Rory Fanning: “We Have to Make It Cool to Be a War Resister Again“

Rory Fanning during his walk across the United States. (Photo: Jennifer Kushman)Rory Fanning during his walk across the United States. (Photo: Jennifer Kushman)

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.

There are several overlapping narratives in Rory Fanning’s book Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America. There’s primarily the story of the author’s walk across the United States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation . . . but to understand that, you have to understand the story of Pat Tillman, which as it happens is inseparable from the story of Rory Fanning, and the story of how the United States went to war, first in Afghanistan and then Iraq.

The book is thus also the story of how Fanning went from being an idealistic recruit who believed in the right of the United States to “defend ourselves” after 9/11, to leaving the US military as a conscientious objector and becoming an antiwar activist – not to mention his shifts in outlook from conservative to socialist and Christian to atheist.

Worth Fighting For contains, too, the stories of the many people Fanning met during the course of his walk, which add up to a portrait of the oft-invoked, somewhat mythical “American people.” Here again, context is required and supplied: To understand the United States at the beginning of the 21st century requires understanding history, a history of imperialism, colonialism, racism and capitalist exploitation that has often been deliberately obscured. And so Fanning provides snapshots of the history of the land he traverses: from the Scottsboro Boys to the Little Rock Nine, from Andrew Jackson’s forced “removal” of the Cherokee Nation to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, from Nat Turner to Troy Davis.

Rory Fanning spoke to Truthout about his aims in writing the book, the meaning of Pat Tillman, how to engage with war resisters in the military, and more.

Joe Macaré: Worth Fighting For is different in some ways from a lot of “political” books in its lack of didacticism – it’s a story that unfolds much like your walk itself. Did you have a sense of a political message you wanted to convey, and was it a conscious decision to avoid directly telling readers, “This is the message you should take away”?

Rory Fanning: I was hoping to talk to the person I was 10 years ago, or even five years ago. I was someone who believed in many of the talking points of libertarians and conservatives. And I met plenty of people on the walk who still think like I once did, so I tried to meet the reader there. I tried to keep in mind that everyone has the capacity to evolve politically. Everyone can change – I did. The goal of the book was to plant seeds and then trust that the reader would let them grow.

You’re very frank in the book about the ideas you held before, during and after your time in the military and how they changed over the course of the walk. Was it difficult for you to hold back your current understanding of the world and of US policy when writing that, so that we’re hearing mostly from the Rory Fanning who was there at the time?

Yes it was. I went on plenty of rants and had to rethink them later. My editor asked me if there was anything I didn’t particularly like about the book. I said, “I like it all, but I don’t think there is space for my polemics if I want to accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish.” My thinking was that I don’t need to impress or win the people who are already won to my current political ideas. I need to win the people who are still looking, people who have open minds. People who are unwittingly arguing against their own self-interest. I also wanted to show the left that there are plenty of people worth talking to out there. My first draft was about 30,000 words longer than it is now. It was hard to cut but I’m glad I did.

I was interested in your shift from a religious perspective to an atheist one, which isn’t the primary journey of the book but is still a thread. Along the course of your walk you met people with a range of spiritual beliefs as well as political ones, including some that seem very strange, like Larry with his theories about crystals from Atlantis and Sandy who believed the world would end in 2012. But the book never seems to invite mockery of these worldviews. Can you say more about this?

The injustice of the world was too big for me for much of my life. I defaulted to “It’s all God’s Plan” too often. It became my crutch. Religion was my excuse to not explore the material or root causes of racism, exploitation and other injustices. After walking across the country I also realized that appealing to people’s sense of right and wrong may not be the only way to fight injustice. I realized that you have to show people that they have a personal interest in a struggle. After the walk I started to read history and connect it with what is happening now. I started organizing. I stopped thinking about religion. If there is God out there, maybe we can grab lunch when I’m dead. Until then I hope to draw my strength from activism, my family, people who are on the streets fighting for a better world, and good writing and film.

