My older brother returned from his yearlong tour in Iraq in the middle of a cold April night last year. I waited with his wife and my family for the plane to arrive with a sign that read, “Welcome home Gabe!” We were so excited to see him after such a long and stressful separation. When he finally arrived with the rest of the soldiers, we couldn’t even pick him out of the crowd. They all looked the same. We were only able to recognize him when he walked past us. He shot us a smile and continued on with the group. We waited as they went through their Army rituals inside while we sat with other anxious families on the bleachers. When he was finally able to leave formation, he came over to us seeming happy, but very subdued. He gave us half hugs and barely spoke. He has always been reserved, but it was difficult to see him so disinterested when we were so enthusiastic to have him back. His eyes lacked passion. He was indifferent, unresponsive, and jaded.
I was so upset to hear that he decided to deploy again in February of this year, this time to Afghanistan. When I asked him why he keeps volunteering, his response was simple: “So I can get paid more and get promoted.” I know that he would have been deployed anyway and that volunteering rather than waiting for orders to be deployed means more money. I understand the strategy, but volunteering twice in such a short span of time and under such dangerous circumstances is hard for me to accept. His officers call him ambitious and brave. They write letters to my parents praising his hard work every so often. He is a sergeant now at the age of 22 and is working to become an officer. But at what expense does his success in the military come?
Before Gabe left for the second time, and even for a while after he arrived in Afghanistan, he didn’t know where he would be going or what he would be doing. When he finally found out what his job was, he was not allowed to tell us anything about it. All we knew was that he was following the orders given to him. By whom, we didn’t know. For what purpose, we didn’t know. We were not allowed to know. It is common practice for the Army to keep their soldiers as uninformed as possible. They wait until the very last moment to tell them what they will be doing or where they will be going. This has been the case for Gabe since he joined the military about four years ago.
The military creates ambitious soldiers who want to go to war to increase their rank and make more money. It makes pawns into knights, knights into bishops, bishops into kings. But the rise in status does not change the fact that they are simply obedient pieces in a game that is not their own—a game between governments, countries, rulers, parties unrelated to the lives of the soldiers at stake. We don’t know what they’re fighting for. We’re not allowed to know and neither are they. They are firmly controlled. They don’t know where they’re going until they arrive. They don’t know what they’re doing until they do it. They are living in bad faith as existential criminals—abandoning their freedom by accepting the absolute control of their superiors, avoiding responsibility by hiding behind orders. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.
I’m told that this argument is empty. How else can the military operate? How can any kind of order be maintained if the knowledge of the military’s operations were known to all of their soldiers? How could anything get done? Camilo Mejía, an Iraq War veteran, criticizes this system on his website:
An empire cannot survive without an imperial military, a military whose members do not question the orders of their superiors, a military whose members who choose to refuse, do so quietly to save their skins, a military whose members would rather die and kill against their moral judgments than question the authority of their command.
To question that authority is an impossibility in the military. Soldiers are trained in discipline probably more than anything else. It becomes a habit, a way of life. It means following orders—the military must be a cohesive force in order to have any kind of authority in the world. It feels good to be a part of something big and powerful. It is a way to give meaning to a life that might have been severely lacking in it prior to a military career.
The military is no place to express opinions about its operations, and in my experience, soldiers tend to avoid these kinds of opinions altogether. When I asked my brother what he thought about the military’s objectives in the Middle East, he said,
“I don’t really care if there is a war or not. I like being deployed because I get paid more, but other than that I don’t really care because it doesn’t really affect me except for those deployments. That probably hard for you to understand but I just don’t think about it. Most people in the Army don’t care. If they were against it they wouldn’t be in the Army.”
This detachment may pass in other industries, but the stakes in the military are too high and the bureaucracy too far-reaching for soldiers to be so indifferent. The work they do affects the entire world. It is an experience that drastically changes the lives of its employees and in many cases endangers them. It is also an experience that shapes the characters and behaviors of people for the rest of their lives. A job in the military requires soldiers to leave their homes and families first for training, then for a permanent base in the US, and often for deployments overseas. As much as it is a job, it is also a way of life.
I know, however, that the military can be a beneficial experience for many of its soldiers. It saved my brother’s life. He joined the Army because he had no choice. The last two years of high school he began selling and using marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and prescription drugs; he stole car stereos, and shoplifted. He was heading in the direction of becoming a serious criminal. My parents eventually kicked him out of the house for the safety of my sister and me. He was finally arrested for fighting three months after he graduated high school, and was given the choice to go to jail or join the Army. If he hadn’t joined, he would probably be dead by now. The Army gave him structure, showed him discipline, built up his confidence, gave him a purpose and gave him money. His state of mind has certainly improved and I know that would not have been possible without the Army.
The military has helped many of its soldiers in similar ways, but the truth is that they exploit the vulnerability of people who don’t have any other options. When there is no hope, there is always the military. It’s true that it will force its soldiers into discipline, but only after they hand over their lives and minds. To spectators of my brother’s life, it seems a good alternative to a life of crime, but I see him in a vacant, thoughtless trap. “Just do what they tell you to do and you will do great in the Army,” I have heard from my brother too many times. Just do what they tell you to do. Just don’t ask questions. Just focus on what you’re supposed to do. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Don’t worry bout how everything fits together. Don’t worry about what the military is actually doing. And most certainly, don’t give out any information.
How does this kind of lifestyle and training affect these soldiers beyond the military? What happens when they leave the structured military bubble and are thrown back into the chaotic, unregulated outside world? How do they make the adjustment from being a small piece in a well-oiled machine to controlling their own lives? Soldiers are shaped to fill a specific role and when that’s over, they are left on their own. The military uses and abuses people for their own purposes and then spits them out without much direction or help at all, permanently transformed by their training and experiences.
This is not an argument against the military; it is an argument against its irresponsible and careless abuse of the lives of its soldiers. Those lost youths who lack self-reflection and determination are being swindled into serving in an institution that seeks out such weaknesses and uses them to its advantage. Why are they allowed to take advantage of people like this? And why do we ignore this exploitation? They give them a uniform and maybe some medals and we, as citizens of the United States, are expected to honor and look up to them. They promise a better life for people in need—in need of money, in need of structure, in need of purpose. But I see something very different in the reality of the military. I see my brother with buzzed hair and big muscles, bad grammar and little ambition, emotionless and disinterested, who just re-enlisted for another four years. I want his life to be rich and meaningful. I want him to care about the world around him. What I see is a tool that the military has created for its unknown purposes. And there is no change in sight. People continue to join the military for the same reasons. The military continues to seek them out. They certainly aren’t looking to amend their internal operations. And no one on the inside is questioning these operations. Anyone who questions is thrown out or silenced. And with no questions, what can change?
SOFIE RAMOS B’ 13 is doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing.