[Marxism] Today's antiwar GI's

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 21 08:57:04 MDT 2006

When GI Joe Says No


[from the May 8, 2006 issue]

A young former US 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 "Shitbag"--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 thirty-five 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 US 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 US armed forces. One of the key 
lessons you'll learn there is: Look out for your comrades, because they're 
looking out for you.




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