This Afghanistan Vet Became a War Resister and Anti-Racist Activist

In 2008 and 2009, Rory Fanning walked across the entire United States in memory of Pat Tillman, the former NFL-player-turned-Army Ranger who was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan in 2004. Fanning had served beside Tillman during Fanning’s second tour in Afghanistan, when he became a war resister by refusing to carry arms.

Fanning’s first Afghanistan tour was bloody and illuminating; he realized the U.S. invasion and occupation was a human rights catastrophe that made the world a much more dangerous place. During his second tour, Fanning dropped out of the Army as a conscientious objector just days after the U.S. military attempted to cover up the cause of Tillman’s death in a propaganda effort to portray the athlete as a war hero. If not for the ensuing media attention, Fanning says, the military may have simply thrown him in jail.

Instead, Fanning returned to the U.S., where the activist and author penned two books and spent years talking to high school students about the grim reality of serving in the U.S. military — a reality students would never hear about from military recruiters. Now, as the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan comes to a chaotic close, Fanning reflects on 20 years of the war on terror, and how anti-racist activism and the push for free college tuition and universal health care can help stem the tide of U.S. imperialism around the world.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. You can listen to the full interview at the top of the page.

Mike Ludwig: What has been your initial reaction to the latest news out of Afghanistan?

Rory Fanning: Well, it’s mixed emotions. Obviously, I’m happy to see the United States getting out of Afghanistan; [it] should’ve never been there in the first place. But it’s also horrifying seeing all of the people that we’re leaving behind. My thoughts have been: How can I help get these people out? And not just the people who have facilitated the occupation in Afghanistan, but all Afghans. All Afghans deserve a place to go after the United States occupied their country and helped turn it into a pile of rubble in many ways.

Sure. So, you’d like to see maybe a greater refugee relocation effort or more resources for anyone there who’s seeking help?

Yes. Obviously, this should have been done before we withdrew. There should have been a game plan set up and ready to be implemented or implemented already. But yeah, everybody who wants to leave Afghanistan should be able to leave Afghanistan and the U.S. has an obligation to take care of each and every one of those individuals.

Do you want to just go back a little bit and talk about some of your experience there, maybe some of the people you met and why, when you look at the current situation, you think it’s so important for us to be supportive — not just of people who facilitated the occupation, but anyone who feels perhaps threatened by the Taliban?

The United States has been meddling with Afghanistan for the past 40 years, if not more years. And we’ve brought in warlords who are otherwise out of the country, to basically help carry out the U.S. mission, which was not about freedom and democracy or even nation-building, but rather a counterterrorism effort.

And I saw firsthand that Afghanistan is probably one of the poorest countries on the planet. And so, you see this occupying force coming in with suitcases full of money, saying, “identify a member of the Taliban,” and so people who have no money would say, “Oh there, there’s a member of the Taliban right over there.” And we’d fly in and land in their front yard with night vision on and take out a military-age male, put a bag over their heads and take them off to a place like Guantanamo or the like. We later find out that the person that we had taken wasn’t a member of the Taliban or wasn’t a member of an extremist organization, to use the parlance of the U.S. government, but rather just someone who owed his landlord some money. And the landlord saw the U.S. military coming in with bags full of cash as an opportunity to not only get paid, but also get rid of a problem tenant…. So often we were little more than pawns in village disputes.

Or we’d have rockets land in our camp, and we didn’t necessarily see where they came from specifically. So, we’d call in, you know, a 500-pound bomb airstrike on a village and there would be mass casualties. And we know now that more than 80 percent of all those who have died since 9/11 in Afghanistan have been innocent civilians.

So, people who couldn’t even point to Manhattan on the map suddenly had a vested interest in learning about the United States and in many ways, getting revenge on the United States for killing their brother, their sister, their mother, their father, their infant child.

I signed for the military hoping to help prevent another 9/11-type attack, and I saw that I was only creating the conditions for more such attacks. The world is a much more dangerous place as a result of our invasion of Afghanistan.

Absolutely. A lot of the counterinsurgency strategy was to win “hearts and minds” on the ground — after, as you said, so much of life had been disrupted by invasion and occupation. Was there a particular time in your service that you said, “I think I’m opposed to this and I want to become a resister?”

