How do military reservists balance the two sides of being "citizen-soldiers"? Scott McLemee asks the researchers.

April 23, 2008

Members of the U.S. Army Reserves are often called “citizen-soldiers” – an expression that definitely carries more honorific overtones than another label that has sometimes been applied to them, “weekend warriors.” The latter phrase is not just insulting but now hopelessly out of date. The men and women portrayed by Michael Musheno and Susan M. Ross in their new book Deployed: How Reservists Bear the Burden of Iraq, published by the University of Michigan Press, can hardly be called amateur soldiers. They were not only sent to Baghdad but assigned to guard an overcrowded and under-equipped prison camp. (Not the one at Abu Ghraib, though it sounds like they get that question a lot.) And like other reservists, they find themselves serving repeated tours of duty – drafted in everything but name.

The authors interviewed 46 members of a unit they call the 893rd Army Reserve Military Police Company (a fictitious name) between May and September 2004. Although Deployed includes some tables of demographic data on interview subjects, the book is far more focused on qualitative than quantitative information – an analysis of how, as Musheno and Ross put it, “they adapted to long deployments while coping with family relations, military duties, and civilian careers.”

The result is an account of the various ways the citizen-soldiers of the Army Reserves dealt with the potential fault-line embodied in that hyphen. In a way, it is a matter of emphasis. For those who see themselves as citizen-soldiers, the authors argue, “identity is primarily anchored in the relationships and structures within civilian life, including but not limited to family, community, civilian work worlds, and education.” Others understand themselves primarily as citizen-soldiers, taking their bearings from the “heavy demands on reservists’ time, energy, activities, and emotions” made by the military. “Civilian relationships, jobs, and goals are placed on the back burner,” write Musheno and Ross. Their sense of family life is “bifurcated into categories of ‘blood family’ (traditional family members left behind) and the newly developed ‘army-green family’ (brothers and sisters in arms).”

I interviewed the authors by e-mail. They wrote their responses together, like the book itself. The transcript follows. Michael Musheno is chair of the department of criminal justice studies at San Francisco State University; and Susan M. Ross is associate professor of sociology and chair of the department of criminal justice at Lycoming College.

Q:Perhaps the most surprising thing about your project is that you had the cooperation of military officials in doing your research. It's also striking how eager the reservists you interviewed seemed to be to talk about their lives and experiences. Did you worry that they might be speaking to you "under orders"? Were you ever aware of any effort by authorities to find out what was being said during the interviews?

A: Perhaps the people most surprised by the willingness of many of the reservists to participate in the project ended up being the two of us. We had been warned multiple times by veterans long since retired from the military that we would have a hard time getting servicemen and women to open up to us, though as you note, this was not the case. In total, we spoke with two-thirds of the men and women of the 893rd who were still attending drill weekends and served in Iraq.

For those who did participate, we took the added precaution, beyond a standard letter of informed consent, to ensure that if they had any feelings of having been “ordered” to participate, that we would simply sit there with them in silence for a half hour or so to give the illusion that an actual interview had taken place. None of the reservists took us up on this offer, and we remain confident that they were well aware that working with us, unlike the mandatory military drug testing that was taking place over the same time period, was in fact voluntary.

In terms of authorities, the company and platoon commanders were quite respectful and enthusiastic supporters of the project and did so out of a genuine and frequently expressed concern for the well-being of the men and women serving in their company. We never had reason to doubt their integrity. Although there was a battalion-level sergeant major who stopped by to check on our progress one afternoon, a brief overview of some very general and early findings left him satisfied and allowed for us to carry on uninterrupted thereafter.

Q:Social-scientific research into the U.S. military goes back at least to the work of Robert Merton and colleagues on "The American Soldier" almost 60 years ago. Did you have a sense of all that work being in the background? Or did it seem to you that the reserves constituted a largely unexplored topic?

A: There are several rich pockets of military research in history and the social sciences, but much of the research on soldiering over the last thirty or so years has been dominated by psychology and is skewed toward the topic of soldiers as damaged individuals returning from war. With this framework as a backdrop, we were completely taken aback when we encountered reservists who talked of being on deployment as “like being on vacation” from the struggles of their civilian home lives. Nothing in the military literature had really prepared us for meeting a young enlisted man, Dennis Harris, who wistfully remarked, “And sometimes I was wishin’ I was still back in Iraq, ‘cause none of my problems were really back there. I didn’t have my problems with my ex back there, and I didn’t have to worry about it ‘cause I was doin’ other stuff. But when I got home, I had to worry about it then, and it’s just like it was as if it was hard to let go.”

Rather than hearing some canon within military scholarship being echoed by Dennis, and colleagues who expressed similar sentiments, what we heard was a variation on the theme of work becoming family and family becoming work articulated so wonderfully by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book The Time Bind. So while we were well-grounded in a variety of military literatures, we also drew on our backgrounds in family sociology for Susan and public policy for Michael.

Q:You found from your interviews that reservists tended to fall into three broad categories. The "adaptive" reservists experience a comfortable fit between their family backgrounds and their service; they often grew up in military families. The "struggling" reservists find that military service gives them some degree of escape from difficult civilian lives, including sometimes complicated situations at home. A third group, the "resistant" reservists, are the least accepting of the demands that the military places on them; they just want to get out and go on with their lives.

