On Native Ground
WHO WILL BEAR THE BURDEN OF THE FIGHT?
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When I hear the bold talk from the hawks in the Bush administration about attacking Iraq, the infantryman in me shudders.
I am a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. Twenty years ago, I survived the 13 weeks of basic and advanced training to earn the title of infantryman and spent six years on reserve duty. Unlike President Bush, I didn't go AWOL in the last two years of my enlistment.
I served in the last stages of the Cold War, when everything was geared toward fighting the Soviet Union in a colossal European land battle. Little did we realize then that by the end of the decade, the Cold War would end and stopping Russian tanks from storming through the Fulda Gap would no longer be the strategic priority.
By the grace of God, I never had to use anything that I learned in combat. I just know enough about how the infantry works to know that the poor souls that may get sent into Iraq to fight are going to catch hell.
The army's Military Occupational Speciality (MOS) code for infantryman is 11-B. The joke was the "B" stood for "bulletstopper." Macabre, yes, but it had an element of truth. In every battle this nation has fought from Lexington and Concord onward, it's always the infantry that carries the fight and suffers the worst.
Not many men my age have served in the military. When the draft ended in 1973, so did the universality of military service. Now, it's the working class kids who fill the ranks. That's one reason why there have been so few protests against the "war on terror;" someone else will be doing the fighting and unless the draft is reinstated, most young people are unthreatened.
About a third of the folks in the combat arms - infantry, armor, artillery - are Latinos or African-Americans. The middle and upper-middle class whites have all but disappeared from the Army. They are part of a whole generation of Americans who have been untouched by the military. For them, the talk about a ground war in Iraq is someone else's problem. It's always the guy without the college diploma, without the advantages that come with growing up prosperous in America, who get sent off to fight and die for their country.
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles," said labor organizer and political activist Eugene V. Debs in a speech he gave on June 16, 1918 at a Socialist Party convention in Canton, Ohio; a speech that resulted in Debs receiving a 10-year prison sentence for violating the World War I-era Sedition Act. "The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose - especially their lives.
"They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world, you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people."
My basic training company at Fort Benning was a reflection of Debs' observation of who makes the decisions and who does the dirty work. We may have been volunteers, but in the depths of the recession of 1982, the army was one of the few places hiring and many guys in my platoon came straight out of the unemployment line. They were mostly between 18 and 21 and mostly from the cities and towns of the Midwest and the Deep South. Patriotism wasn't as much of a lure as was the promise of a steady paycheck.
I was there on a roll of the dice. I joined the Army National Guard to get free tuition for college and washed out in my attempt to get a officers commission. I was given a choice between repeating the year of ROTC or being busted down down to Private First Class and doing my penance at Fort Benning. I chose Benning. I wanted to see if I was tough enough to be an infantryman.
We were the latest batch of trainees passing through the complex of rickety wooden barracks and buildings that were hastily built during World War II and were somehow still standing four decades later. We were no different than the tens of thousands of young men who passed through there before us bound for bloody battlegrounds from Omaha Beach to Hamburger Hill.
About half of the 200 men in Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Training Brigade were headed to airborne school after they completed their 13 weeks. One whole platoon was earmarked for the 82nd Airborne Division. The following year, when the 82nd was jumping into Grenada, I wondered how many of them were guys that I had trained with.
The days were long and the training was hard. Nothing I've done since then has ever been as difficult. I wasn't the best soldier in the company, but I persevered and made it to graduation. The reward was the blue cord that we wore on the right shoulder of our dress uniforms that signified we were infantrymen.
I haven't heard from any of the guys in my platoon in the intervening two decades since our time at Fort Benning. I have no idea if any of them are still in the Army, if they saw any action in the first Persian Gulf War and whether they will be part of Gulf War II, or if they have sons and daughters that may be going to Iraq. I've thought of them often over the years, especially during our nation's various military campaigns, and hoped they weren't in the thick of it.
It never fails to amaze me how the one who shout the loudest for war are the ones who never served in the military (check out The New Hampshire Gazette's "Chickenhawk Database" at http://www.nhgazette.com/chickenhawks.html to see what I mean). I've known and talked at length with veterans from World War I to the Gulf War. Few had anything good to say about war. The waste of human life, the wanton destruction and the lasting physical and psychological wounds are what get talked about most.
The pending war in Iraq is wholly unnecessary and threatens global peace and stability. I don't want to see another generation of young people taken in by the glittering rhetoric of those who want war but are happy to see someone else do the fighting. Before our nation gets involved in another misbegotten military adventure, we need to remember who are the people that start the wars and who are the people that will fight and die on their behalf.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).