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The Defector

How Rory Fanning went from Army Ranger to war resister.

Fanning at his Ranger Indoctrination Program graduation in Fort Benning, GA, 2002.

In a high school classroom on the South Side of Chicago, Rory Fanning is telling students about the time he and his fellow Army Rangers occupied a school in Afghanistan. “We walked in and said, ‘School’s canceled, we’re going to use this as a military base for the next six weeks.’ There was nothing they could do about it.”

Sometimes, after abducting locals for reasons as thin as not showing enough deference to soldiers, his superiors would place their detainees in separate classrooms and fire a gun somewhere out of sight so that each detainee would think the other had been shot. At that point, says Fanning, “We’d walk into the rooms where each person was and say, ‘Your friend didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear. Do you have anything we want to hear?’ This is how we got information. These are things I watched.”

Rory Fanning at his home outside Chicago, IL. (Photo by Alyssa Schukar)

It’s June 2019; the so-called War on Terror has been going on since before any of the students in the room were born. Fanning is presenting his story — how he went from volunteer enlistee to conscientious objector — to three classes this morning. He’s doing what’s known as “counter-recruitment.” The US military spends more than a billion dollars a year to draw enlistees to what has been, since 1973, an all-volunteer force. The gigantic institution employs around ten thousand recruiters, and thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, they receive the same access to students as college recruiters. The odds are certainly not in Fanning’s favor.

Rather than finger-wagging to teenagers, telling them they cannot enlist, Fanning insists he simply wants them to know what they’re signing up for. After all, as he tells the class, the military is no regular job — if you try to quit, you can be sent to jail, or, at least historically, killed (“Your manager at Pizza Hut certainly doesn’t have that kind of power,” he says). His aim is to fill in the parts of the military experience that go unmentioned by recruiters — such as the fact that most of those killed in war are civilians, and that unlike Call of Duty, you can never turn off your memories of war.

The school we’re in has a particularly active Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program, and men in uniform pass by in the hall between class periods as Fanning hangs back, talking with the teacher who invited him to speak today. The military emphasizes JROTC’s role in “character development” rather than as a recruiting vehicle, but almost half of JROTC cadets go on to enlist.

Fanning enlisted in the Army Rangers shortly after 9/11 — the Rangers were having a particularly good year thanks to Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, a film depicting the regiment bloodletting in the Battle of Mogadishu. He had recently finished college and felt it wasn’t right that eighteen-year-olds, barely adults, were going to be the ones signing up to fight. Plus, he tells the class, he wanted to “prevent another 9/11.”

Despite Fanning’s desire to do good in the world — and maybe have his student debt paid off, too — it didn’t take long for him to come to a different view of the military. “I was expecting bullets to be whizzing by my head when I landed in Afghanistan,” he tells the students, “but when the sun came up the next day, all I saw was unbelievable amounts of poverty. I felt like a bully.”

Later, while cooking dinner for his family at his home in a Chicago suburb, Fanning will recount a common excursion for his unit: they would land a helicopter in someone’s front yard, enter a home to the sound of screaming children, and kidnap someone on what (Fanning only later realized) was usually worthless “intelligence.” “I never put a bag over someone’s head, but I watched a Navy seal do it, and [I] helped handcuff and carry the guy. You have no idea who the guy is. He’s breathing heavily, and you’re watching the green bag — it’s like a sandbag, abrasive — going in and out and wondering what’s going on in his brain. You just stare at this guy as we fly off into the night. And he’s — [pants, as if suffocating] — he has no idea if he’s going to be interrogated or killed or what, and then we go back to bed.”

“What I was doing in Afghanistan was making the world more dangerous,” he says. So he decided to become a war resister, seeking — and eventually obtaining — conscientious objector status, a rarity in Special Operations, especially at this early stage of the post-9/11 wars.

But Fanning’s act of protest rendered him persona non grata among the Rangers, banished for “abandoning” his fellow soldier. “For six months, I was on lockdown while they figured out what to do with me,” he says. “All my friends and the chain of command put me on punishment detail, and they just ridiculed me.”

