America's "Soldiers of Misfortune"

We call sterile, wingless ants or termites that possess powerful jaws, and stand ready to defend their colony, soldiers; or we could also refer to them as insectival cannon fodder. We also call our enlisted men and women serving in the military, soldiers; or we could, and often do, refer to them as grunts… ready to become human cannon fodder.

During the past four years I’ve probably received upwards of two dozen emails a month from relatives of military service personnel, almost always from the enlisted ranks; and, most often, those relatives have been moms. About one thousand such emails!

There was much heartache in these messages, particularly those coming from moms with sons or daughters serving in Iraq. But, although the letters were for the most part affable and courteous, simply asking for moral support, there seemed to be a strong underlying theme to them, as if all written with the sole purpose of telling this writer that I owe each and every one of my rights and freedoms to those serving in todays military.

Peg P., who had a daughter on active duty in the US Army – with prior service in Iraq – was the last individual in February to send me a little poem-narrative of fewer than ten lines, a poem which had been sent to me several times in the past, reminding me in no uncertain terms that it’s the soldier – not the preacher, not the reporter, not the campus organizer, not the lawyer, not the politician – that I should be thanking for my freedoms of religion, press and assembly; and also the rights to a fair trial and vote. It’s the soldier who makes all that possible; that I was told… and told… and told.

Sorry, Peg, but you and many good people in the military community have it completely wrong, confusing the mission of a military defense force – and what could be interpreted as the defense, not granting, of our freedoms – with what has become an imperial army, a military mostly composed of soldiers of misfortune, for they could hardly be called true mercenaries or soldiers of fortune, not the way they are compensated.

It was almost four decades ago that Steve M., a fellow graduate student at UCLA, who had just lost his deferment status, referred to the troops fighting in Vietnam, in jest, as “Soldiers of Misfortune,” no doubt adding himself to that bad luck group. All these years I’ve often been tempted but never tried to search for his name in those long lists which add up to over sixty thousand identities of Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam; afraid, perhaps, that finding it will add one more to an already too-long personal list.

Looking back, however, I should have corrected him, calling those servicemen victims of misfortune instead of soldiers of misfortune. After all, most weren’t there of their own free will, “the draft” being then in force… so what better utilization for the word “victim” than to describe the grunt who was serving in Nam? But we no longer have victims.

Today, when I refer to soldiers of misfortune I can think of no group more deserving of that name than the military serving in Afghanistan or Iraq… as grunts, of course. Being all volunteers, we could hardly refer to them as victims, although there are times when one could question whether for many of these young men and women the military was a career of choice or a job of necessity. Generalizations could likely do injustice to some soldiers and their reason(s) for being in the military, and we won’t make them.


The American military does not represent a cross-section of the country. Not in the makeup of the officer corps, nor in the composition of the enlisted ranks. For some reason, we fail to give a second thought to the fact that the commissioned officers who run our military are for the most part right-wing Republicans (80 percent of them); and that the enlisted ranks are inordinately represented by the poor, minorities; and, yes, some with “waived” criminal backgrounds. Republicans would be expected to keep this information low-key, and Democrats are probably not eager to appear “unpatriotic.”

So we end up with a career military for warmongering officers, and the cannon fodder represented by these soldiers of misfortune in all branches of the military, including all National Guard members thrown into the mix to beef up an overreaching imperial army. Have the governors in all fifty states lost their marbles? Why are they sacrificing those guard members fighting outside their mission? These people are certainly soldiers of misfortune that need not be, and were never meant to be in these wars of choice!

Last week, Jim Wilt, an army sergeant assigned to a military base north of Kabul, Bagram, lamented in an opinion article that America does not honor the death of fallen soldiers in a manner comparable to the victims at Virginia Tech. But therein lies the difference, Jim; those innocent students were victims of a madman, while you are soldiers of your own chosen misfortune. And as enlisted men, you are hit with a double whammy, fear coming to you from both friend and foe.

Montaigne in his 18th century wisdom did prophesize a 21st century truth now evident when he wrote that soldiers ought to fear more their general than their enemy. And the general this time comes wearing the uniform of Commander-in-Chief, and a name tag that reads George W. Bush. Until the Department of Defense ceases to act as the Imperial War Department, all American soldiers will remain soldiers of misfortune.

Our uncrowned monarch seems to have a predilection for unjust, painful long wars. And our poor soldiers of misfortune are immolated in the fighting of those wars. At least the ant and termite soldiers perish in defense of their colonies. But can anyone give us a good reason why our soldiers’ lives are sacrificed?

And please, don’t answer by sending me any more copies of that poem enumerating the freedoms that these soldiers of misfortune are fighting to preserve. That’s pure crock.