With a $3 trillion war bill and an economy that flounders as China’s soars, could America’s era of dominance on the world stage be coming to an end? Mick Brown and the photographer Alec Soth travelled across America and China to observe how the future of these two great nations is intertwined, and to find out whether, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and the US election, we are on the brink of a new world order. In the first of a four-part series, they meet army recruitment officers in Virginia and cadets at West Point
What, I asked the US Army’s latest recruit, does being an American mean to you? Seventeen years old, as slight as a blade of a grass and as sharp as a whip, Priscilla Branch did not miss a beat. ‘Being free. Having the freedom to believe what we want to believe, and having the ability to express it.’
We were sitting in a classroom of Bassett High School, in the Virginia town of Martinsville. Outside, the rain was falling from a slate grey sky, but nothing could dampen Priscilla’s enthusiasm for her imminent embarkation on what she described as the greatest adventure of her – admittedly somewhat short – life. Having recently enlisted for active service in the Army, in a few months she would be shipping out for basic training and then on to further education, to train as a military paralegal specialist – the profession she planned to follow when she eventually retired from military.
I had come to Bassett High with Staff Sergeant Michael Ricciardi – ‘Sergeant Mike’ – the commander of the local Army recruitment office. Bassett High is one of what Sergeant Mike describes as his prime ‘prospecting’ sites in Martinsville – a town where patriotic feeling is high, employment prospects low, and where a career in the military often serves to satisfy both ends of the equation. Priscilla is one of three of the school’s pupils who have enlisted in the Army and will be taking up their positions when this academic year ends.
After completing her training it is likely that Priscilla will find herself deployed on active service in Iraq or Afghanistan in two years’ time.
‘I actually see that as a challenge, as excitement,’ she said. ‘It allows me to get better pride in myself when I know that I’m risking my life to make sure that everyone here in America is free and they continue to have their freedom. I feel more excitement than nervousness.’
And why, I asked, did she think America was in Iraq?
‘I think we are there to help them. America having democracy and them not having the freedoms we have is holding a lot of them back. It brings me pride not only to serve my country, but to know that my country is opening the eyes of the world to the freedoms we have.’
She paused and thought about this. ‘Actually, I think it’s extremely, extremely excellent.’
It was the British historian Paul Kennedy, in his book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, who first coined the term ‘imperial overstretch’, to describe the situation that besets an empire when its security needs, military obligations and globalist desires increasingly outstrip the resources available to satisfy them. As empires wane, Kennedy argued, they invariably resort to belligerence, thereby accelerating their decline by squandering their national treasuries on military spending, to the detriment of their economies and their people.
Kennedy was writing in the late 1980s, at a time when the Reagan administration was locked in its battle with the ‘Evil Empire’ of communism. Under the Reagan Doctrine, conducted by the defence secretary Caspar Weinberger – of whom it was said ‘there was never a weapon system he didn’t like’ – America’s defence expenditure soared, with the administration funding proxy wars in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Mozambique and Angola. At the same time, the Federal Deficit was increasing alarmingly (it was $153.3 billion in 1987), the dollar was weakening, and in a development laden with portentous symbolism a Japanese company purchased New York’s Rockefeller Centre.
Today, the conditions for ‘imperial overstretch’ are even more present. The dollar is plummeting. The Federal Deficit stands at around $711 billion. The trade deficit with China alone – the coming economic power – stands at close to $24 billion. (While China’s trade surplus stands at around $262 billion.)
In the meantime, the expenditure necessary to prosecute the Reagan doctrine has been thoroughly eclipsed by the present levels of defence expenditure.
The US accounts for 48 per cent of the world’s total defence expenditure, almost ten times the amount of the next highest nation – the UK. The US military budget for 2007 was $439.3 billion, a figure that actually excludes the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are largely funded through extra-budgetary supplements. In his book The Three Trillion Dollar War, the economist Joseph Stiglitz has calculated that after five years, what he calls ‘running expenses’ for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now stand at around $16 billion a month – equivalent to the annual budget of the United Nations. The cost thus far already exceeds the cost of the 12-year war in Vietnam, is more than double the cost of the Korean War, and is fast approaching the total cost of prosecuting the Second World War. The US administration, Stiglitz notes, had originally ‘budgeted’ in the range of $50 to $60 billion to ‘liberate’ Iraq and Afghanistan. The eventual cost, he estimates, is likely to be $3 trillion.
Not least among the challenges faced by the US military in prosecuting the war has been maintaining a full and motivated fighting force at a time when popular sentiment against the war in Iraq is running at an all-time high.
America has had a volunteer army since the abolition of conscription by Congress at the end of the Vietnam War in 1973. But the drip-feed of news images of car bombs in Baghdad and body-bags returning from Afghanistan is not a good advertisement for recruitment. By the US Army’s own admission, the desire to enlist is currently at its lowest point in two decades, with the army struggling to make the required 80,000 new recruits each year; while the cost of recruiting has never been higher – more than doubling in the 20 years between 1975 and 2005 from around $7,000 per enlistee to $16,000.
