Irregular Army: A Conversation with Matt Kennard
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.