December 7, 2001

Will Mexican Americans Be Cannon Fodder in the War on Terror?

By Jorge Mariscal

In boot camp my drill sergeant was a tough old Filipino. He was probably in his late 20s at the time, but to us he seemed much older. He had seen three tours in Vietnam in the bloodiest situations. He was a patriotic SOB, determined to instill that same patriotism in his motley recruits.

Most of us were blacks or Mexicans, with a few Caucasian working stiffs. Some were already patriotic. Others maintained a healthy skepticism about national myths. That my drill sergeant was an Asian American fighting in a war against Asians was probably not lost on him. It certainly wasn't lost on us.

Thirty years later, the United States has embarked on a war against terrorism that experts say may last as long as the Cold War. That was 40 years. Even if it lasts "only" a decade, this new war will sweep up our sons, who today are happy 8-year-olds.

Most Americans seem resigned to waging war against other countries for as long as it takes if the president says they must. Adorning their gas-guzzling SUVs with flags is about the only thing wealthy Americans will have to contribute to the war effort. For Mexican American working families, the price will be much higher.

For the five years or so before Sept. 11, the Secretary of the Army made a concerted effort to recruit more Latino men and women into the service. Because they will make up the largest pool of 18-year-olds in a few decades, they were the primary target of Secretary Louis Caldera's propaganda blitz.

Education was the carrot. One day Caldera actually said the Army was the finest educational experience in the world. I suppose Harvard and MIT would be surprised to hear this. On high school campuses between 1992 and 1997, especially those with high percentages of Latino students, Junior ROTC units more than doubled, from 1,600 to 3,500. This promise of money for college and "high-tech" training was a powerful draw for our youth. Chicanos and Chicanas have a 48 percent high school drop-out rate, and less than 4 percent of all Chicano/a high school graduates are eligible for the University of California system.

During this period recruiters didn't say much about the military's primary mission. In the roaring '90s, the possibility of a protracted war seemed out of the question.

Mexican Americans now make up 37 percent of all active-duty Marines. One would be hard-pressed to deny that Raza once again has been cast in the role of cannon fodder.

If that seems too harsh, let us reflect on the fact that Mexicans, Native Americans, and Filipinos functioned as a kind of military or warrior caste in the United States throughout most of the second half of the 20th century. Mexican Americans have won more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group. Depending on your point of view, this is either a reason to be proud or inconsolably sad.

I use the term "Mexican American" at points deliberately in this essay. In the current climate of unquestioning loyalty to administration dictates, I find it more suitable than Chicano/a. During the Vietnam era, the term Chicano/a meant the exact opposite of blind patriotism. It meant a radical analysis of U.S. history and foreign policy coupled with a commitment to progressive activism. Although many of us followed fathers and uncles into all military branches, some of our brothers took the courageous stand of resisting the draft.

Young men like Manuel Gómez and Ernesto Vigil took principled positions against the killing. Refusing induction, former UCLA student body president Rosalio Muñoz wrote: "I accuse the educational system of uneducating Chicano youth. Generally, we are ineligible for higher education, and thus are ineligible for the draft deferments which other college-age youth take for granted."

Recently, historian Rudy Acuña suggested that if you are a Mexican American with a flag on your SUV, you are well on your way to becoming white. Without dealing in colors, I believe the new assimilationism typical of recent Mexican immigrants and their children is the product of fear. It is a fear of challenging an economic and cultural system that offers enough incentives to seduce, but fails to provide equal and unfettered opportunity. Immigrant children tracked into the military are "thankful." College fraternity members may think of themselves as "Hispanic," an invented 1990s term with undertones of devotion to career and consumerism. They seek a sense of belonging that includes "ethnic pride" and "charity" for less fortunate brethren, but no deep changes to lift them up.

Is there enough of a critical Chicano/a community left to initiate a real debate on the current crisis and perhaps mount a critique of the administration's blueprint for our future? Or will Mexican Americans willingly send their sons and daughters to die once again for vague notions of freedom and democracy?

(Jorge Mariscal teaches literature at the University of California, San Diego.)

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