A disproportionately high number of these recruits come from rural communities, where job opportunities tend to be lower, and patriotic feeling runs higher. According to a study by University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute the death rate for rural soldiers is 60 per cent higher than for soldiers from cities or suburbs: ‘The dearth of opportunity in rural areas simply leaves more young people with fewer alternatives to the military,’ the study notes. ‘The opportunity differential between rural and urban America is probably higher now than at any time in the past.’
Nowhere is this mixture of rural hardship and patriotic sentiment more evident than in the neighbouring Appalachian states of West Virginia and Virginia.
Driving through the Appalachians I kept noticing the word ‘freedom’. It was there on a sign outside a lot selling trailer homes, plastic bunting fluttering in the breeze: freedom homes. It was there on a bumper sticker, framed by the Stars and Stripes, on the semi-truck that swayed past at high speed, sounding its horn, as the road the wound and dipped through the thickly wooded hills.
This had once been a flourishing mining area, but mining was in decline and many of the small communities and townships wore a used-up, sorrowful look; it seemed the only thing that continued to flourish here was faith. In Bradshaw, West Virginia – windblown and desolate – the Ten Commandments were posted in a square opposite the town hall, but even the pawn-shop had closed down.
In West Logan I stopped at a Baptist church for morning service. I was welcomed with open arms. A choir of 12 sang old-time hymns, and the pastor asked the congregation to pray for the nation of Israel and ‘our troops serving in Iraq and Iran [sic]’, and that those two countries should ‘see God’ – ‘Lord, you died for the whole world, not just America. Amen’.
Two members of the congregation had died in Iraq. As I was leaving, a woman pressed a copy of a book into my hand, The Faith of the American Soldier, and over lunch I read the inspirational tale of Russell Rippetoe, a captain in the army Ranger Regiment, who had taken part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, wearing a ‘Shield of Strength’ – a metal dog-tag with, on one side, an American flag with the words ONE NATION UNDER GOD, and on the other a quotation from Joshua 1:9 – ‘I will be strong and courageous, I will not be terrified or discouraged; for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go’. Rippetoe was killed by a car bomb, and was the first serviceman in the Iraq war to be given a hero’s burial at the Arlington National Cemetery. His effects are now on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington – his Bible, a crucifix ‘and a small piece of metal that was scorched in the explosion that took the man’s life. It is the Shield of Strength, the words of Joshua 1:9 still clear.’
Across the Blue Ridge mountains and into Virginia, I heard a different perspective on the war. The Nightride show on country music station WBRF, out of Galax City, was playing a popular Merle Haggard song, America First: ‘Why don’t we liberate these United States/We’re the ones who need it worst/Let the rest of the world help us for a change/And let’s rebuild America first.’
According to the National Priorities Project, an independent research group that analyses federal spending and policy, Martinsville, with a population of just 15,416 people, ranks among the top 10 recruiting areas, per capita, in the US, with a recruitment rate of 22.4 per thousand of 18- to 24-year-olds.
Martinsville felt like a town with problems. Its economy had been built around two industries, textiles and furniture-making, but both had been badly hit in recent years, leading to rising unemployment and a decline in the population as people moved away in search of work. At almost 10 per cent, the unemployment rate was the highest in Virginia. Nineteen per cent of the population were below the poverty line. Teenage pregnancies were double the state average (66 percent of babies born in Martinsville have unwed mothers). In a mournful coda of decline, last year the local sherrif, who also happened to be a church deacon, and ten of his deputies were indicted for their involvement in a drugs and racketeering case.
It is also a town where virtually everybody knows somebody who is in the military, and where the social register in the Martinsville Bulletin regularly lists local servicemen and women who have graduated from basic training, their postings, their citations – and, of course, their deaths. Three servicemen from the town were killed on active service in 2007; the funeral of one of them, Lt Ryan Betton – an all-American boy who had been captain of the high-school wresting team and drum-major for the marching band – was attended by 900 people, including the local congressman.
Martinsville followed the pattern of so many small American towns, a ‘historic’ centre, all but deserted, much of the commerce flung to the perimeters in an endless strip of car dealerships and fast-food outlets.
The military recruiting office occupied a unit in the Liberty Mall on the outskirts of town. At nine in the morning the shops were yet to open, but the mall was already thronged with its habitual population of ‘mall walkers’, elderly people engaged in their morning constitutional, shuffling like somnambulists along its air-conditioned thoroughfares.
Staff Sergeant Michael Ricciardi had been a paratrooper and served in Kosovo. Being posted as recruitment commander to the backwater of Martinsville might have seemed like an anti-climax, but Sgt Riccciardi was flush with enthusiasm. While army recruiters across America struggled to make their required ‘mission’, or target, he regularly exceeded it. In the last three years he had recruited some 100 people into the army, either full time – or ‘active duty’ – or army reserve.
