Sofya Aptekar is Associate Professor of Urban Studies at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. Her new book, Green Card Soldier: Between Model Immigrant and Security Threat, explores the unique experiences of noncitizen soldiers in the U.S. military. Aptekar’s research is based on interviews with over 70 immigrants from 23 countries who served or are serving in the U.S. military.
Against the liberal logic that the military can be made “progressive” through integrating oppressed communities, Aptekar argues in her book and in other writing that the Left should clarify how oppressed communities are used by the military to legitimize and expand empire, and how these troops’ experiences show how the military is a racist institution. Today, the long-standing bipartisan support for the military is beginning to fracture over far-right claims of “wokeness” driving the military’s recruitment crisis. Aptekar provides important clarity for how the Left should understand the institution of the military and resist liberal attempts to sew illusions in a more diverse imperialism.
Left Voice writer Sam Carliner interviewed Aptekar about her book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What assumptions do people commonly make about immigrants in the military and their reasons for joining? What were the realities you found through your research?
For immigrants who are not already U.S. citizens, there is a fast track to naturalization to U.S. citizenship through the military. There are a lot of assumptions about that being the driving factor, particularly with so many attacks on immigrant rights in the last 20 years and however far back you want to go on. So I think it’s a reasonable assumption that if military service is a way to get citizenship faster, that must be a reason that immigrants are joining. And I came to this research having written my first book about the process of naturalization and immigration. The military was a part of it, and I remained curious about it. So I probably shared the assumption of how important this was.
But what I ended up finding is that a lot of the noncitizens who are enlisting, they grew up in the U.S. and they have green cards. They’re lawful permanent residents. So they qualify for citizenship usually. And having grown up in the U.S. with a green card, a lot of them don’t have citizenship on their radar. Sometimes they didn’t even know about the citizenship benefit. Sometimes they knew, but it wasn’t like a huge factor. And for some it didn’t matter. And there was a certain type of immigrant for whom it mattered. It tended to be young adults or older teenagers or people who had a specific situation. One person I talked to had a green card through marriage, and the marriage was falling apart. She was worried about losing the green card, so this would speed up the process. But for the most part, people were enlisting for economic reasons. It’s what counter-recruitment activists call “the poverty draft.” So there’s young people who just want to go to college but don’t know how to pay for it. A lot of people grew up going to public schools in communities that are permeated with military recruitment. Recruiters hang out in their schools since they were young, picking them up for rides. There’s JROTC programs. Some went to military charter schools. So it was in their young minds. It was a prominent choice. A lot of people who didn’t have college plans were also like, “Well, this is a steady job.”
That all played out for immigrants too. Sometimes there were immigration-specific factors. Like a family was in debt because they were spending all their money trying to fight deportation of a family member. In one case, it was a sibling facing deportation. So one sibling joined the military, got a recruitment bonus, and put that recruitment bonus toward the immigration attorney fees to try to fight their brother’s deportation. Things like that are a kind of immigrant twist on the poverty draft.
Masculinity played an interesting role as well. There’s these dominant ideas about warrior masculinity that military personnel embody. So there were lots of folks I talked to who saw joining the military as part of becoming a man. And it was interesting because they sometimes have family members who served in militaries in other countries. Family legacy of military service is one of the major predictors for U.S.-born people enlisting in the military. But I found that it works across borders too. So if you have, like, an uncle or grandpa who served in the military somewhere else, that might motivate them to join the U.S. military. So there’s a military culture of masculinity and becoming a real man.
Yeah, I’d love to get into that a bit more. You talk about how within the military, despite assumptions that it’s equal, immigrants have to navigate these gendered hierarchies and racial hierarchies. I’d love it if you could get a bit more into what this says about the military as an institution.
The military has marketed itself in recent decades as an egalitarian, color-blind institution where race does not hurt your chances of success. In many ways, this marketing is successful. Lots of people see it that way. But that’s not what the research shows. My research is focused on immigrants, but I built my project on existing research that shows racial disparities, for instance, in many aspects of military life. The military has its own justice system, which is plagued by racial disparities and racism, white supremacy. In terms of promotions within the military, there’s evidence of racial discrimination. Access to health care. There’s all these aspects where researchers have demonstrated that there is discrimination.
It’s interesting to me that people can think of the military as an egalitarian institution, but at the same time there’s reports of white supremacists, quote unquote, infiltrating the military. I find “infiltrating” an interesting way of putting it, considering that the military is essential to maintaining white supremacy across the world and within the United States
It’s also depicted as an institution for empowering women. Women are brutalized, sexually assaulted, and murdered in the military. The military’s own research on trying to figure out why young people don’t want to enlist shows that concerns about gendered violence are really high up there.
Of course, immigrants have specific ways they end up navigating these racial hierarchies within the military and how their experiences as both immigrants and veterans play into a larger conception of “American” identity. What did your interviews reveal about these experiences?
The subtitle of my book is Between Model Immigrant and Security Threat. So on one hand, there are narratives of immigrants who join the military as, like, the best, the most deserving kinds of immigrants willing to sacrifice their health and their life for America, before they’re even citizens. That’s one side of the story. But on the flip side of that, their experiences working in the military reflect the larger society. As immigrants, they’re forever suspect, and, of course, very unequal by race.
How they’re racialized may mitigate these experiences, but people are suspicious of you if you are a more recent arrival; if you have an accent; if you’re racialized in a way that people think of you as Muslim, whether or not you are; if you’re Asian, specifically Chinese, because they’re an “enemy”; or, especially in more recent years, if you’re racialized as Russian, whether or not you are actually Russian. In all those cases, people are suspicious of you in the military. Policies around security clearances and naturalization are very much shaped by the suspicion that these people might be spies, they might be infiltrators.
So you’re having to negotiate, on the one hand, you’re like this most deserving kind of immigrant that other immigrants are compared to. You set the bar high for what it takes to deserve a life in the United States. And on the other hand, especially for some kinds of immigrants, you’re constantly suspected. And that’s a reflection of the immigrant experience for, especially for some groups like Asian Americans and Muslim American immigrants.
You write about how the United States has a pervasive “militarized culture,” and one example is the increasing militarization of the border. How do we see this developing, and how does it present unique challenges from immigrants dealing with this contradiction of their role in the military?
First, what do I mean by “militarized culture”? I mean that it becomes normal to think of the military as a solution to a growing number of problems. Take the early Covid pandemic, when military personnel were administering Covid tests. There’s an expansion of what the military does, and that becomes normal. So if there’s a teacher shortage in Texas, mainly because teachers get paid so little, we’ll have veterans with no teacher certification just go into the classroom and teach. That’s part of the militarization of our culture. It’s not just that entertainment is full of images of the military to normalize the institution, but the way that the military becomes a solution for everything.
With the way that the immigration and military systems are increasingly connected, we’ve definitely seen this on the border. You have equipment from Afghanistan that has been moved to the border with Mexico. Increasingly, we see these borders move south as the United States is getting Mexico and in other countries to militarize their borders. We have the deployment of the National Guard on the border as well. And I would say another way that the two systems are connected that’s less obvious is that there’s a militarization of integration and reform. Service in the military becomes wrapped up with pathways to citizenship. The military also becomes the “solution” to the plight of immigrants who are without status or have precarious status. It’s another way that we see this militarization of our culture. For example, there’s a limit on asylum seekers from Afghanistan who are allowed to come to the United States. People are already talking about whether Afghan refugees should be recruited into the U.S. military because we need their skills. So immigrant populations that are displaced, often directly by the U.S. military, are then recruited into the military.
We’re now seeing this fighting between the Democrats and Republicans over the military, which traditionally has been a bipartisan institution. We have Republicans painting the recruitment crisis as an issue of the military being “woke.” While we should certainly oppose the Right’s use of any institution to attack oppressed groups, you argue in the book and in some of your other writing against this idea that the military can be improved through diversifying it. You argue that this helps legitimize the role the military plays in inflicting violence on those oppressed communities. Can you elaborate on this?
It’s been kind of amazing to watch this whole woke military discourse. If you read the arguments that they’re making in these hearings that happened three months ago, they’re attacking the diversity training and diversity language that the military already has.
The military talks and writes about diversity as a “force multiplier.” People’s cultural and linguistic backgrounds make them particularly suited to help buttress and expand U.S. empire, whether that’s happening outside the U.S. borders or within. Because there are many ways the military attacks resistance within U.S. borders. The military puts down a lot of uprisings, cracking down on resistance against resource extraction by Indigenous people within the U.S., and patrolling the border. With all of these things, it’s helpful for the military to have a diverse face for the public’s perceptions. But this opportunistic emphasis on “diversity” is what Republicans see as “woke.”
And the other issue is one of military spending. There’s “too many efforts” in the military, to crack down on white supremacists. And that’s turning people off. That logic is just amazing. Imagine I want to enlist in the military, but all I’m reading in the news is “They’re going after white supremacists,” so I’m not going to join that.
These are issues that the Department of Defense, Congress, and people are responding to. And then you have liberal arguments for inclusion into the military as a pathway toward inclusion in the U.S. society at large. Some people will point to inclusion of African Americans in the U.S. military as paving the way for civil rights, and that story gets replicated. Some people have called for undocumented youth to be able to enlist in the military to prove that they deserve integration. Of course, we could talk about queer people too.
But making the military more inclusive is not the answer. And that’s just an extension of this larger argument on the Left, that inclusion into the military should not be the answer for any of these groups. What the military does, we should never sew illusions in that on the Left. This institution exists to harm communities across the world and inflict violence and devastation to the planet. We should think about the abolition of the military the way that we on the Left talk about the need to abolish the police and prisons. And yes, other steps along the way will lead us there, of course. But as I write in my book, I did not want to spend a lot of time coming up with policies that make it less harmful for immigrants to be military workers. Immigrant communities have constrained choices within a racist, capitalist, settler colonial system. So their choices to join the military often make sense. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that that labor contributes to maintaining U.S. empire and all the harms that come with it.