Footsoldier: The Achilles Heel in America"s Quest for Empire

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. ~ Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

We were always the good guys in old Hollywood movies. We were always the unselfish defenders of freedom, the protectors of the persecuted, the ally of the underdog. At least that was the popular conception, however mythic or misconceived. We came to the rescue more than once, and many of us know elderly relatives who sacrificed the best years of their lives (literally) for a very real ideal of what America once stood for. Yet, ask one of those old veterans of World War II what America now stands for and you may get a puzzled or cynical silence.

They were citizen soldiers but like all soldiers, they wanted to get the war over with and just come home. Hopefully, the world would be a little bit better once the totalitarian dragon was slain. The bloodshed and dying would be harder to forget, for the victim and the victor were inextricably linked, forever, in daydreams and nightmares and fragments of recollection.

No better picture emerges of these average American soldiers than a slim book entitled, Up Front -- Bill Mauldin's illustrative record from that war. The reviewer of this wonderful book wrote: "A note to any active duty personnel who may be reading Up Front for the first time: Let this console you that things were no better, nor different, in 'The Good War'--your grandfather was not superman, nor of a more dauntless breed of mortal than may be found today; officers no less cluelessly arrogant, and as well, selflessly brave; regulations as insane and out of touch with the situation on the ground; media and corporate exploitation as maddening; friends as real as the misery, stress, and pain."

Closeup portrait of a Marine's face, which is covered in dirt from the battlefield.Footsoldier and Vietnam veteran, Tim O'Brien, wrote in The Things They Carried: "For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel--the spiritual texture--of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery." The decent, church-going boy of the Midwest becomes the avenging angel of death. Back home, the ministers, editors and civic leaders who obliquely supported the war because they fail to condemn it, spoke of a loving God long since gone from the battlefield-hardened boy. "Something had gone wrong. I'd come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person . . . but after seven months in the bush I realized that those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I'd turned mean inside. Even a little cruel at times."

Since before Alexander The Great, the footsoldier has been the Achilles heel in the life and death quest for empire and each individual soldier bears the weight. The war in Iraq is no different. But American political leaders squander lives heedlessly, ignorant of this essential fact. Young American soldiers are mostly raised to identify with the righteous underdog--as the doomed hero matched against The Terminator--and also imbued with a smattering of Biblical teachings, a contrasting "eye-for-an-eye" and two wrongs don't make a right. This simple knowledge should forewarn any American political leader of the danger of foisting their imperial ambitions--as the Neocons and Democrats have done for the last forty years--onto the considerable and courageous shoulders of the US soldier.

If you look closely at the infantrymen in the movie, Platoon, you may notice graffiti on the helmets of Oliver Stone's soldiers. One such slogan was FTA, which stood for "Fuck The Army." During the Sixties, the media rarely permitted any allusions to poor troop morale in the Vietnam War. That antiwar expression--FTA--was a symptom of a painful weight being pressed upon our Achilles heel, the Regular Army (RA) footsoldier, but it was only really understood when soldiers returned home to swell the ranks of protests against the war. Even then their voices were ignored or dismissed for years.

The Pentagon brass and media heavyweights should embed themselves from time to time as common footsoldiers--reportedly as General Washington did at Valley Forge--to gather the mood of troops on the frontlines. Get a frank earful of opinion from the average infantryman. Imagine if Americans here at home had access to the obscenity-laced "give and take"--the freely expressed rage, regret, hate, remorse and philosophic insight from the frontline troops in Iraq--occurring as I write this. Unfortunately, Bill Mauldin is dead and The New York Times died long ago, so we'll probably never know the status of our Achilles heel until too much weight is pressed upon it.

Retired Colonel David Hackworth, author and frequent Pentagon gadfly, wrote: "Now, when Indians don't trust Chiefs, battles are lost. This was clearly the case in Vietnam, where the term 'fragging' was coined by the troops to rid themselves of CO's they didn't trust because of incompetence or Custer glory complexes. But obviously, the brass didn't get the message there, and not only did they lose most of the battles, they lost the war."

The quest for empire runs only as far as the common footsoldier cares to take it and no farther. The Greek and Roman footsoldier fought well, as did the armies of the German Reich, gobbling up thousands of square miles of territory that was never theirs and which they couldn't hold. Today the American government employs a national policy of highly-paid, hired mercenaries to augment our flagging footsoldiers, "contractors" closer to the Waffen SS than the citizen soldier the Founding Fathers imagined. Why--we should ask ourselves--would America need thousands of these "contractors" in Iraq, if not for the increasing reluctance of reserve and RA soldiers to conduct an illegal and immoral war?

"There should be a law," O'Brien wrote, "If you support a war, if you think it's worth the price, that's fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line. You have to head for the front and hook up with an infantry unit and help spill the blood." The day that happens is the day warfare ends forever.

Cowards die a thousand times but heroes die but once. This is false. Heroes die everyday but pick themselves up again and again to resist. Whether as a common soldier pressed into a war he cannot understand, or those of us back home shining the light on the cowards who sent the soldiers there, the frontlines shift but the enemy remains the same. The Terminator was difficult to kill but he was a cardboard character compared to the NEMESIS we all face today. As I write this on Easter Sunday, Godspeed the soldier home to the arms of his loved ones; God preserve the citizens of all countries. We are indeed brothers in arms, footsoldiers and the Achilles heel of every quest for empire in history, including our own.


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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @