When GI Joe Says No
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 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).
The group Vietnam Veterans Against the War staged dozens of protests. One action was a threatening and theatrical "search and destroy mission" that ran from Morristown, New Jersey, to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. When Nixon invaded Cambodia, the VVAW invaded DC in what the radical vets mockingly called "a limited incursion into the country of Congress." The culmination of it all was the Winter Soldier hearings, in which vets documented US war crimes.
Ending the draft excised much of the disgruntled element from the ranks, and by professionalizing the services, it has helped create a deepening military-civilian divide. Within today's all-volunteer military there is much more intense solidarity than during the Vietnam era. After Vietnam the military also improved its housing, wages, benefits, food and training; it reached out to the families of soldiers and modernized its disciplinary systems and promotions methods, all of which improved morale.