Class and Casualties

At over 415 and counting, the death toll of U.S. soldiers since the onset of the current U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq eight months ago has now surpassed the number of deaths in the first three years of the Vietnam War. Meanwhile the number of Iraqi civilian deaths is now estimated at 55,000—over 18 times the number of deaths in the 9/11 attacks. The number of U.S. soldiers wounded has reached over 2,300, including what many military health workers are remarking is the highest percentage of amputees they have ever witnessed.  In all, according to the Pentagon, the U.S. has incurred over 9,000 casualties—"troops killed, wounded, or evacuated due to injury or illness" (United Press International, Nov. 14, 2003). Walter Reed Army Medical Center—where many of the most critical cases requiring emergency surgery and amputation are sent—has, in fact, become so overtaxed with U.S. casualties from the occupation of Iraq that it has had to send patients to nearby hotels. As in the first Gulf War, there will, moreover, inevitably be a massive number of soldiers and Iraqi citizens who will continue to develop health problems due to exposure to depleted uranium (used in U.S. munitions and armored vehicles) and other toxic substances. And of course the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure—formerly one of the most developed nations in the Middle East—and the re-privatization of its economy mean that for a long time to come even more will die as a result of the war because they will no longer all receive free and adequate health care. This is one place where the so called "clash of civilizations" seems to have brought about "equality": now the Iraqi people will have what US citizens have always had—health care only for the rich.

But the growing casualties in Iraq do not seem to disturb the American "people"… The dead and the wounded arrive EVERY day in the U.S. but no one seems to notice—only a number is given on the evening news and a slide show is put up weekly on PBS.

During the Vietnam War, one of the issues that raised massive popular outrage and protest was the number of dead and wounded. At that time, the U.S. armed forces were made up of draftees—sons of the middle and even some upper-middle classes who had voice and power. Now the armed forces are composed of "volunteers"—a euphemism for the poor, those denied employment, and the semi-educated. They and their families have no power or access to power.

If the casualties are noticed at all, the majority of criticism in the corporate press has focused only on the lack of proper "memorializing" and "honoring" of fallen heroes on the part of the Bush regime, which itself only serves to romanticize the invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S. capital.

Indeed, it is the case that the Bush regime has cynically orchestrated and "stage-managed" images of troops returning unscathed and "victorious" to cover over the Pentagon's and Bush regime's lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the false link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the growing social instability and economic deterioration in Iraq under U.S. occupation, and the rising body count of Iraqi citizens and U.S. soldiers. At the same time, the Bush regime and the Pentagon have censored the dead, forbidding media coverage of the shipping of bodies of soldiers (now euphemistically called "transport tubes" instead of "body bags") from Iraq to the United States. It has become military policy for U.S. Central Command to censor the wounded unless they are involved in an incident in which a death also occurred—leaving many casualties unreported (The Washington Post, "Number of Wounded in Action on Rise", Sept. 2, 2003).  Bush has refused to attend the funerals of U.S. troops killed in the occupation of Iraq, visit the wounded troops or their families, let alone acknowledge the growing number of casualties because the dead and permanently disabled are, simply put, bad "P.R.".

But no amount of memorializing after the fact can cover over the real reason behind the cavalier and blasé response to the causalities in Iraq: The difference between "rage" and "silence" is the difference of the class of the dead. Not only when they were living did class shape their lives; even their death is marked by it.

As part of its imperialist assaults in the Middle East and Central Asia, U.S. capital has focused its class war on workers at home by, among other things, targeting for military recruitment the sons and daughters of the poor languishing in the U.S.'s neglected rural and urban ghettoes.

What is presented as a "voluntary opportunity" is actually a poverty draft fueled by the fundamental class inequality in American society: crushing poverty, the threat of unemployment, and economic discrimination in the public school system which siphons off the majority of resources for schools in wealthier communities and leaves the children of the working class in dilapidated school buildings, with outdated textbooks and equipment, and a sub-standard education that promises a future of sporadic employment and dead-end jobs.

It is in this class context that the U.S. military has been able to cash in on economic inequality by offering higher "education" and "job opportunities" in exchange for military service.  In the words of one military official, Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the head of the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky: "That's the driver, the economy"—meaning that a failing economy is good for the business of U.S. military recruiters.

It is not surprising that many of the people in the impoverished communities of the U.S. talk of "honor" and "duty" to their country, and the "opportunity" offered by the military, when the main livelihood and industry they have available to them is through the U.S. military and their only other option is a life marked by destitution, chronic unemployment, no health care, declining pensions, and deteriorated social security.  But for U.S. capital these communities are merely lucrative sites of cheap and expendable labor: "war-workers" who at a low price can be bought as fodder in the latest imperialist war to divide up Iraq between a handful of owners.

Now the Bush Administration has signed this class assault into law with the "No Child Left Behind" Program which has turned out to be the program of No Poor Child Left Behind from being used as a tool for imperialist warfare. Not only has military service become essentially a requirement for access to higher education for the children of poor families through the GI Bill (in what is really a form of indentured servitude), but public high schools, under threat of cuts in federal funds, are now required to give increased access to military recruiters on campus and provide recruiters with the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and social security numbers of all of their students.

