Paying an Unnecessary Price


In Deployed: How Reservists Bear the Burden of Iraq (University of Michigan Press, 2008) Michael Musheno (chair of the Criminal Justice Studies department at San Francisco State University) and Susan M. Ross (Associate Professor of Sociology at Lycoming College) have presented us with valuable insights in their sympathetic portrayal of 46 anonymous reservists in the 893rd Military Police Reserve Company, another pseudonym used in the book. Called to active duty after the invasion of Iraq, all returned alive.

During the Vietnam War the reserves (and National Guard as well) were havens for those wishing to avoid the draft. Those who couldn’t find a reserve slot or manage a deferment were shipped off to basic training and if even more unlucky, were sent to Vietnam. Massive infusions of cannon fodder were desperately needed and Selective Service provided them. Lyndon Johnson preferred a draft because he was wary of political opposition from reservist and Guard families eager to keep their sons at home. Iraq was different. George W. Bush and Richard Cheney (both non-veterans) sent in the reserves and Guard and let everyone else alone because above all they wanted a passive public. As of 2006, more than 186,000 reservists had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the 893rd’s men and women enlisted, they thought they would be "weekend warriors." For a part-time position the pay was good. (At age 19 I too once joined the reserves, happy to receive government checks, and later served on active duty). The 893rd ‘s reservists were certainly motivated to join by economic factors. "Simply put," the authors comment, " a tightening American economy that squeezes lower and middle-class families’ abilities to provide for themselves and their children increases participation rates in the Army Reserve and National Guard." But so did a sense of nationalism, especially after 9/11 and for others, cultural orientations [authors’ italics], what Musheno and Ross define as enlisting as "as a way of enhancing their sense of themselves."

In their demographic breakdown of the 46 men and women of the 893rd, the authors found that they were overwhelmingly male (89.9%), white (71.7%) enlisted personnel (91.3%), 21.7% had a high school or GED diploma, while 71.5% had some college, a bachelor’s degree, and more.

In general, they write, "few Reservists anticipated that they were beginning a series of deployments that would in many cases last more than two years and put them for long stints in the midst of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," adding that the 893rd were heading for Baghdad "within days of President Bush’s announcement on board the USS Abraham Lincoln that the mission in Iraq had been u2018accomplished.’"

Deployed is the first of many books and studies to come about "citizen" soldiers suddenly called to active duty regardless of their marital, parental, occupational or student status. One reservist received an afternoon call telling him to report the following morning. Most had no idea where they going and for how long. Rumors were rampant but that’s the military way and everyone in the unit accepted their assignments though we now know that some of the 186,000 reservists (not part of the 893rd) refused to deploy.

As an MP detachment and part of the army’s constabulary force they expected to guard gates, airports, bridges and tunnels, and perhaps arrest some drunks. Iraq service was different. Some felt estranged from the regulars. One claimed to have been mistreated by regular noncoms and he and his mates were viewed as make-believe soldiers. The four women reservists took care of one another, as did many of the men who formed close friendships with their fellow reservists. As Musheno and Ross tell it, some reservists adapted, others struggled with their assignments in the war-zone and still others resisted as best they could. One reservist was proud of "what I have done" and easily adjusted to post-Iraq life. Others did not. One was upset when enlistments were frozen by the Pentagon’s "stop-loss policies. "It makes me angry to think that the army feels that it has the right to extend people’s contracts," said one angry reservist about the practice, "and hold them past their original orders. Who do they think they are? And there’s nothin’ you can do about it, you know." Marriages and family life were disrupted. Others were concerned that, in spite of have served for two years, they could be recalled at any time. Then, too, when the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib by another MP reserve unit was broadcast to the world some of the 893rd reservists felt tainted, abruptly thrust into a controversy for which they were entirely unprepared. My guess is that some reservists — as many Americans have — doubted that only low-level MPs were responsible for Abu Ghraib, especially in an administration as secretive and paranoid as the Bush administration.

Musheno and Ross conclude that the reservists had made "extraordinary sacrifices." But it is reasonable for some to believe that after all they had volunteered. Shouldn’t they then be required to fulfill their legal duties? Hardly, the authors rightly insist, labeling reservists the "New Conscripts of the Twenty-First-Century U.S. Army." They do so, they write, because they want "to awaken the public to their sacrifices and draw the attention of decision makers to halt the abuse of reservist call-ups to sustain protracted wars that are neither just nor in the interest of the United States."

Meanwhile, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans — reservists and regulars alike — have too often received shoddy hospital treatment (remember the Walter Reed scandal?), received devastating wounds, and as the RAND Corporation concluded in April 2008, twenty percent of returnees are suffering from PTSD, possibly major depression and 19 percent may have brain damage. A bill proposing a generous GI Bill flounders in Congress in the face of Pentagon opposition and a threatened presidential veto. On one visit to the 893rd reserve center Musheno and Ross noticed photographs of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on the wall but nothing was posted "about when, where or how to seek help with the problems associated with either home-grown or war-zone struggles."

While Deployed is a notable addition to the literature of our persistent wars, the real problem, remains, as the title of Martin Binkin’s 1993 book asked, Who Will Fight the Next War?

Who, indeed? Check out your local high school students and college underclassmen as well as your own teenagers. They will, unless and until this country’s historic addiction to war is somehow, in some way, cured.

This piece originally appeared on George Mason University’s History News