Loss, Class, Empire and the Vicious Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance



I have some dark reflections on culpability, class, empire, loss and human psychology. 


The historian Andrew Bacjevich recently lost his Army son to the war in Iraq.  His 27 year old son died May 13 after a suicide bomb explosion in Salah ai-Din province.


Himself a Vietnam War veteran, Bacevich is a trenchant and highly informed observer and critic of United States militarism (see Bacevich 2005) who has consistently opposed the U.S. occupation of Iraq. 


Predictably enough given the vicious politics and the messianic and authoritarian militarism that holds sway on the still powerful U.S. Right, he has received hate mail accusing him of contributing to the death of his son by “giving comfort to the enemy” (Bachevich 2007).  


Sure, it was history professor Andrew Bacevich, not Dick Cheney and George W. Bush and the rest of the bipartisan petro-imperial “Washington Mob” (Frank Rich 2007) that sent Bacevich’s son to fight an illegal, mass-murderous and colonial war that has predictably elicited deadly resistance.  


Right, and love is hate and war is peace and two plus two equals five (Orwell 1948). 





For what it’s worth, I often find myself fighting the impulse to blame pro-war military parents for the deaths of their young GIs in Iraq.  


We’ve all seen the ritual many times by now on the Ten and Eleven O’clock News. Local U.S. Soldier X has been killed by an IED or a sniper in occupied Mesopotamia. His parents and/or his high school football coach or History or Civics teacher say that everyone is “shocked” by Soldier X’s tragic death but “proud” of his courageous “service” to his country.   The typical story line is that Solider X wanted to do what he could to “protect America” and/or “spread freedom” and/or “help others” and/or “help the Iraqis” and/or “be part of something bigger than himself.” In the invasion’s earliest years, it was common to learn that Soldier X joined the military after the jetliner attacks of 9/11.


The killing of Soldier X is commonly portrayed as a dastardly and mysterious act against law and order, as if Iraq was a legitimate extension of U.S. soil and most Iraqis aren’t legitimately sickened and outraged by the daily presence of North American occupation forces in their illegally invaded land.  


Every time I see this repeated local news story, I briefly imagine myself contacting Soldier X’s parents to say something along the following lines:  


“This is nonsense.  Your son died in the execution of a dirty, unjust, colonial and rich man’s war for politics, oil and empire and you enabled it. You didn’t do your job as parents, which is to protect your child.   You didn’t inoculate Soldier X against the lies of warmongers like Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowotiz, Rice and the rest.  You bought into all the transparent Iraq War nonsense about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD), the equally ridiculous subsequent claims to be exporting ‘democracy’ and all the rest (Street 2007a).    You foolishly trusted the War Masters and you passed this deadly and dangerous habit of obedience on to your children, setting them up to be cannon fodder for abominable war criminals.   Shame on you!”






I don’t follow through on this initial cognitive impulse, of course. Doing so would be a cruel and morally indefensible misdirection of my anger away from those who most relevantly deserve criticism (and much more) for the monumental war crime that is “Operation Iraqi Freedom” ( O.I.F.)  Like their children in Iraq, the United States  disproportionately lower- and working-class military parents (Halbfinger and Holmes 2003) were born and socialized into a polity they never designed – a political order that confers disproportionately great historical agency to structurally super-empowered “elites” atop interrelated societal pyramids of class, race, and empire. The families of the soldiers that fill the frontline ranks of the mercenary (“volunteer”) United States armed forces generally lack adequate opportunity to break the grip of imperial propaganda.


They’ve been told again and again by policymakers and by a dutiful, power-worshipping media and “education” system that Uncle Sam is a noble agent of national self-protection and global benevolence.   In  “mainstream’ media as well as in the elite cultures of Washington and the U.S. foreign policy and academic establishments, the “fundamental   principle” on the U.S. role in the world holds “that ‘we are good’ – ‘we’ being the government, on the totalitarian principle that state and people are one. ‘We’ are benevolent, seeking peace and justice, though there may be errors in practice.   ‘We’ are foiled by villains who can’t rise to our exalted level” (Chomsky 2004b).


Military families are not generally in a good position to “deconstruct” the insidious Orwellian misinformation that disguises imperial barbarism as self-defense and the “spreading” of “freedom” and “democracy.”   Their schools tend to be under-funded, unimaginative and conservative consent and obedience factories, not incubators of critically engaged citizenship.   The dominant pedagogical and ideological forces in their lives disseminate nationalistic, American-exceptionalist and imperial doctrine and prepare youth and young adults for docile, mind-deadening work and for the soulless authoritarian conflation of popular democracy with privatized mass consumption and atomized (neoliberal) market relations (Giroux 2004).   They are given slight basis for understanding why millions resist U.S. militarism and globalism at home and abroad. 


