A ranger on a new mission

April 10, 2016

In light of the Vatican conference that is just starting, reconsidering just war theory, this is from a vet, Rory Fanning, trying to speak to high school students in the US:

…Did you know,” I continue, quoting a statistic cited from University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, “that ‘from 1980 to 2003, there were 343 suicide attacks around the world, and at most 10 percent were anti-American inspired?  Since 2004, there have been more than 2,000, over 91 percent against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.

….Maybe so many of these kids are attentive exactly because the last thing JROTC instructors are likely to be discussing is the realities of war, including, for instance, the staggering number of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans unable to assimilate back into society after their experience overseas.

When I urge the students to join me in a conversation about war and their lives, I hear stories about older siblings deluged by telemarketer-style calls from recruiters. “It’s so annoying,” one says. “My brother doesn’t even know how the recruiter got his information.”  “Recruiters have contact information for every junior and senior in this school,” I say. “And that’s the law. The No Child Left Behind act, signed soon after 9/11, insists that your school hand over your information to the Department of Defense if it wants to receive federal funds.”

Soon enough, it becomes clear that these students have very little context for their encounters with the U.S. military and its promises of an uplifting future. They know next to nothing, for instance, about our recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan, or our permanent state of war in the Greater Middle East and increasingly in Africa.

When I ask why so many of them signed up for the JROTC program, they talk about “leadership” opportunities and “structure” for their lives. They are focused, as I was, on having college paid for or “seeing the world.” Some say they are in JROTC because they didn’t want to take gym class. One offers this honest assessment: “I don’t know, I just am. I haven’t given it much thought.”

As I grill them, so they grill me. “What does your family think about your leaving the military?” one asks.

“Well,” I respond, “we don’t talk about it too much. I come from a very pro-military family and they prefer not to think of what we are doing overseas as wrong. I think this is why it took me so long to speak honestly in public about my time in the military.”

“The military and paranoia go hand in hand. So I kept quiet,” I tell the kids. “I also started reading books like Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living, a reporter’s brilliant story of our invasion of Afghanistan as told from the perspective of actual Afghans. And I began meeting veterans who had experiences similar to mine and were speaking out. This helped boost my confidence.”

“Is the military like Call of Duty?” one of the students asks, referring to a popular single-shooter video game.

“I’ve never played,” I respond. “Does it include kids who scream when their mothers and fathers are killed? Do a lot of civilians die?”

“Not really,” he says uncomfortably.

“Well, then it’s not realistic. Besides, you can turn off a video game. You can’t turn off war.”

A quiet settles over the room that even a lame joke of mine can’t break. Finally, after a silence, one of the kids suddenly says, “I’ve never heard anything like this before.”

What I feel is the other side of that response. That first experience of mine talking to America’s future cannon fodder confirms my assumption that, not surprisingly, the recruiters in our schools aren’t telling the young anything that might make them think twice about the glories of military life.

I leave that school with an incredible sense of calm, something I haven’t felt since my time began in Afghanistan. I tell myself I want to speak to classrooms at least once a week. I realize that it took me 10 years, even while writing a book on the subject, to build up the courage to talk openly about my years in the military. If only I had begun engaging these kids earlier instead of punishing myself for the experience George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their cohorts put me through.

Suddenly, some of my resident paranoia seems to melt away, and the residual guilt I still felt for leaving the Rangers early and in protest—the chain of command left me believing that there was nothing more cowardly than “deserting” your Ranger buddies—seems to evaporate, too.

My thought now is full disclosure going forward. If a teenager is going to sign up to kill and die for a cause or even the promise of a better life, then the least he or she should know is the good, the bad, and the ugly about the job. I had no illusions that plenty of kids—maybe most of them, maybe all of them—wouldn’t sign up anyway, regardless of what I said. But I swear to myself: no moralism, no regrets, no judgments. That’s my credo now. Just the facts as I see them.

A New Mission

I’m on an operation and that feels strangely familiar. Think of it as a different way to be a Ranger in a world that will never, it seems, be truly postwar. But as with all things in one’s mind: easier said than done. The world, it turns out, is in no rush to welcome me on my new mission.