‘You tend to see in the South a lot more patriotism, valour and fidelity among people’, he said. ‘A little more Right-wing, a little more Republican and a little more apt to look into the military not only for a stepping-stone for their future but also to serve their country.’
Much of Sgt Ricciardi’s time was spent ‘prospecting’ at local job fairs, high schools and colleges, and ‘cold-calling’ students of recruitment age on the telephone (colleges and universities are obliged to provide the military with details of their student roll).
Then there are the ‘walk-ins’ at the recruitment centre. Its location in the heart of the mall was no accident; as in so many small American towns, the mall is the main gathering place for Martinsville’s teenagers after school and at weekends. But only three out of ten people who pass through the doors of the recruiting office meet the requirements of being fit for service – a statistic compounded by the declining numbers of young Americans graduating from high-schools and the rising obesity rate (according to the standard measure of obesity, nearly two thirds of all American adults are considered overweight).
In an attempt to redress the crisis in recruitment, the American military has adopted a variety of different strategies. It has lowered educational standards and raised the age ceiling (from 35 to 42). It has introduced a waiver policy for some categories of minor felons who would previously have been barred from service – or as Sgt Ricciardi put it, ‘In some cases we feel a mistake made earlier in life shouldn’t stop you from serving your country and becoming successful’ – and introduced the Army Advantage Fund programme, which pays up to $40,000 towards a home or start-up business for enlistees who commit to five years’ active service.
The ‘messaging’ that the US Army produces for recruiters emphasises the range of benefits that a military career provides, from ‘character building’ and ‘advancing freedom’, to college bursaries and cash enlistment bonuses. Sgt Ricciardi ticked off the benefits on his fingers: ‘Thirty days paid vacation, full medical and dental insurance, life insurance. A guaranteed job in writing on a contract.
‘We try and work with the individual and find out what’s best for them. We’re not car salesmen. We’ve had guys come in here and say, all I want to do is go and shoot at people; that’s not what we’re all about. But if someone wants to be patriotic and serve their country we’re here to help them do that.’
He paused. ‘You get to a point in this job where they don’t just see you as a recruiter, they see you as a friend. Because you’re helping them in a transition in their life that is so profound, that is a life-changing decision.’
With Sgt Ricciardi leading the way in his black Dodge Stratus, emblazoned with the legend GO ARMY, we set off for Bassett High, to meet Priscilla and the other two new recruits – both girls.
Not all high schools in America welcome army recruiters, but Ricciardi is allowed to set up his stall in the school one day a week, and works closely with the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programme. Roughly analagous to the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) in a British school, the JROTC is subsidised by the military, and teaches leadership and civics; students are given military rank, and it is sometimes criticised as being a none-too-subtle means of recruitment into the military.
Priscilla and her friends Lauren Martin and Kayla Smith were waiting in the classroom. Lauren, 17 – petite, spirited, a football team cheerleader – had signed on to the army reserve, to train as a pharmacist.
‘It’ll give me a different aspect on life’, she said. ‘It’ll show you leadership and responsibility, honour – its just something I wanted to try. My brother is in the Navy, and my dad was in the military. They’re proud of me for doing this.’
Kayla, also 17, sweet and bashful, had also signed on for the army reserve, and would be training as a Chemical Operations Specialist. ‘Just about everybody told me I couldn’t do it, and I wanted to prove them wrong,’ she said.
And what, I asked her, does a chemical operations specialist do?
A look of consternation flickered in Kayla’s eyes and she looked to Sergeant Mike. ‘Basically, the eyes and ears and the subject matter expert on nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. Decontanimation and sealant teams. Battlefield threat assessment.’ The consternation in Kayla’s eyes gave way to alarm.
I asked Sgt Ricciardi what the chances were of all three girls being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
‘I can’t speak to the percentages, but what I tell everyone is that the name-tape on your uniform says ‘Army’; it doesn’t say ‘part-time Army’, so if their unit is called to deploy, they will go.’ It was another way of saying ‘inevitable’.
And did this prospect alarm the new recruits?
‘I’ve talked to a lot of people in my unit that have been deployed, and it’s just exciting,’ Lauren said. ‘I’d like to go.’
‘I see it as a challenge,’ Kayla said. ‘And I’d never get to go to some of the places that the army may take you, like overseas.’
We talked a little about the issues facing America – the environment, the economy. What did these new recruits know about China? Lauren ventured a reply. ‘Big? Communist? Somewhere in Asia?’
In fact, China was much closer to home than that. It has become a commonplace that America’s troubled economy can be measured in the gulf between its national deficit ($711.6 billion as of November 2007) and China’s trade surplus (at present a record $262 billion).
Martinsville provided a perfect microcosm of this. The textile business had gone to China and Mexico; while Hooker, the town’s largest furniture manufacturer, which has been in Martinsville since 1924, closed its manufacturing plant in 2007 with the loss of some 300 jobs, and now imports furniture from China.
