Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 23rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Donald Trump’s budget slashes social programs while inflating an already massive military budget, meaning that for many people in already underserved and underemployed communities, the military will be the closest thing to a welfare state they have.
Today we bring you a conversation with Rory Fanning, a veteran and conscientious objector, and author of the book Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America. His work centers on opposing US militarism at home. He is also the coauthor, with Craig Hodges, of the new book Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter. He lives in Chicago, which has become ground zero for military recruiting in the country, and often speaks at high schools there. “There are more kids signed up in Chicago JROTC and NJROTC than any other school district in the country; ten thousand kids: 50 percent Latino and 45 percent Black,” he told me. We spoke about opposing Trump’s military buildup, the roles that veterans and athletes can play in movements for change, and the long tradition of imperialism in the US.
Sarah Jaffe: We will circle back, certainly, to talk about military recruiting, but because we are in the wake of Donald Trump’s first quasi-budget (and it has a lot of cuts to social programs in order to put all of this money into the military), I wanted to talk to you about the role the military plays in this right-wing nationalist political buildup and how people can resist that.
Rory Fanning: I think it is important first to note that this request by this budget, particularly through defense, is not unprecedented. It really only takes us back to 2011 numbers when they kind of set a cap on military spending. But Obama asked for $700 billion for defense in 2012. I think Trump is asking for $600 billion, which is an increase of $56 billion over the previous year. It is still more military spending than the next thirteen countries combined. One of the most alarming things about this budget is the number of active-duty Army troops that are going to be increased. It is going to go from 475,000 to about 540,000 at a time when there is really no existential threat to the United States. It is kind of ridiculous. I think that is just going to mean more intense recruiting in the most vulnerable communities in the US.
Obviously, when we are talking about the proposal to Make America Great Again, the military is seen as a key component of it. Talk about the role of this recruiting in communities of color and what kind of flawed promises are being made to people if they join.
You don’t see this kind of recruiting out in the suburbs. I have spoken at high schools out in the suburbs and I have spoken at high schools in the inner city, and these recruiters … know kids in poverty-stricken areas have less options after graduation. They know that paying for college is more difficult in poverty-stricken areas. So, they go there and promise kids education. They promise them leadership skills. They promise them discipline and structure. These programs are seen largely as positive in [many] school districts because of the lack of jobs and opportunities.
So there really is [minimal] pushback against these recruiters. There are ten thousand recruiters stalking the hallways, working with a $700 million advertising budget each year, to say nothing of the movies and the video games. It is next to impossible to offer a counternarrative….
In terms of when you are talking to high school students, what are some of the arguments that you make to counter this narrative?
I go in there first and foremost knowing that they are going to do what they are going to do regardless of what I tell them. I just try to plant a few seeds. I don’t go in there and finger wag and say, “Don’t join the military.” I emphasize the importance of critical thinking — right now, in the present, in high school and also if they do decide to go ahead and join the military….
The politics are completely detached from the mission in the military by design. It is about the person to your right and left. It is not about unending trillion-dollar wars. It is really brought down into the very micro levels of the day-to-day. I just ask them to think broader if they do decide to join up for the military. I communicate the fact that there is nothing worse than killing somebody for a cause that you don’t understand…. It is almost maybe even better to lose your own life or get injured yourself as opposed to taking somebody’s life who is innocent.
Their experience with the military [often] doesn’t go further than movies and video games. [Many] say, “How much is the military like ‘Call of Duty?'” (a popular first-person shooter game). I’ll say, “Do you hear babies and moms crying when they watch people die in front of them, innocent people die in front of them?” “No, not really” is their answer. “Are the majority of the people you kill in ‘Call of Duty’ innocent?” “No, not really.” “Is there torture in ‘Call of Duty’?” “No, not really.” “Can you turn off ‘Call of Duty’?” “Yes.” “Well, you can’t really turn off war after you have been there.”
I cite some statistics. There are 40,000 homeless US veterans, people who just can’t get their minds straight after seeing what they saw overseas, can’t get reintegrated into society because they have lost parts of themselves that can never be recovered. It is important to highlight some of that stuff.
And Trump’s budget does not — as far as I know — increase programs to take care of people when they get back from war, right?
