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American Warfare Goes Corporate

How the US went from a citizen's army to a robot military.

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 1:31 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

In the American mind, if Apple made weapons, they would undoubtedly be drones, those remotely piloted planes getting such great press here. They have generally been greeted as if they were the sleekest of iPhones armed with missiles.

When the first American drone assassins burst onto the global stage early in the last decade, they caught most of us by surprise, especially because they seemed to come out of nowhere or from some wild sci-fi novel. Ever since, they've been touted in the media as the shiniest presents under the American Christmas tree of war, the perfect weapons to solve our problems when it comes to evildoers lurking in the global badlands.

And can you blame Americans for their love affair with the drone? Who wouldn't be wowed by the most technologically advanced, futuristic, no-pain-all-gain weapon around?

Here's the thing, though: put drones in a more familiar context, skip the awestruck commentary, and they should have been eerily familiar. If, for instance, they were car factories, they would seem so much less exotic to us.

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Think about it: What does a drone do? Like a modern car factory, it replaces a pilot, a skilled job that takes significant training, with robotics and a degraded version of the same job outsourced elsewhere. In this case, the "offshore" location that job headed for wasn't China or Mexico, but a military base in the US, where a guy with a joystick, trained in a hurry and sitting at a computer monitor, is "piloting" that plane. And given our experience with the hemorrhaging of good jobs from the US, who will be surprised to discover that, in 2011, the US Air Force was already training more drone "pilots" than actual fighter and bomber pilots combined?

That's one way drones are something other than the futuristic sci-fi wonders we imagine them to be. But there's another way that drones have been heading for the American "homeland" for four decades, and it has next to nothing to do with technology, advanced or otherwise.

In a sense, drone war might be thought of as the most natural form of war for the All Volunteer Military. To understand why that's so, we need to head back to a crucial decision implemented just as the Vietnam war was ending.

 

Disarming the Amateurs, Demobilizing the Citizenry

It's true that, in the wake of grinding wars that have also been debacles—the Afghan version of which has entered its 11th year—the US military is in ratty shape. Its equipment needs refurbishing and its troops are worn down. The stress of endlessly repeated tours of duty in war zones, brain injuries and other wounds caused by the roadside bombs that have often replaced a visible enemy on the "battlefield," suicide rates that can't be staunched, rising sexual violence within the military, increasing crime rates around military bases, and all the other strains and pains of unending war have taken their toll.

Still, ours remains an intact, unrebellious, professional military. If you really want to see a force on its last legs, you need to leave the post-9/11 years behind and go back to the Vietnam era. In 1971, in Armed Forces Journal, Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., author of a definitive history of the Marine Corps, wrote of "widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army's Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies [of Russia] in 1916 and 1917."

The US military in Vietnam and at bases in the US and around world was essentially at the edge of rebellion. Disaffection with an increasingly unpopular war on the Asian mainland, rejected by ever more Americans and emphatically protested at home, had infected the military, which was, after all, made up significantly of draftees.

Desertion rates were rising, as was drug use. In the field, "search and evade" (a mocking, descriptive accurate replacement for "search and destroy") operations were becoming commonplace. "Fraggings"—attacks on unpopular officers or NCOs—had doubled. ("Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.") And according to Col. Heinl, there were then as many as 144 antiwar "underground newspapers" published by or aimed at soldiers. At the moment when he wrote, in fact, the antiwar movement in the US was being spearheaded by a rising tide of disaffected Vietnam veterans speaking out against their war and the way they had fought it.

In this fashion, an American citizen's army, a draft military, had reached its limits and was voting with its feet against an imperial war. This was democracy in action transferred to the battlefield and the military base. And it was deeply disturbing to the US high command, which had, by then, lost faith in the future possibilities of a draft army. In fact, faced with ever more ill-disciplined troops, the military's top commanders had clearly concluded: never again!

So on the very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, officially signaling the end of US involvement in Vietnam (though not quite its actual end), President Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, as it had been practiced since World War II, had lost its hold on young minds.

There was no question that US military and civilian leaders intended, at that moment, to sever war and war-making from an aroused citizenry. In that sense, they glimpsed something of the future they meant to shape, but even they couldn't have guessed just where American war would be heading. Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams, for instance, actually thought he was curbing the future rashness of civilian leaders by—as Andrew Bacevich explained in his book The New American Militarism—"making the active army operationally dependent on the reserves." In this way, no future president could commit the country to a significant war "without first taking the politically sensitive and economically costly step of calling up America's ‘weekend warriors.'"

Abrams was wrong, of course, though he ensured that, decades hence, the reserves, too, would suffer the pain of disastrous wars once again fought on the Eurasian mainland. Still, whatever the generals and the civilian leaders didn't know about the effects of their acts then, the founding of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) may have been the single most important decision made by Washington in the post-Vietnam era of the foreshortened American Century.

Today, few enough even remember that moment and far fewer have considered its import. Yet, historically speaking, that 1973 severing of war from the populace might be said to have ended an almost two-century-old democratic experiment in fusing the mobilized citizen and the mobilized state in wartime. It had begun with the levée en masse during the French Revolution, which sent roused citizens to the front to save the republic and spread their democratic fervor abroad. Behind them stood a mobilized population ready to sacrifice anything for the republic (and all too soon, of course, the empire).

It turned out, however, that the drafted citizen had his limits and so, almost 200 years later, another aroused citizenry and its soldiers, home front and war front, were to be pacified, to be put out to pasture, while the empire's wars were to be left to the professionals. An era was ending, even if no one noticed. (As a result, if you're in the mood to indulge in irony, citizen's war would be left to the guerrillas of the world, which in our era has largely meant to fundamentalist religious sects.)

Just calling in the professionals and ushering out the amateurs wasn't enough, though, to make the decision truly momentous. Another choice had to be married to it. The debacle that was Vietnam—or what, as the 1970s progressed, began to be called "the Vietnam Syndrome" (as if the American people had been struck by some crippling psychic disease)—could have sent Washington, and so the nation, off on another course entirely.

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