Walking around a store in the downtown centre with a former employee, Michael Watkins, we paused in front of a handsome home entertainment unit. ‘We used to make that line here,’ he said ruefully. The label bore the name Fookyik – a Chinese company based in GuangZhou that describes itself as ‘one of the most respected names in the American furniture industry’. The prices may have been somewhat cheaper than they had been, but it seemed a clear case of people buying things that they had already paid for with their jobs. ‘That’s what you hear all the time in Martinsville,’ Michael said. ‘The jobs went to China.’
Watkins had grown up in the town, but of the 70 people he had graduated from high school with only ten were still living there. Martinsville, he said, was ‘like a black hole. A lot of Americans have lost the value of hard work. People are working smarter but not harder.’
Since losing his job at the furniture factory he had started working as a freelance artist, drawing comic books satirising, among other things, Bush’s foreign policy and the war in Iraq – an enterprise which he defined as ‘spending American’s retirement funds to blow up sand-dunes’. He was, he said, ‘having the time of my life’.
Back at the recruiting office in the mall, the three new recruits were changing into their uniforms to be photographed. Another new recruit, a boy in a workshirt and mechanics cap had dropped by with his girlfriend to fill out some paperwork. When I asked, why he was joining the army, he shot me a look. ‘Nothing else to do round here…’
His name was David Determan and he was 22. He had worked in a factory in the nearby town of Rocky Mount, manufacturing windows, he said, but they had been laying off for the past year . ‘Nobody’s building houses,’ he said. His sister had recently signed on to the army, and he began to think of it himself. On the day he signed up, he was laid off his job.
And what, I asked, did his friends make of his decision? He shrugged. ‘They’ve got the wrong outlook. They think just because you join and go overseas bad things will happen. But you’ve got to have a positive attitude. Bad things could happen to you here, too.’ His girlfriend sat beside him, a worried look on her face. How did she feel about him signing on? ‘I don’t want to stand in his way. But I just don’t want him to go.’
David shrugged, as if to say, what else do you expect me to do? Everyone I met in Martinsville, I asked the same question I had asked Priscilla – what does America mean to you? And the answer was always the same, said without any self-consciousness or irony: freedom.
Patriotism, pride, a sense of America as the shining city on the hill – an enduring mythology which the JROTC teacher at Bassett High School, Command Sergeant Major (ret) Russell Wilder summed up as ‘Apple pie, Mom and Chevrolet’ – is something Americans wear on their sleeves. Travelling through this corner of the south, I was constantly struck by the ubiquity of the Stars and Stripes, flying not only from public buildings but on the front lawns of people’s houses, emblazoned on stickers on cars and trucks. At a filling station in Martinsville a flashing sign spelt out a series of messages for passing motorists: BUY AMERICAN FUEL; THREE THINGS KEEP AMERICA MOVING: COFFEE, CIGARETTES & ALCOHOL and – a sentiment one saw on bumper-stickers everywhere – SUPPORT OUR TROOPS.
Much of the United States, it seems, has grown tired of the war in Iraq – too tired, or too embarrassed even to be angry. In March, on the fifth anniversary of the war, the numbers of protesters taking to the streets were noticeably fewer than in recent years. The media too nowadays do their best to look the other way. According to a study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in the first 10 weeks of 2008 the war accounted for just three per cent of television, newspaper and internet stories, compared with more than 23 per cent over the same period in 2007.
But here in the South the troops at least were not forgotten.
Before arriving in Martinsville I had visited a National Guard headquarters in Charleston, West Virginia. The National Guard is roughly equivalent to the Territorial Army – a largely part-time force which is on standing reserve for state emergencies but can also be called upon to serve overseas. Five hundred men and women from the West Virginia National Guard are presently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unit runs its own Family Support Group, offering advice and resources to families of servicemen abroad.
Cathy Hammack, who works as a Family Readiness Assistant in the Family Support Office, had five members of her family deployed with the same regiment in Iraq – her husband Keith, two sons, a son in-law and a brother-in-law. ‘They don’t let them stay in the same rooms’, she said. ‘They don’t let them go on the same missions; they’re not supposed to go out on the same flights. But they would never tell me exactly what they’re doing, and I don’t want to know. I’m a chicken. As a mother and wife you don’t want to know those things.’
I asked Cathy, what did she think her family were fighting for?
‘They’re fighting to make Iraq a better place for other people.’
‘I’m not a real big political person; we really haven’t got into the nitty-gritty. They just feel it’s the right thing and that they’re making a difference.’
Her colleague Susan Izzo had met her husband Matt as pen-pals when he was serving in the first Gulf War.
‘He signed on out of a sense of pride, duty and honour. Iraq wasn’t happening then. Do you have some families sign up now because of what’s happening in Iraq? Well yes, you do. But a great thing about this nation is that we have the freedom of our opinions and things we believe in. The fact that my husband puts on his uniform gives me the right whether to believe in the war in Iraq or not. Our soldiers put on their uniforms to fight for us to have the right to believe in whatever we choose.’
And what, I asked, did she think of those who believed the war was wrong?
