July 2003 #4

From one Street to the Other

Working in a youth refuge I learnt a lot about what it must be like to be afraid. To be separated from your parents and brothers and sisters. To  have no home, real friends or security. I remember well the smell of the sweat of young men who had to be restrained when they became violent. I remember the look in the eyes of young people who, fresh from the street, were too afraid to hold that eye contact for more than a fleeting second. I recall the warmth of their breath as they cried on my shoulder as I led them, once again, from the police lock up to their "home". Young women and men who lived in fear and anger and desperation. Young men and women who never knew the "good things" in life. Young people who saw little hope in the future, full of promise, but whose life situation prevented them from reaching their potential.

For some, though, life throws up opportunities that, at first glance, seem like a way out. The modern military is often used as a way out of a life of hopelessness.

Terri from Idaho was six when her older bother went to off college because his mum and dad thought it would be the best thing for him. Fire wiped out the family home and her dad was badly burnt and was forced to sell off most of the farm. Her dad never fully recovered and a robbery and bashing at the truck stop where her mum also worked led her to give up the better-paid night shift to stay on the safer day shift. The bank foreclosed on the farm mortgage forcing them to move into town. Her dad became withdrawn and morose and her mum cried often. Terri cried to, but she never did so when her folks were around.

The day the recruitment officers rolled into town was a day that changed her life.

Then there's Ortez. Born in a crack house to a street worker, raised by a Salvation Army couple, his life was one of those tragedies we hear about all the time. He saw his first murder at nine and was dealing at thirteen. He had no real friends simply because they either OD'ed before he got to know them or they simply disappeared. He thinks it was the ambulance nurse with the green eyes that saved him. His second OD at seventeen nearly did him in, but there was something he remembers about the way she held his head as vomited in the gutter. Somehow, he turned himself around and with the help of another Salvation Army family, overcame his addictions and even managed to get some part time work in one of their Op Shops.

The day the recruitment officers came to the local YMCA was a day that changed his life.

Billy was never settled. His mum ran away before his first memory of her formed and his dad did his best to raise him in a crowded, noisy apartment block in the south end of Seattle. He was expelled from school in grade four for stabbing a classmate with a pair of scissors. At 13 he ran away from home and spent his 14th birthday in a boys home. At 18 his record of minor crimes meant that the next time he was arrested the judge gave him two choices, jail or the army. For a young black man, the social worker told him, the second option was the better one. He took it as a way out of the ghetto.

The US military, which set the trend for the Australian military's recruitment programs, has been, for over a decade, selling careers. With falling numbers and the need to "protect" America, the military decided that if calls to nationalist patriotism and service to your country were no longer an incentive, it needed to upgrade its recruitment practices and focus on the "socially" responsible aspects of a military career. That is the bonus of not only learning to kill for a living but also gaining some form of trade to go along with the salary, pension and perks. "Good pay, great meals, travel and a pension to last your lifetime" young people are promised. "The modern military is a career choice that can lead you to more opportunities" the recruitment adverts blaze. "You'll help make the world a safer place" is the central message.

But after three months of sand, "Baghdad belly" and the death of their comrades, killed in sniper attacks, Terri, Ortez, Billy and their colleagues want to go home. Even 'Stateside' the families of young soldiers notice the change of tone in the e-mails, letters and calls they get. They want them home too, now that they realise they, like their sons and daughters were lied to.

These young men and women, who, in the main, have lived at the bottom end of the social scale, understand what its like to be held hostage in their own territory. The soldier who said that if Donald Rumsfeld came over to Iraq he'd ask him to resign, probably understands the look of fear and hate and desperation on the faces of the Iraqis he has to aim his gun at each day.

The soldiers who are saying, 'we want to get shot so we can be repatriated' are not wimps wanting an out. They have traveled half way round the world on the promise that they would liberate a nation only to find that like the cops, social workers, employment agency staff and welfare workers who stole their dignity when they were young, they are now forced into doing the same to a whole nation.

The problem with the modern military is that it is run by the image-makers and bean counters. The image of the armed forces that this cohort of young people grew up with is that of the 'Rambo' who rebels against his commander when he is given the order to harm an innocent. Who knows better what to look for in the eyes of an innocent than someone who was once in the same situation themselves.

It's of no surprise to anyone but the ideologues that the foot soldiers on the ground, who don't get to sleep in the presidential palaces but find themselves once more sleeping on the streets in dangerous neighbourhoods, understand what the Iraqis are experiencing. Many of theses young men and women spent their youth in the war zones of their streets, school yards and police cells.

But what is the military response to their reticence to swallow the "liberation and freedom" story? "It's unprofessional to speak against your orders". But is it? 

The foot soldiers, like us were told this was a going to be a just war (lie one). That it would be a war of liberation, not occupation (lie two). That this war was going to build a new nation of free Iraqis (lie three) and this war was not about oil (lie four). Many of the front line soldiers may not be well educated or well schooled in social graces, but they can smell a lie a million miles off and they don't want to be a part of it anymore.

They no longer believe the claims of the recruitment officers or judges as they find out day after day that, as they always believed no one but themselves will look after them. Terri, Ortez, Billy and the thousands of others who were told that the modern military was more like a holiday camp than a hell hole are no longer prepared to stand guard over a cowering, frightened people.

What the ideologues in Washington, London and Canberra didn't figure on, was that if you populate the modern front line military with those who know what oppression is, those new soldiers will probably empathise with those they have been sent to control.

Remember those heady days at the start of the war when we heard soldiers say it was "cool to blow up stuff" and it was a "buzz to do battle" as the rampaged across the desert in their adrenaline fuelled adventure. Where are the stories of gung-ho, guns blazing, grenade throwing US soldiers out to liberate the oppressed now? Gone. Wiped from our screens as fast a dust storm in the desert passes. Why? Because war will never bring peace but peace is always brought with a price.

The young women and men in the front lines were willing to pay a price to bring peace to a shattered nation. They are not prepared to pay a higher price so those in power can justify using them in the front line of their quest to steal the wealth of an impoverished nation. Too many of those in the front line already know what it's like to lose everything and they don't want to take more from those who already have very little.

For many of these young men and women the smell of the sweat and the look in the eyes of the Iraqi people returns them, in their dreams, to places they wanted to escape from. In their waking hours they are literally returned to the streets of fear they the once so wanted to escape but now patrol with the "legal" guns in their hands.

As our troops enter the Solomon Islands, the question for us is, how long will we let our rulers expose our young women and men in the military to the same privations as the US is doing to theirs? Let's hope we change our rulers minds before we have to once more take to the streets in protest at the outrages they perpetrate in our name.