How I Helped Catch an Alleged 9/11 Mastermind – and Lost My Faith in the War on Terror

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, June 4, 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby. (Photo: U.S Army)A CH-47 Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, June 4, 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby. (Photo: The U.S Army)

Even the mainstream, corporate-owned Chicago Tribune says that Rory Fanning’s Worth Fighting For “shows us the imperial and harmful objective of US foreign policy… [and] a path to a saner society.” You can order the book from Truthout today.

Worth Fighting For is primarily the story of Rory Fanning’s walk across the United States, from Atlantic to Pacific, to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. But in this excerpt, Fanning describes a different journey: from idealistic recruit who signed up for the US military thinking he could defend his country, to conscientious objector.

I enlisted in the military soon after 9/11. The US response to 9/11 seemed to make sense; if we were attacked, then we should defend ourselves. But because I didn’t think eighteen-year-old kids should be the ones dragged overseas to fight the war, I signed up.

If a war was going to be fought, people who knew what they were getting into should fight it. People like me. (Or so I thought.) I wanted to become a Ranger. Black Hawk Down, a movie about a famous Ranger battle in Somalia during the Clinton era (starring Hollywood badass Josh Hartnett), sealed the deal. Dave Matthews Band’s “The Space Between” played over the movie trailer. I thought the song was complicated—like me. I was in a space between after college. So I signed over my life.

I entered the army as a specialist. By February 2002 I was polishing boots, learning to shoot, standing at regular attention, and trying to stay sane amid the monotony of basic training. I graduated from basic training, jump school, and the Ranger Indoctrination Program, or RIP. Being broken down was euphoric, in a way. I liked having my nerves deadened via physical punishment. Learning to absorb all types of pain was freedom. I earned the highest physical fitness score in my graduating RIP class. I entered the military overweight and watched the pounds melt off. I could soon see my abs; a fellow Ranger, noticing me in the shower, once said, “You could be a model.” Books, TV, sports, and women were eliminated from our lives. Physical fitness became the only way for us to track our personal development—no other growth mattered. I could manage only needing to be good at push-ups, sit-ups, the two-mile run, shooting, road marching, and saying “yes.”

My first tour in Afghanistan was spent mostly at Camp Wright in Asadabad—not one of the camps the Department of Defense air-conditioned at the time. It looked like a set from a space adventure movie. There was a tall, dusty, rock-strewn hill behind the camp. It was covered in small bushes that Afghan men and women spent hours digging up, one by one, for a pittance of firewood. This poverty was the most violent thing I saw during my first tour. It was hard watching these people dig and dig for whatever heat those twigs would eventually provide. It was even harder seeing them as a threat. I arrived just after the initial sweep against the Taliban by the Air Force and Special Forces in the months immediately following 9/11. Most Afghans were still trying to decide if we were friends or foes at the time. The camp never seemed like a safe staging spot; we could be attacked from the high ground. And the Taliban—at least that’s what the chain of command called them—used the hill to fire rockets at our tents once every few weeks. My ears had never absorbed anything so loud and intimidating. The sound took the air out of my lungs and a hot waxy coating of fear filled the space between my cheeks. But I felt an obligation to breathe deep and feign calm, particularly when I saw my tough-acting squad leader jump out of his skin with anxiety. “Get down! No! Get to the bunker! No! Just get down! Grab your weapons!” he’d scream confusedly as he stumbled out of bed trying to put on his pants. (The attacks usually happened at night.) I learned then that there are only two ranks in the military when being attacked—the composed and the frantic.

The Eleven Charlies were told to counter these attacks by shooting mortars. I was an Eleven Bravo, a regular infantryman. I carried a grenade launcher attached to an M-4, and never had visual targets to fire back at—which relieves me. When it came down to it I realized I didn’t have it in me to kill. I knew I would be destroyed forever if I did. My previous experience with killing amounted to shooting one pheasant with a BB gun. Gutting the dead bird, feeling its warm flesh get cooler, made me want to vomit. Why I thought I could kill another human is still a mystery to me.

Why the military thought I should be a Ranger is also confusing.

Eleven Charlies were the mortar men; their blast radius was far less exacting and could be sent out from a much longer distance than from my weapon. The mortar fire was completely indiscriminate. No one knew what the rockets would hit: A small hut? Goats? Goat herders? Kids? Even the thought of hitting “the enemy” felt wrong.

Occasionally someone in another platoon or company would roll over an improvised explosive device (IED). We’d hear stories of legs and arms being blown off, people being cut in half. Back at Bagram Air Base we saw the twisted wreckage of Humvees and pickup trucks—wreckage was usually airlifted back to the base. Some of the guys would respond soberly; others would howl, “I can’t wait to kill me some motherfucking haji!”

Most soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan that year involved helicopters. Afghanistan’s high altitude and thin air were not compatible with safe helicopter rides. We lost seven guys from the Special Forces in a helicopter crash on my first tour. So these rides were often our biggest concern. We’d squeeze into Chinook transport helicopters with all our gear and no room to move. Each helicopter ride made us wonder if it would be our last. We’d hit a pocket of air, drop thirty feet, and clutch each other tight. We usually flew at night, blacked out and guided by infrared lights, but when we flew during the day we saw a primitive human landscape that starkly contrasted with our technologically advanced helicopters and weapons. Crops grew on terraces that look like giant stairs carved into the mountains. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people live in high-altitude villages nourished by the ledge planting system, chickens, and goats.

