This past March marked the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a decade of fighting, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, destroyed an entire country, and destabilized the broader Middle East. As journalist Matt Kennard argues in his new book, Irregular Army, the war in Iraq — as well as that in Afghanistan — also had deleterious consequences for the U.S. military itself. Faced with declining enlistment numbers as fighting dragged on year after year with no clear end in sight, Kennard shows that the American armed forces looked for alternatives to populate its ranks. In the process, regulations were weakened, rewritten and in some cases, not enforced.
The results are disturbing. According to Kennard, the military was suddenly tolerating the open presence of white power extremists and street gang members in the rolls, and actively recruiting physically and psychologically unfit Americans to fill enlistment gaps. While evidence suggests that these lax recruitment standards have already resulted in death and murder on the battlefield, the consequences could prove equally upsetting here at home. If the Sikh temple massacre is any indication of what may be in store, Kennard’s argument that the United States faces an uncertain future as these veterans return from home from war couldn’t be more urgent.
I recently spoke with Kennard about his research into these issues, how government brass has responded to these threats to the integrity of its armed forces, and what the irregular American army might mean for Americans in the years to come.
The 10th anniversary of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq just passed this week. Give us a sense of how the American military has changed in the last decade, and what it looks like today.
What happened to the American military, and I’m not the only one to point this out, during the War on Terror and up to this day constitutes in some ways the biggest change the American military has ever gone through, at least since the beginning of the 20th century. What was implemented during the War on Terror was a massive restructuring of the Pentagon under the aegis of Donald Rumsfeld, who had this plan to eviscerate the civilian U.S. military and replace it with private contractors. This has come to be called “transformation” in specialist circles. He made this famous speech the day before 9/11 where he said that he wanted to “modernize” the military, corporate speak for privatization of the military. “We have to update our enlistment techniques, our training techniques,” and the like. Under all the rhetoric was a plan to really scale down the Department of Defense, and replace it with companies like Blackwater and other groups.
There was also a strategic shift that was part of this transformation that recognized that as the cold war wound down the United States no longer needed large land armies. Many of the so-called neo-conservatives had grown apoplectic during the 1990s with Clinton’s “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo, and earlier Somalia. They believed that the U.S. military should be used only to secure U.S. national interests, without even the patina of altruism. (Ironically, of course, Clinton’s wars were not the beneficent operations that the neocons made out.) The new threats facing the United States were asymmetrical, they were no longer state-based in nature but came instead from non-state terrorist groups.
Anyway, there were significant disagreements with this new proposed posture. Colin Powell, who had previously been the highest ranking officer in the military, argued that Washington needed to maintain a serious, large land army that could be deployed quickly in the case of emergency. In the end, Rumsfeld won out and the invasion of Iraq happened with many less troops than Powell and Eric Shinseki, chief of staff the army at the time, wanted.
Eventually, after Iraq failed to go as planned, Powell and Shinseki were proved right — that the American army really couldn’t just go into a place like Iraq, smash the place up, and then get out within a couple of years. They were in a quagmire there, and this was shown to be the case again in Afghanistan. As the wars got worse over time, and in the absence of conscription, the military found itself needing more and more personnel — precisely the opposite of what Donald Rumsfeld had wanted or foreseen. In order to do this, to pump up its numbers, the military began to change its regulations. They did this with some groups quite openly. For example, they raised the ceiling age for enlistment, from 35 to 40, and then again to 42, because they didn’t get the numbers they needed the first time.
The stuff that I looked into were the groups that the military was a little more embarrassed about — from white supremacists to street gang members to criminals. For some reason, I’m the only journalist who’s done serious work on the presence of gangs and neo-Nazis in the American military. There’s been quite a lot of work done on criminals in the army. Henry Waxman investigated the presence of serious criminals in the military, and prized important information from the Pentagon that they had been trying to hide. Over the last 10 years, you’ve seen a complete realignment of who can qualify as a soldier in the United States military.
Now, I’ve never been a big fan of the military adventures of the United States, but everyone knows that the standards in the U.S. military were always quite high. This was especially the case after Vietnam — 25 years were spent basically rejigging the military so that the standards were high. During the War on Terror, all of this was completely jettisoned. So what we have now is a military that is not held up as an exemplar of professionalism around the world, but as an example of what happens to a military when there aren’t enough troops and the government is too scared to institute conscription.
