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.

5 comments on “Workplace Coercion, the Military, and Resisting Superiors

  1. The stories of career trajectories derailed by the malign intervention of a superior are legendary among those who serve in the military
    e.g., my father, at least as he tells it. Was asked to write a bad performance review of a fellow NCO, a black man, and refused. End of career.

  2. Navy for a couple years mid 50s then AF early 60s-76. Radar control operator, served all over. Stationed in Thailand and Vietnam during the war.

  3. […] a shallow cover-up for ugly deeds. They might expect mentorship from their superiors and only find unrelenting control and domination. Unsurprisingly, some snap–as Bergdahl might […]

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