the troops were addicted to opium or heroin, and drunkenness and the smoking of marijuana were routine. Relations between the enlisted men and the officers, and between white and black soldiers were increasingly polarized. Supply officers made huge profits on the black market. The My Lai massacre of over 300 civilians caused soldiers to believe their commanders were covering up other such grisly incidents. With soldiers being gradually withdrawn, nobody wanted to be the last one killed for a meaningless cause. The entire military establishment was in shambles.

During the war in Vietnam, most troops doing their tours of duty were conscripts (the average age was 19). Since those in college or with connections in government (like GW Bush and Cheney) could get assigned to the National Guard or get a total deferment, it was mostly the poor, and in particular minorities who did the killing, fighting, and dying for big-business America. After Richard Nixon ended the draft in the early 1970s, the arduous process of rebuilding the military as a cohesive fighting force for US imperialism was begun.

For all intents and purposes, the $120 billion spent on the Vietnam War over the course of ten years, went straight down the drain. In “normal” times, this money would have been used to modernize the military. Instead, the US military found itself in the late 1970s with a demoralized and ill-equipped force. As late as 1980, then-army chief of staff General Edward C. Meyer warned Congress that he was presiding over a “hollow” force. Of course, this state of affairs was cynically used by Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. to spend billions upon billions on national defense to prepare the next series of imperialist adventures. Ironically, the tremendous cost of the Iraq war and occupation is already having an effect on the future preparedness of the US military. The Pentagon has raised the possibility of junking their advanced Joint Strike Fighter aircraft program due to the un-planned for expenses of the Iraq occupation.

The armed forces now pride themselves on having an all-volunteer military, but the fact is it took a long time for the military to recover from the demoralization of Vietnam. And although they moved away from a conscript army largely to address concerns that it was disproportionately made up of minorities and the poor, today’s military has much the same social make-up. The lack of opportunities in the private sector (i.e. chronic unemployment), and the military’s promise of comprehensive health coverage, decent pay while learning a trade, and generous grants for education, has compelled many poor and minority men and women to sign up. By the 1990s the image of the US military as a professional, proud, cohesive, and disciplined force had been largely restored. But now even this is being undermined by the insensitivity and arrogance of Bush and his clique of ignorant parvenus.

The morale of the military forces in Iraq is not a fixed quantity. Thousands of soldiers who were pumped up to do their duty at the beginning of the war have now been overcome with cynicism, pessimism, and open hatred of their leaders, in particular the civilian leadership at the Pentagon. The tens of thousands of military personnel stationed in Iraq (who are, after all, workers in uniform) are rapidly losing confidence in their mission. Far from open-armed parades and flowers, US troops face a hostile population, and increasingly coordinated guerrilla attacks. Over 700 troops have now been killed in Iraq – far more than the 147 killed in the 1991 Gulf War. Some 25-50 attacks per day have left the troops in Iraq spread dangerously thin as the members of the “coalition of the willing” are dropping like flies in the wake of Spain’s withdrawal from Iraq.

All of this, combined with extended deployments, intense heat, and even lack of food and basic equipment such as proper boots and body armor has led to widespread discontent and a collapsing morale among the troops stationed there. Female service members are becoming pregnant on purpose in order to hasten their return home. Reserve infantryman Eric Holt says: “We didn't win this war, not at all. I don’t know what I'm doing here and I don’t like what's happening in this city. It ain’t right for the folks here”. Another told Good Morning America: “If Donald Rumsfeld were here, I’d ask him for his resignation… I would ask him why we are still here. I don’t have any clue as to why we are still in Iraq.” Statements to this effect can be reproduced by the thousands. If the occupation continues indefinitely, it is inevitable that the conditions for mutinies on a large scale will develop within the military.

Over-extension of the US Military and Rates of Retention

It is true that the Iraq occupation takes up far fewer than the 500,000 plus troops that were deployed in Vietnam, but when compared to the total size of the Army (now just 1.4 million worldwide), the mess in Iraq is comparable in terms of the number of troops it is tying up. With US forces currently stationed in over 130 different countries (Haiti is the most recent addition to that list), it’s no wonder that the armed forces are feeling the squeeze of over-extension – much like the Roman Empire in its final days. The National Guard and Reserves are almost completely tapped out. Soldiers in these units joined in order to be “weekend warriors”, earn some extra cash, and get money for college – not to be blown up by an improvised explosive device on some dusty road in Iraq.

Reserve units are currently being used as an extension of the active-duty military. Some units have been deployed 3 to 4 times since September 11, causing severe stress and strain on their jobs (it’s hard to keep a full-time job when you’re never around) and families (two-thirds of Reserve troops are married). Thousands of troops are being forced to serve beyond their agreed-upon terms of enlistment, causing great consternation. One soldier recently told a reporter, “Yes, I’m very upset. I’ve got a wife and two kids at home that I want to get home to. I’ve done my time over here, it’s just time to go home.”