There are questions, of course, about how this will play out moving forward. Take the Libya intervention by NATO, for example: the whole debate was rehashed again. Barack Obama and his Defense Secretary Robert Gates actually endorsed the Rumsfeldian idea that the United States needed to slim down, while George Casey, the chief of staff of the Army, warned against “hollowing out” the U.S. military. If some state-based enemy rises again and the U.S. military has to deal with it, you’ll probably see the exact same issues crop up once more. And in fact, if you look into it, you’ll find that many of the standards haven’t been restored to their former levels even though recruiting quality troops has gotten easier with the current economic crisis. The military is unrecognizable now from what it was when the War on Terror started. And that’s not a mistake. It’s basically become exactly how Rumsfeld envisioned it: a hallowed out military replaced by private contractors working alongside special forces. Jeremy Scahill’s new book, Dirty Wars, documents how JSOC, assorted elite units are now carrying out many of the tasks that were previously the responsibility of the American military, often with “black budgets” out of sight of Congress and U.S. citizens. Everyone says that the war on Iraq was a massive personal failure for Rumsfeld, but in fact, in many ways, his vision has won out.
The most disturbing finding of your research is the extent to which white power extremists have penetrated the United States military, something which first came to light as far back as the mid-1970s. How do they get in? What happens when they get discovered? What have been the most immediate consequences of their presence in war zones?
It is important to note that there are a raft of regulations that govern the presence of white supremacists, both during the recruitment phase, and then afterwards if they are discovered within the ranks. But the trouble with these regulations is that they’ve always been reactive. So you have cases where white supremacist cells have been exposed on different bases, dating back to the 1970s. And every time this happens, whether that is a neo-Nazi killing another soldier, or killing someone in a nearby town to a base, every time there is a short-term outpouring of anger, the military responds by saying that they have tightened regulations. The first time something like this happened, in 1976, the military said being in a white supremacist organization was inconsistent with service. That can be interpreted any way you want. To my mind, the ambiguity related to the regulation of white supremacists is deliberate, i.e., the military doesn’t want these people in the military, but in times when they can’t afford to kick troops out, the regulations allow them enough leeway to ignore it, or have enough plausible deniability, to leave these people in.
During the War on Terror, regulations were not adhered at all. So, for example, you had people who were able to get into the military with swastikas tattooed on their skin. I spoke with the head of recruitment for the United States army about this, he said, “well, there’s first amendment rights.” If someone says they like the way swastikas look, or claim that they are Indian symbols which look very similar, then the commander can basically blow it off. So, there are regulations on tattoos — which are frequently the best indicators for recruiters of extremism — that were broadly ignored.
And then you had the other side, when these people are discovered after they are already in, there are other regulations to deal with that. So, if you are caught posting messages on websites like StormFront, or writing racist messages on places like the New Saxon, a sort of neo-Nazi Facebook, you can be disciplined, and maybe even kicked out of the military altogether. But that didn’t happen, either. In fact, I received reports from the Criminal Investigative Command (CID), which is the criminal investigative arm of the Army, about what happened to white supremacists when they were caught. Some of it is really shocking. In one instance, a soldier passed a military explosives manual to the leader of a white supremacist group. In the report I received from the CID, the military terminated the investigation because the soldier in question had been shipped off to Iraq. This is somebody who may have been planning a domestic terrorist attack! Jaw-dropping.
There are obviously first amendment rights. But if you are training, equipping and then sending white supremacists to a country of brown people, I think that really does trump first amendment rights. I focus on the War on Terror, but there is also the case of Michael Wade Page, who carried out the Sikh Temple Massacre last August. He was serving in the 1990s, a period during which there was supposedly a harsh crackdown on white supremacists in the military, by the military, following the Oklahoma City bombing. Well, Stars and Stripes interviewed friends of Page, who told the paper that he was completely open about his Neo-Nazism while in the Army.
But it’s not just white power groups that are populating the military. Other gangs have also colonized the American armed forces. Can you talk about what other gang activity exists within the military?
It’s tempting to focus on the problem of white supremacists in the military when thinking about undesirable elements in the armed forces. It makes sense — these people often have goals which are terrorist goals. They want to kill people to further the cause of racial holy war. But in terms of numbers, and everyday violence, the street gangs problem in the military is much more serious. I have spoken with security experts who estimate that up to 10 percent of the American military is made up of gang-affiliated troops.
During the height of the War on Terror, we saw it all along the border, where active duty soldiers carried out the murders of other soldiers, not to mention of the enemies of local drug traffickers nearby to the bases. Gangs see the military as a good way to traffic drugs — when soldiers are on a base, they are not subject to the same rigorous law enforcement as you are when you are civilian. Cartels look to recruit soldiers who are on bases, or recruit soldiers especially those stationed at Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, both in Texas and hotbeds of this kind of activity.
