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Latinos At War


In the faculty dining room at the California State University where I teach, a Mexican-American woman places thin slices of turkey on bread. Stress lines radiate down from her high cheekbones. One of her sons left last week for Iraq. “I pray every day,” she says, smearing mayonnaise on bread.

“Why did he join the military?”

She smiles, resigned to her lack of control over an adolescent growing up in a combat culture. “He’s a good boy. I ask God to return him to me,” she says. “What can I do? I’m desperate.”

Desperation describes the mood of hundreds of thousands of Latino parents whose kids serve in war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. It also describes the actual situation of those once confident imperial managers who have gotten 200,000 young men and women stuck in two quagmires without an exit strategy.

Bush’s wars and the subsequent occupation of Iraq have clearly divided the nation and fomented anti-Americanism throughout the world. They have also strained the resources of the mighty Pentagon. The 2005-6 “Defense Budget” of $640+ billion–counting the Intelligence budget–comes to almost twice what the rest of the world spends on “defense.”

Until the 21st Century Middle East wars, the military casually filled its recruiting quota from amongst poor youth around the country. National Guard service appeared attractive since the chances of having to engage in an actual war seemed remote. But after Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and discovered that he had insufficient troops to occupy both places, he called up more than 100,000 National Guard troops and launched an aggressive recruiting campaign. But the growing dead and wounded count filtered through the Administration’s optimistic spin. Even the usually gullible teenagers began to think twice about “joining up.”

Over the last decades, the Pentagon has raised salaries and increased benefits top attract a non-draft army. In less than twenty years, salaries have leaped up to four times. In 1981, a low-ranking private earned less than $4,500 a year. Today, that same rank comes with a salary of almost $15,000. A corporal, two short grades up, leaped from $5,000 to $22,000. In addition, he or she gets free food, housing and clothing–uniform–and discounts on most consumer goods.

Officers without post graduate degrees can earn up to $125,000 and enjoy privileges like ski resorts in the Alps. For the first time in its history, the United States had a large, standing professional army.

Yet, in 2003, despite increases in salaries and bonuses–and other promises of free training and education — offered by the armed forces, the recruiters fell short of their quotas. The slogan “be all you can be in the army” did not convince those who knew of or heard of stories involving friends and family members getting killed or permanently disabled. The body count and wounded numbers rose in the war zones. By late November, more than 2,100 servicemen and women had died; estimates of more than 20,000 wounded. The Pentagon has not released a count on how many of the wounded have died of their injuries.

“As dimwitted as American teenagers are,” a Mexican-American army recruiter confessed to me in June in Pomona California, “they’re not stupid enough to fall for the crap we’re selling to get them to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. Don’t quote me.”

I’m quoting him, but omitting his name and rank. His parents came from Sinaloa and settled in San Bernadino, where he grew up and decided to make an army career after he dropped out of high school. “It pays OK and I don’t work too hard. I’d rather be here than in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’ll tell you that.”

His partner, a young woman with sergeant stripes on her sleeve whispers to him in Spanish. “Estas loco? No digas mas. No te chingas cabron.” He laughs.

Next to his recruiting table outside the university student center, some undergraduates had set up a “de-cruiting” table, offering prospective recruits “the facts about the US military,” including the numbers of dead and wounded that the two wars had already exacted. In addition, the anti-military students “clarified” some of the army’s promises about loans and other benefits, were far less than the military had promised. They had statements from some returning wounded veterans to the effect that the army had docked their pay and cut their benefits.

The sergeant made no attempt to counter the students at the adjoining table. He handed out pamphlets, shook hands and laughed. “It’s my job. I have a quota of kids to recruit, so what the Hell.”

Hell, indeed. That word has spread even to those black and Latino communities that have traditionally supplied more than their share of youth for the US military’s frequent overseas and violent excursions.

For “illegal” Mexicans or those who want a quick route to citizenship, the military holds a strong attraction. Since Mexico provides the closest and most logical recruiting arena, Mexican “illegals” numerically outstrip all other Latin Americans living in the United States and in Iraq itself. Some 8000 Mexicans have now volunteered for official military service (John Ross, Counterpunch February 21, 2005).

