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calendar   Sunday - July 06, 2008

America and China: The Eagle and the Dragon

America and China: The Eagle and the Dragon Part one: Freedom fighters

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 24/06/2008

With a $3 trillion war bill and an economy that flounders as China’s soars, could America’s era of dominance on the world stage be coming to an end? Mick Brown and the photographer Alec Soth travelled across America and China to observe how the future of these two great nations is intertwined, and to find out whether, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and the US election, we are on the brink of a new world order. In the first of a four-part series, they meet army recruitment officers in Virginia and cadets at West Point

What, I asked the US Army’s latest recruit, does being an American mean to you? Seventeen years old, as slight as a blade of a grass and as sharp as a whip, Priscilla Branch did not miss a beat. ‘Being free. Having the freedom to believe what we want to believe, and having the ability to express it.’

We were sitting in a classroom of Bassett High School, in the Virginia town of Martinsville. Outside, the rain was falling from a slate grey sky, but nothing could dampen Priscilla’s enthusiasm for her imminent embarkation on what she described as the greatest adventure of her - admittedly somewhat short - life. Having recently enlisted for active service in the Army, in a few months she would be shipping out for basic training and then on to further education, to train as a military paralegal specialist - the profession she planned to follow when she eventually retired from military.

I had come to Bassett High with Staff Sergeant Michael Ricciardi - ‘Sergeant Mike’ - the commander of the local Army recruitment office. Bassett High is one of what Sergeant Mike describes as his prime ‘prospecting’ sites in Martinsville - a town where patriotic feeling is high, employment prospects low, and where a career in the military often serves to satisfy both ends of the equation. Priscilla is one of three of the school’s pupils who have enlisted in the Army and will be taking up their positions when this academic year ends.

After completing her training it is likely that Priscilla will find herself deployed on active service in Iraq or Afghanistan in two years’ time.

‘I actually see that as a challenge, as excitement,’ she said. ‘It allows me to get better pride in myself when I know that I’m risking my life to make sure that everyone here in America is free and they continue to have their freedom. I feel more excitement than nervousness.’

And why, I asked, did she think America was in Iraq?

‘I think we are there to help them. America having democracy and them not having the freedoms we have is holding a lot of them back. It brings me pride not only to serve my country, but to know that my country is opening the eyes of the world to the freedoms we have.’

She paused and thought about this. ‘Actually, I think it’s extremely, extremely excellent.’

It was the British historian Paul Kennedy, in his book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, who first coined the term ‘imperial overstretch’, to describe the situation that besets an empire when its security needs, military obligations and globalist desires increasingly outstrip the resources available to satisfy them. As empires wane, Kennedy argued, they invariably resort to belligerence, thereby accelerating their decline by squandering their national treasuries on military spending, to the detriment of their economies and their people.

Kennedy was writing in the late 1980s, at a time when the Reagan administration was locked in its battle with the ‘Evil Empire’ of communism. Under the Reagan Doctrine, conducted by the defence secretary Caspar Weinberger - of whom it was said ‘there was never a weapon system he didn’t like’ - America’s defence expenditure soared, with the administration funding proxy wars in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Mozambique and Angola. At the same time, the Federal Deficit was increasing alarmingly (it was $153.3 billion in 1987), the dollar was weakening, and in a development laden with portentous symbolism a Japanese company purchased New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

Today, the conditions for ‘imperial overstretch’ are even more present. The dollar is plummeting. The Federal Deficit stands at around $711 billion. The trade deficit with China alone - the coming economic power - stands at close to $24 billion. (While China’s trade surplus stands at around $262 billion.)

In the meantime, the expenditure necessary to prosecute the Reagan doctrine has been thoroughly eclipsed by the present levels of defence expenditure.

The US accounts for 48 per cent of the world’s total defence expenditure, almost ten times the amount of the next highest nation - the UK. The US military budget for 2007 was $439.3 billion, a figure that actually excludes the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are largely funded through extra-budgetary supplements. In his book The Three Trillion Dollar War, the economist Joseph Stiglitz has calculated that after five years, what he calls ‘running expenses’ for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now stand at around $16 billion a month - equivalent to the annual budget of the United Nations. The cost thus far already exceeds the cost of the 12-year war in Vietnam, is more than double the cost of the Korean War, and is fast approaching the total cost of prosecuting the Second World War. The US administration, Stiglitz notes, had originally ‘budgeted’ in the range of $50 to $60 billion to ‘liberate’ Iraq and Afghanistan. The eventual cost, he estimates, is likely to be $3 trillion.

Not least among the challenges faced by the US military in prosecuting the war has been maintaining a full and motivated fighting force at a time when popular sentiment against the war in Iraq is running at an all-time high.

America has had a volunteer army since the abolition of conscription by Congress at the end of the Vietnam War in 1973. But the drip-feed of news images of car bombs in Baghdad and body-bags returning from Afghanistan is not a good advertisement for recruitment. By the US Army’s own admission, the desire to enlist is currently at its lowest point in two decades, with the army struggling to make the required 80,000 new recruits each year; while the cost of recruiting has never been higher - more than doubling in the 20 years between 1975 and 2005 from around $7,000 per enlistee to $16,000.

A disproportionately high number of these recruits come from rural communities, where job opportunities tend to be lower, and patriotic feeling runs higher. According to a study by University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute the death rate for rural soldiers is 60 per cent higher than for soldiers from cities or suburbs: ‘The dearth of opportunity in rural areas simply leaves more young people with fewer alternatives to the military,’ the study notes. ‘The opportunity differential between rural and urban America is probably higher now than at any time in the past.’

Nowhere is this mixture of rural hardship and patriotic sentiment more evident than in the neighbouring Appalachian states of West Virginia and Virginia.

Driving through the Appalachians I kept noticing the word ‘freedom’. It was there on a sign outside a lot selling trailer homes, plastic bunting fluttering in the breeze: freedom homes. It was there on a bumper sticker, framed by the Stars and Stripes, on the semi-truck that swayed past at high speed, sounding its horn, as the road the wound and dipped through the thickly wooded hills.
Cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Photograph by Alec Soth

This will most likely be the longest story I’ve ever posted.  It’s interesting (I believe) but I’m not sure how many others will find it so. I haven’t posted a lot of it here because it’s so long and so involved.  If you have the time and follow this sort of thing, here’s a link to the rest of the story.
Unfortunately, the extra photos promised by The Telegraph are not here. Typical.  http://tinyurl.com/3njhcz


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