We’ve seen evidence of this up to this day. Recently, there was a case in which the DEA carried out a sting operation on a group of soldiers. DEA officers posed as a representative of a Mexican drug cartel, and offered the soldiers money in return for carrying out hits against rival factions. The soldiers agreed. The DEA knew this was a good tack to take, because they’re very aware that trafficking groups are in constant contact with active duty personnel.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on, you show that the military increasingly focused on recruiting kids and older adults to serve in the armed forces. How did they go about doing this, and what have been the consequences?
The most serious consequences have been the number of people who have died. I focus on older people and the young in my book. The military has regulation on the issue of age. It used to be that no one over the age of 35 could be recruited into the military. That changed during the War on Terror when the age was raised, first to 40 and then to 42 years of age, because they were struggling to find troops. That regulation wasn’t arbitrary. When soldiers are older than 35, they face higher risks on the battlefield related to psychology and physical fitness. I discuss a couple of soldiers in the book who died during their service, likely as a result of their relatively advanced age. For example, Staff Sergeant William Chaney, a Vietnam War died of a blood clot aged 59 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, after surgery for a medical condition and appendix problem that had necessitated his evacuation from Iraq. Another soldier, Steven Hutchison, who was a veteran of Vietnam and had experienced the Tet Offensive — died in an IED attack in Iraq after being recruited on the “retiree recall” program. He was killed a month shy of his 61st birthday. So that’s the most serious consequence — people have died as a result of these changes.
The other consequence has to do with the moral issue of colonizing the high schools of America. It’s not well-known about, but No Child Left Behind Act — which was passed with great bipartisan fanfare in 2001 — has a small caveat which mandates that schools turn over the phone numbers and addresses of all their students to military recruiters or face funding cuts if they refused. At first, this wasn’t used much because the War on Terror hadn’t yet started. But when troop deficits became a chronic issue, it began to be used all the time. Recruiters spent a decade terrorizing high school students — cold calling them, turning up at their houses, turning up at their schools — trying to persuade them to go to war.
There was one famous case where a high school student recorded a recruiter telling him that his life would be finished if he exited the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP). Under the DEP, students can sign up for the military while still in high school — basically promising to join the military upon graduation. But it is not binding. But many students aren’t told it isn’t binding. In this case, the student recorded the recruiter telling him that if he failed to honor the DEP, he wouldn’t be able to get loans for college, wouldn’t ever be able to find a job, and the like. It didn’t work on this one kid, because he was smart and decided to record his conversations with the recruiter. But you can imagine how often these sorts of tactics, and this kind of manipulation, do work on young people. And you can imagine how many of these young people were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, and in all likelihood some of them have died. In combination, then, these two sides of the age issue highlight an overriding moral issue, and that is the fact that tons of people who should have never been sent to war, were — many to their deaths.
You suggest that the full consequences of the irregular army cobbled together by the United States haven’t yet been fully realized. Are we in for an irregular future? If so, how?
In my opinion, the War on Terror — which was fought mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in other places as well — is now coming home. All of the extremists that the Pentagon allowed into the military during the War on Terror are coming back to the United States, and not to become priests. These people have their own goals, and they will spend the next decade or two attempting to bring these goals forward. We see this in smaller scale following the first Gulf War. Take the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place a few years after the United States withdrew from Iraq the first time. These things have a fairly long incubation period. My sense is that because the military has trained so many crazy people in advanced weaponry and tactics over the past ten years, there will be cases — hopefully not as serious as the Oklahoma City bombing — like the Sikh Temple Massacre, cases where the violence of disgruntled veterans with a racial bone to pick, or any other really, will be taken out on random civilians.
We are seeing that slowly. Recently, there was a case in which a group of soldiers had formed their own militia at Fort Stewart in Georgia and were planning to assassinate President Obama and poison Washington State’s apple crop. According to prosecutors the soldiers had spent nearly $90,000 on guns and bomb components. Thankfully, this plan was busted, but we have to ask ourselves: how many similar cells like this are in the United States, and how long will it take for us to see them act out their fantasies? I’m not particularly optimistic about the future on this front. There’s another point that must be made, as well. It is sometimes said that a country’s military is a reflection of the population from which it is drawn. Many problems we witnessed in military during the War on Terror were reflections of a society that was changing under the stress of fear that was inflicted on the American population. We can point to the rising numbers of convicted felons allowed into the military, but that was merely a reflection of the increasing number of people being locked up across the country. We can point to the increasing numbers of overweight soldiers allowed to serve in the military, but again, this is just a reflection of an increasingly obese American society. So in a sense, many of the troubles experienced by the U.S. military right now are a reflection of a society which is going backwards in key respects, not forwards. Hopefully this will change. But there are very few indicators right now to suggest this is likely to happen.