‘Our husbands and children are fighting for their right to believe that too.’
While in Britain questions may be raised about whether members of the armed forces should even wear their uniforms on the streets for risk of being abused, in America servicemen and women are held in noticeably high regard, even by those who feel the war in Iraq is a terrible mistake – a sentiment pithily expressed by Merle Haggard’s America First: ‘Who’s on the hill and who’s watching the valley/Who’s in charge of it all/God bless the Army and God bless our liberty/Dadgum the rest of it all…’
Nightride, the country music show where I’d heard Haggard’s song, makes a point of playing songs about the war, ‘both pro cand con’, the show’s presenter Bruce Hodges told me – Howard Salmon’s ‘Soldiers and Truckers’, Jeremy Willey’s ‘America, Sleep Good Tonight’ – and organises listeners’ contributions to provide long-distance phone cards for the troops abroad to keep in touch with their families. ‘I am absolutely, vehemently against the fact that we’re in Iraq, and I hold our President in contempt’, Hodges said. ‘But that notwithstanding, these are our fathers, brothers, sons and daughters.’ It was a sentiment, he believed, that was widely shared by his listeners, ‘and I believe it’s widely shared by Americans’.
I had shared my flight from Washington to Charleston, West Virginia on a small commuter plane with a handful of soldiers returning from Iraq, dressed in combat fatigues and toting rucksacks. At Charleston airport, people approached as they waited at the luggage carousel, to shake their hands and wish them well. One soldier’s wife told me that on more than one occasion when she had been in a restaurant when her husband was wearing uniform strangers had offered to buy their dinner.
This regard seemed to be born not only from a sense of patriotism and gratitude, but also from a haunting sense of collective shame and guilt over the way in which soldiers returning from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s were treated – a symptom of America’s deeper struggle with its own conscience.
‘If you go back to the Vietnam era, you’d walk through that airport and you had people spitting on you calling you baby-killer and everything else, and saying that was a war you shouldn’t have fought in,’ Command Sergeant Major Wilder told me. ‘In Vietnam, we took the media and threw them in the corner and wouldn’t let them be part of the process. But if people can see that we’re paying the ultimate sacrifice to let them stay home and live in a free country then they appreciate that.’
CSM Wilder is a square-jawed man in his early fifties, with grey hair cropped in a regulation buzz-cut and a handshake like a vice. He had served for 25 years in the military; five of his children were in the military, one was in Iraq, another had recently returned; his son in law was being deployed there in November. ‘Do I worry? Oh yes, I worry, sir. In wars people die. But I also understand the need for the presence until we get it under control, because I don’t know about you but I don’t want to go to work one day and have a building catch on fire [in a terrorist attack] and there’s a three-month old baby in there burning – for what? And unfortunately you have to lose lives to save lives.’
What, I asked, did he see as America’s role in global affairs?
‘We’re either peace-makers, peace-keepers or peace-enforcers.’ He fixed me with a beatific smile. ‘Peace. America has to say, I am my brother’s keeper; and when my brother’s in harm’s way I have to help. The Iraqi people were in harm’s way. It was our job. Afghanistan – it’s our job. If it was Britain, it would be our job.’
And was it also a case of defending America’s borders 6,000 miles away?
‘Our borders extend to wherever peace needs to be. We’re not on the top of the mountain beating on our chest saying: “Do like I do; I’m America – and if you don’t I’ll stomp you out”. One, we don’t have the money or the assets to do that. Two, we’re not like that.
‘But I think everybody, every child, has the right to say, ‘I want to go bed tonight and wake up tomorrow safe’. Do I want to lose my child in battle? No. But do I want to lose my child in a terrorist act? No. So, which is worst, sir?’
This sense of America’s duties and obligations as the leader of the free world is nowhere more apparent than at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where some 900 cadets graduate each year, to be commissioned as US army lieutenants – a quarter of the Army’s total of new lieutenants commissioned.
Viewed across the Hudson River from the aptly named railway station of Garrison, West Point has the daunting appearance of a fortress – which is what it was originally built as during the American war of independence, as a redoubt against the British.
The academy curriculum includes not only military training, but a core academic programme of 31 courses, with an emphasis on engineering – and on politics.
In recent years, West Point has developed an extensive programme of studies in international relations, Middle East history and politics and Arabic. In 2003, the Academy opened its own Combating Terrorism Centre (with an endowment from Vincent Viola, a former West Point graduate, who was Chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange at the time of 9/11) and now offers the world’s first academic ‘minor’ degree in terrorism. It was Friday, and in the military equivalent of the corporate ‘dress down’ mode, cadets had forsaken their customary stiff grey dress uniforms for combat fatigues, lending them the appearance of an army of occupation.
