In 2001 I was a senior at the University of Oregon. I had been slowly radicalizing in my personal approach to politics over the last few years as I gravitated towards a major in Political Science. I had become very interested in US foreign policy, Marxism, Anarchism, and to a certain extent, radical Green politics. I was most inspired by Ghandi, Eugene Debbs, Thoreau, MLK, and Malcom X, and I wanted to find a way to apply what I found so inspiring in their words and thoughts. I studied under Michael Sonnleitner at PCC who had most reinforced my interest in Ghandi and Green politics, as well as some then active associates of the Earth Liberation Front in Portland such as Craig Rosebraugh. I was radically non-violent, a vegetarian, and generally anti-authoritarian. I did some canvassing and took part in some direct action while in Eugene, but was not particularly inspired by the WTO protests nor the tree sitting which were the bulk of what was going on at the time.
9/11 happened in my senior year. I think this was a particularly important issue for me because I saw 9/11 as a kind of vindication of my views about the wrongheadedness of imperial US foreign policy and probably general concerns about globalized capitalism. I think I felt at that time, and really still do, that globalized capitalism tends to create a kind of false consciousness on the part of its adherents and those who benefit from it and who are, or at least were, largely insulated from the real consequences of the system. We seem to believe in a sort of ephemeral notion of infinite progress, and endless growth, the unlimited perfection of mankind as we become ever more powerful through knowledge and technology, as we extend our life expectancies, and as we become more and more happy through our increasing civilization. At the core there is this essential notion of ever more, and ever better, with little concern or lasting awareness of the people and places that must give up that which we will tomorrow consume. In short, this cultural mindset seems unsustainable because it is predicated on all sorts of endless oppression and appropriation of what are ultimately finite resources often rightfully owned by hungry others.
I saw in 9/11 what I would today call a positive check. I saw 9/11 as, in the words of Malcolm X, chickens coming home to roost, and as a terrible, but increasingly inevitable consequence of a kind of callous imperial overreach I saw in US foreign policy. 9/11 seemed to be a chance to really learn a certain kind of lesson about the unsustainability of oppressive and exploitative policies. But, what I saw in the preparations for an invasion of Iraq was not an internalization of this vital message but rather a kind of doubling down on the catastrophic approaches of the past. This was all the more upsetting because I and so many hundreds of thousands of other people were taking to the streets to say these things, to try to resist the run up to war, and it seemed to be all for naught. It really seemed hopeless because if not now, if not under these conditions, what possible hope could there be for any kind of turn into a more intelligent, wise, and sustainable path of US foreign policy? It was around this time that I really started to consider this idea that the empire had already won, that the overwhelming power of global capital, of status quo culture, of an easy life of endless consumption was simply so entrenched, had so much momentum, and was so perfectly matched with the weakness of the modern human spirit, that there was really no hope for any kind of substantive change. In a kind of Camusian absurdist way there really is nothing to be done but hopelessly throw oneself against the rolling stone despite the certain knowledge that the entire weight and consequence of your one and only life will not even be registered as the stone rolls inevitably down, down, down.
I decided then that what I really wanted to do was to have a voice that could participate in the kinds of debates that were curiously absent from popular media in the run up to the Iraq war, and though I had gained this kind of fatalistic view of the chances to have any real impact, I retained the idea that it was important nonetheless to advocate for the right, to quote Thoreau, “come what may,” and that in some sense the highest thing that a person can do is to embrace one’s Sisyphean condition and push against the stone’s inevitable progress nonetheless. There was then two sides two my decision to join the US military in 2003. On the one hand I wanted to develop a voice that might be taken more seriously and I saw the ‘credentialing’ of military service and graduate education as the way toward credibility. But there was also a certain aspect that I tend to see as kind of symbolically self destructive, in that the self I had long been constructing was abandoned in the turn and somewhere in Portland, on those grey spring days of 2003 I quit my bands, my job, packed my things, and left everything I knew in hopes of somehow getting involved.
And I did get involved. I joined the Air Force, was stationed in Phoenix, AZ, and immediately started graduate school at Arizona State studying political theory and international relations. In 2007 I volunteered to deploy and spent four months in Iraq supporting airstrikes as part of the so-called “surge” against the then rampant insurgency. I spent countless hours hunkered in small concrete bunkers during rocket attacks, reading feminist and post-structural theories of international relations while we waited for the all clear. I had a lot of time, in Iraq and stateside, to reflect on what it meant for me to serve in a military that was engaged in a foreign policy that I believed to be deeply, deeply wrong. I think I found consolation in the hope that I was becoming someone who would be able to make a difference some day in the future. I returned home and went back to school full time as a PhD candidate while serving in the USAF one weekend a month. As a PhD candidate I began teaching my own undergraduate classes on the War on Terrorism where I was able to encourage hundreds of undergraduates each year to think critically about the US approach to the War on Terrorism and particularly, the invasion of Iraq. I started to think that maybe teaching undergraduates is the best path to creating a positive change in the world, and that maybe I could contribute to many more young people taking an active role and resisting the worst tendencies of the darkest sides of an increasingly globalized world. I finished a dissertation on the laws of war in the War on Terrorism and completed my PhD in 2014. I flew directly from my dissertation defense in Phoenix to Salt Lake City where I prepared to deploy again.
By 2014 the enemies in Iraq had shifted to a new kind of militants spilling across the border from Syria and bringing with them approaches to warfare that made the perpetrators of 9/11 seem almost principled in comparison. I had also assumed a leadership role within my community in the Air Force. The result is that I was again engaged in supporting air strikes in Iraq but this time I was leading the teams controlling the strikes, I was delivering the orders to drop bombs and kill people, and I was earnestly striving to do it all as efficiently and effectively as possible. Again I had a lot of time to reflect on how I joined the USAF in response to my opposition to one war, and here I was, ten years later, functioning as an integral part of the machinery of a continued war effort in that country. What had changed in the ensuing ten years as that my understanding of politics and military service became much more complex. Much of what we were doing in late 2014 was arguably humanitarian work as we tried to stop pretty horrific slaughter then ongoing in Iraq and Syria, and some of what I got to do was air drops of humanitarian aid to besieged minorities and Iraqi military forces. At the same time this all takes place in the larger context of geopolitics where we are in some sense responsible for some of what is taking place and from which we now struggle to rescue victims. So, what is the right thing to do?
So I guess the question is, I started on this journey for a reason, to accomplish something, and I think that now, in 2015, with a PhD and a commission in the USAF I have probably accomplished it. So what do I do with it? How do I prevent the means from becoming the end? What difference would I make, and how do I make it?