Illustration by Peter Bennett

Thousands of Marines have been given a pamphlet called “A Christian's Duty,” a mini prayer book which includes a tear-out section to be mailed to the White House pledging the soldier who sends it in has been praying for Bush.

—ABC News Online, March 30

Several days after Fox News began accusing anti-war protesters of betraying our troops, yet before that network's Geraldo Rivera got bounced by the 101st Airborne for revealing its movements, a friend called from the East Coast. He began ranting about how the war coverage was being distorted by military analysts — from lucid ABC zombie Tony Cordesman to CNN's politically ambitious General Wesley Clark — who would never talk honestly about U.S. policy. “Watching TV,” he growled, “you'd think that everybody in America worked for the Defense Department.”

This bitter joke was not without its truth. In the 42 years since President Eisenhower offered his dark warning about “the military-industrial complex,” that baleful spider web has only grown bigger and stronger. Certainly, the end of the Cold War did nothing to stop it. Today, Americans budget for more defense than the next top 15 defense spenders combined; we not only have a new $75 billion war and new Department of Homeland Security, born of a “war on terrorism” that Dick Cheney says may last 50 years, but our approach to the world is increasingly defined by the military.

Now such a claim might sound odd amidst this week's flood of leaked reports about how Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld messed with Tommy Franks' war plans. Yet such in-house bickering doesn't change the underlying facts. The clunkily named Operation Iraqi Freedom is the brainchild of defense establishment “visionaries” (including Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle), who are busy wresting control from the effete diplomats over at the State Department. Their success is no surprise, for, aside from the president, who went AWOL from his Air National Guard commitment during the Vietnam War (no unpleasant call-ups for him), the Bush administration's top dogs have long been servants of the Pentagon. Rumsfeld is in his second tour at Defense, Cheney ran the department during Desert Storm, and even Secretary of State Colin Powell, widely seen as the voice of peaceful reason (before he rolled over), is himself the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — a good soldier who invariably stays with the program, whether it's helping to whitewash My Lai or lying about Iraqi arms buildups.

Not that the National Security State (as Gore Vidal terms it) began with Bush's election. Our military's gradual seizure of power is set out in The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military, a superb new book by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, who boasts the weird distinction of being the only woman I've seen who's taken seriously as a pundit on the Iraq war. (Sure, battle is a guy thing, but still . . .) Priest details how, over the last quarter-century — especially during the Clinton years — money and authority were siphoned away from State Department officials and handed over to the Pentagon.

These days, the real power belongs to what Priest memorably dubs the “Proconsuls to the Empire”: the Pentagon's five regional commanders in chief (or CinC), each controlling a huge swath of the world. Filling the void left by an enfeebled State Department, these rulers of so-called CinCdoms shape policy, steamroll ambassadors and spend money with no fear of rebuke. (For his wartime press conferences, CinC Tommy Franks spent $250,000 on a flashy set that was FedExed from Florida to Qatar.) In one of The Mission's best stories, Priest tells how, at a big regional conference in Bahrain, America's seven Persian Gulf ambassadors stayed in ordinary hotel rooms, while then-CinC Anthony Zinni and his staff commandeered an entire wing, including a suite the size of a house. The Proconsul's bill for two weeks? $550,000.

Of course, this is milk money to the defense establishment, whose members have been embedded in Fortune 500 corporations and boast a sense of entitlement the size of an aircraft carrier. By now, we're all familiar with the seamy litany of the Bush administration's corporate links: Halliburton, the Carlyle Group — why, Chevron even named a tanker after Condoleezza Rice. Two weeks ago, superhawk Richard Perle threatened to sue Seymour Hersh for a New Yorker article suggesting that he was using his plum (albeit unpaid) position as chairman of the Defense Policy Board to promote his business interests. Last week, Perle gave up the chairmanship — though not his place on the board — once other publications began spotlighting the ethical conflicts in taking several hundred grand from corporations obviously banking on his connections. Naturally, Perle insists he's done nothing wrong, by which he means nothing illegal. I believe him. But such cronyism of the well-connected is still profoundly corrupt, and what's shameful is that administration bigwigs are so steeped in this culture of corporate back scratching that they don't grasp how rotten it smells to the rest of us.

