Confronting America’s Military Today: A Lethal Behemoth

Against the Current, No. 74, May/June 1998

Tod Ensign

“No foreseeable enemy is likely to fight the United States with tanks, jets, warships, or 20th Century tactics; the Pentagon’s arsenal is too overwhelming . . .”
&#8212NY Times excerpt of National Defense Panel report “Transforming Defense: National Security in the 2lst Century,” December l, 1997

A VISITOR FROM another planet might look at America’s military budget and ask; “Why does it keep growing if the country has no credible opponents?” Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union seven years ago, the U.S. military continues to pursue the strategic goal of “containment.”

America’s military strategists largely agree that it must remain the “preponderant power” in the world. This doctrine originated in the National Security Council (NSC) Directive 68, which provided the strategic framework for waging the Cold War against the Soviet Bloc. Currently, the bloated Pentagon consumes $270 billion annually&#8212an amount which exceeds the combined spending of the next five most heavily-armed nations. This allows America to keep 114,000 troops in the heart of Europe, another 90,000 in Korea and Japan and tens of thousands more aboard its vast naval fleet which continuously circles the globe.

Anyone who tries to mobilize public opinion against the “defense” budget soon learns how broadly military spending is dispersed throughout virtually every Congressional district. With few exceptions, members of Congress regard the military as a huge jobs program, one that employs two and a half million people, many of them in semi-skilled jobs.

When you add in the vast network of manufacturers and service businesses who sell the military everything from depleted uranium-tipped tank rounds to mattresses, you begin to appreciate the political potency of Pentagon dollars.

Political strategies that try to cut military spending through electoral activity or Congressional lobbying are doomed to failure, in this writer’s opinion, at least as long as no mass movement for economic justice exists.

In November 1997, Congressman Ronald Dellums (D-CA) surrendered his seat after spending thirty years (two of them as a House chairman) battling to reduce military spending and influence. A sympathetic article in the San Francisco Chronicle, which profiled his long career, didn’t identify any significant successes in his struggle. One doesn’t disparage Ron Dellums by acknowledging the immense difficulty of what he tried to do.

At Citizen Soldier, we decided long ago that advocacy for the human needs and rights of individual soldiers and veterans offers a more effective way of challenging militarism. Working in coalition with grassroots veterans’ groups, first for ailing “atomic” and Agent Orange vets and more recently with Persian Gulf veterans, we’ve been able to undercut one of the military’s favorite myths: that it “takes care of its own.”

Each year, the percentage of enlistment-eligible young people who are willing to consider military service shrinks further. Negative publicity in recent years about sexual harassment of female recruits, and the government’s callous disregard of health problems suffered by many Gulf War veterans, has likely registered on the very young men and women the armed forces must entice onto active duty.

Since all the services, except the Marines, failed to meet their recruiting quotas in 1997, they’ve been forced to accept an increasing number of non-high school graduates as a stopgap. Because all the services place restrictions on the percentage of females they’ll enlist (between 12-16%), recruiting shortfalls are likely to worsen in the years ahead.

Military’s War on Women: The Wrong Stuff

“When you want to create (solidarity in) a group of male killers, this is what you do: you kill the women in them.”&#8212George Gilder, Men & Marriage

After feasting at the trough during the budget-busting Reagan years, the armed forces began to hit some rough patches not long after its much ballyhooed victory over Iraq. The Navy’s Tailhook Association garnered some unwanted headlines in late 1991, when its members ran riot during its annual convention in Las Vegas, attacking women&#8212both civilian and military.

“Tailhookers” are an elite, ultra-macho group of Navy pilots who fly their fighter jets off the decks of aircraft carriers. Although their behavior at the three day bacchanal shocked even conservative supporters in Congress, none of the 150 pilots who were investigated were ever court martialled, though some were punished administratively or forced to retire.1

The military took another hit in 1995, when a comprehensive study of 50,000 females serving on active duty found that a staggering 56% reported experiencing at least one act of sexual harassment, ranging from cat calls to rape, during the previous year.

This rate was only slightly lower than the 64% harassment rate reported in a similar study conducted in 1988. The category which registered the largest decline&#8212a drop of 15% from the first to the second study&#8212was whistling and cat calls, the least serious and also most easily-detected activity. Rape, which accounted for 5% in the first study, declined by only one point.

In 1996, the military received another black eye when drill instructors at several Army bases were charged with sexually abusing female recruits. In response the military installed a toll-free “hot line,” which logged over 8,000 complaints (1,000 of which investigators deemed “serious” over the next seven months).