Their material (economic and working) lives leave little space to hear and grasp anti-imperial and even antiwar critiques and positions. They are often compelled to work absurdly long hours (commonly toiling at more than one job), enjoying little of the leisure time that meaningful democracy requires (Street 2002).  


Given the socio-economically fractured imbalance of cultural and political forces inside the U.S. and the awesome weapons of mass deception available to North American war masters and profiteers, it is hard to blame American soldiers and military families for tending to accept – or at least not actively oppose –the rationalizations made for the occupation.





Dominant ideology aside, how many parents of fallen occupation troops are going to want to join Cindy Sheehan in saying that their children gave their lives “for nothing” or for the political and imperial ambitions of the Bush administration and its allies and enablers? This judgment carries an emotional burden too heavy for most to want to carry.   It is contradicted to a certain extent by the fact that many soldiers did in fact enlist in the military in perceived service to good motives and higher ideals (“protecting” their fellow Americans and “helping” others abroad etc.).   When and if confronted by the terrible fact that those motives were exploited by domestic elites – war profiteers, power-mad politicians and sheltered imperialists like Cheney,   Bush and the CEOs and leading shareholders of Boeing, Raytheon, Haliburton etc. – most military parents can be expected to respond in accord with the theory of cognitive dissonance.   They will often seek to reduce the uncomfortable tension between two incompatible (dissonant) beliefs – (1) their child died for a good cause and in accord with their own noble values and (2) their child died tragically for a bad cause reflecting the vile agenda of rich and powerful rulers – by deepening their commitment to the first belief.  


Unpleasant as it is to realize, confrontation with the ugly fact that they lost a child to a dirty, illegal and colonial oil occupation can often be expected to intensify belief in the fraudulent justifications for the invasion of Iraq. This is because the more you give and the less you get from a terrible policy or practice, the more you need to internalize the stated rationalizations for the policy or practice to overcome the painful dissonance resulting from the conflict between belief and reality.   A rich family that makes money (indirectly through, say, a heavily “defense”-laden stock portfolio) from U.S. militarism and whose son or daughter attends an elite liberal arts college (staffed by liberal and generally antiwar professors, maybe even including a radical or two) as the terrible invasion continues is more free to privately devalue the occupation they initially played along with than is the military family whose son or daughter comes home from Iraq in a box.


The first (privileged) family can privately register an external justification for going along with the war-enabling deceptions: they got richer and suffered no personal loss to themselves or anyone else in their immediate circle of friends and family.


The second family’s situation is different. It is consigned to the only (and not just coincidentally disadvantaged) section of the highly stratified U.S. populace that is asked to make actual mortal sacrifice for the execution of a colonial “war” that is opposed by most of the civilian population.  It received no gain and only loss.   Consistent with Festinger and Carlsmith’s classic observations on the “cognitive consequences of forced compliance,” it consequently feels more pressure to internalize the false premises on which the war was sold (Festinger and Carlsmith 1959).





Military families are also particularly susceptible to another form of forced-compliance cognitive response – what might be called the “psychological wage of empire.” As race-class theorists and activists have long observed, racism has long proved perversely attractive for white lower- and working-class struggling with their subordinate status in capitalist America. By W.E.B. DuBois’ account, anti-black racism grants lower and working-class whites a “public and psychological wage”—a false and dysfunctional measure of status and privilege used “to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships.” White workers in the U.S. have long tended, as David Roediger has noted, to “define and accept their [subordinate] class position by fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and ‘not blacks.’” As Martin Luther King Jr.’s   observed in a 1968 speech titled “The Drum Major Instinct,”  racialized capitalism gave its Caucasian working-class victims the rather pathetic “satisfaction of…thinking you are somebody big because you are white” (Roediger 1991, pp. 11-13; King 1968, p. 264).


There is certainly something similar at work with regard to Empire – a related “psychological wage of imperialism” that gives working- and lower-class soldiers and military families (including in some cases non-white soldiers and families) the dangerous, pseudo-compensatory “satisfaction of thinking” one is “somebody big” because one and/or one’s children are on the right side of the imperial guns of the most powerful military in world history.  


Such is the toxic, viciously circular reality of how class and empire intersect with basic psychological processes.






There are, to be sure, countervailing tendencies. According to a recent story in NEWSWEEK, “most U.S. solders interviewed by NEWSWEEK have long since stopped insisting that their greatest mission is to bring peace and democracy to Iraq.  More and more, they talk about their desire to simply protect their buddies and get everyone home alive” (Thomas and Kaplow 2007, p. 37).


Nobody faces more internal and external pressure than the troops to internalize the U.S. government’s fraudulent pretexts for the bloody colonial occupation of Iraq.  At the same time, however, no Americans have a better frontline view of the Orwellian absurdity of U.S. claims to be bringing cherished western principles of popular governance to the Iraqis, less than 2 percent of whom ever accepted the notion that the U.S. invaded to spread “democracy.” “In Iraq, like Vietnam,” Anthony Arnove noted in early 2006, “soldiers themselves have begun to question the rationale for the war given by politicians and daily echoed by the dominant media, as they see on the ground the enormous contradictions in the claim that the United states is ‘bringing democracy’ to a people it is brutalizing and repressing” (Arnove 2006, p. xvi).   


It’s hard not to notice the irony that those most incentivized and compelled to absorb the pretexts for the illegal invasion are those most directly exposed to the absurdity of its false justifications.


The irony is far from accidental, however. The U.S. civilian majority’s underlying opposition to imperialism and militarism – widely evident in the relevant opinion data (2) – is no small part of why the U.S. military prefers to rely on a mercenary (volunteer) army of mostly working-class soldiers and not on a compulsory national draft. As Noam Chomsky observed in explaining why he doubted that Bush administration planners would call for a draft in response to the deepening quagmire in Iraq in December 2004:


“The military command, and the civilian leadership, learned an important lesson in Vietnam: you can’t expect a citizen’s army to fight a vicious, brutal colonial war. Their predecessors knew that. The British, French, etc., provided the officer corps, special forces, and professional military, but relied on the Foreign Legion, Ghurkas, Indian troops, and other mercenaries. That’s standard. The US made a serious tactical error in this regard in Vietnam — though it had plenty of mercenaries too: South Korean, Thai, and others. In Iraq, the US is using what amounts to a mercenary army of the disadvantaged, and the second largest military force is the ‘private’ companies made up of ex-military officers, South African killers, etc.”


“In Vietnam, the army collapsed from within: drugs, killing officers, etc. Citizens are not trained killers, and they are not sufficiently dissociated from the civilian culture at home to fight colonial wars properly. The top brass wanted the army out, before it fell apart. And the civilian leadership agreed” (Chomsky 2004).


Chomsky elaborated on these comments in his 2005 interview book Imperial Ambitions (Chomsky and Barsamian 2005. p. 133-134):


“A citizens’ army has ties to the civilian culture.  In the late 1960s, for example, during the Vietnam War, a kind of rebellious culture in many respects and civilizing culture in many respects spilled over into the military, and it helped undermine the military, which is a very good thing.   That’s why no imperial power has used the citizens’ army to fight an imperial war.  If you take a look at the British in India, the French in West Africa, or South Africans in Angola, they essentially relied on mercenaries, which makes sense.  Mercenaries are trained killers, but people who are too close to civilian society are not really going to be good at killing people.”



Ruling class preference for the use of professional, non- citizen soldiers (both public and private) to enforce global empire lay behind the fact that so U.S. citizens are experientially removed from the harsh realities of the Iraq invasion and thus more free to at least privately oppose it. That preference is intimately related to the imperialist nature of the war on Iraq and of U.S. foreign policy in general (Street 2007b).



None of this can provide the slightest bit of comfort to professor Bacevich, whose book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005) is a brilliant reflection on the post-Vietnam U.S. military and its position in U.S. society and politics. To have a son or daughter killed or maimed in a dirty colonial war from whose false justifications you are privileged enough to be inoculated must be a painful experience indeed.   The road of internalizing the bogus reasons given for the policy is closed and you are confronted with an ugly truth that you can’t expect many fellow “parents of the fallen” to acknowledge:   your child’s noble values and life were sacrificed to the vile imperial and political ambitions of the “Washington mob,” still very much the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (Martin Luther King Jr. 1967, p. 233).


Paul Street (paulstreet99@ yahoo.com) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 ( Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005). Street’s next book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History ( New York, 2007) will be published in July.






1. Some segments of the mass imperial consent manufactory called the “mainstream” U.S. media may have apologized for their terrible role in disseminating the big weapons of mass destruction (WMD) lie (and related deceptions about Saddam Hussein’s alleged connections to al Qaeda and 9/11) that the Bush administration cooked up to justify their invasion of Iraq. But the apology came far too late to matter and dominant U.S. media has subsequently continued to disseminate numerous other administration deceptions, such as the preposterous claim (elevated by the White House public relations machine once the WMD fraud began to be exposed) that the real reason for the occupation of Iraq was the United States’ desire to export “democracy” and to create a free and sovereign Iraq.  When will the media masters apologize for helping propagate that great and significant Iraq War fairy tale, which was never accepted by more than 1 percent of the technically irrelevant and supposedly “liberated” Iraqis (and other post-WMD Washington war deceptions – see Street 2007)?


2. For what it’s worth (to give just one small part of the overall and long-term public opinion picture), 72 percent of Americans surveyed by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in the fall of 2004 said that the U.S. should remove its military from Iraq if that’s what a clear majority of Iraqis want (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations 2004, p. 17). Interestingly enough, a poll conducted for the British Ministry of Defence in 2005   found that fully 82 percent of  Iraqis were “‘strongly opposed’ to the presence of foreign troops in their country and less than 1 percent believed the troops were responsible for improvement in security” (Taylor 2005). This is some context for understanding why Washington prefers to use a mercenary, not a citizens’ army abroad.



3. If we must have a military, it would be better for it be based on a citizen’s draft, something that would make it much more difficult for warmongers (and Chicken Hawks) like Bush and Cheney to launch criminal adventures like the invasion of Iraq. See Chomsky 2005, p. 132.





Andrew Bacevich 2005. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005)


Andrew Bacevich 2007.  “I Lost my Son to a War I Oppose: We Were Both Doing Our Duty,” Washington Post 27 May 2007, available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/25/AR2007052502032_pf.html.   


Chicago Council on Foreign Relations 2004.  Global Views 2004: American Foreign Policy and Public Opinion, October 2004.


Noam Chomsky 2004a.  “The Draft,” ZNet (December 17 2004), available online at http://blog.zmag.org/ee_links/the_draft.


Noam Chomsky 2004b.  “‘We’ are Good” [November 24, 2004], reproduced in Chomsky, Interventions [ San Francisco: City Lights, 2007], p.101)


Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian 2005. Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World (New York: Metropolitan, 2005).


Leon Festinger and J.M. Carlsmith 1959. “Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.


Henry A. Giroux 2004.  The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy ( Boulder, CO: Paradigm 2004).


David M. Halbfinger and Steven A. Holmes 2003.  “Military Mirrors Working-Class America,” New York Times (March 30, 2003).


Martin Luther King Jr. 1967.  “A Time to Break the Silence,” April 4 1967 speech to the Riverside Church, pp. 231-244 in James M. Washington, ed.., A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King,, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harpercollins, 1991), pp. 231-244.


Martin Luther King Jr. 1968. “The Drum Major Instinct,” Feb. 4 1968 sermon to the Ebenezer Baptist Churchm reproduced in James M. Washington, ed, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther king, Jr. (Harpercollins, 1991), pp. 259-267


George Orwell 1948.  Nineteen Eighty Four (New York: 1948).


Frank Rich 2007.  “Scooter’s Sopranos go the Mattresses,” New York Times, 17 June 2007, section 4, p. 13.


David Roediger 1991.  The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991).


Paul Street 2002.   “Labor Day Reflections: Time as a Democracy Issue,” ZNet Daily Commentaries (September 3, 2002) at www.zmag. org/ sustainers/content/ 2002-08/01street.cfm.


Paul Street 2007a.   “Bed Time Stories for the Bewildered Herd: Iraq War Fairy Tales in the Age of Never Mind Media,” Z Magazine (January 2007), available online at http://zmagsite.zmag.org/Jan2007/street0107.html


Paul Street 2007b. “‘Important Tasks’ Worth Achieving: Liberal Empire Denial and the Civilian-Military Disconnect,” Empire and Inequality Report No. 18 (May 13 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12811.


Richard Norton Taylor 2005.  “British Forces Arrest Nine Iraqis As Poll Shows Hostility to Troops,” The Guardian, October 24, 2005, available at www. guardian.co.uk/military/ story/0,,1599184,00.html.


Evan Thomas and Larry Kaplow 2007.  “Manhunt in Mesopotamia.” NEWSWEEK (May 28, 2007): 36-37.


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