Well, once you sign up for the military, you are kind of a piece of equipment. You are not good to anybody after. You are just a drag on the system after you have left the military. There are hundreds of millions of dollars every year … dedicated to veteran services. It is a huge drain on the system, the medical care of returning veterans. It is far from adequate. But, yes, as far as specifically — I think he talks and pretends like he is going to, but as we know, what he says and what he does are completely different things.
We are talking about a budget that pulls funds from social programs to beef up the military and then recruits its new soldiers from communities that are being devastated by those cuts. Then, when people come home from serving, they are facing further cuts and a lack of a social safety net. The military … sort of steps in and replaces an actual universal welfare state. What does it look like to actually make these connections and say, “What we are doing here is building this up at the expense of taking care of people?”
Recognize that people do the best with the information they have access to, and most people think that the US is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world and they sign up with very good intentions. I think a lot of people are disillusioned by what they actually see when they are overseas…. There is very little space for veterans to come back and tell their stories. There is a lot of patting on the back at sporting events and concerts and whatnot, but as far as actual space to hear the realities of war, there are next to none. Unless you have a very positive take on the last 15 years, people don’t ask you to talk.
I think [there are] upwards of 50,000 war resisters who signed up for the military since 2001. So, there is a huge number of people that have had negative experiences that we could draw from…. I think the potential for veterans who come back to become positive influences in the fight against exploitation and oppression is really high. Reaching out to veterans to organize and to call out injustices that they see is high. Communicating with veterans is really important.
Yes, we have seen that several times in the last year. In particular I am thinking about the veterans going to Standing Rock and the way that, in particular, they used at least the lip service reverence that this country gives to veterans to really make a powerful political point.
Yes, absolutely. There is a lot of leverage in conversations when you are a veteran as to what is and isn’t necessarily good for society, right or wrong. I think that is overblown on a lot of levels, but the whole Veterans for Kaepernick response, you saw that trending on Twitter. I think veterans are very sensitive to the fact that this largely is not a free country. There are more people in prison than any other country in the world per capita. The majority of [them are] Black and Latino.
When you sign up, allegedly, to fight for freedom and democracy and you see nothing of that kind being practiced here in the US, with the mass surveillance and the reach of agencies like the National Security Agency, etc., this is not what you put your life on the line for. When I see someone like Colin Kaepernick refusing to put his hand over his heart and stand for the national anthem, I think people who have actually sacrificed for freedom and democracy really respond well to that in a lot of ways.
There is a lot of history around that, particularly around returning Black veterans getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of leaders from that movement had been people who served overseas and were told they were fighting for freedom and equality against a racist regime only to come back to Jim Crow America.
Absolutely. You are seeing veterans getting deported here in the US under Trump’s new policies. It doesn’t matter if they went overseas and fought two or three times. There is a case here in Chicago of a veteran who had been to Afghanistan twice, had a drug conviction 10 years ago and now is basically suing not to be deported and is requiring intervention from a Senator. Yes, there is a lot of hypocrisy in the system.
That reminds me, the DREAM Act, which never ended up getting passed, was partly for college students, but it was also for people who joined the military — which in itself is an incentive for people to join.
Right. So many of these kids who came here when they were like eight years old or whatever, they sign up for the military thinking they are set. “OK, I don’t have anything to worry about as far as my residency in the United States is concerned.” Trump is showing that certainly is not the case and it is certainly not supporting the troops or supporting the veterans.
You were one of the people, the veterans sitting with Kaepernick at the Cubs game, right? For people who are reading this or listening who are veterans, do you have advice for them on how to use that moral authority? I think you have done it in a few moments. Also, I am thinking about the big Chicago protest against Trump on the campaign trail where he ultimately never ended up speaking.
Yes, I think the best advice is to find a group or an organization. Even if you are a veteran, it is way easier to stand up against something if you have a lot of people with you. I am a member of Veterans for Peace. Iraq Veterans Against the War exists. But, all of these groups need to be strengthened. We’re at a lull in the anti-war movement, despite the fact that we are engaged in wars in seven countries right now. I think gathering together with other like-minded veterans is really important to recognizing your leverage as a veteran to be heard….
We were talking about Colin Kaepernick. You have a new book out with a fairly well-known athlete. I wanted to ask you about that book and about the role that professional athletes can play in social movements.