No one would speak to him — unbreakable bonds of war be damned — save for two brothers: Pat and Kevin Tillman. Pat was famous, having left a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to serve after 9/11. In doing so, he had become the all-American poster boy for military propaganda. Yet despite this image, “Tillman was growing frustrated with what he saw, too,” says Fanning.

Fanning got to know the brothers one Friday evening while on leave in Fort Benning, Georgia, after returning from his first tour in Afghanistan. He was on his way to meet his fellow Rangers at a bar — at this point, he was thinking about leaving the military, but he didn’t know how — when he saw the Tillmans in a coffee shop. While “everyone else was getting wasted,” Fanning tells me, the Tillmans were exchanging research papers on Israel-Palestine. “They were just trying to understand what was happening. That was something they did all the time.”

A friendship was struck, and when Fanning turned war resister, the Tillmans were “real sources of comfort.” Though Fanning wouldn’t realize it until returning to civilian life, Pat would also play a central role in his being discharged. In April 2004, he was called down to formation. He expected to be sent to Leavenworth, military prison, but instead was informed that Pat Tillman had been killed the previous night. Fanning was told Tillman “was killed in enemy ambush and died a hero.” Only later would the truth come out — that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, with the military apparatus all the way up to President George W. Bush having a hand in covering his death up. Fanning was discharged days later — the Rangers were under scrutiny and didn’t need a conscientious objector around.

The cover-up fed Fanning’s sense of betrayal. But being from a conservative, pro-military family, he didn’t know how to talk about his experiences and was scared to do so, so he spent “the next four years hiding what’d happened” to him, grateful at least to have escaped further punishment. Yet the need to speak about what he now knew of the military gnawed at him — the wars weren’t stopping, and people were barely talking about them anymore. He decided to at least show his gratitude to the Tillmans by raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. He did so by walking across the country, and then he wrote a book about it. In the process, he discovered radical histories, learning about Nat Turner’s slave uprising, and Dolores Huerta’s labor organizing, and parallels to his own war resistance, such as the San Patricio Battalion: Irish soldiers who deserted the US side to join the Mexicans in the Mexican-American war — and were hanged for this rebellion. Gradually, he became a socialist.

“It’s only in the past ten years that I’ve been talking about this,” Fanning, now forty-two, tells me. As he began reading, books like Howard Zinn’s and Stephen Kinzer’s histories of US intervention, and, later, journalist Anand Gopal’s writing on Afghanistan, the feeling of having been deceived only grew. “I realized: this isn’t only my experience, it’s the experience of all these other people who claim to defend freedom and democracy but are doing the complete opposite, and have been for decades.”

Fanning at Bagram Airbase outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002.

Now, Fanning feels he has no option but to speak out about war and imperialism. “If a veteran goes into a high school and opposes war, the message might have a better chance of being heard,” he says. He admits that family and old friends don’t invite him to dinner as much as they might’ve had he kept his mouth shut, but the trade-off is a no-brainer: “I feel like I can breathe.” He supports dissenters abroad, such as corresponding with draft resisters in Israel, and at home: both active-duty soldiers and veterans regularly reach out to him. He encourages them to resist in groups, rather than alone — “It’s way harder for the military to push back on a bunch of people instead of one person.”

When Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee in protest against police violence, Fanning supported him, forming Veterans for Kaepernick. And when Kaepernick’s detractors invoked Pat Tillman, he countered this with the Tillman he knew, who, he insists, would’ve been on Kaepernick’s side. “It’s next to impossible for me to imagine otherwise,” he says, refusing to let his friend be conscripted by the forces of militarism, even in death.

Yet the US military is a behemoth so hulking as to feel unstoppable, impenetrable, undefeatable. When I ask Fanning if he ever feels hopeless about the possibility of closing the country’s eight-hundred-some bases abroad and ultimately dismantling the military, as he hopes to do, he laughs, shaking his head. “You chip away,” he says. Sure, there is a “sense of fatigue” and deflation after mass marches and organizing failed to stop the Iraq War. But, he adds, “every change in history has happened at such a small level at first, and my hope comes from the gains we’ve seen just in the past few years.” Plus, despite the billions spent, the military hasn’t been meeting its recruiting goals lately.

