Genealog(ies) of cohesion
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 have come 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 away the victim status that conscription once allowed. Soldiers who might resist are guilt-tripped and emotionally blackmailed into serving causes they hate. During my time embedded in Iraq, I met several anti-war 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.
Since World War II, military psychologists, sociologists, and historians — most notably the army historian S.L.A. Marshall, who interviewed hundreds of combat veterans of the Pacific theater — have agreed that soldiers fight not for justice, democracy, or any other grand idea, but for the guy next to them. Unit cohesion is the real glue holding the US 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.”
It’s worth recalling how badly military discipline broke down during the later stages of the Vietnam War, because those traumas shaped the thinking of today’s military leadership and guided a wide array of important military reforms.
At the heart of the matter was the draft, which provoked a massive counterreaction that swelled the ranks of the peace movement but also salted the military with disgruntled troops whose increasingly disobedient ethos spread to many volunteers as well. By 1970 whole companies refused to go into combat, and enlisted men started “fragging” — that is, killing — their officers. Drug use and bad attitudes were rampant (Fort Hood, Texas, became known as Fort Head).