Has the last American soldier who will die in Afghanistan been born, yet? I don’t think so. Assuming the USA continues on its current course from the last five presidents (Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump), we are on an azimuth with a highly predictive end point. A child born in the year 2019 could in eighteen years find herself staring up at the belly of a descending helicopter come to fetch her mangled body. Because of her body armor, she will survive the blast that would have normally liquified her internal organs. She will live long enough for her teammates to demonstrate they are masters of trauma medicine, applying tourniquets to the stumps of her severed limbs with agility and a dispassionate grim resolve. They will shield her body from the hurricane force winds of the helicopter landing and sprint with her body — now much lightened due to the loss of tissue and blood — and place her on the aircraft with a gentleness normally reserved for tucking a child into bed. She will probably survive the flight to the hospital at Bagram. During the next period of darkness, monitored with medical telemetry that looks like something tracking the International Space Station, she will die.
That’s usually how it works.
Most poignant will be the funeral photo of the soldier handing the folded flag to a little girl we learn survives her mother and will be raised by her grandmother.
And nothing will change.
The blizzard of social media eulogies will be absent any comment of how she had narrowed her choice of colleges. No one will reflect on her dreams to do something besides wear camouflage clothing, bulletproof jackets, and leather boots while wandering in circles waiting to get blown up. Now she is a hero in a never-ending drama that started when her mother was a young girl. Somebody will say, “She was a volunteer knowing well the hazards of her chosen profession.” The most critical word in that phrase is “chosen.”
As a high school graduate with little-to-no preparation for college (academically or financially), she could have worked at an entry-level job in a big box retailer as a part-timer clocking thirty hours per week with no benefits. Instead, she chose to be a salaried, exempt employee with benefits not normally found (as in never) in a job paying less than $30,000 per year (adjusting for inflation in the year 2038). She chose a job with health insurance and no copay for anything, She had access to affordable day care that met or exceeded every standard the federal government has for cleanliness, safety, and childhood development. She attended night classes at the local public university, covered 100% by the GI Bill. The Army provided a place to live with utilities included. All this and thirty days paid vacation per year.
I would ask the reader to consider: is there another job with these benefits that someone with only a high school diploma could find anywhere in the US? In the world?
By surrendering control over her daily existence — what she wore and ate, where she worked and lived — she found a sense of self-determination. She climbed a ladder out of the hopeless circumstances most Americans in 2019 find themselves and into the effective blast radius of a roadside bomb. How is it that the only job a single mother with a high school diploma can find that offers the benefits described is also the one requiring her to learn to kill somebody she never met? Why are there few alternatives to a life measured in paychecks for the vast majority of the citizens of the richest country in the world, in history?
Enter German philosopher Herbert Marcuse and his book One-Dimensional Man (Beacon Press, 1964). These lines are as relevant in 2019 at they were in 1964:
“As the productive establishments rely on the military for self-preservation and growth, so the military relies on the corporations not only for their weapons, but also for knowledge of what kind of weapons they need, how much they will cost, and how long it will take to get them. A vicious circle seems indeed the proper image of a society which is self-expanding and self-perpetuating in its own pre-established direction — driven by the growing needs which it generates and, at the same time, contains. Is there any prospect that this chain of growing productivity and repression may be broken? An answer would require an attempt to project contemporary developments into the future, assuming a relatively normal evolution, that is, neglecting the very real possibility of a nuclear war. On this assumption, the Enemy would remain “permanent” — that is, communism would continue to coexist with capitalism.”
When Marcuse wrote this, the permanent enemy was to be the “Reds.” Our nation’s ambivalent love affair with unions notwithstanding, nothing was more despicable to US policy makers and electorate (or so the narrative led us to believe) than communists. They were blamed for everything we did not like about the world. From 1955 to 1975, Vietnam presented itself as the embodiment of what could go wrong if the US did not destroy the country in order to save it from communism. As if to prove this point, the US dropped three times more bombs on a country the size of California than was dropped by all sides during World War II, a war which was fought on at least three continents with millions of soldiers. Today, I eat whitefish raised on aqua-farms in Vietnam and sold at a discount outlet store in the US. I cannot imagine that any person in the western world of 1965 would have imagined that one day the World Bank would refer to Vietnam as one of the most dynamic emerging countries in the East Asia region with a GDP growth over 7%. We did not have to destroy it to save it after all. Vietnam saved itself.
Projecting into the future, we need only replace communism with terrorism, and we have a permanent enemy eminently scarier than a Westphalian nation state with clearly defined borders and containing a nuclear arsenal. Fifty-five years after Marcuse wrote the words above, we face the amorphous threat of terrorists, not Marxists or communists.
Marxism and communism have proven a mixed bag. The Soviet Union imploded, then fell apart. Yet, the second largest economy in the world is ostensibly a communist nation and is America’s number one trading partner, to the tune of over $737 billion. Made in China can be found on just about every item for purchase in the United States. Whither Stalin, Ho, and Mao? The old labels don’t work anymore, and neither does the narrative we told ourselves during the American Century that saw us propelled to the place of uber-superpower. Socialism alone remains as a boogeyman, and Marcuse had prescient thoughts in 1964 concerning the term.
“ ‘Socialistic’ are all encroachments on private enterprises not undertaken by private enterprise itself (or by government contracts), such as universal and comprehensive health insurance, or the protection of nature from all too sweeping commercialization, or the establishment of public services which may hurt private profit.”
Most interesting to me is how that label is used as an epithet for domestic politics. President Trump stated he and the leader of a socialist country — Kim Jung Un of North Korea — fell in love. Our president thinks the leader of China is great. All Democrats (to include sitting members of the US Congress) are, however, socialists and bad.
The new label — terrorism — is an effective device for the purpose of instilling fear and justifying repression. Also, unlike the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 and its water-thin rationale to increase US involvement in Vietnam, the Authority for Use of Military Force (AUMF) stood on the objectively horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sadly, the 9/11 attacks have become a touchstone for justifying an unending conflict. Unlike the AUMF of today, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was repealed. (I have walked the ground in Afghanistan, and spent most of the years since those attacks engaged at some level with the conflict there. I will only say this here: we’re doing it wrong.) Today, leaders throughout the world can point at any group in any country and justify reactionary responses to progressive movements. Terrorism justifies all, and is used to set priorities for domestic spending. Consider that in 1990 the US ranked sixth in the world for education and healthcare. Today, we rank 27th.
Study after study tells us what we can all see: a few people have, individually, more wealth than many whole countries, collectively.
And nothing is changing.
Terrorism and socialism are defined as threats without and within, and justify our current azimuth. Thus, the military-industrial complex continues to churn, and efforts to redistribute wealth through social programs are met with derision and pejorative references to the economic practices of our number one trading partner.
Writing in 1964, Marcuse noted the “sinister aspect” of our government’s refusal to support “comprehensive social legislation and adequate government expenditures for services other than those of military.” Today, unlike in Marcuse’s time, the US relies on an all-volunteer military force. In order to entice young people to risk forfeiting their lives in a flash of volcanic air and molten steel, the US government created a federally subsidized existence offering benefits unmatched by any other government programs.
What might Marcuse make of the fact that enough American citizens feel trapped and desperate enough that they would rather risk their lives volunteering for active duty during a time of declared hostilities than punch a clock at Wal-Mart? For many, the risk pays off: they survive physically intact enough to tap into their benefits, maybe go to college and enjoy their families in relative security. For some, it ends in a one-way helicopter ride.