The things that soldiers possess is an interesting problem, I mused to myself as I watched the second episode of Generation: Kill. After all, soldiers are de-individualized individuals, people with names and serial numbers, and that contradiction is built into the identity. They must take responsibility for their actions but they must also follow orders. Both/And. I’m not interested in teasing that contradiction out any farther than simply observing it to be, on a certain level, a basic and fundamental problem: to be a soldier is to be both a distinct person and to be homogenized into an indistinct mass of soldiery. Walt Whitman loved the idea of an individual en-masse, the contradiction between both things happening at once and so it’s not surprising that he dug soldiers (if you know what I mean; as he wrote: “How good they look, as they tramp down to the river, sweaty, with their guns on their shoulders! How I love them! how I could hug them, with their brown faces, and their clothes and knapsacks cover’d with dust!”). What better figure for the American promise of reconciling pluribus with Unum than a Union soldier?
All this, in turn, places in a certain kind of burden on the fact of possessions, the things that makes us individuals in this Western world of possessive individualism (think of the way the term “property” refers to both attributes of an individual and commodities which we have exclusive rights to as individuals). Who owns a soldier’s rifle? Him, or the army? This is why Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” hasn’t quite been beaten to death by all the over-teaching it’s received at the hands of American pedagogy; the problem of being a person and a mass is an important problem for soldiers, and carrying stuff is a way of mediating it, or just of making it immediate.
In Generation: Kill, though, I was struck by the peculiar status of the things these soldiers carry vis-à-vis older Vietnam-era ways of conceptualizing gear. Think of the old Vietnam-movie trope of soldiers adorning themselves with a variety of neo-primitivist pieces of flair (see Apocalypse Now! up there). The point is to display dis-affection from the system, to illustrate not only an antipathy to “the machine” but to do so by affecting a neo-tribal look. This was a sufficiently solid film cliché that Cameron could outfit the marines in Aliens with similar neo-tribal get-up, and it would be instantly understood to be what it was: a representation of their alienation from the system expressed through stuff they wear, whether it be a red bandanna or beads and pseudo-fetish charms, signs of individual distinction from the system, expressions of independence signified precisely by their lack of use value.
Generation: Kill! is a little different, and presumably the book is too. While it winks towards the individual vs. en masse trope by reference to the soldiers’ mustache growing competition (and the mindless sergeant major who wants them all clean-shaven), the much more interesting problem of individuation is the question of outfitting themselves in a war where everything is done on the super-cheap. Thus, when the book emphasizes that these soldiers “would be virtually unrecognizable to their forebears in ‘The Greatest Generation.’ …These young men represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children,” that status as “disposable” isn’t merely the “raised by TV” bullshit that you get when supposedly transgressive movies like Fight Club channel the “dinner table” nostalgia of that greatest generation. It’s also a way that the book/movie figure, as always, life under neoliberalism, as a situation where individuals are unevenly integrated into predatory institutions precisely by the extent to which they are made to fend for themselves. Sharply unlike Cameron’s vision of soldiers in Vietnam (in which the issue is always bad modernity vs. primitive vitality) and very much unlike the disposable soldiers of John Ford’s They Were Expendable (in which the problem is the disconnect between the band of brothers and their superior officers), the problem here is the infernal squeeze of doing more with less, a problem space it shares with The Wire. They lack the stuff to do the job, so they have to buy it on e-bay. The disposability of the soldiers, in other words, gets figured by the fact that they themselves are more or less responsible for the things they carry: instead of being burdened with the things they need to use (and distinguishing themselves by wearing weird versions of their uniform and carrying useless things), they have to procure the things they need on the field (a gun turret, or a good flak jacket, or sufficient batteries for their equipment) and couldn’t care less about the question of their individuality. Under neo-liberalism, individualism is a status not of autonomy, but of vulnerability to predatory forces, not of independence, but precisely the loss of autonomy which dis-embeddedness implies. And so, as in The Wire, safety is in camaraderie, and cowboy shenanigans get you in trouble. So they mock the other trucks that write slogans on the side (or paint the words “Metallica” on the bumper); don’t stick out and don’t make yourself distinct. And don’t say a word against modernity; the problem isn’t its discontents, the problem is that it’s been withheld…