Do you find any evidence that these distinctions correspond to personal alliances or social groupings within the reserves themselves? Do the reservists themselves have some version of this categorization as part of the lore or "folk sociology" of life in the reserves?

A: Although the reservists would definitely make comparisons between their own experiences and that of other reservists, they never employed language or jargon in use as explicit as the phrases we employ to identify these clusters of reservists. Their daily interactions with one another, particularly while they were on the ground in Iraq revolved around who they worked with in the prison as well as their squads and platoons, as we describe.

Gender was certainly important in defining relationships when soldiers were in their makeshift barracks in the prison, with women grouped together and watching each others backs. The phrases “adaptive,” “struggling,” and “resistant” are our way of articulating groupings of reservists that became apparent to us as we poured over the transcripts of these conversations. There are definitely times in which similar experiences draw a group of soldiers together. There was one group of struggling reservists who would routinely gather around a campfire at night and talk through the difficulties their wives or fiancées were having back home and try to develop strategies for dealing with these problems.

Also, reservists often distinguished their experiences and perspectives from others and would encourage us to talk to a buddy of theirs who had a completely different experience. Sometimes these were adaptive reservists who pointed us in the direction of a friend out of concern for their situations at home, who in turn we describe as struggling reservists. Not all comparisons, however, were stated with such tenderness.

For example, when asked about how his own engagement had weathered the deployments when so many others had not, one an adaptive soldier, Seth Walker, talked about how he felt that there were a lot of “silly” engagements that people had entered into in the face of the deployments that he felt were not well-thought through. While Seth is not using the formal language we develop for the book, he is comparing his own social support networks and the strength of his own relationship with his fiancée to those of struggling reservists.

Also, Brad Whitman, a resistant reservist, points out his political divergence from many of the other soldiers, mostly those who we came to see as adaptive soldiers, when he says “it was a more personal struggle for me while I was there, not for so many other people because most of the majority of your military personnel are your Pat Buchanan or G. Gordon Liddy fanatics. But for me and a few others, it was a more personal level of you got this feeling like we’re here for definitely the wrong reasons.” While Brad revealed the characteristics of what we came to call the resistant reservists, he worked side by side with those we came to call adaptive and struggling reservists and when some resistant reservists stopped coming to drill after returning from Iraq, soldiers who are in the adaptive cluster respected this choice or offered up excuses for their colleagues who were technically AWOL.

Q:You point out that reservists have at times been given uncomplimentary treatment by military professionals, as in being dubbed REMFs. (The first two letters stand for "Rear Echelon.") What did you learn about how that sort of tension influenced the experience of dealing with the tensions involved in the role of "citizen-soldier"?

A: The members of the 893rd were keenly aware of their status as “weekend warriors” and were frequently reminded of this by the members of the active duty component who questioned their ability to handle assigned soldiering duties first during their stateside deployment and again in Iraq. The reservists take offense to this skepticism, particularly in light of having proven their worth to the U.S. military over the course of their deployments, and they take pride in having served in a war zone that offered no comfort in distinguishing between front and rear lines of battle.

When the 893rd deployed, its ranks held trained civilian police officers, correctional officers, computer technicians, carpenters, and students of criminal justice, and the members of the company firmly believe that their ability to draw upon both their military training and their civilian skills ultimately made them more effective soldiers.

The hope of returning home from Iraq to a hero’s welcome and wiping clean the reserve stigma was abruptly snuffed out with the April 2004 release of the photos from Abu Ghraib prison. The 893rd did not serve at that now infamous prison, but soon came to understand that they, and all members of the Reserve, would have to bear the burden of this newly formed black eye.

Q:Your project is, for the most part, descriptive. But what conclusions have you drawn for the future? Have you given any thought to what kinds of policy implications might follow?

A: While there is thick description within the book, particularly in privileging the voices of the soldiers, our work is interpretive in nature. What we present is our interpretation of what we heard as we listed to 46 citizen soldiers who have given extraordinary service to the nation under the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” Although at first glance, the number of Americans servicing in the all-volunteer military seems impressive with a membership of 2.4 million men and women, when compared to a total U.S. population of over 300 million, it is clear that the cost of the political decision to enter Iraq has been endured disproportionately by a very small number of Americans, many of whom live their civilian lives on the edge of an increasingly shaky economy.

Beginning with George Washington, many leaders in the U.S. have called for universal national service of the American public as part of our duties as citizens. But, when push comes to shove, the raising of an army to fight a ground war has always fallen disproportionately on the less privileged of American citizens. We don’t see this changing particularly when patriotic fervor wanes and a war becomes prolonged and less popular. American military leaders reasoned after the Vietnam War that making the Reserve integral to a ground war would sober the political leadership of this country in taking the decision to go to war. Doing this did not stop the most recent march to war by our political leadership and so, we are back to a point where the public is skeptical of our political leadership, distrustful of the media’s accounting of the lead up to war, and more aware of the costs of protracted war.

That will probably put a break on going into another war in the near term, but it leaves our nation vulnerable to political and media propaganda when our first hand memories fade and still without a solution to our longstanding struggle over how to raise an army that can fight successfully when necessary and serve as a brake on the political leadership when not. We agree with those who advocate for a program of national service that provides citizens with options, including becoming citizen soldiers. We are not so naïve to think that the story we tell about the sacrifices of the few will turn the tide but it may fall upon the ears of future leaders who will require more sacrifices of the many and make clear the boundaries of sacrifices required of the few.


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