American Gangsterism

The gangster is an American icon, long glamorized in folklore, film, and song, and it is therefore hardly surprising that this devotion to the cult of thuggery should manifest itself in our foreign and military policy. From Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) to Marlon Brando in The Godfather trilogy, the image of the swashbuckling killer who combines ruthlessness with glamor, and, in Cagney’s case, comedic flair, has been a staple of American cultural fare. The gangster is the ultimate "unilateralist," and in this reflects the central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy in the age of Bush II: might makes right. When gangsters fire-bomb a business that refuses to pay for "protection," or rub out a rival gang member in a drive-by shooting, they are merely implementing the theory of "preemption," which is now official U.S. military doctrine.

A gangsterish foreign policy requires a mercilessly brutal gang of enforcers, and that, from all accounts, is what the U.S. military is turning into in Iraq. The latest evidence of this is what happened in Haditha, where U.S. Marines cut down at least 15 Iraqi civilians in cold blood. A young Iraqi girl testifies, "The Americans came into the room where my father was praying and shot him." If we substitute the Mafia for the Marines, it is a scene that would not have been out of place in, say, The Godfather, or any one of a number of cheap imitations.

We covered this incident last year, when it happened, as well as reporting as early as 2004 that the "liberation" of Haditha has been violently traumatic for the poor citizens of that upper Euphrates town, but outrage is only just beginning to be felt in official quarters. Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat whose closeness to the military has amplified the persuasiveness of his antiwar stance, has recently confirmed that accounts of the massacre are true. What the Washington Post termed "the coolest posting in a hot war zone" – because, as one Marine explained, it’s 10 degrees cooler than anyplace else in Iraq – has now become the focus of an investigation into a red-hot issue: the sad and gruesome history of U.S. war crimes in Iraq.

The Pentagon initially tried to cover up the Haditha atrocities by claiming the 15 Iraqi civilians reported dead were victims of a roadside bombing that also killed a U.S. Marine. However, a video shot by a local Iraqi investigative reporter showed that the official account of what happened could not have been true, and a subsequent investigation by Time magazine showed that the military was covering up a heinous crime. Rep. Murtha reports “there was no firefight, there was no IED [improvised explosive device] that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”

Apparently what happened is that the death of their comrade in the roadside bombing evoked in our Marines a rage so uncontainable that they took revenge on the hapless villagers caught in the crossfire between occupiers and insurgents. As detailed by several witnesses, the American "liberators" entered the homes of Iraqi civilians and summarily executed them, without reason or provocation, out of sheer bloodlust. It was, in effect, the equivalent of a Mafia hit, carried out in order to terrorize the locals.

This is hardly surprising, since a growing number of real gang members are signing up for the military. Like, after all, attracts like. An extensive piece in the Chicago Sun-Times reports:

"The Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, and Vice Lords were born decades ago in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. Now, their gang graffiti is showing up 6,400 miles away in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods – Iraq.

"Armored vehicles, concrete barricades, and bathroom walls all have served as canvasses for their spray-painted gang art. At Camp Cedar II, about 185 miles southeast of Baghdad, a guard shack was recently defaced with ‘GDN’ for Gangster Disciple Nation, along with the gang’s six-pointed star and the word ‘Chitown,’ a soldier who photographed it said. The graffiti, captured on film by an Army Reservist and provided to the Chicago Sun-Times, highlights increasing gang activity in the Army in the United States and overseas, some experts say."

Scott Barfield, described by the Sun-Times as a DoD "gang detective," has identified 320 admitted gang members who have served in Iraq since April 2002. The military police are encountering a growing problem: soldiers who are gangsters in "real" life. Barfield avers that his own investigations have exposed only "the tip of the iceberg."

Jeffrey Stoleson, an Army Reserve sergeant stationed in Iraq, is a correctional officer in civilian life and a founder of the gang interdiction team at a high security Wisconsin prison. When he went to his superior officers with evidence of extensive gang infiltration of the military, he was told not to rock the boat: “My E-8 [supervising sergeant] told me not to ruffle their feathers because they were doing a good job,” Stoleson said. Soldiers openly sport gang tattoos that identify them as members of the Vice Lords and the Simon City Royals, a Chicago street gang. According to Stoleson: "They don’t try to hide it."

Why should they? Given the increasing brutality of the American occupation of Iraq, their skills – murdering, terrorizing, and generally causing mayhem – are in increasing demand.

Rep. Murtha, while deploring the mayhem, attributes it to "battle fatigue." According to him, it is perfectly understandable that U.S. troops have committed atrocities: they are, after all, "under undue pressure in Iraq because of poor planning and allocation of resources by the Bush administration." The poor babies!

I’m sorry, but "pressure" doesn’t come close to excusing or adequately explaining what happened in Haditha, or what is happening today all over Iraq. Predictions made a year ago, in this space and elsewhere, that the U.S. would soon turn, in desperation, to the "El Salvador option" – i.e., unleashing a reign of terror on Iraq’s increasingly anti-U.S. civilian population – seem to be coming true. Those Shi’ite "death squads" and party militias we hear so much about – which have gone on a rampage recently, executing Sunnis and anyone else they don’t happen to like – are officially considered a problem by the occupation authorities, but one wonders if, as in El Salvador during the 1980s, a good number aren’t on the U.S. payroll.

The War Party’s response to these allegations, and all evidence of the horrors committed by U.S. troops in Iraq – from Abu Ghraib to everyday incidents like the drowning murder of a young Iraqi boy by U.S. soldiers – is that these are just the crimes of "a few bad apples." The problem, however, is that the tree that spawned them breeds poisonous fruit.

The main concern of U.S. authorities, including the military police, seems to be that the gangbangers will utilize their training – and, in some cases, their access to equipment and weaponry – when they come back to the U.S. Only this time they won’t be breaking into Iraqi homes and slaughtering women and children: they’ll be holding up banks and committing crimes of violence in the U.S.

While this is a valid worry, there is no mention, in the Sun-Times piece, of any concern for the fate of Iraqi civilians, who must endure daily indignities and deadly danger from these thugs. If it isn’t all about us, Americans don’t want to know. But with these latest revelations of dark deeds in Haditha, they are going to have it thrown in their faces.

This is not to say that there is evidence of a gang connection to any of the Marines involved in this incident. It is to say, however, that a foreign policy founded on the "principle" that might makes right is naturally going to employ gangsters as enforcers. Over at Mob headquarters, in Washington, D.C., they could care less if the Latin Disciples, the Crips, and the Bloods, are taking over the U.S. military: as long as they don’t turn the guns around, as the Marxists used to say.

The U.S. military, as overextended as it is, is straining for the resources and manpower to implement the Bushian vision of military glory. Why, they’re even recruiting the mentally ill: is anyone surprised that they’re practically setting up recruiting booths at local gangbanger get-togethers?

The army of a constitutional republic, charged as it is with employing the use of defensive force, is qualitatively different from the legions of Empire, which are constantly mobilized in order to extend the far frontiers of the American Imperium. The much-heralded "transformation" of the U.S. military presided over by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is a self-conscious turn in the latter direction. Instead of the old-style, relatively sedentary defensive posture maintained by a military strategy designed to fight essentially two major wars at once, the new Rumsfeldian strategy envisions a highly mobile, ultra-light elite corps designed to strike anywhere on earth at a moment’s notice.

In ancient Rome, barbarian mercenaries soon supplanted the Roman farmers who constituted the army of the Old Republic. Horatio at the bridge soon gave way to the rape of the Sabine women. That the same process is accompanying our own degeneration into Imperial decadence should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].