Yes, that is one of the reasons I was sensitive to what was happening to Colin Kaepernick, because people were saying that Colin Kaepernick was spoiled and he didn’t appreciate what he was given and he was a coward for not respecting the flag. I found his case to be the complete opposite of that because I realized by working with Craig Hodges, who was black-balled by the NBA for demanding the league do more to fight racism, economic inequality. Not just the NBA, but also the president of the United States when he visited George Bush, Sr., after his second championship. He called on power, essentially, to do more to fight these problems in our society and he lost everything as a result.
I saw Colin Kaepernick subject himself to the same fate, potentially. We are seeing NFL owners turn their back on Kaepernick now as he is out in the market trying to get acquired by a team. A lot of what is happening to Kaepernick now happened to Craig Hodges. He lost, potentially, millions of dollars standing up for justice. But, he also recognized that he had a platform that could be heard. He realized that the people in his community weren’t going to have the opportunity to have a microphone, or the New York Times interview you, or visit the White House, so he wanted to make the most out of it because he felt like he owed, not just his community, but his ancestors who came to this country as slaves and were subject to exploitation and oppression for the last couple hundred years. For him to just acquire all of these things and not acknowledge that, it just didn’t sit well with him.
One thing that Craig and Colin Kaepernick have the same is they both understand history very well and they are connected to history. People like Michael Jordan are often criticized for not speaking up when they had the platform. Craig is actually pretty sympathetic to people like Jordan saying, “He just was very disconnected from his history. Of course, he experienced racism as a kid, but he didn’t know how to really articulate his situation in this country that is all about personal responsibility and everybody is a clean slate.” But, Craig, because he was so interested in people’s history, the history of his people, recognized injustice when he saw it. I think Colin Kaepernick does the same thing, is similar.
Anything else that you are paying attention to right now that we should talk about?
The issues with crumbling infrastructure and the fact that it is going to take about $4.5 trillion to repair all the bridges, all the pipes, all the roads, all the failing infrastructure in this country. We spend about $1 trillion a year on our military; if we took just a percentage of that, we would have completely new infrastructure in this country. This failing infrastructure is a far greater threat than any terrorism here in the US. I think the odds of you dying in a terrorist attack are one in twenty-five million, but the odds of dying in a car crash in Mississippi are one in two thousand. I am writing an article on it now.
If a terrorist attack happened in this country or if we provoked Iran into some kind of war, I think the justification for further crackdowns on minorities in this country would be absolutely suffocating. I think it is important that people stay vigilant, pushing back against militarism as much as they can. We just don’t want to; ideally not respond to, the next war that this administration seems hell-bent on pursuing. We already came extremely close to a war with Iran when Secretary of Defense Matthis was about to board an Iranian ship looking for weapons headed toward Yemen. I just think it is important to be as vigilant as possible right now against how this administration would respond to a terrorist attack or they could lead us into another war. If we were to go to war against Iran, I think there would be devastating consequences.
I know the anti-war movement is kind of still at a lull, but if we can connect the huge movements around the Women’s March, the Day Without Immigrants, and all that kind of stuff to anti-imperialist/antimilitarist actions, I think we would be better for it.
A lot of people say, “Having 800 military bases around the world is a deterrent. Having 7,700 nuclear weapons is a deterrent.” But, it can also be seen as provocation. Another country is only going to feel the need to amp up its own military as a result of the US amping up its [own]. If there was a collective disarmament, there is a retraction of these bases that are just draining our budgets … I just think all of that stuff has to be connected. Then, if you are going to spend another $56 billion a year on the military each year, there is going to be overflow into police departments because the military doesn’t need any more of these weapons. So, “Well, they already exist. Just give them to the police.” And in such a pro-police administration, you can only assume that they are going to become even more militarized and target the most vulnerable.
It was interesting, because the NYPD is currently angry because Trump’s budget cuts their personal antiterrorism funding in order to put more money into military.
If all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.
How can people keep up with you then?
I am usually on Facebook more than I am on Twitter. If they would like to invite me to their school, they can just reach out to me on either of those two things. I am constantly looking to talk to more high schools and colleges, wanting to give these kids the full story, because if [military recruiting] is already predatory, it is just going to be on steroids with this administration, the pressures of sending kids overseas to fight wars for billionaires.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.