Who is left to fight wars when they are not for national survival? Who dies and who survives with terrifying mental and physical wounds when armed conflict becomes a battle for hegemony, profit and spheres of influence?

Tom Engelhardt, publisher of They Were Soldiers, describes how author Ann Jones “explores her relations with Americans from the time she was helping Afghan civilians with casualties caused by American convoys to the time, at age 73, that she donned body armor and combat boots and embedded at a US forward combat outpost, to her most recent odyssey – following the grievously war-wounded from a trauma hospital in Afghanistan to another kind of battlefield in the US.”

Heroics in wars abroad are praised by politicians and generals, but the returning wounded are largely forgotten and shunted aside, only infrequently covered by the national press or discussed by government officials. Ann Jones sets the record straight.

Get a copy of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – The Untold Story with a minimum contribution of $25 to Truthout. Click httpss://co.clickandpledge.com/advanced/default.aspx?wid=73400” here now.

The following is an excerpt from “The Sacrificial Soldier,” the last chapter of They Were Soldiers:

Most of those boys and girls numbered their options on the

fingers of one hand with fingers to spare. The only stories they had

to tell me about their lives before they joined the military were

painfully circumscribed, and most were a version of the basic scenario

I already knew: “My family was poor. I was poor.” For the

Poor – immigrants, Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, and

whites alike – the military often offers what looks like the only way

up and out. A white girl in Pennsylvania, just finishing high school,

dreamed of college, not soldiering, but she didn’t know how to

apply. Her parents couldn’t help her, and she felt too ashamed to

ask her teachers. A military recruiter who haunted her high school

told her she had the makings of a Marine. “I knew the Marines

were really tough,” she says, “and I wanted to be part of that club

of really tough people. I guess I was kind of angry that I couldn’t

go to college, like I wanted.”

A black girl in South Carolina finished near the top of her high

school class. Determined not to repeat her mother’s life, she enrolled

in a state college. To attend, she had to rent a room in the

college town and get a job at Walmart to pay for it. There was no

public bus, so she needed a car to travel to her job. She couldn’t

break even, but somehow, with help from her mom, she managed

this arrangement for two years before the hard work wore her out,

and she began to talk to the Army recruiters who hung around the

mall. She told me her story when we met on a firing range in

Afghanistan. She was homesick.

In Boston, at a predominantly black high school, a senior who

had already signed up for the Army told me he wanted to escape the

violence of city streets. “I got no future here,” he said. “I might as well

be in Afghanistan.” Only a few weeks before he joined, one of his best

friends had been killed in a convenience store just down the block

from the school, caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s fight. His

chances of survival, he was convinced, would be better in

Afghanistan than in his own neighborhood. He said, “I’ve got to finish

high school before I can go. I just hope I can make it to the war.”


Kids like these were hustled through basic training and speedily

deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, only to find another army already

there – the shadow army of private for-profit defense contractors.

Most of them were contracted to do a long list of chores that uniformed

soldiers used to do for themselves when, courtesy of conscription,

there were a lot more of them. To maximize their profits

and minimize their work, however, the private contractors hired

subcontractors who, in turn, hired subcontractors from third world

countries to ship in laborers to do on the cheap the actual grunt

work of hauling water and food supplies, cleaning latrines, collecting

garbage, burning trash, preparing food, washing laundry, fixing

electrical grids, doing construction, and staffing the fast food

stands and beauty salons that sold tacos and pedicures to the

troops. Tens of thousands of workers, recruited often with false

promises of high wages in posh places like Dubai, paid high fees

to recruiters only to find themselves in Iraq or Afghanistan, confined

within bases, often stripped of their passports, with no recourse

but to work for next to nothing.

These TCNs (third-country nationals) were trafficked in with

no way out, often subjected to repeated sexual assaults, effectively

enslaved, and kept under wraps. In the midst of the Iraq war, thousands

of underfed TCNs rioted, demanding food, and tore up

American bases. Yet, because of the lack of journalists on the scene,

American taxpayers remained largely unaware of the extraordinary

human rights violations they were funding. Newly arriving soldiers

were surprised to see all the “foreigners” serving food in the

DFAC or tending the fire at the burn pit where so much waste went

up in smoke. But without this private shadow army of highly paid

managers and badly paid workers, the invasion and occupation of

Iraq and Afghanistan would not have been possible.

Armed private security contractors showed up on the military

bases, as well, striding around in civilian clothes – black T-shirts

and shades were popular – doing nobody knew what. Secretive

paramilitary security contractors like Blackwater and DynCorp

were believed to be providing guards and guns for hire to the government

Washington was supporting and the U.S. military, as well

as private bigwigs, politicos, and corporate brass. But mostly they

weren’t saying, and that information can’t be learned from official

reports of the Department of Defense because “DOD does not report

the breakdown of services that contractors provide in

Afghanistan.” It used to name their services in Iraq but only in

sweeping terms like “logistics” or “transportation” or “security.”

