Veterans Day is a holiday whose current meaning is somewhat different than its creators’ original intentions. Originally known as Armistice Day and designed to mark the end of the bloodbath known as First World War, Armistice Day became a national holiday in the United States “dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’” Nowadays, when veterans groups like Veterans for Peace are denied permission to participate in many ceremonies around the United States because of their antiwar philosophy, the day looks much more like a celebration of war. In addition, many of the speeches and ceremonies seem geared to ensuring a never-ending supply of veterans in the future. In other words, Veterans’ Day in the US is just one more part of the war machine’s propaganda wing. A late buddy of mine who had been in the Navy during Vietnam once sarcastically remarked to me while we drank a beer and watched a Veteran’s Day parade in Salinas, California: “This is our day—us vets.” He continued, remarking how much better they treated vets after they were dead. “Shit,” he said. “You even get a decent burial. And a freakin’ American flag to go with it. When you’re in their goddam uniform, you ain’t no better than a maltreated dog who they’re trying to kill. If you get out alive, they just want you to go away.”
Since 1991 and the first US invasion of Iraq, the majority of US veterans have spent some time in a war zone. Those numbers increased exponentially when the Bush administration decided to invade first Afghanistan, then Iraq (again.) In fact, according to a RAND Corporation study published in 2013, seventy-three percent of all active duty troops (Army, Marine, Air Force and Navy) did a tour in at least one of those war zones between the years 2001 and 2011(when all US combat troops were officially out of Iraq) for a total of 1.5 million troop years. Of course, other US military forces did remain in Iraq after the official end of combat and continue to be involved in Afghanistan as of this writing. What this means for most US residents not in the military is that, at the very least, they know someone who has a relative, friend or lover who participated in at least one of those imperial adventures. For some of these civilians, this fact is a source of worry and concern, while for others it is a point of pride; still others find it to be a bit of both. For those of us who oppose US wars, the question remains as to how to prevent any more men and women from participating in them.
There is a tradition of veterans writing about their experience. Sometimes this appears as fiction, sometimes memoir. Occasionally, as in the case of Vietnam veteran W.D. Erhard, it is written as poetry. Relatively recent examples of this genre of fiction and memoir include popular books like Ron Kovics’s Born on the Fourth of July and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—both from the US war in Vietnam. More recent examples include Kevin Powers’s Yellow Birds and Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ‘Til It Hurts. The former tale is about Iraq and the Johnson’s is about Afghanistan. To this growing group can be added Rory Fanning’s memoir titled Worth Fighting For.
Fanning enlisted in the Army in 2001, angry at the events known as 911 and eager to render justice to those he was told were responsible. One of the people responsible for his decision to enlist was football player Pat Tillman, who forsook a multimillion dollar career playing in the National Football League and joined the Army for reasons quite similar to Fanning’s. Later, he was killed in what the military euphemistically and erroneously calls a “friendly fire” incident. After enlisting, Fanning ended up in a Special Forces group within the army called the Rangers. Like the Green Berets and Navy SEALs, the Rangers are trained (some would say brainwashed) to believe that they are the toughest, meanest and best warriors in the world. The fact is they are honed into human killing machines for the Pentagon and those it serves. Sometime during his enlistment, Fanning began to question what he was doing and why. After what one can only imagine was a soul-searching experience, he applied for conscientious objector status. After months of delay and being ostracized by his fellow Rangers, his request was finally granted. This is where his book begins.
Utilizing the form of a road journal reflecting his decision to walk across the United States and raise funds for the Pat Tillman Memorial Fund, Fanning’s book Worth Fighting For describes the geography of his journey and the people he meets along the way. He also provides historical vignettes of certain places he walks through. More importantly, though, is his growing awareness of the nature of the political and economic system that defines the United States historically and in the present. The essential element of Fanning’s text is his growing awareness of how the warmakers operate; from their domination of the economy to the pervasiveness of the myths they utilize to get young people to fight their wars. Knowing this can lead one down a couple different paths, with apathy fueled by despair being one and committing oneself to changing that system being another. It seems fairly clear by the time Fanning reaches the Pacific Coast that he has chosen the latter course.
Blending a story of the road in the tradition of Kerouac with some politics and his search for meaning to a life after battle, Rory Fanning has composed an absorbing narrative. The writing is concise and heartfelt. The experiences he shares reveal something too many of us often forget—that the men and women in the imperial military are more than just uniforms and weapons; more than pawns to be used by a power structure that needs war to survive; and much more than so many uniforms to be manipulated by the media at sporting events and TV specials serving that power structure. The politics are subtle and personal; and ultimately an indictment of that power structure by a man who served it willingly and with conviction—until he came up against its ugly truth.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.