In July 1997, the Army abruptly turned off the phone service, saying that it was no longer needed.

Breaching the Ramparts

Until the creation of the “all volunteer force” in 1973, women had served only in segregated units, performing mostly clerical and medical related jobs. But the commission that designed the all-volunteer concept foresaw that a significant proportion of the “new” military would have to be female if the Pentagon was to successfully recruit enough people for a two million member military.

Responding to the concerns of military traditionalists, Congress passed “combat exclusion” laws that forbade women from serving in military jobs that might involve them in combat. These barriers began to erode, however, as female GIs earned the grudging respect of many of their male peers.

The Clinton administration opened up many more jobs to women, though they remain excluded from infantry, armor, and artillery fighting units and from the submarine fleet. Predictably, these seismic shifts have had a major impact on an institution that is, by its nature, highly traditional and conservative.

Some male officers and NCOs have continued to wage rear-guard harassing actions against women who, they fear, will lower the military’s testosterone level. In the hoariest all-male bastions, like combat pilots, female flight trainees have been harassed so mercilessly that all but the most determined have been driven out.

When F-14 pilot Lt. Karen Hultgreen was killed while attempting to land on an aircraft carrier, male pilots pointed to the crash as an example of lowered standards, even though nine male F-14 pilots had suffered similar accidents in the preceding two years.2

For generations, the all-male U.S. military tolerated, if it didn’t actually condone, GIs patronizing prostitutes and conducting extramarital affairs. Condoms were routinely issued, along with warnings about venereal diseases, whenever the Navy arrived at a new port of call.

The huge Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines was infamous for its off-base “comfort workers”&#8212ten thousand poverty-stricken Filipino women and young girls. And thanks to a longstanding rule that prevented GIs from taking along their spouses on one-year assignments to Korea, a whole industry of “yobos”&#8212Korean comfort women&#8212grew up around the military bases to keep America’s flyboys and soldiers warm during the long Korean winters.

Yet former Army lawyer Lt. Col. Luther C. West, who served from 1951 to 1968, doesn’t recall ever seeing an adultery trial during his long career.

Twelve years ago, the Supreme Court gave military courts sweeping new authority to try GIs for virtually any offense in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, even if the offense took place off base, off duty and involved civilians as well as a service member.

Commanders were quick to use this new power to extend their authority. Soon, the “family values” moral codes of career officers began to replace the more tolerant values of the larger civilian society.

Take the case of adultery. Only half the states today even carry adultery statutes on their books, and prosecutions are exceedingly rare. Yet in the Air Force, such prosecutions have quadrupled over the past decade. Criminal statutes which are unique to the military, such as “fraternization” (unauthorized officer-enlisted social contact) are increasingly used by the command to enforce conformity.

We at Citizen Soldier believe that socially conservative military commanders have also begun to go after female officers who don’t conform to their straitlaced preconceptions. Citizen Soldier recently worked with Boston attorney Louis Font in his defense of Air Force Lt. Crista Davis, 28, of DeKalb, IL. We believe that Crista, who faced fifty-five years in prison for a battery of charges like “conduct unbecoming,” was victimized because she refused to mold herself to her superiors’ idea of ladylike behavior.

Gay and lesbian service members have also suffered from these invasive policies. According to a 1996 study by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the new “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” regulations, which President Clinton implemented as a supposed reform, have been used by homophobic commanders to involuntarily discharge or court martial more gay and lesbian members than ever before.3

When Captain Larry Rockwood was court martialled at Ft. Drum in upstate New York in 1995 for trying to report human rights violations in Haiti, many of the career officers who were prospective jurors told defense lawyers that they actively participated in on-base prayer and Bible study groups with other officers and their wives.

In Making the Corps, a book which profiles Marine boot camp today, Thomas Ricks quotes numerous Marine Corps officers and recruits who speak contemptuously of civilians as moral and physical slackers. Several told Ricks that they expected America’s next war to be waged between the embattled forces of law and order and those of corrupt degeneracy right here at home.4 Carried to its logical conclusion, this could result in an authoritarian officer corps which no longer respects civilian control of the military or democratic institutions.

The latest defense authorization bill, enacted in November 1997, encourages this trend by legally requiring all officers to be “vigilant” in monitoring the conduct of their subordinates and to “suppress all dissolute and immoral practices” while making sure that laws and regulations are obeyed.5

Fortunately for Lt. Crista Davis, one of her Air Force Academy classmates, Lt. Kelly Flinn, also ran afoul of the military’s “morality police” during the winter of 1997. Since Flinn had assumed the status of an Air Force poster girl by becoming its first female B-52 pilot, her prosecution for adultery (with a married civilian) set off a torrent of publicity, which worked in Davis’ favor.

