When GI Joe Says No
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 and seeing twenty-five others from his battalion wounded and almost getting killed himself when his Humvee hit a homemade bomb; he's also angry at being skipped over for promotion because he is black and about 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 after a tipping point unit cohesion can serve to make rebellion even more intense.
To illustrate the point, Braga recalls the story of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, from Rock Hill, South Carolina. In October 2004 this Army Reserve unit (Braga worked alongside them at times) refused what they called a "suicide mission" to deliver fuel in a convoy of old, unarmored trucks. Eighteen drivers from the 343rd were arrested, but the media storm that followed--a whole company had openly refused orders!--helped pressure the military into delivering armor and retrofitting its trucks and Humvees. Similarly, when Reppenhagen the sniper joined IVAW, his spotter, the guy he'd spent a year with in Iraq, also joined--they remained a team.
The rebellion of the 343rd also pointed out the pragmatism of resistance. "Hey, protesting could save your life," says Braga. "I've seen it happen. The 343rd and that soldier who asked Rumsfeld that question about the body armor, those two things got the military to pay attention and buy decent armor."
If 1960s activism was fueled by disillusioned outrage, then today's activism is fettered by a type of world-weary cynicism. Braga says most of the guys in his unit assume the war is based on lies and that it's all about oil, but they won't get involved in peace activism because "They say, 'You can't change anything.' But if you read history you see that usually people already have changed things," he says. "Movements have made lots of things happen."