In 1885, the Knights of Labor organized a successful strike against Jay Gould’s Missouri Pacific Railroad. In response to the strike, Gould famously growled, “I can hire half the working class to kill the other half.”
Gould was right. In any hierarchical arrangement, where power and wealth become concentrated into the hands of a few, this tactic becomes available to those wielding this power over a vast majority. Among the masses of workers, slaves, and impoverished, there will inevitably be many willing to “police their own” in order to be in the masters’ good graces. History is rife with these examples.
In ancient Greece, the “most prized” slaves were awarded authority positions over their fellow slaves, sometimes given special status as overseers. Masses of slaves captured or bought from nearby Scythia were transformed into an official police force, known as the Scythian Archers, and were “brought back to Athens to carry out the laws of the state,” which basically amounted to controlling and strong-arming the slave population in the city. Naturally, their willingness to brutalize their fellow slaves was rewarded with special privileges.
On the colonial American slave plantation, there were those who became actively complicit in the subjugation of their fellow slaves. In return for special privileges, these particular slaves agreed to stay close to the master, live among the master and his family, and report to the master any wrongdoings or subversive actions on the part of the masses of field slaves. William Wells Brown, a slave from Kentucky, later described the privileged status he was awarded for his “service”: “I was a house servant – a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after.”
In Gould’s time, referred to by Mark Twain as “the Gilded Age” due to its insidious corruption and wealth inequality, social unrest among the masses of workers became commonplace. “New York City had 5,090 strikes, involving almost a million workers from 1880 to 1900; Chicago had 1,737 strikes, involving over a half a million workers in the same period.” The economic elites of the time, like Gould, had two choices in addressing this unrest: (1) share a bigger piece of the pie with their workers, or (2) use force to beat workers into obedience. They chose the latter, taking Gould’s words to heart, and proceeded to hire much of the working class to beat and kill the remainder into submission. Police forces and Pinkertons were amassed by the thousands to break strikes throughout the country. As consistent with history, Gould and his counterparts found plenty of workers willing to “serve” them in this role.
On a global scale, international war reflects this same dynamic. Throughout history, the ruling classes of each nation have utilized their working-class masses as tools of war, sending them off to fight and kill other workers in remote parts of the world. The willingness of workers to follow these orders is preconditioned through various means, all of which stem from the need to maintain systems of hierarchy. The desperation that comes with being a worker in a coercive system creates immense pressure to merely survive. Today, workers who find themselves choosing between minimum-wage jobs or unfathomable student loan debt are left with very little options in supporting themselves and their families. Material conditions force many into increasingly subservient positions. The mythological construction of boogeymen – savages, radicals, extremists, and terrorists – is all that is needed to create the illusion of an imminent threat. And grand tales of patriotism and “freedom” are all that is needed to persuade many to “volunteer” as tools of war.
So, we volunteer en masse. We literally hand over our bodies to powerful people whom we’ve never met, whose intentions and interests are not to be questioned, and whose authority over us is to be accepted as the natural order of things. We travel across the world, put our bodies in big metal machines, and take the lives of masses of workers whom we’ve never met, whose intentions and interests are not to be questioned, and whose perceived threat to us is to be accepted as the natural order of things.
Much like the Sycthian archer in ancient Athens, the house slave on a colonial Kentucky plantation, and the worker-turned-Pinkerton in Jay Gould’s private army, we become willing tools of powerful interests. We choose to “serve” our masters. Many of us do this because we have no other options. Many of us do this because we are promised glory. Many of us do this because we hear the boogeyman coming. And many of us do this to simply get in the masters’ good graces. Whatever the reason, our unquestioned participation makes us complicit in maintaining the coercive systems of hierarchy that continue to dominate our world. And, despite the pats on our backs and choruses of “thank you” directed at us one day a year, we remain collectively buried in this system, no different than our working-class counterparts throughout the world who we’ve been ordered to extinguish for the past two centuries.
The best way to honor Veterans is to question the system that creates us, uses us, and discards us. And the best way to honor our service is to question who we really served and for what purpose.