The plans for the post-war occupation did not include having to “pacify” the entire country. The Pentagon planned to reduce troop levels to just 40,000 in the immediate aftermath of the war. That figure was quickly revised to 105,000. As of now, there are 137,000 US troops in Iraq, with Bush, Rumsfeld and other officials promising to send more if they are needed. In a reply hauntingly similar to US officials during the Lyndon Johnson Administration, Rumsfeld recently said, “"They will decide what they need and they will get what they want.” But most experts consider that the 5,000 to 10,000 extra troops being considered to reinforce those already in Iraq would be a drop in the bucket, having little effect on a spreading resistance movement of millions of Iraqis. Charles Pena, director of defense studies at the Cato Institute, is of the opinion that adding more US troops will only "make the problem worse" and increase Iraqi resentment.

Length of deployment is rapidly becoming an issue for troops sent to Iraq. The first units in Iraq had to stay just 6 months. That was extended to a year, and now, as many as 20,000 troops are having their one-year tours of duty extended by as much as 3 months. Troops rotating home from Iraq are being told just weeks later they must redeploy to Korea, Germany, Bosnia, or Afghanistan. This is having a disruptive effect on the families left at home. David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland says, "The recent events will have an effect on parents and spouses of soldiers. Parents are going to increasingly question whether their kids should be in the military."

All of this has led to a collapse in the rate of retention, with thousands of soldiers opting not to re-enlist. Military personnel experts have warned that full-time soldiers and members of the Guard and Reserve could begin leaving this year because of the strains of service, including longer and more frequent overseas missions. Through March 17, nearly halfway through the fiscal year, the Army fell about 1,000 short of meeting its goal of keeping 25,786 soldiers whose enlistments were ending or who were eligible to retire. That works out to a 96 percent rate of retention for the year, as compared to the 106 percent rate the year previous because more soldiers stayed than the Army had planned.

Recruitment has also fallen sharply, the National Guard ended last year about 10,000 below its recruitment target, with the prospects for this year’s targets no better if not worse. To stem losses, the army has started offering re-enlistment bonuses of up to $10,000 to soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. They are also preventing soldiers who are rotating home from retiring or handing in their notice for up to 90 days after returning to their home bases. This has naturally led to a great deal of resentment. Not only that, but the number of soldiers who have deserted and gone AWOL, refusing to return to duty after coming home for rest and recuperation is growing rapidly.

The modern military is extremely technology-reliant, and many of these soldiers are highly trained specialists that will be difficult to replace on short notice. For example, since the “end” of the way in May 0f 2003, 14 US helicopters have been downed, killing 58 pilots. This has raised fears that these highly skilled soldiers will be among those opting out of re-enlistment. Retention concerns are especially acute in the military’s aviation branches because of the extra investment in time and money required to train pilots to fly advanced helicopters such as the Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook.
As explained above, the treatment of injured soldiers has not helped matters at all Spc. Timothi M. McMichael recently told a Congressional panel: "I have spoken probably with hundreds of soldiers since I was placed in med hold. I can only say that the uniform consensus is one of frustration, disappointment and anger. I have had soldiers with 15, 20, even 25 years in the military tell me they are disgusted. The Army cannot afford to lose the number of senior non-commissioned officers it is losing every day."

Although Donald Rumsfeld dreams of a smaller, leaner, and even more technologically advanced military, the bottom line is that in order to hold territory, you need plenty of ground troops - the grunts. Far from wanting to reduce the size of the military, the professional officers at the Pentagon want to expand the military by as much as 500,000, and have even floated the possibility of reintroducing the draft, which would have predictable political repercussions. In a chilling reminder of the Vietnam era, David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland was recently quoted: "There is no question that the force is stretched too thin. We have stopped treating the reserves as a force in reserve. Our volunteer army is closer to being broken today than ever before in its 30-year history."

Effects on Families: The Mood at Home

GW Bush and co. seem to have forgotten one of the most important lessons from the Vietnam War, and it is one that will come back to haunt them: soldiers are workers in uniform, and as such, are a reflection of American society as a whole. The “hearts and minds” to be won are above all here in the United States. It is abundantly clear that these people do not represent the interests of working Americans, both in and out of uniform. They are happy to send our children, relatives, and friends to die for the profits of big business, but they can’t even follow through on their promise to “support the troops”.

Military families are also increasingly frustrated as their loved ones continue to die while Bush urged the “non-existent” guerrillas to “bring it on”. The wives of two soldiers appeared on “Good Morning America”: ““Just send my husband home - send all the soldiers home. They have done the job they were supposed to do,’ said Rhonda Vega from Hinesville, Georgia. Stacey Gilmore said U.S. troops were ill prepared for the post-war phase. ‘They were told after the fighting ended they were coming home. All I know is that morale is low and they are just hanging in there, sticking through it.’”