The past few years have seen the start of a revival of socialist politics, and while the US left is still small, Fanning sees its priorities as inextricably entangled with, and relevant to, the military and veterans. A broader social safety net would remove critical lures in recruiters’ tool kits at schools like the one we visited earlier in the day. “Poverty draft” is the phrase for describing the targeting of poor, working-class, and, particularly, black and Latino kids for recruitment. According to a 2014 investigation by the Chicago Reporter, 93 percent of Chicago’s JROTC cadets are black or Latino — the city has the country’s largest JROTC program, and more than 70 percent of its JROTC schools are in “high schools located in majority-black or majority-Latino” zip codes. Dangling the (not always fulfilled) promise of multi-thousand-dollar signing bonuses, free or reduced-cost college, citizenship, loans, health care, and a career, the military is appealing to young people who are otherwise denied livable wages and benefits.

But free higher education, universal health care, and genuinely affordable housing wouldn’t only remove reasons for joining — they’d also help veterans, who, despite their surface-level veneration (being trotted out at sports events or given the occasional discount), continue to suffer profoundly, with twenty committing suicide each day and roughly forty thousand homeless. Veterans could offer a lot to the Left, too, says Fanning. After all, there are millions of people connected to the US military, people veterans are well positioned to reach.

Despite what he feels is a natural kinship between veterans and the Left, there remains ambivalence in certain quarters of the latter as to how, or whether, to relate to the former. Although veterans and active-duty soldiers were a key part of the movement against the Vietnam War, that was at the time of a draft. Even acknowledging the significant size of the poverty draft, many soldiers are not poor and sign up voluntarily, for ideological reasons, even if those reasons often boil down to a generic patriotism. Though many in the military are glorified bureaucrats — pencil pushers who never see combat — some soldiers do, in fact, kill people.

But if the Left is to build a mass movement, veterans and active-duty soldiers have a role to play. “People sign up because they think they’re doing the right thing, because that’s what society teaches you. And then when they realize they’re not, they feel betrayed,” says Fanning. “If people are unapologetic” about their time in the US military, “that’s one thing,” he says. “But it’s another thing to say, ‘I did the best with the information I had access to, with what society taught me, and after I learned there was a better way, I went that better way.’”

“There are lot of disgruntled veterans out there,” he says. “A lot of people are looking for community in the military, and that’s what keeps them there. They stay in for all the wrong reasons, doing things no one agrees with. But what if people said, collectively, we’re going to get out of this together, we don’t have to abandon one another? If you can build those same kinds of bonds in struggle and protest, and offer antiwar veterans a platform in a society that shuts them out otherwise, while removing the economic reasons for joining, you can draw a lot of people away from the military.” While there are currently a few organizations for antiwar veterans — Veterans for Peace, along with About Face — as the Left grows, Fanning expects the presence of socialist veterans will, too.

As for the far right’s inroads among military members, Fanning sees this is an unnatural pairing. While racism and xenophobia are central to the US military’s perpetration of violence, for disaffected soldiers to direct their anger toward immigrants or people of color more generally “makes no sense.” “We’re going to blame the people with no political power, no financial power, no military power for all of our problems?” he practically shouts as we sit in his backyard, his family inside, getting ready for dinner. “To the extent it works, it’s only because soldiers haven’t encountered the opposite argument” from the Left. “We have way more in common with the people we’re ‘fighting’ in these wars than with the people telling us to go fight, the generals who are supposedly on our same team.”

“The JROTC kids in Chicago that I’ve spoken to aspire to do other things. They come from backgrounds without a lot of resources, and they’re looking to give themselves a chance,” says Fanning. “But they’re also interested in standing up for something, a higher ideal.” At his house, Fanning is recounting the students’ reactions to his talk today — the boy who the teacher told us usually never sits still, riveted, yelling from the back row in anger at what Fanning said; the girl who was considering enlisting, but now wasn’t so sure. You can’t will an upsurge, much less a revolution, into existence, but in the meantime, you chip away.