In a class in advanced international relations, America’s global role was being examined through the lens of ‘hegemonic stability’, the theory propounded by the academic Robert Gilpin in his book The Political Economy of International Relations – and which describes American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War – which holds that the maintenance of an open liberal world economy requires a powerful leader, or hegemon. This leader, the theory goes, uses its power and influence to promote trade liberalisation and a stable international monetary system primarily in order to advance its own political and economic interests. However, the leader’s dominant position relies on the co-operation of other states because it is in their own economic and security interests to do so.
Throughout the 19th century the hegemon was Britain. Since 1945 it has been America.
The cadets listened attentively as their instructor Major Stephanie Ahern, in her early thirties and also dressed in combat fatigues, outlined the role of the free-market as an engine of global co-operation, ‘but the US still gets more out of the system’.
Hegemony, she went on, was not simply a case of ‘power politics’, but also of legitimacy. ‘You have to look at how our actions help our legitimacy worldwide.’
Each member of the class was told to assume they were another country and outline what, from their perspective, they would most like the US to do for them.
‘I’m Pakistan,’ said one, ‘and I think they’d want us to stop meddling in their internal affairs.’
‘I’m Iran,’ said another, ‘and I think they’d want us to leave Iraq.’
Major Ahern nodded approvingly. Remember, she said, how America sent troops to Indonesia after the tsunami of 2004 ‘to help them out. It cost us a fair amount of money, but approval of the US shot up in opinion polls – “Wow, they don’t hate all Muslims”. When we need them they might actually come and help out.’
The benefits to the US of being the hegemon, she went on, were the power and influence it could wield. The costs were the resources in time, money and people.
‘Remember back to Hurricane Katrina, the criticism – why do we have troops overseas when we don’t take care of our home. Why, when we don’t have healthcare and can’t educate our own people, are we sending billions overseas? It’s one of the concerns of our system…’
So what kind of foreign policies, she asked, did the class think the US should adopt? ‘It’s 2009 – you guys have been pulled out of West Point to go and advise a special committee to the new president. What will you tell them?
‘More actions that increase the standing of the US,’ suggested one cadet. ‘We could send troops into Darfur.’
‘We could…’ Major Ahern said, doubtfully, amid laughter.
Another cadet chimed in. ‘We should spearhead a coalition of international agencies in support of stopping the conflict…’ There was more laughter.
The discussion moved to the role of American military bases abroad. ‘Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Do we prioritise power or legitimacy – these are big, big questions. If we pull everybody back to the States it will cost less, but are we facilitating collaboration, and national security – can we get to Indonesia quicker? These are the big questions we’re wrestling with.’
The lesson drew to a close with a brief discussion of Gilpin’s conclusions on the fate of the hegemon. In time, Gilpin writes, more efficient, dynamic, and competitive economies begin to rise up that undercut the hegemon’s international position and the economic surplus that had financed the costs of global hegemony. ‘Domestic consumption – both public and private – and the costs of defending the system militarily rise relative to national savings and productive investment.
‘In time, the hegemon becomes less able and willing to manage and stabilize the economic system. Thus, an inherent contradiction exists in a liberal world economy: the operation of the market system transforms the economic structure and diffuses power, thereby undermining the political foundations of that structure.’
All dominant powers, Gilpin concludes, must one day decline, although they display great differences in their longevity. Venice was the hegemonic economic power of the western Mediterranean for a millennium; British hegemony lasted over a century; ‘and American hegemony was in decline after a brief three decades.’
Gilpin wrote this in 1987.
Giving the commencement address at West Point in 2006 President George Bush talked of preparing cadets ‘for the long war with Islamic radicalism that will be the focus of much of your military careers.’ (This phrase, ‘the long war’, is now the favoured coinage in military circles for what Bush originally deemed to be the ‘war on terror’ – a term that Gore Vidal, America’s most virulent critic of imperium, and who himself was born in the cadet hospital at West Point, once described as ‘a nonsensical notion, like a war on dandruff’).
‘The war began on my watch,’ Bush went on to tell the West Point cadets, ‘but it’s going to end on your watch.’
So what, I asked, did these cadets see as their future role?
‘To lead America’s sons and daughters,’ replied an earnest 20-year-old named Nicholas Dieter. ‘That’s the quote you hear all the time here: you’re learning this stuff now to lead America’s sons and daughters, whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere in the world.
‘I see it that we’re being trained to be adaptive against whatever enemies might come, because our enemies are always changing – that’s how I see it.’
‘A lot of our training is focussed on what’s going on in Iraq right now,’ added his classmate, 21-year-old Nicole Myers, ‘but they also remind us that we might not be in Iraq; we might be in North Korea.’
(Their teacher, Major Ahern, took a more guarded view. She could not foresee America engaging in ‘another Iraq-type thing for a while’, she said, adding with a wry smile, ‘Hopefully, a long, long, long while’).
This conversation about America’s global role, its ambitions, its justifications and its limits, took me back to Martinsville, and the three 17-year-old recruits I had met there – the sons and daughters of America that these West Point graduates would be leading – all of them imbued with a zealous sense of America’s ‘mission’ to democratize the world that went back to the 19th century creed of ‘manifest destiny’ – ‘opening the eyes of the world to the freedoms we have’, as Priscilla put it.