But what is most telling is that it is specifically children of poor persons of color, and of the most underfunded schools, that are being targeted with the "help" of the "No Child Left Behind" Program. There is, especially an effort to recruit Latinos and non-citizen immigrants whose labor is devalued by racism and, therefore, who are cheaper to recruit and retain. As a result, Latinos now make up a disproportionate percentage of those in the lowest paid ranks of the U.S. military and of those placed on the front lines in combat. In fact, the U.S. military has now gone so far as to begin recruiting in Mexico, offering promises of citizenship to those who agree to fight in U.S. imperialist wars (The Independent, September 10, 2003).  Now non-citizens who are otherwise denied voting, social services, health care, education, etc. in the U.S. can officially die as "citizens" for U.S. capital.

When the poverty draft does not get the desired results from the impoverished and exploited, the military resorts to using tactics of intimidation. Those citizens and non-citizens who are members of targeted groups (i.e., "cheap labor") and have repetitively refused recruitment are subjected to intimidating letters threatening home visits by members of the U.S. military (see Marisa Teviño, "The Army Wants My Son", Hispanic Link News Service).  At a time when the U.S.A. Patriot Act gives the government, police force, and military broad and loose interpretive jurisdiction to identify citizens and non-citizens as "terrorists" and surveil, harass and imprison them "for other purposes", without due process, such "voluntary recruitment" strategies are thinly veiled forms of state coercion.

This is state-sanctioned criminal extortion: conscripting the children of poor families and families of color into the service of war to benefit a handful of corporations under the threat of appropriating their public funds for the rights to the same education to which children of wealthy families are entitled.

The class violence of the "poverty draft" is covered over by hollow slogans about "patriotic duty" and "sacrifice" spouted off by mouthpieces of the ruling class, such as Condoleezza Rice, who are quite comfortable (in their plush offices, security monitored homes, and economic ties to corporations that stand to profit enormously from the war) telling the working poor of America that "nothing of value has ever been won without sacrifice". The complete vacuity of this rhetoric of "heroism" and "sacrifice" is thrown into sharp relief by the fact that in "return" for the so called "honor" of being economically drafted into the service of robbing and killing the people of Iraq and sent to the slaughter to defend the interests of multinational corporations, U.S. veterans are now being "rewarded" with reductions in pay and slashing of their health benefits and pensions. Upon returning from war, moreover, many wounded soldiers now maimed and disabled for life have found themselves waiting for months in the abysmal army barracks of Fort Stewart, Georgia for medical care.

Meanwhile, the $87 billion of public funds bilked from U.S. workers to support the mugging of Iraq is being handed over by the billions in "no-bid" contracts to Halliburton (from which Cheney still receives back pay and owns 433,333 stock options) and other corporations with strong economic ties to the Bush regime. Moreover, the spoils of war—the billions in appropriated natural resources, industry and exploited labor from Iraq—is to be divided up between the highest bidders in the pillage of Iraq by U.S. transnational business.

The treatment of U.S. soldiers, the bilking of U.S. taxpayers, and the "no-bid" contracts for corporations are symptoms of the global class war fought by U.S. capital against the working classes of all nations.

The Democrats, who are also a party of the ruling class, have tried to find ways to distance the "war" itself from its imperialist interests by formally criticizing some of its most glaringly unjust consequences.  For instance, under the pressure of the increasing criticism and class anger of their constituents, some Democrats, led by Representative Charles Rangel, have introduced legislation reviving the draft as a means, they claim, of dealing with the class inequalities within the military.  But, in every war the children of the rich—including President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—have always found numerous ways to avoid combat because of their privileged connections as part of the ruling class. Dressed up in rhetoric about "national service" and "shared sacrifice" this proposal merely obscures the class contradictions of war itself by extending military service as an obligation to the families of the middle-class but leaving the ruling class interest behind the U.S. assault and occupation of Iraq unexamined.  What this call to "national service" demonstrates is the real concern of both parties of U.S. capital in Iraq: namely, defending the profits of the ruling class at all costs. The call for reviving the draft is merely a means to cover over the economic contradictions underlying the working class slogan that emerged during the U.S. Civil War: "rich man's war, but poor man's fight".

The real content of the economic (and legal) draft of workers into the military, the talk about "necessary sacrifice", and the rising numbers of the wounded and dead, is that, as Lenin put it: "Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world by a handful of 'advanced' countries'.  And this 'booty' is shared by two or three world-dominating pirates [. . .] armed to the teeth who embroil the whole world in their war over the division of their booty" (Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism).

Bush's call to "Bring 'em on!"—regarding the rising resistance of the Iraqi people against a brutal imperialist assault—is clear evidence of the fact that for U.S. capital the lives of workers, whether Iraqi or U.S., are expendable so long as the booty—the surplus labor of workers—can in the end be put in the hands of its new imperialist owners and the social relations of production for profit can continue unabated.

The casualties of war are an expression of the fact that, under capitalism, it is not people but their surplus labor and private property relations that are considered the "real value" for which the lives of workers are a casual and lucrative sacrifice.

THE RED CRITIQUE 9 (Fall/Winter 2003)