How the Rich Go to War


When it comes to making war in the Bush administration, the rich call the shots, while the working class and the poor dodge the bullets or get killed. As Paul Atwood, a former Vietnam vet and researcher at the University of Massachusetts, said this morning, the men who are running this war have long been referred to as “chicken hawks.”

To be sure, the people who run this country are usually rich. Just consider the fabulously wealthy Bush A-team. The president’s net assets have been estimated to be anywhere from $8 to $19 million. He comes from a wealthy New England family to begin with, which bankrolled his early business ventures. Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife are worth anywhere from $20 million to $69 million. Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld’s net assets range from $53 million to $175 million.

Even Bush’s second tier is loaded. Karl Rove, the political guru who calls the shots for the president, was pressured to dump up to $3.3 million in securities, but retained $1.1 million in mutual funds. Andrew Card, White House chief of staff and former GM lobbyist, had assets of up to $4.1 million.

But the people who are fighting the war are different. While the military today is all volunteer, the soldiers and sailors comprise a snapshot of working-class society. Some 60 percent of enlisted men and women are white. Many are married. And many see themselves getting ahead by being in the army. A substantial number seem to come from military families.

Consider the case of Army private Jessica Lynch, who was captured in an Iraqi ambush, badly wounded, and then miraculously rescued by the Special Forces last week. She enlisted in the army’s delayed-entry program while she was still in high school in Palestine, West Virginia, where the unemployment rate is 15 percent. She wants to be a teacher, and “the Army gave her a good deal,” Jessica’s brother said.

A list of military men and women who have so far died in Iraq shows that most are middle or working class. Marine Lance Corporal William W. White, 24, who died in the Iraqi war, also joined the military as a way to “step up in life” and a means of getting to college. He wanted to be a fireman or law enforcement officer. Army specialist Jamaal R. Addison, 22, of Roswell, Georgia, who also died in Iraq, joined right out of his Atlanta high school. His father, a postal worker, said Jamaal wanted to better his situation in life. “He realized he had obligations in life, but he wasn’t a fighter,” said his dad.

Most recruits come directly from high school, often from families who don’t have the money to send their kids to college. More than 20 percent of military personnel are black. (By way of comparison, blacks make up 12 percent of civilian society.) Half of all the women recruits are people of color. Many soldiers are from poor southern states.

The Pentagon has put aggressive recruiting programs in high schools. By law, every school must file a list of its juniors and seniors with addresses and phone numbers. This is how the Pentagon boosts its Junior ROTC programs (there are now 500,000 students who are members from 3000 high schools nationwide).

Public school systems sometimes add on a special military school, often aimed to appeal to African American or Latino kids who come from lower-income families. Defending our heritage “requires the active support of public institutions in presenting military opportunities to our young people for their consideration,” wrote Donald Rumsfeld and Education Secretary Rod Paige in one letter to public schools. “For some of our students, this may be the best opportunity they have to get a college education.”

When Marine Lance Corporal Brian Rory Buesing, 20, of Cedar Key, Florida, died in Iraq, he had a year to go in his enlistment period, and was planning on putting the money he was due from the Pentagon into education so he could attend a Florida university.

“Overwhelmingly these are people who can’t afford college, who may want to go to college and see the military as a way to pay for it, who don’t have the skills to get admitted because of their educational background—people who want to escape their neighborhoods, and some who want the adventure,” said Atwood, now a research associate at William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts.

“The same people who 35 years ago supported the war in Vietnam support this war in the Gulf and are prepared to send the children of less privileged people to do their dirty work,” he said. “I can assure you there’s a lot of anger and opposition to this war on the part of Vietnam veterans, because of the illegality and immorality of it but also deriving from the fact that these chicken hawks are sponsoring it.”

Additional reporting by Phoebe St John, Joanna Khenkine, Mosi Secret