The cadets in the international relations class framed America’s role in similarly ennobling terms. America, one cadet said, was not an empire but ‘a super-power. Empire is kind of a loaded term; it implies you use your influence in bad ways. The United States uses its economic influence for ideology and to make sure the international community is stable.’
Nicole cast it in still more benevolent terms. ‘I don’t think it’s necessarily our responsibility to lead, but if we have the resources and the money to help people out then we certainly should.’
Travelling in America, I was constantly reminded how insulated many Americans are from world opinion (according to the State Department, only 27 per cent have passports), how much mainstream media refracts the world through the lens of American interests, and how little they understand that the rest of the world does not altogether share their conviction in America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom and democracy – a fact that One West Point instructor drily attributed to ‘a public relations problem. I think a lot of it is that we’re so bad at explaining why we do what we do. We assume that everybody else can understand our rationale.’
Nicole said she had personal experience of this. A year before she had visited Croatia, working in a summer camp with volunteers from all over the world. ‘And one night after we had a bunch of Sangria we started this big discussion. I was one of two Americans and the only one in the military, and everybody was asking me – why does America behave like this? I think that while the rest of the world doesn’t view us and our conduct in Iraq as being right – a lot of Americans don’t either – but as far as our role, we have to do our job, and our job right now is to go there, do what we can, try and make a difference and help them raise themselves.’
Talking with these young cadets, I was struck by their commitment and good humour, but also by their thoughtfulness. They – and their teachers – were much less doctrinaire than I had imagined they would be. I was reminded that while it is soldiers who fight wars, it is politicians that declare them. (And the soldiers who will kill, or be killed. At West Point the names of graduates who have recently died in combat are announced in the mess-hall at lunch-times. This occurs, one instructor estimated, at the rate of ‘one or two a month’.)
‘One of the things we stress is that if everyone is agreeing we’re not thinking critically about what’s going on’, Major Ahern told me. ‘Day one, what we tell them is that we never say the President is stupid, but you can disagree with his policies – but you need to say why you disagree. Getting people to play devil’s advocate is the only way to get them think critically.’ One teacher in terrorism studies told me that he found more open debate at West Point than at Harvard, where he had previously taught. ‘Harvard’s a really liberal institution, and I’m a liberal myself, but I’ve found there’s more of a willingness here to challenge and to question established norms of thought. In other universities people won’t even dare to bring up more conservative views because it’s not politically correct to do so.’
This, he thought, was partly to do with Sun Tzu’s maxim ‘Know your enemy’. The Art of War – the 6th century Chinese treatise on military strategy – is a key text at West Point.
‘No one’, as the director of the Combating Terrorism Centre, Lt Col Joseph Felter put it, ‘has a bigger stake in learning about the threat than those of us who will be confronting it up close and personal.
‘When I was commissioned in the Cold War’, Felter went on, ‘we knew who we were fighting. We even had flash cards of the Soviet army. Now the enemy is an ideology in many respects, and there was a feeling the younger officers needed to have a strategic understanding of that.’
Equally important, he said, was to know who America was not fighting. He sighed. ‘Sadly a good chunk of our public is still wrestling with the basics of who’s the enemy. When the President says “you’re either with us or against us”, maybe that has some utility when there’s 3000 dead in burning buildings in New York and Washington, but going forward we need to be more sophisticated and nuanced in our appreciation of who the enemy is. Certainly no one believes our enemy is Islam. But many of our enemies are Islamic, so we need to understand where within Islam we find those extremist factions. Educating the public on that is a big mission we have, beyond the cadets.’
Lt Col Felter passed me a small information card; printed on one side was a potted description of the Shi’ite Muslim history and beliefs, and on the other the Sunni.
‘These are our equivalent of the Soviet motorised rifle regiment flash cards’, he smiled.
The course in terrorism studies includes historical roots, tactics and strategies, the psychology of suicide bombing, and how the internet functions as a tool for indoctrination, recruitment and the planning of terrorist attacks.
It is a tool that the US military have not been averse to using themselves. Since 2002 the army have maintained one of the most popular computer games in the world, America’s Army, a sophisticated recruitment tool-cum-advertisement for the US military, available on free download, which has more than nine million registered users around the world, and ranks in the top 10 FPS (or first person shooter) computer games.
America’s Army was devised Colonel Casey Wardynski, the director of the Army’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis, which provides policy analysis on everything from recruitment to recapitalization of the tank fleet, and is housed in the same building at West Point as the Combating Terrorism Centre.
A graduate of West Point, who also has a masters degree in Public Policy from Harvard in 1980 and a doctorate in policy analysis from the Rand Graduate School, Colonel Wardynski balks at describing America’s Army in the crude terms of being a recruitment tool; rather, he says, it is a way to redress what he calls the ‘limited perception’ of the military.
