The Wars in Our Schools

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Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 8:03 PM

com Early each New Year’s Day I head for Lake MI with a handful of friends. We see for a noiseless stretch of what, only six months earlier, was warm Chicago beach.

The Wars in Our Schools

An Ex-Army Ranger Finds a New Mission
Cross-posted with TomDispatch. com

Early each New Year’s Day I head for Lake MI with a handful of friends. We see for a noiseless 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 come 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 start to realize why I do this every year, or for that matter why for the latest 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 distant as I can through mats of hairy algae into the black water of Lake MI in look for of what I can only characterize as a feeling of falling.

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

In part, it seems, I’ve been in look for 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 Dr (and frequently I think I’d be the latest to know), I’m desperately trying to recreate adrenalizing moments love the one when, as an Army Ranger, I jumped out of an airplane at night into an area I'd 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'd proceed to toss a sandbag over someone’s head and lead him off to an American-controlled, Guantánamo-like prison in his own country.

This Dr says it’s common sufficient for my unconscious to wish to relive the feeling of learning that my companion 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 close 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 attempt to declare number to participation in George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror.

I’m alert now, as I wasn’t some years back, that my post-war urge for limits-testing isn't 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 minimum finally own up to and testify to the eeriness of what we all brought residence from America’s twenty-first-century wars, even those of us who weren’t physically maimed or torn up by them.

And here’s the excellent news at a purely personal level: the older I obtain the less I’m inclined towards such acts of masochism, of self-inflicted pain. Portion of the modify undoubtedly involves age -- I waver to utilize the word “maturity” yet -- but there’s another reason, too. I found a distant better space to start to keep 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 love 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 MI 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'd said my piece (or maybe I really imply “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 arrive over me -- and it stayed with me for days.

That first time, I was one of the few white people in a deteriorating Chicago public high school on the distant S side of the city. A instructor is escorting me down multiple broad, shabby hallways to the classroom where I was to speak. We pass a room decorated with a total of eight American flags, four posted on each side of its door. “The recruiting office,” the instructor says, gesturing toward it, and then asks, “Do they've recruiting offices in the suburban schools you speak to?”

“I’m not sure. I refuge’t spoken to any on this topic yet,” I reply. “They certainly didn’t have an obvious one at the public high school I went to, but I do know that there are ten.000 recruiters across the country working with a $700 million a year advertising budget. And I think you’re more likely to look the recruiters in schools where kids have less options after graduation.”

At that moment, we come at the appointed classroom and I’m greeted warmly by the social studies instructor who invited me. Photos of Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and other revolutionary black leaders hang neatly on a wall. He first heard about my desire to speak to students about my wartime experiences through Veterans for Peace, an organization I belong to. “There is number counter-narrative to what the kids are being taught by the instructors in Jr ROTC, as distant as I can tell,” he says, obviously bothered, as we wait for the students to arrive. “It would be grand if you could allow more of a complete picture to these kids.” He then went on to characterize the frustration he felt with a Chicago school system in which schools in the poorest neighborhoods in the city were being close down at a record pace, and yet, somehow, his school district always had the money to supplement the Pentagon’s funding of the JROTC (Jr Reserve Officer Training) program.

The kids are just beginning to filter in, laughing and acting love the teenagers they are. I’m not encouraged.

“Okay, everyone, settle down, we've a visitor speaker today,” the instructor says. He oozes confidence of a sort I only wish I possessed. The vol in the room dies down to something approaching a hush. They clearly respect him. I only hope a small of that'll spill over in my direction.

I waver a moment and then start, and here’s a tiny report from memory on at minimum portion of what I said and what happened:

“Thanks,” I begin, “for having me in today. My title is Rory Fanning and I’m here to tell you why I joined the military. I’ll also speak about what I saw while I was in that military, and why I left before my contract was up.” The silence in the classroom stretches out, which encourages me and I plunge on.

“I signed up for the Army Rangers to have my learner loans paid for and to do my portion to prevent another terrorist attack like nine/eleven... My training was sometimes challenging and usually boring... A lot of food and sleep deprivation. Mostly, I think my chain of command was training me in how to declare yes to their orders. The military and critical thinking don’t mix too well...”