The old guys with the big bellies are most conspicuous on the

bases. Some insurance clause in their contracts requires them to

be the first into bunkers and the last out when the base is hit. On

forward bases those contractors might spend the better part of the

day amid the sandbags. Soldiers passing by laugh at them but envy

their pay. They grow to hate them, too. A truck-driving soldier who

hauled supplies along the deadly roads of blistering Iraqi deserts

told me he had to fight the urge to lob bricks through the windows

of contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root’s (KBR) slick air-conditioned

trucks. He didn’t do it only because he and his buddies often

had to drive those trucks themselves. KBR hadn’t hired enough private

drivers, so the soldiers did double duty with no extra pay and

the sickening suspicion that KBR would double-bill the Pentagon

for their services.

Yet many a soldier I talked to over the years in Afghanistan

dreamed of leaving the Army and coming back as a contractor with,

as one put it, “a fat wallet and a shitload of chicks.” In the Afghan

capital Kabul and on military bases elsewhere in the country, I

sometimes ran into guys who had done just that. We would have a

friendly chat that invariably shifted to a different key when I asked

who they were working for. It seems the military has become a pathway

to the greener pastures of private contracting. A soldier can do

a tour of duty with the Army or Marines and then, having been

trained at taxpayer expense, ascend to the happy land where the

same government will pay him many times his old salary for much

easier work. And, hey, nobody needs to know his business.

Whatever contractors were up to, their ranks grew during a

decade of war until, in our war zones, they outnumbered uniformed

soldiers on the ground. In March 2011, the Department of

Defense reported that its soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan numbered

145,000, its contractors 155,000, or 52 percent of the “workforce”

of those wars. The percentages shift as deployments change,

making for slippery and often deceptive statistics. For example, the

report noted that only 45,000 American troops were then left in

Iraq, but it somehow neglected to mention that a shadow army of

64,250 private contractors still remained.

By 2010, contractors outnumbered uniformed soldiers on casualty

lists, as well, though nobody but their parents mistook them

for noble “warriors.” Newspapers carried no stories of heroic contractors.

Television commentators did not celebrate their “sacrifice.”

Even when they lost their lives on the job, they remained

unsung and suspect.

When questioned about its use of these shadowy private contractors

to conduct its wars, the Pentagon responded that it needed more

manpower and that it was more efficient and economical to hire them

and then dismiss them when a job was done, without obligation, benefits,

or responsibility. In fact, for favored private contractors, new

deals were always just around the corner. So strong has the Pentagon’s

preference for this privatized arrangement been that even when a contractor –

Blackwater – faced an investigation for war crimes, or –

Blackwater renamed Academi LLC – federal criminal charges for

violating “important laws and regulations concerning how we as a

country interact with our international allies and adversaries,” or –

Halliburton, for one – simply “lost” untold millions of taxpayer dollars,

it was likely to be handed another multimillion or multibillion

dollar, no-bid contract on the grounds of its “experience.”

In 2008, a BBC investigation of American contractors estimated

that “around $23 billion may have been lost, stolen, or just

not properly accounted for in Iraq.” Despite such “carelessness,”

private contractors in Iraq to that date had taken home $138 billion

in profits, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, while Halliburton alone

snatched $39.5 billion. The wars, it seemed, had become a remarkably

efficient engine for transferring the wealth of the nation from

the public treasury to the pockets of the already rich. Democratic

Congressman Henry Waxman, who chairs the House committee

on oversight and government reform, called the contractors’ staggering

gains possibly “the largest war profiteering in history.” Could there be any

connection between the size of those corporate profits and Washington’s

patriotic dedication to eternal wartime?

That great transfer of wealth certainly helps explain how the gap

between rich and poor in America has become an ever-widening

canyon. The financial dynamics of war-making are rarely mentioned

in connection with America’s economic woes, but from the profiteers’

point of view, widening income inequality might be seen as a contribution

to national security. During the past 12 years of wars, defined

from the start as “endless,” the ranks of the poor have increased

exponentially, while public services like the education system that

once enabled them to rise have decayed, ensuring that a supply of

deluded kids, impoverished in every way, will don the uniforms of

soldiers and perform the next round of America’s unnecessary wars.

In 2011, as American forces left Iraq, Vermont independent

Senator Bernie Sanders made public a Defense Department report

prepared at his request: 300 defense contractors in Iraq providing

products or services to the Pentagon had been involved in fraud,

including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both rewarded

with even bigger multibillion dollar contracts after paying

small fines. During the decade of war, the Pentagon had forked

over to the top 37 fraudulent corporations alone $1.1 trillion.

Such are the advantages of an increasingly privatized army that operates

in the shadows. Corporations bring home the bacon. Soldiers,

on the other hand, bring home only medals.


Eventually, when a war officially ends, all those contractors come

home, too—guys mostly, seeking high-paying work, and still young

enough to be looking for more of the risky macho fun and adrenaline

rush of the war zone. These are men who went to the war zones

strictly for the money, but greed is no protection from the kinds of

things that screw up soldiers trying to “reintegrate”: the jumpiness

and wariness, the explosive rage. Returning soldiers have a hard time

getting help from the VA for the “changes” that keep them from truly

coming home; returning contractors don’t even have a VA.

