Forbidden Connections: Class, Cowardice, and War
by Paul Street
July 26, 2003
Beneath myths of equal opportunity and rampant upward mobility, the United States is a savagely unequal society with a rigidly hierarchical and authoritarian class structure. As a reflection of that harsh structural reality, it is nearly taboo to speak or write in any engaged and meaningful way about class inequality in the nation's "mainstream" (corporate-dominated) media and politics. That mainstream can host a public debate over the use of race as a preferential factor in college and graduate and professional school admissions. Meanwhile, the richly aristocratic "legacy" system, whereby the affluent children of elite school graduates receive a significant admissions boost at places like Harvard and Princeton, is beyond the pale of polite discussion and acceptable debate.
How interesting during the last year to watch one legacy product - Yale and Harvard graduate George W. Bush - order his Justice Department to intervene against the use of race as a factor in admissions to the University of Michigan. Bush then claimed to embrace affirmative action when the Supreme Court (unanimously filled by graduates of schools tainted by the legacy system), to which (along with the massive disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida) he owes his office, upheld affirmative action.
The mainstream gives vent to disgust over the revelation that America's great reactionary virtue magnate William J. Bennett hypocritically "lost more than $8 million" to the gambling industry during the last ten years. It says nothing about the higher immorality involved in the maintenance of a social structure wherein one man affordably entertains himself by cycling a sum of money greater than six times the lifetime earnings of most of his fellow citizens through slot machines. (US Census Bureau, The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings [July 2002]).
An excellent example of class's marginalization in mainstream discourse is found in the short-lived brouhaha that emerged when Bush taunted Iraqi guerillas to attack American soldiers earlier this month. "There are some," an angry Bush told reporters on July 2nd "that feel like if they attack us we may decide to leave prematurely. They don't understand what they are talking about if that is the case...There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on." (Sean Loughlin, "Bush Warns Militants in Iraq," CNN.com./INSIDE POLITICS, July 3, 2003, available
It was a Hell of a thing to say. On the same day that Bush blustered, the New York Times reported that "Iraq's plague of violence shows no signs of abating, as US soldiers face angry and vengeful Iraqis and unpredictable attacks in sweltering heat. The gunfire and bombing seemed to come from all directions today," noted reporter Edward L. Andrews, "leaving a trail of bitterness, confusion, and hunger for revenge." ("In Day of Violence, Attacks From All Directions," New York Times, July 2, 2003, A16).
The next day, two months after Bush declared American "victory" in Iraq, eleven Iraqis ambushed a US convoy on a highway north of Baghdad and eighteen US soldiers were injured in a mortar attack in the same area. Another American soldier was shot to death guarding the Baghdad Museum. ("Attack Leaves US Soldier Dead, 18 Hurt," USA Today, July 4, 2003). The Commander of Allied Forces Lt. General Ricardo S. Sanchez in Iraq acknowledged that "we're still at war" and offered a reward of up to $25 million for the capture of Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, the US was begging other nations to help them more effectively contain the people of Iraq, an expensive and dangerous operation the Bush administration never quite factored into its plan for world domination. By July 10, the New York Times reported that 31 US soldiers had been killed since Bush declared the end of major combat and CNN noted that 1,000 American troops had been injured the US launched its war http://truthout.org/docs_03/071103C.shtml) on March 20th. More have perished since and yes more will die, as the multi-millionaire and former corporate CEO Donald Rumsfeld recently acknowledged.
To their credit, mainstream voices responded quickly with criticism to the provocative "bring 'em on" comment, uttered in the elegant, air-conditioned confines of the White House's Roosevelt Room. We heard from Representative Richard A. Gephardt, who said he'd had "enough of the" President's "phony, macho rhetoric. I have a message for the president," Gephardt added, echoing the comments of many Democrats. "We need a clear plan to bring stability to Iraq and an honest discussion with the American people about the cost of that endeavor. We need a serious attempt to develop a postwar plan for Iraq and not more shoot-from-the-hip one-liners."
"When I served in Europe during World War II," said the incredulous Senator Frank Lautenberg, "I never heard any military commander - let alone the commander in chief - invite enemies to attack U.S. troops."
Leading Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean weighed in, criticizing Bush for showing "insensitivity to the dangers" American GIs face. These basic sentiments seemed to have been shared by Newsweek reporter and commentator Howard Fineman. Fineman told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that Bush "tripped up" by "talking tough" when "over in Iraq our troops know that they are in trouble." "The president," Fineman added, "hasn't really explained" the US "plan" in Iraq, "and he doesn't help himself with that kind of thing." Fineman quoted from a postcard he recently received from "a friend who's a high-ranking officer in Iraq." "Have I got some news for you," the postcard read. "The reporters have just fled and the real stories have just begun. Iraq is a mess." Bush "didn't have a plan," Fineman notes, and "we don't have enough troops."
ABC's Diane Sawyer seemed appalled by Bush's comment. On July 7, she was astounded when General Tommy Franks told her that he "absolutely" agreed with Bush's "bring 'em on remark." "You do?!," Sawyer responded, with a look of disbelief on her face. White House reporter Terry Moran, hosting ABC News for the night, was also blown away. "Very interesting Diane. The commanding general echoing the chief there, 'bring 'em on."
Yet while the mainstream expressed a legitimate sense that Bush's comment was "irresponsible," "insensitive," reflective of poor planning, and even unpatriotic, it could not note the cowardice and related rich class content of both the president's remark and American militarism. How "macho" is it, really, to dare Iraqis to attack not you but your distant (both spatially and socially), vulnerable, and exposed subordinates, stuck in the streets and sands of an ill-advised, unplanned occupation, opposed, we might add, from the beginning by the preponderant majority of politically conscious humanity?
Like many of fighting age from his privileged, super-wealthy circle, "bring 'em on Bush" avoided real military service during the Vietnam War. He dodged the central military engagement of his time by "making occasional appearances at the Texas National Guard" (Eric Margolis, "Bring 'Em, On Bush," Toronto Star, July 3, 2003). Given the opportunity to express his rugged, West-Texas sentiments against the "Communist" enemies of American "freedom" in the jungles of Southeast Asia, he was content to leave the bloody and dirty work to the sons of the American working-class. He recoiled in horror at the supposedly elitist anti-war movement but was pleased to egg America's predominantly poor and working-class soldiers on to murder and death from the sheltered sidelines of aristocratic advantage. His basic attitude and related position was perfectly captured and savagely ridiculed in the populist Vietnam-era anti-war rock anthem "Fortunate Son":
Some folks are born made to wave the flag,
Ooh, they're red, white and blue.
And when the band plays "Hail to the chief",
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord,
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no senator's son, son.
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, no, Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,
Lord, don't they help themselves, oh.
But when the taxman comes to the door,
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes,
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no millionaire's son, no.
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, no. Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask them, "How much should we give?"
Ooh, they only answer More! more! more! yoh,
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no military son, son.
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate son.
By J.C. Fogarty (Credence Clear Water Revival)
Now, Bush, truly the ultimate Fortunate Son, has - thanks to interrelated accidents of birth, campaign finance, electoral racism, oil and Osama (a class brother) - graduated to a higher role in the sociology of war, captured in an earlier Sixties anti-war anthem, Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" (1963):
You never done noth'n But build to destroy
You play with my world Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And turn from my eyes
And you turn and run farther While the fast bullets fly
You fasten the triggers For the others to fire.
Then you sit back and watch While the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansions, While young people's blood,
Flows out of their bodies And gets buried in the mud.
It is essential, however, to note that Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest of their super-affluent, skin-crawling War Party received carte blanche from the US Congress to pursue illegitimate war and imperial occupation in Iraq. Equally significant, the neo-imperial campaign has been consistently enabled, encouraged and even largely driven by the corporate-state US media. Among the children of the 435 members of the House of Representatives and of the 100 Senators (at least 90 percent of the latter are millionaires), it is worth noting, just one - the father of a single, solitary Senator's son - has a child who has served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. There is no available comparative data on the sons and daughters of war-profiteering media and "defense" company executives. Still, the existing data suggests that we will not find many of them among those who served in the supposed great struggle to save America and the world from Saddam Hussein.
