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Tomgram: Rory Fanning, Talking to the Young in a World That Will Never Truly Be "Postwar"

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Right now, you can still get signed, personalized copies of the new books of two remarkable, bestselling authors at this website. In return for a donation of $100 or more ($125 if you live outside the United States), you can choose either Andrew Bacevich's spectacular book America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History or Adam Hochschild's riveting new work on the war that began the most devastating conflict in history, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. (Note, however, that the offer on Hochschild's book will end this Saturday morning.) Visit the recent TomDispatch pieces by Bacevich and Hochschild to get a sense of their new books. Worth Fighting For, written by today's author, ex-Army Ranger Rory Fanning, remains on offer as well. Check out our donation page for the details on all of them. A final note: Adam Hochschild has been on book tour for nearly two weeks. For those of you who already contributed, copies of his book will be in the mail early next week. Thanks for your patience! Tom]

The third time around, the Pentagon evidently wants to do it right -- truly right -- this time. What other explanation could there be for dispatching 12 generals to Iraq (one for every 416 American troops estimated to be on the ground in that country, according to Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast). And keep in mind that those 12 don't include the generals and admirals overseeing the air war, naval support, or other aspects of the campaign against the Islamic State from elsewhere in the Middle East or back in the U.S., nor do they include generals from allied forces like those of Australia and Great Britain also in Iraq. Youssef offers a "conservative" count of 21 "flag officers," including allies, now in that country to oversee the war there. Among other things, they are undoubtedly responsible for ensuring the success of the major goal proclaimed by both Washington and Baghdad for 2016: an offensive to retake the country's second largest city, Mosul. Only weeks ago, it got off to a rousing start when the Iraqi army recaptured a few obscure villages on the road to that city. Soon after, however, the offensive reportedly ground to a dispiriting halt when parts of the American-retrained and rearmed Iraqi Army (which had collapsed in June 2014 in the face of far smaller numbers of far more determined Islamic State militants) began to crumble again, amid mass desertions.

In the meantime, in both Iraq and Syria, U.S. operations seem to be on an inexorable mission-creep upward, with ever more new troops and special ops types heading for those countries in a generally under-the-radar manner, assumedly with the objective of someday justifying the number of generals awaiting them there. Somewhere in a top-heavy Pentagon, there surely must be an office of dej vu all over again, mustn't there? (And talking about dej vu, last week the U.S. launched yet another air strike in Somalia, supposedly knocking off yet another leader of al-Shabab, the indigenous terror movement. If you could win a war by repeatedly knocking off the leaders of such movements, the U.S. would by now be the greatest victor in the history of warfare.)

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Meanwhile in Afghanistan... but do I really have to tell you about the ground taken by the resurgen t Taliban in the last year, the arrival of ISIS in that country, the halting (yet again) of withdrawal plans for U.S. forces almost 15 years into the second American war there, or other tales from the crypt of this country's never-ending wars? I think not. Even if you haven't read the latest news, you can guess, can't you?

And this, of course, is exactly the repetitive world of war (and failure) into which the young, especially in America's poorest high schools, are being recruited, even if they don't know it, via JROTC. It's a Pentagon-funded program that promises to pave the way for your future college education, give meaning to your life, and send you to exotic lands, while ensuring that the country's all-volunteer military never lacks for new troops to dispatch to old (verging on ancient) conflicts. As Ann Jones has written, "It should be no secret that the United States has the biggest, most efficiently organized, most effective system for recruiting child soldiers in the world. With uncharacteristic modesty, however, the Pentagon doesn't call it that. Its term is 'youth development program.'" So let's offer thanks for small favors when someone -- in this case, ex-Army Ranger and TomDispatch regular Rory Fanning (author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America) -- feels the urge to do something about that massive, militarized propaganda effort in our schools. In my book, Fanning is the equivalent of any 12 of our generals and we need more like him both in those schools and in our country. Tom

The Wars in Our Schools
An Ex-Army Ranger Finds a New Mission
By Rory Fanning

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Early each New Year's Day I head for Lake Michigan with a handful of friends. We look for a quiet stretch of what, only six months earlier, was warm Chicago beach. Then we trudge through knee-deep snow in bathing suits and boots, fighting wind gusts and hangovers. Sooner or later, we arrive where the snowpack meets the shore and boot through a thick crust of lake ice, yelling and swearing as we dive into near-freezing water.

It took me a while to begin to understand why I do this every year, or for that matter why for the last decade since I left the military I've continued to inflict other types of pain on myself with such unnerving regularity. Most days, for instance, I lift weights at the gym to the point of crippling exhaustion. On summer nights, I sometimes swim out alone as far as I can through mats of hairy algae into the black water of Lake Michigan in search of what I can only describe as a feeling of falling.

A few years ago, I walked across the United States with 50 pounds on my back for the Pat Tillman Foundation in an obsessive attempt to rid myself of "my" war. On the weekends, I clean my house similarly obsessively. And it's true, sometimes I drink too much.

In part, it seems, I've been in search of creative ways to frighten myself, apparently to relive the moments in the military I said I never wanted to go through again -- or so a psychiatrist told me anyway. According to that doctor (and often I think I'd be the last to know), I'm desperately trying to recreate adrenalizing moments like the one when, as an Army Ranger, I jumped out of an airplane at night into an area I had never before seen, not sure if I was going to be shot at as I hit the ground. Or I'm trying to recreate the energy I felt leaping from a Blackhawk helicopter, night vision goggles on, and storming my way into some nameless Afghan family's home, where I would proceed to throw a sandbag over someone's head and lead him off to an American-controlled, Guanta'namo-like prison in his own country.

This doctor says it's common enough for my unconscious to want to relive the feeling of learning that my friend had just been blown up by a roadside bomb while on patrol at two in the morning, a time most normal people are sleeping. Somehow, at the oddest hours, my mind considers it perfectly appropriate to replay the times when rockets landed near my tent at night in a remote valley in Afghanistan. Or when I was arrested by the military after going AWOL as one of the first Army Rangers to try to say no to participation in George W. Bush's Global War on Terror.

I'm aware now, as I wasn't some years back, that my post-war urge for limits-testing is not atypical of the home-front experiences of many who went to war in Afghanistan or Iraq in these years and, for some of them, judging by the soaring suicide rates among Global War on Terror vets, the urge has proven so much more extreme than mine. But more than a decade after leaving the army as a conscientious objector, I can at least finally own up to and testify to the eeriness of what we all brought home from America's twenty-first-century wars, even those of us who weren't physically maimed or torn up by them.

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And here's the good news at a purely personal level: the older I get the less I'm inclined towards such acts of masochism, of self-inflicted pain. Part of the change undoubtedly involves age -- I hesitate to use the word "maturity" yet -- but there's another reason, too. I found a far better place to begin to put all that stored up, jumpy energy. I began speaking to high school students heavily propagandized by the U.S. military on the charms, delights, and positives of war, American-style, about my own experiences and that, in turn, has been changing my life. I'd like to tell you about it.

Filling in the Blanks

The first time I went to speak to high school students about my life with the Rangers in Afghanistan, I was surprised to realize that the same nervous energy I felt before jumping into Lake Michigan or lacing up my gym shoes for a bone-shaking work-out was coursing through my body. But here was the strangest thing: when I had said my piece (or perhaps I really mean "my peace") with as much honesty as I could muster, I felt the very sense of calmness and resolution that I'd been striving for with my other rituals and could never quite hang onto come over me -- and it stayed with me for days.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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