Our One-Weird-Trick Military
There was a lot to complain about during my two deployments as a United States Army infantryman to Iraq. Much of this was predictable grumbling, concerning mundane things you’d expect to hear from any enlisted soldier in almost any war: the weather, the hours, the food, the boredom. Some of it, such as the ban on cell phones and mustaches during my second deployment, was a bit more surprising and more than a little divisive. But there was one constant complaint, nearly universal across the enlisted ranks of the people I served with: we were being asked to perform duties far outside of our job description. The most basic job of an infantryman is to shoot, move, and communicate in order to close in on and kill the enemy. Obviously, certain other tasks feed into those—you have to be able to read maps and do basic automotive maintenance in order to move—but we were asked to be more than infantrymen. We were policing neighborhoods and providing security for parades. We were working on construction projects and nursing injured civilians back to health. Occasionally, we were even babysitters and diplomats. The complaint that we were asked to be all things in all circumstances was a kind of frustrating synecdoche expressing the fundamentally confused and solipsistic logic that animated the war itself. What were we there to do? Whatever it takes, whatever that means. Many just called it “The Suck.”
President Donald Trump’s deployment of troops to the Mexican-American border, primarily in response to the approaching “caravan” of Central American migrants (but also undoubtedly playing to the more generalized anti-immigrant anxieties of his supporters), has been thoroughly vivisected from both the left and center. The core logistics involved in this overreaction to a nonexistent threat have been called into question—the cost of the venture, the way it diverts resources away from actually protecting America from foreign threats (i.e., foreign militaries and real terrorist organizations), and the obvious overkill of pitting military force against unarmed, desperate civilians. The moral arguments against using an army to repulse a group of refugees fleeing Central American gang violence and poverty are too conspicuous to reiterate. But while some critics of the troop deployment have focused on Trump’s typically vulgar pronouncements, there’s another issue at play in this scenario that is in many ways more malevolent than executive imbecility: it’s the perfect example of the American military being used as universal “one weird trick” solution to all of our most pressing problems.
The American military gets assigned to carry out statecraft-by-other-means, since it’s the only organization left with the means to do almost anything at all.
The most concise study of how the American military blocked out, both ideologically and in stark material terms, our nation’s ability to solve problems without the help of the Pentagon can be found in Rosa Brooks’s How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. The title says it all. Simply put, our post-9/11 federal government was cannibalized by the military. Defense was the one area that received bipartisan support for increased funding, while the State Department’s budget flatlined and agencies like the EPA had their budgets slashed. Brooks writes that “as budget cuts cripple civilian agencies and programs, they lose their ability to perform as they once did, so we look to the military to pick up the slack. . . . This requires still higher military budgets, which continues the devastating cycle.” Even as the State Department was stripped of the basic resources required to do its job, the business of the State Department still needed to be done in some fashion. So presto: the American military gets assigned to carry out statecraft-by-other-means, since it’s the only organization left with the means to do, well, almost anything at all. Only instead of these often delicate diplomatic missions going to seasoned department officials, they get parceled out to young, overzealous officers, with all-too-foreseeable results. As Brooks writes, “‘If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ The old adage applies here as well. If your only functioning government institution is the military, everything looks like a war—and when everything looks like war, everything looks like a military mission.”
This isn’t to suggest that the invasion of Iraq might have “worked” had the State Department been fully funded. In a sense, the invasion itself was a militarized response to a problem requiring statesmanship. And this, in turn, leads to another pernicious aspect of the Pentagon’s cannibalism of government resources: the military is often deployed as a response to problems that it created in the first place. This ouroboros loop indeed was what lay behind the listlessness of The Suck that I and my Iraq comrades experienced. For example, during my second deployment—when I was mostly detailed to the lightly inhabited plain of the northern Diyala Province, near the Iranian border—our task was to patrol the mostly unused roads. Why? Because insurgents were placing I.E.D.s on them. And why was that? Well, because we were patrolling them. And so on.
The military is often deployed as a response to problems that it created in the first place.
It’s been pointed out that America’s militarized foreign policy record bears no small responsibility for the destabilization and violence that Central American migrants are currently fleeing. As Elizabeth Oglesby, Associate Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, told Vice, “Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in the 1980s. People were fleeing violence and massacres and political persecution that the United States was either funding directly or at the very minimum, covering up and excusing.” The violence that continues to this day is a legacy of those interventions, Oglesby suggests. And while shady Pentagon gamesmanship played a role in destabilizing the region, there’s another aspect of the crises that deserves more attention: climate change. As Robert Albro, Research Associate Professor at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies recently told The Guardian, “The focus on violence is eclipsing the big picture—which is that people are saying they are moving because of some version of food insecurity. The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat. This has a strong link to climate change—we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.” Any guesses as to who is one of the world’s largest polluters and contributors to climate change? Here’s a hint: it’s also been described as “the only force that can beat climate change.”
Once you understand what Brooks calls our “war rules,” you begin to see the same basic one-weird-trick rationale at play everywhere: “As ‘war rules’ trickle down into ordinary life, they are beginning to change everything from policing and immigration policy to courtroom evidentiary rules and governmental commitments to transparency, gradually eroding the foundations of democracy and individual rights.” So rather than taking the desperate xenophobic hysteria that Trump is urging on the nation and the Pentagon at face value, it’s probably more realistic to think of the current migrant caravan as the vanguard of a climate refugee crisis which will only intensify in the future. And thinking about the true proportions of that crisis requires moving beyond the Homer Simpson logic of alcohol being the “cause of . . . and solution to all of life’s problems”; it means, in other words, that we must cut the Gordian Knot of military solutionism. Until then, welcome to The Suck.