Well, I entered the country a few months after the Taliban surrendered in early 2002. I didn’t know that, at the time, our job was essentially to bring the Taliban back into the fight. The surrender wasn’t good enough for the United States. They wanted revenge for 9/11. Politicians back home wanted revenge for 9/11, I think that was part of it.

But I also think it was an opportunity to create this ubiquitous enemy and maintain Cold War-era military budgets (Congress has given $2 trillion to five weapons companies since the start of the war in Afghanistan), and, you know, maintain control of the region, or at least think they were. And so, I went into the country and realized that we had absolutely no understanding of the culture, no understanding of the language. We didn’t really even care who we were targeting in many ways. What was it about? I mean, to even say that I knew what it was about would be kind of a disservice.

I do think [the mission] was in large part to bring the Taliban back into the fight. And I think that’s what we did. And we know that so many members of the Taliban now are people who were victims of bombings, U.S. bombings, or warlords that we brought into the country. And people who have no other options — it’s not like you go work in an office somewhere in Afghanistan — turn to the Taliban as a place to put food on the table in many ways.

I felt like a bully in Afghanistan. Like I said, I wanted to make the world a safer place, but saw that [the U.S. military] was making it more dangerous. And I didn’t really see if there was an attempt to build schools. If there was an attempt to look out for people, particularly in the countryside, or create an infrastructure in Afghanistan where they could have roads. I haven’t seen any of that.

What is the timeframe of your service in Afghanistan and also for becoming a war resister? What did that look like for you?

I went in after [the U.S. had been in Afghanistan for] a few months, I think it was 2002 toward the tail end of that year. I was really overwhelmed by the level of poverty and the destruction that had been left over from the Soviet occupation of the country.

And we were occupying schools. Some guy, you know, some military-age man with his friend walked by and didn’t show the proper level of deference, and we put one guy in one room and the other guy in another room, and the guy sitting by himself would hear a gunshot, and we’d walk in and ask him if there was anything he wanted to tell us. This was just a desperate attempt to glean information, and it was terrorizing the Afghan population.

And, you know, like I said, that the 500-pound bombs, the lack of understanding of culture, which led us into these ridiculous, horrible situations where you’re taking people off to secret prisons, and then just the general sense of feeling like a bully. As I said, this is not making the world a safer place. It’s making the world a more dangerous place.

I decided, after my first tour, that I was going to become a war resister. And they said, “No, you’re coming back with us to Afghanistan.” And I said, okay, well I refuse to hold, carry a weapon. And so, I kind of walked with the donkeys in remote regions of Afghanistan on my second tour for about four months.

Fascinating. Do you have any impressions of the country that you got from that experience? I feel like we don’t hear enough in the media about what life is like in Afghanistan, especially in the rural areas. We hear a lot about drugs. We hear a lot about war, but we don’t hear that much about what life is like.

Like anywhere in the world, I think 99.9 percent of the population are incredible people. Most people are good, no matter where you go in the country, I was really struck by the sense of community that I saw. When you have conversations with people they’re really engaged. There was a lack of insecurity that you see when you’re having a conversation with many Americans, [a] lack of self-consciousness. There was a real presence in my interactions with Afghans. And I was envious of [the] sense of community that they had.

So yeah, my experience with Afghans, at least when we were going into towns, was just one of a kind of appreciation for who they were and their community…. I mean, there was obviously a resistance, but they’re very hospitable in the sense that they’d have dinners waiting for us, and they’d have rice and yeah, maybe it was because of pressure, but maybe it was because of just a general sense of hospitality. I felt like most Afghans that I interacted with were far healthier than the occupying force that had visited their country.

At some point, that second tour where you refused to carry a gun came to an end and you came back to the U.S. — and then did you join the antiwar movement? Were you involved in organizing?

It took me a while to kind of settle into that. I came from a fairly right-wing Catholic family who liked the idea that they had a freedom fighter in the family. And so, when I got back, I kind of kept a lot of it to myself, and I spent about five years working in a cubicle, doing what I didn’t want to do … and realizing that I was kind of a half of a person in this process. And I felt like I had to shake things up and eventually, you know, speak about my experiences.

