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Liberal Internationalist Wars, the American War Dead, and What Elites Say About Them


Attorney Cory Isaacs is a former police officer and enlisted U.S. Army infantry soldier. He is a Princeton Ph.D. candidate writing at the intersection of policing and national security.

Liberal internationalism might be unwise because it makes America less safe or the world more dangerous. It might be unjust because it is violent and imperial. But it is certainly unfair because it enlists young high school-educated have-nots in the military and praises them as self-sacrificing freedom fighters after it sends them abroad to kill and be killed. The United States ended the draft in 1973, a year that coincides roughly with the beginning of the wage stagnation that has afflicted lower and middle-income American workers ever since. As inequality ballooned, military service likely became a relatively more appealing option for many. Put another way, rational actors who know their own interests and want to maximize their wealth join the United States Army or Marine Corps to do dangerous jobs during wartime because they have no better options: it is McDonald’s or the military.

Then power elites transformed those who chose the military and paid for their choice with their lives. Semi-coerced offerees became patriotic volunteers. Have-nots became heroes. The powerful living drafted the transformed war dead to do political work: the nuts-and-bolts work of military missions, the justificatory work of liberal internationalism, the electioneering work of maintaining support for expansionist policies and expeditionary wars. In a sense, the horror of the deaths of young people who choose the military because of economic precarity forces these transformations—meaning must be made.

The lives and afterlives of the first 100 American military members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006 illustrate these points. Their modal age was 21. One was a woman. Seven were black. Fifty-two were married. Forty-three had children. They came from 39 states, their hometowns ranging from Partridge (Kansas), Climax (Michigan), and Richford (Vermont) to St. Louis, Baton Rouge, and Queens. They had nicknames like Dirty, Smurf, and The Big Herd.

The first 100’s modal rank was E-4 and modal educational attainment was a high school diploma or GED. An E-4 is a low-ranking enlistee. The U.S. military’s fundamental distinction is between officers (designated O-1 though O-10) who give orders and manage violence and enlistees (designated E-1 through E-9) who take orders and apply violence. Any officer no matter how junior outranks any enlistee no matter how senior. One needs a bachelor’s degree in order to become a commissioned officer. Sixteen of 2006’s first 100 were officers.

Ninety-five of the 100 were Army Soldiers or Marines. Most had been in the military for two or three years. Eighty-one had combat roles including infantry, artillery, and pilot. Nineteen had non-combat roles including logistician, lawyer, and cook. Fifty-six died in roadside, car, or suicide bombings; 13 were shot; 24 died in vehicle or helicopter crashes; three killed themselves; three died because of non-combat illnesses; one died in a tent fire.

Many joined the military a year or two after high school and worked for employers such as Best Buy, Taco Bell, and Home Depot before enlisting. Others worked as laborers, car detailers, and warehousers. Some did not work or could not find steady work. Fifteen started college at schools like University of Central Arkansas and Central Florida Community College but did not complete a degree. None chose between attending Harvard or Yale and joining the Army or Marines.

In a sense, the horror of the deaths of young people who choose the military because of economic precarity forces these transformations—meaning must be made.

Like all enlistees, 2006’s first 100 signed an enlistment contract upon joining the military. It is a typical adhesion contract because the government drafts it and offers it to enlistees on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. It is an atypical adhesion contract because it allows government officials to void its terms when they determine that national security requires them to do so. Consider policies like stop-loss, which forbids members in units under orders to deploy from leaving the military during the 90 days before their deployment—even if during that time their enlistment period ended or they had planned to retire. In other words, members who fulfill the terms of the contract they signed can be sent to war against their will on the basis of an open-ended, unilateral contract provision. There is a profound moral difference between an option to extend another type of employment contract and an option to extend a military enlistment contract, especially when that option is exercised during wartime. Stop-loss prevented one of 2006’s first 100 from retiring before his unit deployed.