"The Military Mirrors Working-Class America" and "Our Upper Class No Longer Serves"
Who exactly is stewing, dodging and taking bullets, dying, and killing in Iraq? According to the New York Times, in an important study released as the invasion moved into full swing, "a survey of the American military's endlessly compiled and analyzed demographics paints a picture of a fighting force that is anything but a cross section of America."
The military, the Times found, "mirrors Working-Class America," resembling "the make up of a two-year commuter or trade school outside Birmingham or Biloxi far more than that of a ghetto or barrio or four-year university in Boston." It is, "in essence, a working-class military," one that is "require[d] to fight and die for an affluent America."
Even among the officer ranks, notes Northwestern University sociologist Charles C. Moskos, affluent Americans are essentially missing. "The officer corps today," Moskos told the Times, "does not represent nobility. These are not people who are going to be future congressmen or senators. The number of veterans in the Senate and the House," he added, "is dropping every year. It shows you that our upper class no longer serves."
There is no draft, to be sure, but the "volunteer" military is full of people who enter because they lack, by accident of birth, access to America's standard middle-class pathway to career success. A key motive is the opportunity to learn a skill and to receive college tuition assistance, something the military offers as a bribe to lure recruits.
"It's not fair," noted one young Army private quoted by the Times, "that some poor kids don't have much of a choice but to join if they want to be productive because they didn't go to a good school, or they had family problems that prevented them from doing well, so they join up and they're the ones that die for our country while the rich kids can avoid it." (David M. Halbfinger and Steven A. Holmes, "Military Mirrors Working-Class America," New York Times, March 30, 2003).
The formerly expendable and now officially celebrated Jessica Lynch provides a perfect example. Now severely injured due to her service in Bush's war, Lynch is the daughter of truck driver from coal mining territory in West Virginia's Wirt County. A fifth of that county's population, including more than a fourth of its children lived beneath the federal government's notoriously inadequate poverty level at the peak of the 1990s economic boom. (United States Census, Census 2000 Summary File 3 - Wirt Country, West Virginia).
Like numerous other young Americans from her socioeconomic cohort, Jessica joined the predominantly working-class ranks of the armed forces looking for more than immediate employment. She was also pursuing college tuition assistance to attain the educational certification so essential to making a decent living in the United States, the most unequal nation in the industrialized world. Military service is the price she and many other Americans pay for being born into the lower ranks of the American hierarchy.
As one iconoclastic West Virginian puts it, "here in West Virginia, we have the highest enlistment per capita of any state. I suppose that speaks volumes about the opportunities this economy offers the young in these parts. Jobs in the coal mines aren't even very plentiful anymore. Jessica was one of the hopeful, looking for a way to get the skills and education she needed and eventually to return to her beloved mountain home. She sure got more than she bargained for in more ways than one." (Anne Tatelin, "The Gospel According to Jessica Lynch," at http://wheresmypants.net/jessica.htm)
The pampered boy King in the White House likes to cultivate a folksy, faux-populist familiarity with America's working class. Curiously enough, he and his handlers regularly screw that class over with a domestic policy that includes regressive tax cuts that also plays like something out of "Fortunate Son." And the closest Bush wants to come to the hazardous military action he dares Iraqi militants to initiate against working-class Americans is sitting in front of a television, watching cruise missiles blow up in Baghdad or the thespian brilliance of his favorite actor - the one-dimensional Cold War action hero Chuck Norris.
Bush imagines himself, perhaps, a real-life Norris, striking fear into the hearts of those "evil" Arabs, who dared to attack God and History's chosen state, the center of "goodness" on earth, on September 11th 2001. In reality, he's an armchair cowboy from the effete circles of privilege, where supposed great men of power are happy to send young men and now young women of inferior status to the military hospitals or an early grave in the pursuit of imperial dreams that profit the privileged few. No, everything did not change on 9-11.
Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of "Marriage as the Solution to Poverty: Bush's Proposal for Welfare Moms and the Real White House Agenda," Z Magazine (April 2002): 33-39 and "Beacon to the World?” This article first appeared in ZNET. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org