So, I decided to walk across the United States for the Pat Tillman foundation. Pat and his brother Kevin were two of the only people in the military that supported my decision when I became a war resister. And in large part, I didn’t go to jail because of the way Pat died, because they just wanted me out of the unit. You know, the reason they wanted me out of the military at the time, it was because they were covering up his death. I guess they didn’t want the added pressure of someone who was questioning the mission. I felt like on a lot of levels, I owed Pat something. So, I walked across the United States for his foundation.

You said that the Army was interested in covering up Pat Tillman’s death, so you kind of got a pass, and you were in the same unit?

Yes. In the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

What was the reason they were trying to cover it up? What was the story around his death and why the military was so concerned?

Well, first, they tried to make Pat into the poster boy for the war on terror. If someone could give up a $3.6 million NFL contract to go and serve in the military and defend freedom and democracy, then you can too! And this made Pat obviously very uncomfortable, but this is what the U.S. was trying to do.

And so, when they ended up killing Pat in an act of friendly fire, they wanted to cover it up. They burned his uniform and his diary and covered it all the way up to the highest levels of the Bush administration. At the very least, Donald Rumsfeld knew, most likely George Bush knew about it. And, then it all came out.

It was bad PR for the military, really bad PR, because they had used Pat Tillman as a propaganda point.

Exactly.

So, you walked across the country. I imagine that at this point, you were starting to engage in the antiwar movement. And I remember being an activist in the movement and meeting a lot of veterans, both from Afghanistan and Iraq, who’d either become resisters, or after their tours became antiwar activists. And I fear that a lot of their contributions at the time have now been lost in the media. I’m curious about your experience in the antiwar movement and with other veterans who may have agreed with you and organized with you.

Yeah, well, I mean, even after I finished walking across the country, I was still scared to share my story. And it wasn’t until I kind of retraced my steps via history books and saw all of these war resisters of different kinds along my path that I actually didn’t even know about when I was walking. I walked where Ida B. Wells wrote her anti-lynching papers, where the San Patricio Battalion refused to fight Mexicans in the Mexican-American War, where Dolores Huerta organized. And these were kind of war resisters of a different kind, and if they could do what they did, then I could certainly share my story. And so, once I read about these histories, that motivated me to kind of want to get out and meet other people who felt betrayed by the U.S. military, and there are plenty of them out there.

In addition to all the dissenters, the people who’ve left the military and have spoken out after the fact, according to some estimates there’s as many as 80,000 war resisters, people who refuse to fight after entering the military based on what they saw in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. So, there’s quite a number of people out there, it’s just … there’s not a lot of space for dissenting voices to speak out and do their thing.

I realized that getting into high schools was actually a very important thing. There’s more than 10,000 recruiters stalking the [school] hallways around the country, sharing very little about what is actually happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I wanted to fill in some of those blanks in high schools. So, the Chicago Teacher’s Union gave me a grant to go in and speak to as many high schools as I could, and that was actually very difficult because even with the grant, most people see the military as a positive option for young people, particularly in places like the South and West Side of Chicago, where there are not a ton of options after graduation.

I found a lot of community and comfort in meeting other antiwar veterans.

I’m so glad you brought that up, because my entry into the antiwar movement was in high school. I was a freshman when 9/11 happened and began doing counter-recruiting activism in whatever limited ways I could as a high school student. And I not only met antiwar activists that way, but I met veterans as well. I saw veterans as so crucial to the antiwar movement; their experiences were truth to be told in this country. But I also remember the antiwar movement being very factionalized at the time and not everybody seeming to be on board with veterans, possibly because their politics didn’t quite match up. Did you have any problems like that with the movement itself where you didn’t feel welcome for some reason, because you had participated in the war?

I feel like there was a discomfort around some people in the movement, I think there were certain situations where that was the case. I think people with slightly more sophisticated politics were able to see beyond that someone would sign up for the military and actually look a little deeper as to why they would sign up for the military, given the billion-dollar-a-year-propaganda budget the U.S. military has. You know, just the lack of education in schools when it comes to talking about the history of U.S. imperialism — and also giving people the opportunity to change their minds based on what they saw.

