How Rory Fanning went from Army Ranger to war resister (and counter-recruiter).
Alex N. Press / Jacobin - 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.”
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.”