Nobody checks on their reintegration into American life. They

come home one by one, losing all at once whatever band of macho

brothers they ran around with in the war zone. They are open to

recruitment by any person or organization that can promise some

adventure and perhaps some big bucks if all goes well. A little fun

down there on the Mexican border perhaps, or in Colombia

maybe, or Venezuela—how’s that war on drugs coming along? Or

on one of the great array of American military bases encircling the

world. There’s bound to be some trouble going on there. Or maybe

right here at home with some local militia or neo-Nazi gang or Islamophobic

crusade. If you stop to think about it, these armies of

men used to being accountable to no one, vulnerable to the pitch

of any wacko extremist group, returning to an American homeland

already armed and fearful—well, that could keep you up at night.


America’s soldiers return with enough troubles to last the rest of

their lives, and many of those lives will be short, as we’ve seen in

this book. But all through these wars we’ve heard the patriotic tales

of heroism and sacrifice, refashioning the suffering of soldiers and

their families into the national narrative we know so well – the one

about the greatest nation, the greatest military force, the greatest

generation the world has ever known.

I often think of the young Chinook crews I talked with on that

flight down to Bagram in the spring of 2011, and the Chinook the

Taliban shot down that August. I don’t believe it was their Chinook

because the fatal plane was said to carry 30 Navy SEALs and eight

Afghan soldiers, but frankly I’ve been reluctant to look into it. Let’s

talk about those Navy SEALs. President Obama promised their

families that their deaths “shall not have been in vain.” Abraham

Lincoln’s memorable turn of phrase may have made sense at Gettysburg

where the cause for which men fought was clear to soldiers

on both sides of the battle and to citizens north and south. But who

can say with confidence what cause those SEALs were fighting for

when the Taliban cancelled their mission? They are all dead. And

their bodies were so conjoined in death with the wreckage of that

Chinook that, as the president later explained to their families, the

remains of individual men could not be separated out and returned

in their own personal flag-draped coffins.

Nevertheless, these dead soldiers now serve rhetorically as an

incitement to continue the fight so that their sacrifice “shall not

have been in vain.” There may be a rare American, inside or outside

military service, who can state with certainty what we now fight

for, but when soldiers fight only because soldiers before them have

fought, when soldiers die only because soldiers before them have

died, then war truly becomes an endless loop.

The war in Iraq has officially ended, and is largely forgotten in

America. Meanwhile, in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan

the nation’s uniformed Warriors go on enacting, for the domestication

of the public, a familiar war narrative of selfless sacrifice that

will be trumpeted in presidential rhetoric, Sunday sermons, and

press releases from the Pentagon. Thanks to Hollywood we even

know what war is supposed to look like, and how proud and patriotic

it is supposed to make us feel.

The performance of war – the surges and night raids and air

strikes – may mask the real war: the everlasting privatized and secret

one. But the sacrifice of the real soldiers is real enough. Today,

somewhere in the country a local newspaper reporter is writing a

sad, inspirational story about a small-town soldier wounded or

dead. It may one day be picked up by national politicians and newscasters

as part of the great patriotic narrative intended to persuade

us that the personal sacrifice of soldiers gives meaning to our lost

wars. Historically, in the trenches of the Marne, as on the beaches

of Normandy and Guadalcanal, it was the justness of the cause for

which soldiers fought that ennobled their sacrifice – not the other

way around. Which means that the death, dismemberment, and

disintegration of misled young men and women should not redeem

the misbegotten “wars of choice” chosen for us by leaders who have

never been to war. Still, those sacrificial soldiers do lay claim to our

conscience: all those kids who drank the recruiters’ Kool-Aid and

died, and those who still bravely soldier on with their brand-new

titanium legs and blasted genitals and decommissioned brains.

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in 2011, I met a woman

from a small town in West Virginia, the mother of a 19-year-old

soldier whose legs and genitals were blasted to pulp in Afghanistan.

She quit her job and moved to a motel near the hospital, then in

Washington D.C., to care for him, while her husband worked a second

job at home to make up for part of her lost wages. She had

been at the hospital for six months. She hoped to bring her son

home someday – perhaps in another year or so – and she expected

to take care of him for the rest of his life, or hers. She said, “People

expect me to be happy that he survived, and I believe I am, but I

can’t really remember what happy feels like.”

If her son had been killed, she would be expected to feel

“proud.” But that wasn’t a word she used. She told me, “My other

son, his older brother, was about to graduate from high school. He

was going around looking for a job. One day he came home and

said, ‘I can’t get a job in this town, so I joined the Navy.’ He was

ashamed to come home and tell his dad and me that he couldn’t

find work. We’re not a military family, but there wasn’t anything

we could do about it – he was 18 – and he’s made a good job of the

Navy. He’s still in. But then when our younger son was finishing

high school, of course he had to outdo his big brother, so without

telling us, he joined the Marines – and bam.”

Overcome, she sat quietly for a few minutes, looking at her

hands, collecting herself. Then she turned her eyes to me again and

said, “We don’t know how any of this happened to our kids.”

Get a copy of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – The Untold Story with a minimum contribution of $25 to Truthout.  https://co.clickandpledge.com/advanced/default.aspx?wid=73400

Copyright of Ann Jones. 



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