I think it’s important for people to be able to hear the voice, the experience of veterans, particularly those who are considering entering the military. You have people just going in and wagging their fingers, saying, “Don’t join the military. It’s a horrible thing.” You know, that’s one thing. And I should say, there needs to be more of that in high schools — but I think you’re more likely to communicate something to a high school-age person if you’ve actually lived it and say, “This is actually why you should think twice about joining the military. Killing someone for a cause that you don’t understand is the worst thing you could possibly do, it’s maybe better to die yourself than to kill someone for a cause you don’t understand.” And then be able to speak [from] a position of authority in that regard. I think it’s hard to replicate that.

Are there any political messages that you would like to get out, that you would draw from all these experiences … now that it’s been about 10 years since the media has had a serious discussion about Afghanistan?

Well, I signed up thinking the United States was a force for good around the world and actually cared about things like freedom and democracy. I realized that that certainly wasn’t the case, and U.S. imperialism is something that benefits a small percentage of the population at the great expense of everyone else. And then there are certain tools that need to be implemented in order to have enough people sign on — to stock the approximately 800 military bases the United States has around the world.

And I think there are xenophobia and racism … this belief that the United States is superior, and that the mission of the United States, which largely is rooted in white supremacy, is the best alternative — that we need to be the police of the world.

I’ve seen some of the mechanisms that allow for endless wars and trillion-dollar-a-year military budgets, and I’ve also come to see some of the ways that we can fight it without necessarily directly being part of the antiwar movement…. There are other ways that you can fight it, like advocating for free education and free health care. I mean, that’s a major blow to U.S. imperialism — when people aren’t signing up for the military because they don’t have to, because they don’t need to have their college paid for or have health care, so they don’t have to do a job that they don’t want [to be] guaranteed healthcare.

If you really care about climate change, you need to go after the people that are most responsible for it. The U.S. military is one of the greatest polluters on the planet, if not the greatest polluter on the planet.

I’m still wondering the best way to challenge U.S. imperialism. It’s certainly not an easy thing, but I think it’s crucial if we’re going to solve a lot of the problems like free education, free healthcare, building a better sustainable infrastructure in the United States, and I don’t know, fighting climate change.

And also, being an anti-racist is at the core of it. I mean, it is very hard to go convince someone to kill somebody if they are anti-racist. If they see that they have much more in common with ordinary people in Afghanistan or North Korea than they do the people telling them to go and fight those people. So, fighting Islamophobia, fighting anti-Black racism here in the United States, those are all part of the ways that we can challenge U.S. imperialism.

Just because we pulled out of Afghanistan doesn’t mean U.S. imperialism is over. As you mentioned, the U.S. has hundreds of bases all across the world. Do you have any thoughts about the future?

Yeah, well, I mean, [imperialism] walks side by side with capitalism. The U.S. ruling class is constantly looking for new markets to exploit, more resources to steal, and ways to dominate other powers around the world. As long as profit is the main concern of those who are running the show, you can expect the empire to continue to fight and look for those markets and do so in extremely violent ways.

In the American Prospect, there’s a really great article by Rozina Ali about how the law is kind of constantly manipulated, changed, and interpreted in a way that makes endless war lawful — to support things like the drone wars, endless wars, things like Guantanamo Bay. I mean, war should technically adapt to the law, but it’s usually the opposite. So, I think there’s going to be constant attempts to manipulate [the law] and justify drone strikes and secret prisons and 800 military bases around the world. The ruling class will use every trick in the book in order to convince people that what they’re doing is okay. There used to be big debates around military conflicts, you know, particularly in lead up to World War II or World War I, but there is [little] of that debate anymore. It’s whether things are lawful or not, and you can manipulate the law to make everything justified, or allowed. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. And I think we’ll continue to see that.

One of the things that Chelsea Manning showed was how vetted the media is when it comes to covering wars. I think there were seven journalists inside of Iraq, behind “enemy lines,” at the time. And so, people aren’t seeing what’s going on around the world, they don’t know that the United States has had military operations in nearly all of the African countries since 2011 alone.

But I think it’s really important for places like Truthout and other independent outlets to cover this stuff and let people know that they’re still spending a trillion dollars a year on the military, and that trillion dollars a year isn’t going toward the infrastructure, it’s not going toward education. It’s lining the pockets of people who are already rich.