As I speak on about the nearly indescribable poverty and desperation I witnessed in Afghanistan, a country that's known nothing but occupation and civil war for decades and that, before I arrived, I knew less than nothing about, I could perceive my nervousness abating. “The buildings in Kabul,” I was telling them, “have gaping holes in them and broken-down Russian tanks and jets litter the countryside.”

I can hardly restrain my amazement. The kids are still with me. I’m presently explaining how the U. S. military handed out thousands of dollars to anyone willing to identify alleged members of the Taliban and how we'd raid houses based on this information. “I later came to discover out that this intelligence, if you could call it that, was rooted in a kind of desperation.” I clarify why an Afghan in abject poverty, looking for ways maintain his family, might be prepared to finger nearly anyone in return for access to the deep wells of cash the U. S. military could call on. In a world where factories are few, and office jobs scarce indeed, people will do anything to survive. They have to.

I point out the nearly unbearable alien quality of Afghan life to American military officials. Few spoke a local language. Number one I ever ran into knew anything about the culture of the people we were trying to bribe. Too frequently we broke down doors and snatched Afghans from their homes not because of their ties with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but because a neighbor had a grudge against them.

“Most of the people we targeted had number connection to the Taliban at all. Some even pledged allegiance to the U. S. occupation, but that didn’t matter.” They still ended up with hoods over their heads and in some godforsaken prison.

By now, I can tell that the kids are truly paying attention, so I let it all out. “The Taliban had surrendered a few months before I arrived in Afghanistan in late two thousand two, but that wasn’t excellent sufficient for our politicians back residence and the generals giving the orders. Our work was to draw people back into the fight.”

Two or three students let out genuine soft gasps as I characterize how my company of Rangers occupied a village school and our commander cancelled classes there indefinitely because it made an outstanding staging point for the troops -- and there wasn’t much a village headmaster in rural Afghanistan could declare to dissuade history’s most technologically advanced and powerful military from doing just what it wanted to. “I remember,” I tell them, “watching two fighting-age men walk by the school we were occupying. One of them didn’t indicate an acceptable level of deference to my first sergeant, so we grabbed them. We threw the overly confident guy in one room and his companion in another, and the guy who didn’t smile at us properly heard a gunshot and thought, just as he was meant to, that we'd just killed his companion for not telling us what we wanted to hear and that he might be next.”

“That’s love torture,” one kid half-whispers.

I then speak about why I’m more pleased of leaving the military than of anything I did while in it. “I signed up to prevent another nine/eleven, but my two tours in Afghanistan made me realize that I was making the world less safe. We know presently that a majority of the million or so people who have been killed since nine/eleven have been innocent civilians, people with number stake in the game and number reason to fight until, frequently enough, the U. S. military baited them into it by killing or injuring a family member who more frequently than not was an innocent bystander.”

“Did you know,” I continue, quoting a statistic cited from Univ of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, “that ‘from one thousand nine hundred eighty to two thousand three, there were three hundred forty-three suicide attacks around the world, and at most ten percent were anti-American inspired. Since two thousand four, there have been more than 2.000, over ninety-one percent against U. S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.’ I didn’t wish to be portion of this so I left.”

Full Disclosure

Chicago-area high school students aren’t used to hearing such talk. The public school system here has the largest no of Jr ROTC students -- nearly ten.000 of them, forty-five percent african American and fifty percent latino -- of any school district in the country. And maybe so many of these kids are attentive precisely because the latest thing JROTC instructors are likely to be discussing is the realities of war, including, for instance, the staggering no of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans unable to assimilate back into society after their experience overseas.

When I urge the students to connect 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 Jr and senior in this school,” I say. “And that’s the law. The Number Baby Left Behind act, signed soon after nine/eleven, insists that your school hand over your information to the Dept of Defense if it wants to get federal funds.”

Soon enough, it becomes clear that these students have very tiny context for their encounters with the U. S. military and its promises of an uplifting future. They know following to nothing, for instance, about our recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan, or our permanent state of war in the Greater Center E and increasingly in Africa. When I ask why so many of them signed up for the JROTC program, they speak about “leadership” opportunities and “structure” for their lives. They're focused, as I was, on having college paid for or “seeing the world.” Some declare they're in JROTC because they didn’t wish to get gym class. One offers this honest assessment: “I don’t know, I just am. I refuge’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 speak about it too much. I arrive from a very pro-military family and they prefer not to think of what we're 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.”

“Did other factors weigh on your decision to speak openly about your military experience, or was it just fear of your family’s response?” an astute student asks.