A volunteer army, he said, must compete with industry for talent. The problem, he said, was how does the army define itself to would-be recruits. The ‘downsizing’ of the military through the 1990s meant that the ‘touch-points’ of family and friends serving in the military had declined (the rural south notwithstanding). ‘So the ability to define yourself through your work-force has diminished.’
The way the military was depicted in films and on television tended to be ‘uneven’, he said. ‘Saving Private Ryan, documentaries about the Battle of the Bulge – these are not good recruiting tools.’
Nor were television commercials a good investment. The Army had tried using MTV and sporting events to isolate young males, ‘the population armies are interested in’, but how much can you tell anyone in 30 seconds?
‘So how do you talk to a kid about being a soldier? If the only a place a kid can go to get information about the army is a recruiter, that’s a huge problem.’
These were the questions Wardynksi was wrestling with when one day in 2000 he took a trip with his son to Best Buy to pick up some computer games. Strolling up and down the aisles it struck him that probably half the games in the racks were to do with the military and land battles.
‘Here’s a topic in which young males obviously have a lot of interest, or industry obviously wouldn’t be making these games. And who can better talk to a young male about land forces than a land force?’
With the help of a computer gaming company he set about devising America’s Army. Branded with the slogan, ‘Empower Yourself: Defend Freedom’, the game was launched on July 4, 2002, at a cost of some $8 million. With gung-ho sentiment at its height in the wake of 9/11, it was an instant success. It is now in its 24th version.
When I asked Colonel Wardynski whether he could download the game on his computer and take me through it, he smiled apologetically. ‘Security’. The firewall on the West Point computer system, he said, prevented any downloads. He talked me through it instead.
The game takes players through basic army training, giving them the chance to earn ‘Green Beret’ status on training scenarios drawn from the Special Forces Assignment and Selection process, before engaging with the enemy in combat operations.
Who this enemy should be was one of the first considerations when the game was being developed in 2000.
‘9/11 took care of that problem’, Wardynski said. ‘The next question was, what does the bad guy look like? Typically, he’ll have a ski-mask on; he could be a white guy, a black guy, Hispanic guy, everybody – so we’ve gone for everybody. There’s no racial stereotyping. And that follows United States national security posture.’ The backdrop to the action ranges from Alaska to ‘the ‘Stans kind of regions. It’s not the army’s job to pick the United States’ enemies. The enemies seem to have picked us and be in a lot of different places.’
Colonel Wardynski likens it to ‘a test drive’ of the experience of being a soldier.
‘In our game we let kids do things you can do in the real world, and you get the real world consequences. If you want to shoot the drill sergeant you can. And then you get to go to Fort Leavenworth and listen to a guy play the harmonica. We try to embed humour in the game.’
More than just a ‘shoot ’em up’ game, like so many others, America’s Army takes the player through various aspects of army operations, including logistics, signals, intelligence gathering. It also contains a plethora of useful information, Colonel Wardynski noted, about such matters as first aid and wearing seat-belts.
But seat-belt protocol, I ventured, was probably not the primary reason why teenagers would be playing the game.
He nodded. ‘Sure. The kids who are playing it want kinetics. We’re in the genre of infotainment.’
Critics have chosen another term, describing America’s Army as the ne plus ultra of ‘militainment’ – entertainment devised and controlled by the military-industrial complex to glorify war.
The opening page invites players to ‘Learn What It Takes To Be A Real Hero’ and meet the current ‘Featured Hero’ (‘During Operation Iraqi Freedom Sergeant Tommy Rieman distinguished himself by acts of conspicuous gallantry and courage under fire…’), and has a click-through to the official army recruitment site, Goarmy.com. According to one report, 28 per cent of all visitors click to the recruitment site, although there are no statistics about how many people are directly recruited as a result of the game.
‘From survey data we know that young adults who play our game, 13- to 24-year-olds, are about a third more likely to list the army in their goals,’ Wardynski told me. ‘That’s pretty powerful. And in terms of touch-points to the army, we were the number one thing kids thought of.’
More than most computer games, America’s Army provides the means to move from the world of virtual to actual combat. But Colonel Wardynski maintained it is far from being a glorification of violence.
Success in the game is predicated not on how many ‘kills’ you make, but on adherence to a set of rules of engagement based on what Wardynski described as ‘army values and ethos’ – integrity, loyalty, honour, courage, selfless service. ‘If you violate these strictures and norms, you fail. And if you do it badly enough you’re out of the game.’
‘I call this Voice of America stuff’, he said. ‘What would a United States army think are the proper factors to motivate its forces? And the fact that we chose the Value Structures, not kinetics, as the motivating factor – that sends a message.’
So, propaganda then?
‘Let’s see… It’s information. And it’s created by a government. So if we’re good with dictionaries, I just gave you an answer.’
‘We had a general who was meeting some Slovak army officers. He’d never heard of the game, but they told him they all played it. And he said they all got the Values thing.’ The Colonel laughed. ‘But the funny thing was they all thought we were trying to recruit them too.’
Next week: The city and the suburbs