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.
In March, a bill was introduced in the California State Senate that, if passed, could radically redefine the role of online learning in American higher education. The proposed legislation, SB 520, would require state colleges and universities to grant credit to students who, unable to register for core classes at their home universities due to “bottleneck” conditions at the entry level, opt to register for massive open online courses (MOOCs) instead.
The bill is packaged by its champions as a necessary measure designed to defend the best interests of a student body under siege. “We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise,” said Darrell Steinberg, the State Senate president. “No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed.” Detractors, however, attack it as a top-down effort to allow private companies to profit from public institutions of higher learning—what some have labeled the University of Phoenixization of the U Cal system.
Whatever the outcome, this bill has direct implications for the City University of New York (CUNY) as well as other public universities nationwide. The debate in California arrives during a period in which CUNY’s public system has come under great strain from rolling budget cuts, privatization measures and major battles between administrators and faculty over curricular decision-making and control. The potential embrace of MOOCs could well contribute to further contention.
On May 2, 2013, I’ll be welcoming four special guests–Ayisha Osori (Nigeria), Dr. Yuhyun Park (South Korea), Dr. Stefan Reich (Peru) and Christina Juhasz (United States)–from the international Eisenhower Fellowship program to The City College of New York to talk with them about their experiences as young leaders in their home countries, and around the world. They will be the final guests in this year’s “Conversations in Leadership” at the college. A bit about them:
Ayisha Osori is the CEO of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, the first nonprofit in West Africa to address gender imbalance in elected and appointed positions.
Dr. Yuhyun Park is a social entrepreneur who co-founded InfollutionZERO, a project promoting digital citizenship for children, youth, and parents.
Dr. Stefan Reich is director of El Centro de Liderazgo Estratgica, an organization that provides leadership training and consulting in a range of industries.
Christina Juhasz is Chief Investment Officer for Women’s World Banking Asset Management, a global network of microfinance institutions.
This will be hopefully be an engaging discussion with emerging leaders in a variety of different state settings about the challenges and opportunities young people seeking to affect real social change face around the world. The conversation with the Eisenhower Fellows will take place on Thursday, May 2 from 12:30-2:00 at The City College of New York, Shepard Hall, Room 558. If you are able and willing to attend, please RSVP at the event’s online registry:
Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to let me know. I hope to see some of you there!
This coming Thursday afternoon, on the heels of today’s election in Venezuela, I’ll be talking with Greg Wilpert–co-founder of venezuelanalysis.com and author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power–about the results and the country’s future after the death of Hugo Chavez. The conversation will take place at The City College of New York in Shepard Hall, Room 558 from 12:30-2:00. The event is being sponsored by the Roosevelt Institute at City College and the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service . You can register your attendance on the event’s Facebook page, accessed here. Hope to see some of you there!
It’s all in the timing. I was supposed to welcome Dr. Thomas Farley, NYC Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene to the City College of New York, at the end of October for the first “Conversations in Leadership” session of the fall semester. We had planned to discuss health policy, broadly, as well as the city’s efforts to combat obesity more specifically. As you know, however, Hurricane Sandy had other plans. Dr. Farley had graciously agreed to reschedule, and we had set aside tomorrow evening for the event. Unfortunately, Dr. Farley was called away on emergency business, and the event had to be cancelled.
I’m delighted to announce that Dr. Farley has kindly rescheduled, and will be visiting City College next Tuesday evening, from 5:30-7:00pm. It should be a very interesting conversation, especially in light of the fact that this morning a judge invalidated Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Farley’s policy push to regulate the consumption of sugary drinks in New York City. We’ll talk about this, and more.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appointed Dr. Farley as Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 2009. Before joining the Agency, Dr. Farley was chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. He received his MD and Master of Public Health degrees from Tulane University. Trained as a pediatrician, he served in the Centers for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service and worked for the CDC and the Louisiana Office of Public Health from 1989 to 2000. During that period he directed programs to control various infectious diseases. He has conducted research and published articles on a wide range of topics, including Legionnaires’ disease, prevention of HIV/STDs, infant mortality, and obesity. Dr. Farley is coauthor with RAND Senior Scientist Deborah Cohen of Prescription for a Healthy Nation (Beacon Press). He served as Senior Adviser to New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden in 2007 and 2008.
RSVPs for the discussion are required. There are still a few seats left. Those interested in attending can register here.
I’m pleased to announce the spring semester installment of the second annual “Conversations in Leadership” series at The City College of New York. This program brings together experienced policymakers and opinion leaders from all levels of politics—local, state, national and federal—to discuss their substantive areas of expertise, their experiences working in and studying the public sector, and the lessons they have learned about effective leadership with the City College community.
This semester, I will be sitting down with three special guests to discuss leadership and policy in the public sphere. City College is honored to welcome Ms. Maya Wiley, founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion as our first guest of the semester. A civil rights attorney and policy advocate, Ms. Wiley has litigated, lobbied the US Congress and developed programs to transform structural racism in the United States and in South Africa. Prior to founding the Center for Social Inclusion, Maya was a senior advisor on race and poverty to the Director of U.S. Programs of the Open Society Institute and helped develop and implement the Open Society Foundation—South Africa’s Criminal Justice Initiative. She has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union National Legal Department, in the Poverty and Justice Program of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and in the Civil Division of the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Maya previously served on the boards of the Tides Network, Human Rights Watch, the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota School of Law and the Council on Foreign Relations. She was named a NY Moves magazine 2009 Power Woman. In 2011 Wiley was named as one of “20 Leading Black Women Social Activists Advocating Change” by The Root.com.
The conversation with Maya Wiley will take place on Thursday, February 21 from 12:30-1:45 at the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service (Shepard Hall, Room 558) on the campus of the City College of New York.
This event is free, and open to the public. We simply ask that you RSVP here. I hope to see some of you there!
There’s a radical “academic renaissance” underway at the City University of New York, but it’s cause for concern, not celebration. This fall, CUNY is scheduled to undertake the full implementation of its Pathways Initiative, a program Chancellor Matthew Goldstein insists will enable a smoother process for students seeking to transfer from junior to senior colleges within the system. While a more efficient scheme of credit transfer within CUNY is a goal few educators can oppose, Pathways introduces sweeping new measures that harm the interests of the student body.
Pathways will water down the mandatory core curriculum for CUNY students, reduce the number of classroom hours students receive in critical foundation courses, concentrate control of teaching and learning decisions in the chancellor’s office, and undertake further cost-saving measures that have already crippled the system. These goals undermine student progress, but fit securely within the chancellor’s austerity approach to public education.