And I reply as honestly as I can: “Even though, as distant as I know, I did something number one in the Rangers had yet done in the post-9/11 era -- the psychological and physical vetting process for admission to the Ranger Regiment makes the likelihood of a Ranger questioning the mission and leaving the unit early unlikely -- I was intimidated. I shouldn’t have been, but my chain of command had me leaving the military looking over my shoulder. They made it seem as if they could drag me off to jail or send me back into the military to be a bullet stopper in the huge Army at any time if I ever talked about my service in the Rangers. I did after all, love all Rangers, have a secret security clearance.” Heads shake. “The military and paranoia go hand in hand. So I kept quiet,” I tell the kids. “I also started reading books love Anand Gopal’s Number Excellent Men Among the Living, a reporter’s brilliant legend of our invasion of Afghanistan as told from the perspective of real Afghans. And I began meeting veterans who'd experiences similar to mine and were speaking out. This helped boost my confidence.”

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

“I’ve never played,” I respond. “Does it comprise kids who yell 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 noiseless 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 love this before.”

What I perceive 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 youthful anything that might create them think twice about the glories of military life.

I leave that school with an incredible sense of calm, something I refuge’t felt since my time began in Afghanistan. I tell myself I wish to speak to classrooms at minimum once a week. I realize that it took me 10 years, even while writing a book on the subject, to construct up the bravery to speak openly about my years in the military. If only I'd begun engaging these kids earlier instead of punishing myself for the experience George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their cohorts keep 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 presently is full disclosure going forward. If a teenager is going to sign up to murder and die for a cause or even the promise of a better life, then the minimum he or she should know is the good, the bad, and the unpleasant about the job. I'd number 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: number moralism, number regrets, number 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'll 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 number 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 instructor friends that I’m available to speak in their schools. I’m prepared for my schedule to fill up within weeks, but a mo passes and number one calls. The phone just doesn’t ring. I grow increasingly frustrated. Fortunately, a companion tells me about a grant sponsored by the Chicago Teachers Union and designed to expose kids to genuine world educational experiences they may not hear about in school. I apply, promising to speak to twelve of the forty-six schools in Chicago with JROTC programs during the two thousand fifteen/two thousand sixteen school year. The grant comes through in Sept and better yet it promises that each learner I speak to will also obtain a free duplicate 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've nine long months to organize meetings with only twelve schools. I determine that I’ll even toss in some additional schools as a bonus. I create a Facebook page so that teachers and principals can memorise about my speak and book me directly. Notices of both my website and that page are placed in instructor newsletters and I highlight the Chicago Teachers Union endorsement in them. I’m thinking: smack dunk! I even advertise on message boards, spend money on targeted ads on Facebook, and again reach out to all my instructor friends.

It'south presently April, seven months into the school year, and only two teachers have taken me up on the proposal 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'll definitely ask him to arrive 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 MI on freezing winter mornings or gloomy nights. Teachers out there in the public schools are anxious, too. It’s shadowy days for them. They're below attack and active fighting back against school privatization, closures, and political assaults on their pensions. The favorite JROTC program is a cash cow for their schools and they're discouraged from further rocking a boat already in choppy waters.

You’ll bring too much “tension” to our school, one instructor tells me with regret. “Most of my kids necessity the military if they map 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 create waves or extracurricular trouble when teachers are already below ferocious attack from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his unelected school board?

I realize and yet, in a world without a draft, JROTC’s school-to-military pipeline is a lifeline for WA’s permanent war across the Greater Center E and parts of Africa. Its unending conflicts are only possible because kids love 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. Number money for books, teacher’s salaries and pensions, healthy lunches, etc...

And yet, in two thousand-fifteenth, 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 two thousand-fifteenth, we also learned that the Pentagon continues to pour what, it's estimated, will in the finish be $1.4 trillion into a fleet of fighter planes that may never work as advertised. Imagine the school system we'd 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 love Chicago. It’s tough to fight endless trillion-dollar wars if kids aren’t enlisting.

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

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

Rory Fanning, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of The Military and Across America and co-author of the forthcoming book Long Shot: The Struggles and Triumphs of an NBA Freedom Fighter. You can reach out to him on Twitter at @rtfanning

Chase TomDispatch on Twitter and connect us on Facebook. Check out the newest Send Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U. S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt'south latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

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