By Victor Menaldo
It would be an understatement to say that since September 11th 2001, America’s domestic and foreign policy has undergone an incredible sea change. Abroad, a war with Iraq looms. At home, the economic downturn continues. And domestic concerns such as health care, immigration reform and education now play second fiddle to saber rattling on Iraq and militarization.
The nation’s military budget received a massive injection of money this fiscal year and recruitment by the armed forces has been stepped up especially among the Hispanic community.
Hispanics make up to 20% of the service members of the military (including reservists). However, they constitute only 12% of the population. And although the military offers attractive incentives as a recruitment aid (paid college education and up to a $20,000 signing bonus) some activists argue that while this may be a tasty carrot, it nonetheless leads to a brackish stick a career that is centered, primarily, on armed conflict.
Dr. Jorge Mariscal, a professor of literature at UCSD and an expert on Latinos in the military, believes that the over-representation of Latinos in the military alludes to an endemic problem. Mariscal has identified an entrenched “tracking system”, which limits economic opportunities for working people who are then presented with the military as one choice in a narrowed range of career alternatives. Mariscal claims that the US military has historically evidenced tendencies towards perpetuating a “caste system” of sorts, as “working people in general and poor people of color have borne the burden of wartime service because they are afforded limited options in the division of labor.”
Mariscal, who is a Vietnam veteran, notices some uncanny similarities between the Vietnam escalation and the “war on terror.” While the tracking system of Latinos for military service has been exacerbated in California since the repeal of affirmative action in 1995 enrollment of Chicanos has been depressed by 40% and while no alternative has been devised to increase minority enrollment recent events of national importance are equally troubling. Although recruiters began targeting Latinos before 9/11, mainly because Latinos make up the largest pool of available 18-year olds, the war on terror just made the military an infinitely more dangerous career choice, says Mariscal.
In the same vein, Mariscal places a portion of the onus for Latino overrepresentation in the military on the Latino community itself, as it has been complicit, albeit unwittingly, in perpetuating an insidious pattern of unquestioned patriotism. Namely, blind flag waving rather than “critical patriotism” may be leading Latino youth into the military unflinchingly, rather than expeditiously and for the right reasons.
Mariscal says that deferential patriotism, what he refers to as “following the flag blindly”, is often endemic to the Hispanic Community, due to fear of deportation, feelings of indebtedness to the United States and the desire of Latinos to blend into greater American society. In fact, many experts contend that Latinos tend to over-compensate for their often flat-footed attempt to assimilate into mainstream society by “proving” their loyalty and love for the country through political quiescence, attested by many Latinos’ unmitigated support of the “war on terror.” Although Mariscal finds nothing wrong with patriotism, per say, he does think that the model of patriotism currently exhibited by Latinos knee-jerk flag waving flies in the face of the democratic values.
To arrest Latino youths’ sub-par education and their tendency to be tracked toward military service, increase the number of opportunities for disadvantaged individuals and militate against the military being construed as an overly attractive option for Latinos, Mariscal favors countermeasures against “institutionalized racism.” Akin to advocating a political shift within the Latino community away from its current predilection for crude patriotism and towards patriotic critique and analysis Mariscal believes that “there should be a re-prioritization of what American society wants for its self.”
To complement these keystones of democracy, i.e. participation and analysis, Mariscal favors a more humanistic orientation, away from its current militaristic focus. Similarly, this policy-change would create a windfall of funds for scholarships targeted to Latinos who are otherwise tracked for military service. Last, Mariscal promotes a change in Latino political culture.
Mariscal’s political paradigm thrives on differences, rather than sanction blanket assimilation. “Critical-thinking and debate about the nation’s future”, says Mariscal, would help to arrest recent calls for “consensus” on all issues.
For Mariscal, the trend towards unanimity underlines the fact that “so-called Hispanic intellectuals have tended to play it safe” and have not “fulfilled their responsibility to the Hispanic grassroots.” However, Mariscal believes that disagreement, anchored perhaps on opposite political poles but indicative of complex and thus contentious issues, is start in the right direction. Latinos, Mariscal thinks, should embrace dissent, rather than simply indulge in drum beating impulsively. Instrumentally, dissent takes the governments’ motives, objectives and means to task, in order to promote accountability.
Once Hispanics are adequately educated about the issues and mobilized, Mariscal believes that they can then, rather than assimilate blindly, find common ground with other groups through democratic conciliation. In sum, Mariscal eschews “the culture of fear”, which he claims has permeated America and fomented blind acceptance by Latinos of Bush’s policies. In an uncanny similarity to the Vietnam era, Mariscal feels that the “war on terror” has revealed a strong need for Latinos to expose their opposition to policies that endanger their wellbeing. At the core, this is emblematic of the need for Latinos to demand that, as Mariscal says, “they have a say in a society they helped build.”
To this end, Mariscal encourages that a healthy and far-reaching debate begin within the Latino community, to match the prolonged and open-ended war on terrorism, which will ineluctably recruit more Hispanics who would otherwise “contribute to the country and the world in non-violent and productive ways.”