Lt. Davis’ case is a dramatic illustration of what can happen when a Black woman refuses to be victimized by her racist and sexist superiors and, instead, charges them with discrimination. Her supervisor commonly referred to female Air Force Academy grads as a “coven of witches.”

“He told me that he’d gone through communications school with female grads who were trying to get men kicked out by saying they’d been harassed,” Davis recounted. He also told her that Black syndicated newspaper columnist Clarence Page “deserved a good, old fashioned Mississippi ass-whipping” for an article he’d written.

Offended by his remarks&#8212and by a pattern of unfair evaluations&#8212she filed a formal complaint against him with the Air Force Inspector General. Not much later, Davis was hit with several court martial charges.

Eventually, the Air Force threw in the towel and granted her a General Discharge, since they feared that her defense lawyers would bring out many details about their misogynist treatment of Crista Davis and other female officers.

A separate Air Force prosecution of another female officer ended tragically when Lt. Col. Karen Tew killed herself after an adultery conviction ended her long and honorable career.

Some, like feminist author Linda Bird Francke, are pessimistic that the military can effect real changes in this area. In her book Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military (1997), she argues: “In such a group-driven, male culture, the Pentagon’s directives on sexual harassment were doomed to sink like stones.” For Francke “harassment is the inevitable byproduct” when you mix testosterone and a strong sense of entitlement.

Veterans Out of Sight and Mind

After the Second World War, American veterans returned home to a generous package of benefits. The GI Bill was available to underwrite all college costs, and home mortgages were dispensed at very low interest rates. Veterans Administration (VA) medical centers provided treatment and long-term care that was at least on a par with other public health systems.

Thirty years later, however, chronic cost cutting and austerity had taken their toll. The system was unable to respond effectively when tens of thousands of returning Vietnam combat veterans sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related ailments.

As veterans from America’s many nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific and Nevada began to develop leukemias and other cancers which scientists linked to radioactive fallout, the VA system refused to recognize that their injuries were “service connected.” When Vietnam vets also began to report health problems which they attributed to the herbicide Agent Orange, they met with indifference if not outright hostility. Congress finally had to step in and pass legislation which mandated the Veterans Administration to compensate certain cancers and other health problems.

Sad to say, even with this presumptive legislation, an intransigent and cost-conscious bureaucracy threw up so many obstacles that only a tiny percentage of veterans from either group has been able to win compensation. For example, only about five hundred “atomic veterans” had won disability awards as of January 1996.

Pyrrhic Gulf Victory?

It’s not surprising that so many Gulf War veterans have become sick when you consider how many different toxins they were exposed to while serving there. Organophosphate pesticides, experimental vaccines, depleted-uranium weapons, oil well fires, chemical and/ or biological warfare agents, anthrax vaccines and infectious diseases all contributed to the toxic bath in which many GIs were submerged.

Not long after the war ended, chronically ill veterans and those still on active duty began to seek help from VA and military medical centers. At the end of 1997, 120,000 Gulf vets had reported in with unexplained ailments. The response of their military leaders, who had wallowed in patriotic glory and yellow ribbons just a year or two earlier, was to deny any knowledge of toxic exposures that might have brought on the vets’ current health problems.

General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was first in a parade of high-ranking coverup artists when he testified falsely to Congress that U.S. troops had been adequately equipped to engage in chemical warfare in the Persian Gulf. Gulf Commander General Norman Schwartzkopf and Defense Secretary William Perry both later lied by claiming that they had no knowledge of any chemical weapons to which U.S. or allied troops were exposed.

In a damage-control exercise, CIA Director John Deutch later tried to conceal the magnitude of these exposures by illegally attempting to reclassify information on Iraqi weapons that had been released earlier on the Internet. It took five years of disclosures and Congressional hearings before the Pentagon and the CIA finally admitted in August, 1996 that at least 100,000 U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to chemical or nerve gas agents when U.S. troops or warplanes detonated Iraqi weapons caches.6

Following a series of hearings in 1997, the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight voted unanimously (52-0) to have Congress designate an agency independent from the Pentagon and the VA to assume responsibility for all future research on Gulf War illness.

Immediately, Defense Secretary William Cohen announced his support for continued military control over this research. Given Bill Clinton’s consistent refusal to exert any control over his subordinates in the Pentagon, this may become a bitterly fought issue.

