Workplace Coercion, the Military, and Resisting Superiors

Corey Robin’s post on Arizona’s new anti-birth control legislation centers on a recurring concern of his: coercion in the private sector work-place, which remains largely impervious to constitutional circumscriptions of state power. I want to use this opportunity to talk about coercion in a very particular workplace: the military.

The coercion of subordinates by superiors in the military workplace is pretty much a constitutive aspect of it; there is a  ‘chain-of-command’ structure to be internalized, and the constant reminder that failure to obey orders–speedily and effectively–can be a matter of life and death. In terms of its sheer ruthlessness, its pure, unadulterated veneration of the superior, its near-perfect integration into the very concept of uniformed service, and in the sense of futility it can induce in a junior, there is nothing quite like a military hierarchy. Obey, conform, or hit the brig.

To run up against an obnoxious manager in any workplace is bad luck indeed; if it happens in the military, it can bring about career ruination. There is seemingly no recourse, nowhere to turn; very few juniors in the military complain about their superiors, for very little can be done. Nothing is more common in the tales that servicemen tell about their times in the services than the story of the sergeant, the captain, the lieutenant, the air marshal, who was the “biggest bastard that walked the face of the earth.” The stories of career trajectories derailed by the malign intervention of a superior are legendary among those who serve in the military; if a retired veteran ever urges his children to not bother emulating him, in all likelihood it is because he cannot bear the thought of his children going through the same agonizing repression he did.

Given this, it should have come as no surprise to me that in the many interviews I conducted with veterans–for the two books I have written on military aviation history–the most vivid conflicts recounted, even by those men that had fought in wars, were not against their ostensible enemies, but against their superiors on their own sides. The same man who could brush past, in a minute or two, the story of how he had carried out a rocket attack on tanks in the face of raging anti-aircraft fire, would take a leisurely ten minutes or so to describe to me how, back on the ground, he had bucked the trend, stood up for himself, and asserted common-sense, or perhaps just a little bit of the contrarian, in the face of a superior’s thickheadedness. This clash would be described in great detail, with every contour of the conflict mapped out with great precision: this is where I was sought to be oppressed, and this is where I resisted.

Sometimes, I wonder, if this reaction of theirs was revelatory of an insight worth transferring to other workplaces: that sometimes, resistance to an insidiously planted and constantly reinforced regime of power and regulation can be harder than summoning up the courage to face up to sudden, even-if-prepared-for, danger.

Why Write and All That – I: Bargains Struck

Two recent articles about writing, writers, and writing as a job–Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books blog and Seth Godin’s interview at Digital Book World–prompt me to take on the insufferably self-indulgent business of being self-referential. The issues covered in the pieces linked above should be familiar: Why write? Is writing a career? Should you get paid for it? Do you have a right to get paid for the work you make available to your readers? And of course, the modern favorite: In today’s ‘digital economy’ where readers supposedly ‘expect content for free’ how is a writer to be paid?

This set of issues, despite its familiarity, is extraordinarily rich, and I can only make some preliminary remarks here. (I expect to write follow-up posts.) In so doing, I hope I can offer some insight into why it is people write, and why, I think, writing will persist as an ‘occupation’ understood broadly, even if no one is getting ‘paid’ for it.

I write from a curious position in this discussion. I’m an academic and I don’t expect to make money from my writing. Or rather, I do not write for the direct income of royalties, but–initially at least–for the financial security of tenure and promotion, and now, to secure my academic reputation and to circulate my ideas. My two academic books thus far have secured for me a quasi-permanent job in the academy and I am now free to write for the rest of my career on those topics that interest me. As I do so, perhaps I will learn a bit myself and engage in the pursuit of ‘knowledge’ in a way that is of use to others.

My first book was non-academic, and while it neither secured my reputation in the academy nor helped me circulate any particularly significant intellectual ‘ideas,’ it did do a great deal for me. First, I performed an act of personal archaeology by writing about a war in which my father had fought; in so doing, I learned a great deal about him, the times he lived in, and the men who worked with him. Second, I did justice to an older self of mine, one that was obsessed about aircraft and the men who flew them. Third, I learned a bit of history. Thus, I was edified in the emotional, intellectual, and personal dimensions. Fourth, I also made several friends; many of the veterans I interviewed for one, and my co-author. (We did not meet in the flesh until after the book had been published!) Lastly, my writing improved: I learned how to organize chapters, construct a narrative, edit, revise, ruthlessly delete redundancy and irrelevance, all skills that would help me later in writing my academic books.

I made very little money from the sales of the book, but it seemed not to matter, for I hadn’t set out to. When I started work on the book, I was a post-doctoral fellow; when I completed it, I was in a tenure-track position. The two checks I have received thus far have paid for an airfare–for one person–to India, and some books.

So I wrote a book, and got in exchange: Learning, the making of friendships, the honing of a useful skill, the engagement with self-discovery, an airfare, some books. All this seems to add up to a very good bargain.

Surfaces scratched. More later.