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When G.I. Joe Says No

A war protester walks by a makeshift memorial for the American troops that have died in Iraq after a war protest at their camp near President Bush's ranch, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2005, in Crawford, Texas.
AP
This column was written by Christian Parenti.
A young former U.S. Army sniper wearing a desert camo uniform, an Iraqi kaffiyeh and mirrored sunglasses scans a ruined urban landscape of smashed homes, empty streets and garbage heaps. His sand-colored hat bears a small regulation-style military patch, or tab, that instead of reading "Airborne" or "Ranger" or "Special Forces" says "S**tbag" — common military parlance for bad soldier.

This isn't Baghdad or Kabul. It's the Gulf Coast, and the column of young men and women in desert uniforms carrying American flags are with Iraq Veterans Against the War. They are part of a larger peace march that is making its way from Mobile to New Orleans. This is just one of IVAW's ongoing series of actions.

In all, about 35 Iraq vets cycled through this weeklong procession of 250. For the young, often very broke, very busy veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, this represents a fairly strong showing. But many casual observers, influenced by memories of Vietnam-era protesting, when veterans mobilized in the thousands, expected that U.S. soldiers in Iraq would turn against the war faster and in greater numbers than they have. An estimated 1 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but so far IVAW has only about 250 members.

For many of the more activist IVAW vets, their political evolution did not follow the simple trajectory one might expect, from idealism at enlistment to postcombat disillusionment. In fact, many of them shipped off to war despite serious political misgivings. "I went to Iraq opposing the war," says Garrett Reppenhagen, the former sniper with the irreverent potty-mouthed patch on his hat. Reppenhagen served a year with the Army's First Infantry Division in and around the very violent city of Baquba. "I was reading Zinn's People's History and John Perkins's Economic Hit Man before I went."

What's that? Someone went off to be killed or maimed or possibly to kill "hajjis" despite being an antiwar leftist? And Reppenhagen is not alone. A recent Zogby poll found that 29 percent of soldiers in Iraq favored immediate withdrawal, which some see as a sign of an imminent crisis in military discipline. But the poll could be read in exactly the opposite fashion. If the Army and Marines can keep the disgruntled soldiers fighting and fighting, even 70 percent of troops could favor immediate withdrawal and it would mean nothing.

The question for peace activists thus becomes: How is it that antiwar soldiers continue to fight? And what does it really take for an antiwar soldier to resist? The answers lie largely in the sociology of "unit cohesion" and the ways the military uses solidarity among soldiers as a form of social control. Similarly, the peace activism of IVAW requires the spread of an oppositional form of loyalty and camaraderie.

Since 1973, when Congress ended the draft, the armed forces have been restructured using unit cohesion as a form of deep discipline. In other words, social control in today's military operates through a system that could be straight from a text by French philosopher Michel Foucault: Soldiers are managed not with coercion but with freedom. Because they join of their own free will, they find it almost impossible to rebel.

Volunteering implicates them, effectively stripping them of the victim status that conscription allowed. Soldiers who would resist are guilt-tripped and emotionally blackmailed into serving causes they hate. During my time embedded in Iraq, I met several antiwar soldiers, but none of them considered abandoning their comrades. They said things like "you signed that paper" or "they got that contract" — as if contracts are never broken or annulled.

If veterans are supposed to be at the heart of the peace movement, then it would serve progressives to understand this new military culture. Understanding the world of the military is also important because it is a major force in the socialization of young working-class Americans. If you're 20 or 22 and you're not doing what many rich kids do (like a career-boosting summer internship in New York) or doing what some truly poor kids do (like going to state prison on drug charges), chances are you're learning about responsibility and adulthood, and escaping small-town or inner-city America, courtesy of the U.S. armed forces. One of the key lessons you'll learn there is: Look out for your comrades, because they're looking out for you.

Since World War II, military psychologists, sociologists and historians — most notably the army historian S.L.A. Marshall, who interviewed hundreds of combat veterans in the Pacific theater — have agreed that soldiers fight not for justice, democracy or other grand ideas but for the guy next to them. Unit cohesion is the real glue holding the U.S. military together.

"I remember they had this formation to tell us we were going to Iraq," recalls Fernando Braga, a skinny, unassuming 23-year-old Iraq vet who is still enlisted in the New York National Guard. Braga, now a poet and student at CUNY's Hunter College, says he became politicized well before the war, when he helped his immigrant mother clean rich people's homes. "My company is really anti-authoritarian. Guys would regularly skip formations and insult the NCOs. So I thought nobody would go. But, like, everybody went!"

And since everybody went, so did Braga. "I had to go. I wasn't going to leave these guys."