If we were sent on quick in-and-out missions, we flew in Blackhawks. We supported the Navy SEALs, Special Forces, and Delta Force on their raids. Most of these missions—in fact, all of mine—were rooted in bad intelligence. We’d be told that a Taliban member was in some village and we’d be sent to extract them. The SEALs would storm into a house while we waited in the front yard. They’d grab an unsuspecting guy along with any other males in the household, throw sandbags over their heads, and take them back to the base with us. Most, I imagine, were let go; others were surely sent to Guantánamo or the like. We often later found out that the person we had targeted in the extraction had been falsely accused by a neighbor after a squabble. We were rarely more than heavily armed, testosterone-filled pawns in village disputes.

The most notable mission I undertook for the US government was to jump into the tri-border area, where Afghanistan meets Pakistan and Iran. The rumor was that we landed in Iran—but that was never confirmed. The idea was to get people talking via satellite phones so we could intercept their calls. It worked. Forty-eight hours later, after we jumped into a desert that may or may not have been in Iran, the CIA captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the guy whose photo with the long, frizzy bed-head and white V-neck T-shirt was all over the news, one of the supposed masterminds behind 9/11. All we did was jump out of a plane in the middle of night and lay in a prone position for twenty-four hours. This, apparently, was enough to get the phones running and reveal Mohammed’s position. So we took credit for his arrest and got a bronze service star for the effort.

The Iraq war broke out in the middle of this tour. Once I returned from the end of my first tour, I started to realize that the mission in Iraq—in which I was now obligated to fight—was not what I had signed up for. The chain of command was hoping we’d just lump it in with Afghanistan in the “War on Terror.” “Middle Easterners are all the same—religious fanatics. That region is basically one big country, isn’t it?” I’d hear. But it became clear that the Iraq invasion was illegal according to the US Constitution.

Congress never declared war on Iraq. We were violating Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. But the Constitution wasn’t something I obsessed over. I knew the law rarely applied to the people who held the real power and controlled the money. My big concern was that I now saw myself as an imperialist, a stormtrooper—someone who goes into another country to take other people’s resources. There were too many US-supported dictators in the world—Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, to name a few—for me not to notice that the US only cared about the ones who decided against giving their oil to the West. I didn’t want to kill anyone for oil. Killing someone who is trying to do you harm is unnatural enough. Killing someone so rich people can get richer was something entirely different. I didn’t want to be an empire builder, a Roman soldier, like the person who killed Jesus. I couldn’t square it in my mind.

In the first phase of Ranger School I dropped a radio during a patrol exercise and had to spend two hours looking for it while the instructors followed me with crossed arms and taunts. It was cause for a “recycle,” meaning I would have to redo that phase. This was a common thing in Ranger School, but I was stunned; I remember fighting off tears. Pat Tillman put his hand on my shoulder after I walked out of the instructor’s office with the news and told me he remembered how embarrassed he was riding the bench as a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals. He told me to stick it out.

Waiting for the second phase to begin gave me a lot of time to think about what the military was asking of me. I consumed massive amounts of food trying to recover the nutrients my body had been denied. I was confined to a room full of bunk beds and had limited range, outside of the bunks, an attached TV room, and the Ranger School cafeteria. I felt like a little kid who was grounded for bad grades, with a Ranger School instructor/babysitter occasionally coming by to check in on me.

Ranger School was a mind-erase, a reprogramming exercise, a rite of passage. I’d be a more confident soldier when it was done. I’d be more confident in the presence of the soldiers I would lead and take orders from. I’d be more confident carrying out the mission.

I had just spent nine months intimidating poor people in Afghanistan, a country that may or may not have contained the guy who may or may not have been responsible for the 9/11 attacks. I remembered the young children who stared as we carried heavy weapons through their villages, the men we took from their homes, and the women who watched in horror. I thought about those who had been on the receiving end of our mortar rounds and air strikes. Surely innocent people were just as likely to be hit as the men who shot rockets at us. But why were they shooting rockets at us in the first place? Were they just defending their homes? Men stood in front of their clay homes in some of the most primitive and impoverished villages on earth, forced to grin as Humvees, machine guns, and bombs rolled down their streets. Any signs of disapproval and they’d be subject to the violent whims of the most militarily and technologically advanced country in history. Maybe I was too soft for the military. Maybe I didn’t want to lose my heart and kill someone for a cause about which I now felt conflicted. Maybe I didn’t want to die or lose my mind. During those two weeks I began to convince myself that it was time to leave.

If I graduated from Ranger School, I’d be forced to lead other men back into Afghanistan or Iraq. Once you get your Ranger tab you’re in charge of people. You have to make sure others kill. What is it like to tell others to kill for a cause you don’t believe in? If I hadn’t already been on a tour in Afghanistan, I probably wouldn’t have quit. But I had been. If I had finished, it would have been much more difficult to find a similar opening. I was sure of one thing sitting in that holdover space in Ranger School: I wasn’t bringing freedom and democracy to anyone. And as far as I could tell I wasn’t making the United States safer for civilians back home.

I had seen enough. I was terrified by what that would mean. After two weeks of thinking and working up the courage, I walked up to a Ranger School instructor and said, “I don’t believe in what I am doing anymore. I want out.”
I had a good physical fitness record. I had been to Afghanistan. I was from Ranger Battalion, and next to no one from Ranger Battalion left Ranger School. The instructors almost pleaded with me to stick with it. Then they tried to shame me into continuing. “You’re going to regret this the rest of your life”—I heard that at least a dozen times. I was soon put on a plane and sent back to Fort Lewis.

Copyright 2014 by Rory Fanning. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.