As far as the not mocking people who I disagree with . . . I guess I’ve always appreciated anyone who attempts to figure out the world they live in. I know I’ve had plenty of crazy ideas. At the end of the day, we are spinning around a modest-sized star in what appears to be an infinite universe. We are all going to die. This can all be frightening to people. What’s it all about? Beyond fighting injustice, putting food on the table and having a little bit of fun, I have no clue. Besides, the stories people tell can offer insights into their deeper experience as individuals. Their religion and other worldviews can be a window into people’s traumas and their hopes. That’s not to say we shouldn’t debate or flesh out ideas. I just think you can learn a lot by always trying to find out what is interesting about people. Just about everyone deserves to be heard, even if you think you know what they are going to say.

A lot of Worth Fighting For is about meetings with “ordinary” residents of the United States and hearing their stories. On the left, we often seem undecided whether to see US public opinion as ripe with revolutionary/progressive potential or hopelessly reactionary. What did your journey (and what does the book) reveal?

Walking across the country I learned that nearly everyone tries to make the world a better place, with the education they have access to, in the little free time they can afford. When people can sense that you respect them and that you see their inherent goodness, they listen to you. But you can’t force-feed people information. You have to respect the process. People also need to see themselves in your ideas. When they do, you’ll find a new collaborator.

Pat Tillman is clearly a key figure in this book – and it seems clear from the people you met that he was a figure who came to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Why do you think that is?

Pat gave a up $ 3.6 million NFL contract. Most people growing up in the US are taught that being a millionaire and having athletic stardom or some other kind of fame is the pinnacle of the American experience. Pat seemed to understand that there are more important things than being rich and famous. And for a population that is largely not rich and famous, I think many saw his decision as an expression of solidarity. It was a push back against the superficial priorities of our media, a push back against the grotesque wealth gap that divides this country. For many it was easy to project their own highest good onto Pat’s rare kind of decision.

The left doesn’t always seem to know exactly how to engage with the people who actually make up the US military – even if we have an excellent understanding of US imperialism and foreign policy. Your book shows both the arbitrary brutality of military culture and how someone could come to want to leave – what can be done to reach people who fall into the latter camp, and support them?

First, I think if you want to build a proper antiwar movement in the United States, you have to engage the people fighting the wars: those occupying one of the 668 US military bases around the world.

You have to convince soldiers that it is in their best interest to resist. You have to recognize that the military brass and bureaucrats have taken much of the politics out of the day-to-day of the military. Critical thinking is highly discouraged. Being a member of the US military means fighting for the person to your right and left. It’s about staying committed to something you’ve “volunteered” for. I put “volunteer” in quotes because increasingly people have less choice about signing up. Judges are sending kids into the military. Our stagnant economy sends kids into the military.

We have to go through all of this and oftentimes start on a base level in our discussions. But there are plenty of people who’ve been radicalized by what they saw in military. There are many active-duty soldiers who are conflicted. There have been more than 40,000 conscientious objectors since 9/11. Organizing these people is key. And there are veterans who now disagree with what they once did. Reaching out to them is important.

In addition, we have to tie US imperialism to other social and economic issues: austerity, our underfunded system, racism, our militarized police, global warming. Connecting with these struggles will build the antiwar movement. I don’t have all the answers, but I will say that we have to make it cool to be a war resister again.

The book is peppered with brief historical tales that give a context to the United States as it reveals itself through your journey, mostly about people who stood up to injustice and oppression. It struck me how much we’re living in an extraordinary historical moment now, specifically with regard to the (primarily young) Black people who’ve organized and set off a movement against racist police violence. Who are the figures you think we’ll be remembering in 20, 50, 100 years?

Names that come to mind off the top of my head are Chelsea Manning; Edward Snowden; CeCe McDonald; Malcolm London; Troy Davis and Martina Davis-Correia; Michelle Alexander; Amy Goodman; Brian Jones; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor; Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald; Karen Lewis; Jesse Hagopian; Anand Gopal; the group of young activists from We Charge Genocide who recently stood up at the UN in protest against police murders in the US; the people from Ferguson who are teaching us all to fight back; and the leaders in the Fight For $15 movement. But we are just getting started. There is much more to come.