Mrs. Jackie Olson, a Babylon, NY, mother of two ailing Gulf War vets, summarized what’s at stake when she told reporters: “The burden of proof (has shifted) to the vets. They’ve been totally dumped. I can assure you that it’s going to affect the willingness of young people to fight for our country in the future.”

The Citizen Soldier: Endangered Species?

Military careerists love to wax sentimental about their frontline battles in the defense of freedom and democracy. Yet these same commanders today invade and dominate the private lives of service members in a fashion that would have been unthinkable twenty-five years ago.

They’ve developed a whole array of mechanisms which allow them to surveil and monitor the activities of GIs. For example:

Urine Tests to detect drug metabolites. Every active-duty GI and reservist is routinely required to provide urine samples periodically. These samples are assayed for the presence of drug metabolites, which may indicate use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, PCP, amphetamine, etc.

Despite constitutional challenges based on one’s rights against self-incrimination and illegal search, the courts have approved the use of these tests as evidence in court martials. Citing “national security” and “military necessity,” judges have allowed defendants to be convicted of drug possession and use solely on urine-test results.

HIV blood screening. All active-duty and reserve service members are also required to provide blood samples once a year, which are tested for the HIV virus. Those found “positive” (about one thousand each year) are removed from foreign assignments or positions which might require deployment abroad, but allowed to continue in service as long as they can continue to meet physical fitness standards.

While most states have adopted laws which strictly control access to HIV test results, a number of “HIV positive” GIs have been victimized when test results “leaked” to other members of their units.

DNA specimen collection. In a program which may be a harbinger for the future in civilian society, the military currently collects DNA specimens from all GIs, active-duty and reserve. It claims that it needs this data because in past wars its pathologists has only been able to identify 70% of badly damaged corpses using fingerprints or dental records.

When two Marines refused to provide DNA samples in 1995, they sought an injunction against the program. Federal courts dismissed their case, finding that the program was a reasonable exercise of military authority.

As science expands the boundaries of DNA technology, the military’s data base could be used to acquire extremely personal information about service members’ physical characteristics. In response to Congressional criticism, the Pentagon implemented new regulations in 1996 which limits use of DNA samples to: 1) identification of human remains, 2) other purposes approved by donor or his/her next of kin, or 3) where lawful court order related to a criminal matter has been issued and “no reasonable alternative means” for obtaining DNA exists.

Also, GIs may now request that their specimen be returned when they leave the military. Otherwise, the military will keep it on file for fifty years! Nonetheless, another bulwark of privacy has been breached and it’s likely that before long civilian agencies will point to the Pentagon’s DNA bank as a rationale for their obtaining similar access to citizens’ molecular road maps.

The Future

No one should assume that any of the problems or scandals I’ve outlined above have, in any serious way, undermined the power and confidence that the Pentagon continues to enjoy among America’s ruling circles. And why should they? As long as our military professionals are willing to observe the niceties of token civilian control, our rulers will pay them homage&#8212no matter how much suffering their incompetence or brutality has caused our military veterans or innocent civilians around the world.

Recent surveys of young soldiers, however, have disclosed some potential problems of motivation and morale, which no doubt have attracted the attention of the senior command. Asked if they agreed with that statement “the main focus of the Army should be warfighting,” only one third of the female GIs and slightly more than half the males responded in the affirmative.

When asked if they would feel good about going to war tomorrow with their unit, only 24% of the women and 36% of men answered “yes.”7


  1. Fall from Glory, Greg Vistica (Simon and Schuster, 1995), offers a thorough account of the rise and fall of the U.S. Navy, from Reagan’s dream of a 600-ship fleet to the bitter fruits of Tailhook and its legacy.
  2. Ground Zero, Linda Bird Francke (Simon and Schuster, 1997), presents a detailed and spirited history of women’s rocky integration into the “all volunteer” military.
  3. Conduct Unbecoming: Second Annual Report, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (Washington DC, 1996).
  4. Making the Corps, Thomas E. Ricks (Scribner’s, 1997).
  5. “Exemplary conduct legal requirement for officers,” Rich Maze, Army Times, December 15, 1997.
  6. Gassed in the Gulf, Patrick Eddington (Insignia Books, Washington DC, 1997), gives a thoroughly documented account by a nine-year CIA analyst of DOD and CIA’s attempt to cover up the chemical/biological weapons exposure during the Gulf War.
  7. “Soldiers: Commitment to readiness not apparent,” Sean D. Naylor, Army Times, September 22, 1997; 4.

ATC 74, May-June 1998