Opinion | The military can’t be reformed

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Capitol as seen in Washington on Nov. 11, 2022.

By Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger, Staff Columnist

Every time military recruitment emails darken my inbox, regardless of the branch they’re sent from, I think of Pat Tillman. 

In mid-April of 2004, Tillman was writing in his notebook while deployed at Forward Operating Base Salerno, in Afghanistan. A former NFL player with a $3.6 million contract who joined the U.S. Army after 9/11, Tillman earnestly believed that he could serve in the military with moral purpose and continue with his life after. On April 22, 2004, his fellow soldiers shot him three times at close range and told his family he died by enemy fire. 

Tillman witnessed the Jessica Lynch propaganda cover-up and, quickly disillusioned with the reality of the U.S. counter-terrorism tactics, grew aware of the illegitimacy of the military’s presence in Afghanistan. Multiple soldiers and his own brother remember him saying that the war is “so f-cking illegal.” The All-American poster child of the army started to write critical manifestos in private. U.S. soldiers burned the notebook where he wrote them, along with the clothes he wore when ambushed.

“Friendly fire” deaths are still commonplace since the invasion of the Persian Gulf in 1991. However, the sheer amount of lies told to Tillman’s family — and the growing awareness of his distaste for the “counterinsurgency” practices — make it very likely that he was killed for planning to speak out publicly against the war. 

There’s a slew of myths surrounding the military’s alleged progress today, but none quite so long-lasting and harmful as the fantasy of changing it from the inside. For as long as the imperial core has had security forces, consistently arming the most violent and prejudiced members of society has both increased the legitimacy of their abuse and effectively neutralized the potential for change that could’ve come from within. 

Tillman was a celebrity athlete, and even when his fame should have made him untouchable, the simple fact of his critical views on the war made him the target of the belligerent, drugged-up and structure-dependent soldiers all around him. The fact is, Tillman didn’t stand a chance. No one does, when confronted with an enemy as thoroughly, unabashedly evil, grossly over-funded and weaponized as the U.S. armed forces. 

In 2002, the Bush administration allowed itself to invade Hague if U.S. servicemen were ever tried in international criminal courts. Even domestically, witnesses end up dead quite often when “appropriate” channels are taken to punitively reform security forces, regardless of whether they’re critical from the inside like Tillman, or complete innocents already exploited to a devastating degree. 

These military and police organizations are seemingly structured and defined by intimidation. An individual who disagrees with the herd mentality, while already rare, will also have to confront the complete loss of the social structure they’re in, one which does not forgive insubordination — that is, if they do not already face physical intimidation from their peers. It is naive and potentially very dangerous to think that a small number of morally driven people can make an impact from within.

While it’s understandable that the prospect of reforming the military seduces some, even those conversations are composed entirely of frighteningly delusional narratives that change exactly nothing for those already in the gunsights. There is no better example of this than the way the U.S. runs its military prisons. Both Obama and Biden made extensive, well-written and entirely pointless statements about their wishes for the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to close, while allowing it to continue with impunity. Speaking optimistically about the future to gloss over the brutality of the present is a practice that completely defined the post-Gulf discussions. 

There’s 823 words of the “Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures 2004” document, disclosed by Wikileaks, that are dedicated to describing the appropriate handling of the Quran within Guantanamo Bay — nearly a full page. The words are carefully chosen and written with the utmost professionalism — you can almost hear the sigh of relief, still, from all those who opened the file when it first leaked and didn’t read much further. The military defending the sanctity of the Quran, what more proof of change could anyone want? About 106 pages later, the report details the routine that Military Work Dogs must follow to perform “psychological deterrence” on detainees effectively. 

Testimony from those held at Camp Delta details horrific physical, psychological and sexual abuse perpetrated by soldiers. In 2008, the Pentagon testified that Guantanamo held no juveniles at that time and had only ever held a total of eight, both of which were false. In reality, 22 children total were imprisoned, the youngest of whom was 13. Three juveniles were held at the time of this testimony and remained incarcerated nearly a decade after. One of them is still held in Guantanamo today — Hassan bin Attash, who at 17 was captured and tortured, and spent 19 years in Guantanamo on the basis that his brother is a person of interest. Cleared for release in April, he is the youngest remaining prisoner. The oldest prisoner, Saifullah Paracha, a businessman held for 19 years on no charges, was released on Oct. 29.

Currently, the military has released 732 out of 780 prisoners without charge, most of them having spent nearly two decades in prison with no legal counsel, external communication, privacy or dignity. During their time at Guantanamo Bay, military prison guards subjected detainees to physical torture, starvation, sexual assault and virulent racism. Only 16 detainees were given criminal charges. At least nine detainees have died since 2002. The only convictions relevant to this context are those handed down to the whistleblowers who made this information known. 

The “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in Abu Ghraib are accessible with two clicks. Everyone in this country with an internet connection can read how their government has, for the last 20 years, sanctioned torture. With all the previously mentioned examples in mind, it is exceedingly difficult for me to understand the passive relationship American civilians have with their military. There was never a plausible threat of full-scale invasion here. In fact, we can probably say that the U.S. poses the greatest risk to the safety of innocent people and the climate. The horrors of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are undeniable and unparalleled. 

Why then, are we considered disrespectful if we refuse to participate in this ridiculous jingoism? Why, 12 years on, are the contents of the Wikileaks documents rarely discussed? Why is it that the most “progressive” circles can only approach this topic through the issue of American veterans’ needs? What about the needs of the people who have somehow survived their brutality? It is difficult to do any research into the military and come away believing that attempts to reform it for the sake of the marginalized people within it or in its proximity ever work.

That research will, however, show overwhelming proof that a system built on the fundamentals of hideous greed and exploitation, that is entrenched in the economy so deeply, cannot be tweaked. Moderate-to-progressive talking points or diversity initiatives can not subtly infiltrate it. The military cannot be fixed.

Any attempts to change armed forces will occur on the surface and, in actuality, give them more and more legitimacy. The military is facing the biggest recruitment challenges in 50 years. All that parasitic recruiters have to rely on at this point is the ignorance of the young people they seek to exploit — that’s how overwhelming the facts against them are. 

We don’t need a “green military” or a “class-conscious security force.” We need these institutions that commit mass murder, rape and trafficking to dissolve and, in doing so, dissolve the predatory relationships that they seek to form with young Americans. 

Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at [email protected]