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.

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 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.

Another key difference between this war and Vietnam is the use of whole-unit rotations as opposed to individual rotations. In Vietnam a soldier was dropped into a unit for 365 days and then, if he survived, plucked out. In Iraq and Afghanistan, battalions (500 to 800 soldiers) train together, deploy together and come home together. During Vietnam the constant flow of men in and out of line companies fighting the war seriously undermined unit cohesion and camaraderie.

“When I showed up in Vietnam we were just parceled out to different platoons as they needed us. I was called the FNG when I showed up–the fucking new guy,” remembers David Cline, a legendary activist and driving force within Veterans for Peace. “These kids today face a very different set of pressures.”

Is a Vietnam-style collapse of military discipline imminent? Some peace activists think so, pointing to the estimated 400 US military deserters who have made their way to Canada, twenty of whom have applied for asylum, and the roughly 9,000 military personnel who have failed to report for duty since the war began (not all of them have been classified as deserters). Recruiting numbers, meanwhile, have flatlined.

Yet while today’s military certainly faces a crisis of quantity, it does not have the Vietnam-era problem with quality.

During the Vietnam War the military had a sufficient number of troops–500,000 in country for much of the war. The problem was qualitative: low morale, rebellion, combat refusal, drug abuse, a crisis of conscience. Today’s military is not falling apart Nam-style. Rather, it faces a crisis of size: Though expensive and hardware-heavy, the military is simply too small for the jobs at hand, and it is incapable of growing because too few recruits are joining up and too many veteran soldiers are leaving.

Despite growing cynicism about the Iraq War, indications are that morale, never super-high during prolonged combat, is not particularly low. Likewise, US training and equipment is among the best in the world. But 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, and 16,000 in Afghanistan–many on their second or even third deployment–is simply not enough. When one looks at special categories like translators, civil affairs and intelligence specialists, the staffing shortage becomes even more acute. Thus the small professional army remains disciplined and functional, while the “battle spaces” around it–Anbar province in Iraq or Kunar province in Afghanistan–spin out of control.

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 that, 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 twenty-six-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 fourteen times what the lowest-paid grunt earns–compare that with private-sector pay discrepancies that reach ratios of 700 to 1.

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.”