How else to explain the Defense Department's ignominious decision to give Cheney's old company Halliburton a contract for helping restore Iraq's oil fields? As Newsweek's Christopher Dickey noted last week on Fresh Air, the Halliburton contract instantly became front-page news all over the Middle East. It fueled the Arab world's furious conviction that the U.S. is fighting in Iraq on behalf of corporate interests tied to Bush, not for the people's liberation. So much for supporting our men and women overseas.

When it comes to the troops themselves, I frankly don't know what they think they're fighting for — beyond their own, and their comrades', survival. Certainly not the gaudy ideals enunciated by our leaders, who are (as Iago says of Othello) horribly stuffed with the epithets of war, nor the denatured bromides you get in ABC's Profiles From the Front Line or one-to-one interviews with the embeds. As Desert Storm veteran Anthony Swofford recently pointed out, grunts take pride in lying to reporters, and the rest of us play along, eager to believe in these kids' gritty idealism. It makes war palatable.

Of course, the brutal truth does sometimes filter through. Last Saturday, The New York Times' Dexter Filkins interviewed two Marines about the difficulties of enacting an almost impossibly ambiguous war plan: They've got to try to kill the enemy while often risking their own lives in an attempt not to accidentally kill civilians (or guerrillas dressed like civilians). At one point, Sergeant Eric Schrumpf recalled how, aiming at an Iraqi soldier surrounded by civilians, he and his men accidentally shot an innocent woman. “I'm sorry,” he told Filkins. “But the chick was in the way.”

The chick! During the Vietnam War, such cavalier comments led some sheltered idiots back home to demonize American fighting men, many of them young, terrified draftees. But just as America now finds it ever harder to accept the idea of any innocents dying in war, be they U.S. troops or foreign civilians, so it's become harder to fault grunts who (everyone knows) have been drilled in the dehumanized arts of killing, then shipped abroad willy-nilly to practice them. Unlike most of us, these soldiers actually do work for a Defense Department elite that feeds from the corporate trough, and seeing their young faces on the battlefield you can feel the class divisions underwriting our nation's prosperity. For these troops compose “a fighting force that,” as the N.Y. Times recently noted, “is anything but a cross-section of America.” Rather, ours is a working-class military that includes a disproportionately high number of minorities and immigrants. Of the first 28 soldiers to die in the war, only one came from a well-off family.

The troops understand this full well. Near the beginning of Jarhead, Swofford's strutting memoir of Gulf War I, this one-time sniper talks about how he and the other crazy-ass Marines harbored no illusions about how much their lives mattered to the Pentagon brass who sent them into the desert to fight. In the big picture, they knew, he says, “that the outcome of the conflict is less important for us — the men who will fight and die — than for the old white fuckers and others who have billions of dollars to gain or lose . . . We are soldiers for the vast fortunes of others.”

In its own wrenching way, the same holds even truer for the Iraqi people. The most cruelly hit are the least fortunate — those forced to fight with fedayeen guns at their backs, those who must stay in the battered cities because they have nowhere else to go, those who lack the resources to squirrel away food or who, like the seven women and children machine-gunned on Monday, fail to stop at an Army checkpoint. While the Benz-honking winners in Saddam's society have already sent their families (and often themselves) to other Arab capitals, its millions of losers are left to bear the bloody, destructive consequences of his crimes against them. And whatever one's opinion of “regime change,” there's no escaping one lacerating truth: As usual, this war finds one country's working people killing another's for the ultimate benefit of the rich, while their leaders mouth unconvincing words about freedom or defending the glorious homeland.

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