I start making calls. I create a website to advertise my talk. I send out word to teacher friends that I’m available to speak in their schools. I’m prepared for my schedule to fill up within weeks, but a month passes and no one calls. The phone just doesn’t ring.

I grow increasingly frustrated.  Fortunately, a friend tells me about a grant sponsored by the Chicago Teachers Union and designed to expose kids to real world educational experiences they may not hear about in school. I apply, promising to speak to 12 of the 46 schools in Chicago with JROTC programs during the 2015/2016 school year. The grant comes through in September, and better yet, it promises that each student I talk to will also get a free copy of my book, Worth Fighting For.

I don’t for a second doubt that this will ensure my presence in front of classrooms of kids. I have nine long months to arrange meetings with only 12 schools. I decide that I’ll even throw in some extra schools as a bonus. I create a Facebook page so that teachers and principals can learn about my talk and book me directly.

Notices of both my website and that page are placed in teacher newsletters and I highlight the Chicago Teachers Union endorsement in them. I’m thinking: slam dunk! I even advertise on message boards, spend money on targeted ads on Facebook, and again reach out to all my teacher friends.

It’s now April, seven months into the school year, and only two teachers have taken me up on the offer to speak. “He was comfortable and engaging with the students and in the students’ reflections the following day he was someone that the students clearly enjoyed talking with. I will definitely ask him to come back to speak to my classes every year,” wrote Dave Stieber, one of those teachers.

It’s finally starting to dawn on me, however. In our world, life is scary and I’m not the only one heading for Lake Michigan on cold winter mornings or gloomy nights. Teachers out there in the public schools are anxious, too. It’s dark days for them. They are under attack and busy fighting back against school privatization, closures, and political assaults on their pensions. The popular JROTC program is a cash cow for their schools and they are discouraged from further rocking a boat already in choppy waters.

You’ll bring too much “tension” to our school, one teacher tells me with regret. “Most of my kids need the military if they plan on going to college,” I hear from another who says he can’t invite me to his school anyway. But most of my requests simply go out into the void unanswered. Or promises to invite me go unfulfilled. Who, after all, wants to make waves or extracurricular trouble when teachers are already under fierce attack from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his unelected school board?

I understand and yet, in a world without a draft, JROTC’s school-to-military pipeline is a lifeline for Washington’s permanent war across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Its unending conflicts are only possible because kids like those I’ve talked to in the few classrooms I’ve visited continue to volunteer. The politicians and the school boards, time and again, claim their school systems are broke. No money for books, teacher’s salaries and pensions, healthy lunches.

And yet, in 2015, the U.S. government spent $598 billion on the military, more than half of its total discretionary budget, and nearly 10 times what it spent on education. In 2015, we also learned that the Pentagon continues to pour what, it is estimated, will in the end be $1.4 trillion into a fleet of fighter planes that may never work as advertised. Imagine the school system we would have in this country if teachers were compensated as well as weapons contractors. Confronting the attacks on education in the U.S. should also mean, in part, trying to interrupt that school-to-military pipeline in places like Chicago. It’s hard to fight endless trillion-dollar wars if kids aren’t enlisting.

Just the other day I spoke at a college in Peoria, three hours south of Chicago. “My brother hasn’t left the house since returning home from Iraq,” one of the students told me with tears in her eyes. “What you said helped me understand his situation better. I might have more to say to him now.”

It was the sort of comment that reminded me that there is an audience for what I have to say. I just need to figure out how to get past the gatekeepers. Believe me, I’ll continue to write about, pester and advertise my willingness to talk to soon-to-be-military-age kids in Chicago. I’m not giving up, because speaking honestly about my experiences is now my therapy. At the end of the day, I need those students as much as I think they need me.

Rory Fanning has posted on Catholic conscientious objector sites.  He is the author of Worth Fighting For, recently released from Haymarket Books. He walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008–2009, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion.

Cross-posted from http://inthesetimes.com/article/19042/postwar-young-people-fanning