Another military wife, whose husband’s tour has been extended for a second time said, “We're all disgusted. We're to the point now where we're exhausted. We need this to be over. But we don't want it to be over until it's completed, because it would make the past 10 months a waste." As the realization that the sacrifices and hardships of the past few months have not made things better in Iraq or the US, the anger will boil over. Already, dozens of family support groups have sprung up, many of them opposed to the war and occupation. Ironically, Bush’s treatment of the servicemen and women and their families threatens to undermine an important layer of his electoral support. Votes from military families, especially those overseas, were an important factor in his “victory” in 2000.

Many blame Bush personally for the deaths of their friends and relatives, and at a recent meeting with military wives, the government’s representative had to literally flee the women’s aggressive demands that their husbands be brought back home. Dan and Emma Withers, whose son is stationed in Iraq explain: “’I gave [Bush] the benefit of the doubt because I felt they might have intelligence information that was not available to me. I guess I hoped if they were going to make the leap, they would base it on something I didn't have knowledge of. I'm not sure of that anymore. You just don't want to think you're being led down the garden path by the president and Colin Powell. ... I think I'm tired of being lied to.’ It’s hard for her to admit, because she’s a registered Republican. Dan Withers voted for Bush in 2000.” (Quoted in the St. Petersburg Times of Florida)

Long-term deployment and war have a devastating effect on families, jobs, economic stability, and psychology. Those soldiers lucky enough to have jobs waiting for them on their return will have a multitude of other problems to deal with. Ironically, while Bush “supports the troops” when they are fighting his wars overseas, he shows his true colors when he cuts veterans’ benefits (to the tune of $14.6 billion over the next 10 years) and healthcare here at home. Although it is not as openly apparent now as before the war started, opposition to the Iraqi occupation is much greater now than it has ever been. The nation-wide March 20 demonstrations showed renewed vigor in the anti-war movement, which had suffered a steep decline once the war began. In the coming months, this movement must be broadened, and as explained in last year’s perspectives, must be given a working class perspective and leadership. Tremendous discontent is simmering below the surface of American society, and sooner or later, the US working class will move decisively to end the rule of the handful of ultra-rich men and women who currently control our lives.


The situation on the ground in Iraq is unstable to say the least. Thousands of “weekend warriors” have been shoved onto the front lines of a mission they are not trained to do. Paradoxically, Bush’s pre-emptive war to “make America safe” has instead strained the US military to the limit, opened Iraq to al-Qaeda, and increased the chances of another major terrorist attack on the US or its “coalition” allies. At home, discontent is growing over the jobless economy and the progress of what was supposed to be a relatively low-risk, reasonably easy war and occupation gone awry. A recent opinion poll as Bush campaigns for re-election in November showed voter support for his handling of Iraq had fallen to a new low of 40 percent - down 19 points since mid-January. It also found 44 percent of Americans wanted US troops withdrawn from the country. These numbers will fluctuate depending on events on the ground in Iraq, but the general trend is downward – they are a far cry from the 90 percent approval Bush had after September 11.
Much has been made about the June 30 handover of “sovereignty” to Iraqis. As explained above, this is a sham and a deception. The real power will remain firmly in US hands, just as the real power in India after formal independence remained with the British. But even this handover date is uncertain as we write. Already, administration officials have qualified this date and the transfer of power as “nothing magical”. It is clear that the Iraqi defense forces would collapse like a house of cards without the iron heel of direct US military support. So the occupation will continue much as it is now, with the quality of life for the Iraqi people deteriorating, while the national treasury is bankrupted and billions of dollars are stripped from social programs in the US to pay for the adventure. Bush says, "We've got to stay the course and we will stay the course." However, the American working class may have something to say about that.

The war is above all a distraction from the war on working people here at home and around the world. Tens of thousands of Americans are thrown out of work and literally onto the streets in order to enrich a handful of CEOs and their chums in government. The only way to end the crisis in Iraq is to bring peace, stability, jobs, health care, education, electricity, etc. to Iraqis. The bottom line is the US capitalist class cannot even provide these basic things right here in America. The occupiers are not even able to provide basic security at the present time, and have exposed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis to the murderous car bombings of al-Qaeda and other terrorist thugs. The Economist concludes pessimistically: "America may have done most of what it can do in Iraq. This means it has few options if the occupation fails to start improving the quality of life there. And, at the moment, the opposite is happening."
This much is certain: peace and stability will not return to Iraq so long as capitalism controls the world – let alone by June 30 or the November elections. Only the working class – the vast majority of humanity - can build a better society for all the workers of the world. Socialism is the only solution for Iraq and the USA. We cannot trust the representatives of big business to do anything in our interests. The first step towards genuine freedom for the working class is to break free from the pernicious influence of the bosses’ parties. In an election year, there will be plenty of opportunities to explain the need for a mass party of labor to represent the interests of working people. The American Marxists must approach this question boldly and with élan.