Viewing the military as their best option, the war dead signed the enlistment contract and then went to Iraq or Afghanistan. What Americans said about them after they died is crucial to understanding how we justify our wars and the institutions that support them, from the military’s adhesion contract to liberal internationalist foreign policy itself. The war dead were uniformly praised. Though the praise for 2006’s first 100 was rhetorically similar among praisers, it did different work between groups of praisers. A first group knew and loved the war dead when they were alive. These praisers looked back in time as they struggled to make sense of untimely death far from home. The father of an E-4 shot by snipers said that after 9/11 his son saw a need and felt he could make a difference. His uncle said he was doing what he loved. His mother said he was a Marine who joined the Marines to do Marine things. She said he was her real-life angel. The praise of those struggling to make sense of love and loss is biased but comes honestly and might well be true: maybe their dead really are angels.

A second group of praisers did not know or love the war dead when they were alive. These praisers used the war dead to look ahead: to continue military missions, to justify liberal internationalism, to maintain the war-fighting status quo. At a January 2006 memorial ceremony for an E-5 and an E-6 killed in a roadside bombing, their commander urged their unit’s surviving members to press on in their name: “[X and Y] have left us a bright torch to carry. Men and women, fellow warriors, let’s keep the torch moving forward. We owe it to these heroes. Drive on.” The E-5 and E-6’s commander was a high-ranking officer who did not know them in life. Yet he said they were committed heroes and used their commitment to urge their comrades to focus (or re-focus, in case some entertained second thoughts in the wake of their fellow soldiers’ deaths) on the mission: “Drive on.”

In memorializing an E-7 killed in a suicide car bombing, Mitch McConnell said that although most who wear America’s military uniform would not call themselves heroes, he disagreed: “Those who fight abroad for our freedom are, indeed, heroes. [A military coin the E-7’s widow gave McConnell] will serve as a reminder to me . . . of how much we owe the men and women of our Armed Forces whose highest calling is to fight for the freedom of others.” McConnell did not know the E-7 in life but hinted at his modesty and proclaimed him a hero. The coin would remind McConnell of the debt the country owes its freedom-fighting military members: liberal internationalism is the “highest calling.”

An E-5 injured in a roadside bombing was taken to a military hospital in Texas, where George Bush visited on New Year’s Day. “You’ve got a good man there,” Bush told the E-5’s father. (The E-5 died on February 7.) Bush said later that the United States must stay the course for those the war dead left behind: “I—I reach out to a lot of families. I spend time with them . . . They—most people—have asked me to do one thing, and that is to make sure that their child didn’t die in vain. And I agree with that; that the sacrifice has been worth it. We’ll accomplish our objective.” Bush did not know the E-5 before he was injured but said he was a good man. And instead of wondering whether the deaths of good men and women should make us question our wars, his praise assumed that such deaths only have meaning if the wars continue: “we’ll accomplish our objective.”

To the second group of praisers, the war dead were heroes because they died. The commander, McConnell, and Bush put them to decisive use because death has a sacred dimension and war death a still more sacred dimension. As representatives of a heroic existence beyond time, the war dead carry a mystical influence. They serve as focal points for representations of the past and for actions that make important things happen in the future. The war dead are also perfect political symbols: they hit hard not because everyone agrees about their meaning but because they compel attention despite disagreements about their meaning. Opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was made more difficult because those responsible for the wars turned the war dead into committed, freedom-fighting, self-sacrificing heroes and then used them as swords and shields for their own political ends. I reach out to a lot of families. They ask me to make sure their child didn’t die in vain.

Liberal internationalism has left countless dead among Americans and non-Americans alike. Whatever its wisdom or justice, conversations about it must begin by recognizing that it unevenly distributes its risks and exploits the risk-takers—in life and in death. Thus, when debating expansionist foreign policies and expeditionary wars, considerations of citizenship and the common good should be fundamental: the questions, “Is it worth your life?” and, “Is it worth your child’s life?” are always apt. Until Americans in general, and power elites in particular, can earnestly answer yes—and until their actions support their words—debates about the policies’ and wars’ wisdom and justice will always be debates about somebody else’s children.