ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Tag Archives: obedience
Veterans Day puts me in mind of the summer of 1966, flat on my back in the dirt, staring up at barbed wire a few inches from my nose, and then, just above that, streaks of light passing overhead in the darkness, tracer rounds from the M-60 machine gun at the far end of the range where we started out.
Those are real bullets I’m looking at. If I poked my hand up for a second or two, they might take it off. Someone is yelling at us to keep going. The man beside me starts to swear because he’s caught up in the wire, while another bumps his helmet into the sole of my boot.
To the question of why was I there, the simple answer is that I was told to be, and when I joined the Army I agreed, above all else, to do what I was told. They take it badly if you don’t.
This holds not only in the military, but for most people at work or school every day, doing what they’re told because that’s what they signed up to do or what someone else signed them up for. How ready we are to obey—kids lining up, workers picking up the pace, doing more for less, the driver being pulled over by police.
Obedience is everywhere, with the military the leading edge, our culture making it a virtue to be like them, which is why it was the memory of that summer night that brought this into my mind.
It is regarded as almost sacred, the submission to authority without which the military could not function and war would be impossible. The mission of basic training is to make soldiers, which means transforming individuals with names and lives that came before into reliable parts of the military machine. The drill instructors dedicate themselves to tearing down whatever ideas we may have about who we are, as if our lives began the moment we arrived and took off our civilian clothes. “Forget your parents,” the DI says into my face. “From now on, I am your mother and your father.”
They tell us that our lives and ‘the mission’ depend on doing what we are told without taking time to think about anything but how to get it done. That, of course, cuts both ways, since every soldier who dies in combat is only there because of someone’s order they felt bound to obey without giving it too much thought.
On Veteran’s Day we hear the president going on about how much we owe members of the military for their service and their sacrifice. I can think of nothing in our culture that is so publically revered as to die or be injured in a war. I have never been anywhere near combat myself. But there is something about that night and why I was there and where it might so easily have gone if Vietnam and my life had crossed in a different way than they did, that makes me wonder about the service and the sacrifice.
It is the obedience of the military that presidents praise most of all, that they do what they are told no matter what, which is to say, regardless of whether it turns out to be right or legal or just or wise. Those who give the orders may be acting from ignorance, ego, stupidity, incompetence, and greed—it might be even be criminal—and yet, still, those who obey are to receive the nation’s praise and gratitude, solemnly held up as examples to us all.
We have made a virtue of this ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of doing what you are told no matter what, and the reason we are given is the defense of freedom. The more I sit with this, the stranger it becomes.
It is strange because of all the hundreds of times our military has been ordered to do violence in other people’s lands, I can count on one hand the number of those where the actual fate of the nation and the freedom of its people have been at risk. And with most of my fingers left over. What has been at stake are ‘American interests’ which invariably come down to those of corporations and those who own them, and the manhood of politicians not wanting to appear as less than men.
It is strange because it is freedom itself that is surrendered upon entering the military. In basic training, you are taught that even the smallest thing—when to speak or scratch your nose, where to look or how to fold your socks—is not for you to decide. And then there is the freedom to chose when and how and for what end you will serve and sacrifice. Those who join as volunteers cannot know what they will be asked to do. And the millions of veterans who were drafted into one war or another, served as the only alternative to prison or exile. Two-thirds of U.S. armed forces in World War II—the ‘good’ war—were draftees, conscripted under the threat of force, as were almost a third of those killed in Vietnam.
It is strange because of all the horrors perpetrated by humankind, the vast majority have been carried out by men who were doing what they were told, obeying orders, performing their duty, just doing their job, being of ‘service’ to their country’s cause. That’s why I was crawling beneath the wire that night. And it’s also how Adolph Eichmann defended his role in the mass murder of Jews.
It is strange because the obedience for which the military is revered is obedience not to the will of the people, who are never consulted about a war, but to the authority of politicians who, with rare exceptions, have never offered up themselves or their children for such service or sacrifice. They would never dream of claiming as a point of pride that they themselves ‘did what they were told no matter what.’ They do not measure themselves by their willingness to obey, but their power to be obeyed.
When I think back to that summer night, I’m pretty sure I had not given my reasons for being there much critical thought. I was young and politically naive, which the military, of course, prefers in its recruits, we being more likely to obey what we do not question. And I wanted to avoid the draft, and nobody knew what was going to happen, and there was a lot of fear going around.
So many choices made out of being afraid of one thing more than another. How much killing and sacrifice have happened in just this way. And how much would have been avoided if there had been enough of us with the courage to say no, to disobey.
This reverence for the military is another way of telling us that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, obedience to authority is the highest good. And the ones who tell us this, of course, are those in authority—the politicians, the generals and admirals, the CEOs, the corporate media, the police, the teachers and the coaches—backed up by ceremonies and noble speeches and cautionary tales of what happens to those who break the rules or otherwise dare to say no.
Edward Snowden comes to mind. Or Occupy Wall Street protestors being strong-armed and even beaten by police for refusing to leave a public place. Or journalists being harassed and arrested as they cover protests at the Republican Convention. Not to mention the monitoring of emails and phone calls by the FBI and the NSA.
So, behave yourself. Show up on time and don’t make trouble. Don’t join a union or go on strike or make demands. Be glad you have a job at all and don’t live in Afghanistan. Do not complain. Suck it up and follow the rules. Stay inside the lines. And above all, be loyal and respectful to your superiors and do as you are told. Or else.
I do not exaggerate. The consequences of disobedience are only a nonviolent sit-in or protest away, or an attempt to form a union or daring to question or talk back to the police. Just block the doorway to the official’s office and see what happens.
Obedience is not what I grew up being told makes this country great enough to justify service and sacrifice. And yet, for the vast majority, this is what we are expected to be as workers, students, and citizens. We are so used to it that we do not realize what power we have in the simple ability to say ‘no,’ and the responsibilities that go with it. We do not know what is being given up in our obedience or what it means.
With that in mind, I would like to humbly suggest a National Disobedience Day to celebrate the bravery and sacrifice of those who so cherish justice and the freedom to follow their own conscience that they will put themselves at risk by defying authority in its defense.
I want stirring speeches in praise of those who refused the draft from the Civil War to Vietnam, and bravely faced the consequences.
I want concerts on the National Mall to honor those who put themselves on the line for civil rights or peace or economic justice or the environment and were beaten or killed by the ‘authorities’ or while the authorities stood by and watched.
I want an annual national observance of the Native American peoples who fought against overwhelming odds to defend their land and freedom, who refused to yield to life on the reservations where they were confined on threat of death, and who continue the fight to win back what was taken from them.
On Labor Day, I want a national commemoration of the courage of working men and women who went on strike and were willing to endure the violent assaults from police and soldiers ordered out by the government to defend the interests of capital and wealth.
And on the 4th of July, I want the president to speak in praise of conscientious disobedience to authority, including his own, as a hallowed American tradition, without which this country would never have come into being.
Since I don’t see any of this coming any time soon, I do declare, by the authority vested in me by absolutely no one, that this and every day is to be National Disobedience Day, an occasion to stop, reflect, and remember a different kind of service and sacrifice than what we have been taught to revere.
Who knows. It might catch on and encourage the occasional thoughtful and principled act of disobedience on behalf of something we believe in more than staying out of trouble by doing what we are told.
We could all use the practice, and there is no telling when we’re going to need it.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Going Cold Turkey on the News.”