Mexicans and those of Mexican descent make up more than half of the approximately 110,000 Latinos mostly, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Central Americans currently serving in the U.S. military. In addition, almost 25,000 other Mexicans have enlisted as a means of obtaining US citizenship. Coyotes smuggled some of these Mexicans into the country as children who never had any “legal” documents.

The recruiters target high schools with heavy population of Mexican descent. The Marines have had particular success in their forceful publicity campaign. They claim that youth of Mexican origin make up 13% of the Corps. But that high percentage of Latinos also shows up in the high dead and wounded count.

Even before the bloody November 2004 battle of Fallujah which exacted a heavy toll, Mexican families began to feel the pain of war. The dead, the legless, armless, eyeless and brain dead wounded began to come home. On both sides of the Rio Grande, Mexican parents shared a common anguish. 122 Latinos were among the first 1000 U.S. casualties in Iraq. 70 of them were of Mexican descent.

On December 24, 2004, the day before Christmas, Sergio Diaz Varela died in Ramadi. His family and friends attended his funeral in Guadalajara, where “armed troops from Fort Hood, Texas led by General Ken Keene accompanied the young soldier to his final resting place, and U.S. ambassador Tony Garza commended the boy’s soul to God” (John Ross, Counterpunch, Feb 21, 2005).

Similar funerals took place in San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato and in the Altos de Jalisco. On the invasion day, the first GI killed was Mexican American. Fernando Suarez del Solar, father of Jesus, a resident of Escondido, California, spoke in Spanish. The 48 year old man, slight of build, said he had immigrated from Tijuana 1997. He now worked as cashier at a convenience stores and delivered newspapers.

He began hesitatingly. “El dia de hoy estoy aqui demandando el retorno inmediato de nuestras tropas,” he told a student audience at the California State Polytechnic University in California. “Yo perdi a mi hijo, a mi Guerrero Azteca, Jesus Alberto, por negligencia del comando Americano en Irak en esta guerra ilegal llena de mentiras del presidente Bush.” (I lost my son, my Aztec Warrior, Jesus Alberto, through negilgence by the US command in Iraq in this illegal war full of President Bush’s lies.

As he spoke he seemed to gain confidence and strength. “Ustedes saben que mi hijo muere por pisar una granada “AMIGA,” una granada puesta la noche anterior por el Army y nunca avisaron a la unidad de mi hijo y les dieron la orden de avanzar y como mi hijo era el explorador piso una de ellas y duro casi tres horas para recibir atencion medica, para que un helicoptero llegara con auxilio. Esto es una muestra de nuestro ejercito invensible? Es una muestra de la proteccion que les dan a nuestros muchachos?” A tear of grief or rage or both fell onto his cheek.  (You know, my son died because he stepped on a grenade (friend) placed the night before by the army that never told my son’s unit and they gave the order to advance and because my son was ther scout he stepped on one and for three hours he lay there waitying for the medical helicopter to arrive. Is this a demonstration of our invincible army? Is this how they prtoect our boys?”

He got no answers from the Pentagon. So, he traveled to Iraq to find the truth about his son’s death. He joined Military Families Speak Out. With other relatives of dead and wounded servicemen and women, he speaks and organizes against the war.

Fernando Suarez does more than ask God for help. “Senor Bush,” he shouted to a California student group in the Fall of 2004. “Cuantos hijos de nosotros nesecita para llenar su tanque de gasolina? Cuantos hijos americanos muertos nesecita para parar esta guerra llena de mentiras? Yo no quiero mas muertes de nuestros hijos de sus padres, esposos. paremos esto YA!!! Senor Bush, espero que dios le perdone, porque yo no puedo.” “Mr. Bush, how many children do you need to fill your gas tank? How many dead American kids do you need to stop your lie-filled war? I don’t want more dead kids who have parents, wives, husbands. Let’s stop now. Mr. Bush, I hope God forgives you, because I cannot.”

Saul Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University.

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