The Empire Strikes Back

The Tribal Rites of America's Military Leaders. No Wonder They're Bullish on War.

Bloody ears aren't part of the rites of a modern-day Wallow, but most of the Carabaos' other traditions have survived intact. And if this year's mud-fest holds true to form, the revelry will be even more enthusiastic than usual, and it will no longer simply feel like nostalgia. The drumbeats of war against Iraq will sound to this crowd like the rebirth of an American Empire.

A typical Wallow features parody songs by members of the Herd that satirize politicos and often smack liberals who try to slash the Pentagon's budget. "It's the military-industrial complex's answer to the Gridiron," as one regular described it, referring to the annual dinner put on by D.C. journalists and politicians.

The Wallows' guest lists often include not only the most powerful money people in the nation's vast military industry, but also the top political figures. An aide to Secretary of State Powell said the general didn't make last year's Wallow but confirmed his presence at the 2000 bash and told the Voice that he has often attended them.

(With apologies to Maurice Sendak)
illustration: Jeff Crosby
(With apologies to Maurice Sendak)

Ancient Strom Thurmond was plunked down at the 2002 Wallow's head table, where he was assigned a cigar alongside those reserved for Schlesinger, General Myers, Pete Aldridge (the Pentagon's chief of acquisition, technology, and logistics), Dov Zakheim (the Pentagon's comptroller), Gordon England (top deputy to Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge), Sean O'Keefe (the NASA director), and other bigwigs. Marine General Peter Pace, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, and Air Force Secretary James Roche, both Carabaos, were assigned the roles of hosting tables of their own.

Among the assigned greeters was last year's Grand Paramount Carabao, General P.X. Kelley, a retired commandant of the marine corps, whose last real tour of duty was the 1992 GOP presidential primaries, when his pro-war TV pitches helped deliver the South for George Bush the Elder against isolationist Pat Buchanan. Joining Kelley on the Reception Committee were General Alfred M. Gray Jr., the marine commandant during the previous war with Iraq; Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam; and an assortment of other admirals and generals.

Last year's Grand Paramount Carabao-Elect, presumably the bull who will lead the charge this Saturday, is Admiral James M. Loy, a former coast guard commandant who heads the Transportation Security Administration, the agency now responsible for U.S. airport security. His experience in making fun of Filipinos may come in handy when his security personnel run into dark-skinned travelers: Last August, Loy told The Boston Globe that the controversial practice of profiling "has the capacity to serve as one of the growth elements" of his brand-new agency.

Carabaos pop up in other situations involving minorities or others fighting discrimination. The last all-male Advisory Council at the Citadel, the South Carolina school that was the scene of serious gender discrimination battles in the '90s, was chaired by retired army general Jack Merritt, a Carabao, and included at least three other bulls: Moorer, retired marine commandant General Carl Mundy, and retired Atlantic Fleet chief Admiral Wesley McDonald. Under Merritt's watch, the Citadel's Advisory Council was finally prodded into adding its first women members.

All four of those Carabaos were listed as members of the 2002 Wallow's Reception Committee. When it comes to gays, however, Merritt, for one, has not been so welcoming. In 1993, during the furor over the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Merritt, in his role as president of the Association of the U.S. Army, spoke out against "avowed homosexuals." In July 1993, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on whether to lift the formal ban on gays in the military, Merritt testified, "The dynamic of the marine and a squad leader, the soldier and his lieutenant, is one of trust. The first time the lieutenant helps a suspected homosexual, he is in trouble."

Merritt and the other Carabaos also have the ear of that committee during more relaxed times. One of the guests assigned a cigar at the head table at the 2002 Wallow was Missouri's Ike Skelton, the ranking Democrat on House Armed Services.

Sometimes it's difficult to tell who's working for the government and who's working for the defense contractors. Pentagon official Aldridge, who decides which defense contractors get the boodle, used to head a big defense contractor, the Aerospace Corporation. Schlesinger not only has ties to Wall Street, but is also chairman of the board of trustees of the Mitre Corporation, a huge quasi-public operation, registered as a nonprofit organization, which runs an array of research facilities working with both the government and defense contractors and which has received billions of dollars in government contracts.

The Carabao gatherings remain a good place for all these people to meet because, even though the Philippine war's combatants may have died out, the organization has relaxed its admission rules so it can always find high-flying hawks it can turn into bulls. In 1993, any officer who served in any overseas war, specifically Desert Storm, was deemed eligible to at least submit an application to join the exclusive group and wallow around every February in black tie, military dress uniforms, or even kilts.

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