To Iraq and back with the National Guard

Robert W. Snyder
23 October 2005

For the most part, striking cultural representations of United States troops in Iraq have emphasised professional soldiers – the marines of Evan Wright’s book Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War, or the regular army units of the documentary Gunner Palace and the television drama Over There. Now, the Discovery Times television channel’s fine documentary series Off to War illuminates the less-known world of National Guardsmen – the part-time, state-level force more accustomed to coping with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina than fighting wars – and their families.

Off to War tells the story of the 239th Engineer Company, an outfit from the small town of Clarksville, Arkansas (population 7,719) sent to Iraq in April 2004 with the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard. The men of Off to War are “citizen-soldiers” – a turkey farmer, a minister, a hell-raising country boy – whose civilian lives are interrupted. The filmmakers, Brent & Craig Renaud, are themselves Arkansas natives. They have previously worked with the series’ executive producer Jon Alpert, who has built a substantial career out of working in both network news and community video in New York City.

Off to War, as its subtitle attests, is “a story about soldiers and the families they left behind”. The Renaud brothers’ commitment to the families shows in long, painful segments shot before and during the deployment. Their courage and commitment to the soldiers’ stories too is revealed in their footage of a mortar attack, an ambush, and the homecoming of a wounded soldier.

Yet Off to War is more than an admirable work of documentary television. It is also a testament to a deep and growing ambivalence in the United States about the war in Iraq. The current decline in public support for the war in Iraq is matched by strong sympathy for the troops who fight it, reflecting two related trends that have emerged in the US since the Vietnam war: broad backing for soldiers sent to fight a difficult war, and a concerted effort by anti-war activists to shake the old Vietnam-era perception (more common on the right than the left) that the anti-war movement was and is hostile to ordinary soldiers.

Another factor reinforces these trends: the Bush administration’s decision to fight a war of occupation with so many soldiers from the National Guard. Casualties in National Guard units echo far beyond the narrower world of full-time military families into the general population – broadening the base of suffering and reminding people of the difference between two categories, and two ways of thinking, used to describe members of the armed forces: “warriors” and “citizen-soldiers”. The way this difference works in practice has the potential to strengthen hostility to the war among patriotic families that otherwise might support the president.

Also by Robert W Snyder on openDemocracy:

“A Congressional vote is not a national mandate” (October 2002)

“Gangs of New York gets New York City wrong” (January 2003)

See also Robert W Snyder’s article in Columbia Journalism Review about media coverage of the death of a friend in Iraq with the New Jersey National Guard.

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Two kinds of military

Since President Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973 and turned the United States military into a professional volunteer force, members of the armed services have taken to calling themselves “warriors”. The term summons up images of a professional fighting caste, insulated from the political passions of a democracy. Warriors are well suited for fighting, without dissent or complaint, in the small wars of an empire.

The warrior army, drawing its recruits disproportionately from the working class and people of colour, is grounded in a relatively narrow segment of American society. It lives and fights at a distance from the larger civilian world. It is also far removed from the older American ideal of the citizen-soldier, enshrined in memories of the second world war, who fights when necessary out of a civic obligation and then returns to civilian life. Still, until recently, a professional military was fine with most Americans: civilians avoided the burden of military service and officers got to lead committed professionals.

All of that changed decisively in Iraq, as the Bush vision of post-war peace and security in the country quickly proved wildly optimistic. To sustain a substantial military presence in Iraq, the president called up the reserves (which are a regular component of the federal military) and mobilised state National Guard units.

The deployment of guard units to Iraq, on a scale never seen even in the Vietnam war, has driven the cost of the war deep into middle America. In 2005, guard forces were at one point more than half the combat forces in Iraq (a percentage never reached in the far greater guard mobilisations of both world wars). And while National Guard and reserve deaths were a quarter of all US fatalities since the war began, this year they increased: for August and September 2005 they were 56%.

The soldiers and families of Off to War don’t fit neatly into pro- or anti-war camps. Their send-off at the local football field is accompanied by flag-waving and the singing of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, but once the troops are gone the wives, parents and children endure the strain of holding life together in the absence of a loved one who faces death every day.

In Iraq, the soldiers confront ambushes and booby-traps. They grow wary of the locals. Their attitudes toward their mission range from enthusiastic to sceptical, resigned to tormented. In danger, their sustenance comes from things like a crucifix pinned on a flak-jacket or a psalm read before a risky mission.

The men of Off to War have now been “rotated” home. The Pentagon predicts that National Guard casualties in Iraq will decline as reorganised regular army units take their place.

It would be wrong, based on the series so far, to attribute to the men and families of Clarksville simple political judgments about whether or not the war was justified. But it is clear that memories of Iraq will be with guardsmen, their families and their friends – in Clarksville and other small towns – for the rest of their lives. What that means for America’s future, and its people’s support for the war, has yet to be fully reckoned.

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