When GI Joe says no

By CHRISTIAN PARENT  |  April 26, 2006

We hear often about the “economic draft” — the financial pressures that force young people to join the military. But there is also what could be called an “alienation draft” or, conversely, a “solidarity draft.” The military offers not only jobs but also a type of belonging. “The military is like family, for a lot of people,” says one vet. In many ways, the US military is a uniquely straightforward institution. Unlike society as a whole, it doesn’t pretend to be a democracy — it’s a hierarchy and makes no bones about it, but as such, it contains checks and balances, an appeals process, and clear paths forward for promotion.

“The US military has one of the best affirmative-action programs in the country,” says Stan Goff, a 26-year veteran of the US Special Forces, including the ultra-secret Delta Force. On the march to New Orleans, the rugged and compact Goff is playing the role of sergeant major, rallying the sleepyhead vets for the morning briefings, setting the tempo, always moving. “The other thing about the Army is that it’s fair. If you know the regs you can work the system.” Goff also points out that the highest-paid military general makes only about 14 times what the lowest-paid grunt earns — compared with private-sector pay discrepancies that reach ratios of 700 to one.

Of course, other vets have stories of racism and broken promises. Demond Mullins is a New York National Guardsman, dance teacher, and City University of New York college student who returned from Iraq only six months ago and is now active with IVAW. Mullins is embittered not only about losing a close friend in Iraq, seeing 25 others from his battalion wounded, and almost getting killed himself when his Humvee hit a homemade bomb; he’s also angry about being skipped over for promotion because he is black and being lied to by his recruiter. “They still haven’t given me any money for college.”

Such stories aside, there are many ways the military avoids the intense racial and class segregation that marks much of American life. And the armed forces mix people of many different backgrounds.

“The military is one of the only places in America where black people routinely boss around white people,” says Braga with a mischievous grin. Another white middle-class vet from the rural South once described to me how his “battle buddy,” or assigned partner, in basic training was an ex-hoodlum who had been a homeless street kid in Mexico. “The dude was covered with scars from knife fights. I mean, where else would I have spent every waking minute with that guy, or he with me?”

This egalitarian mingling and the intense camaraderie, plus decent pay, housing for family, and constant training opportunities, can make military life look a lot better than the atomized, segregated, economically stagnant world outside. And all of this creates a deep-seated sense of loyalty to the military, even among those who oppose its wars.

On the other hand, Cline, Braga, and other activist vets all point out that unit cohesion can cut two ways: it works like Kryptonite to stop rebellion, but if a tipping point is reached, it can serve to make rebellion even more intense.

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