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.