The ethos of the nation—its character, guiding beliefs, and moral sentiments—is deeply invested in the persona of the soldier. This is especially true of the United States today. The soldier signifies patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and faith in the nation’s sacred mission.
Public rituals in support of the troops are abundant. They permeate popular culture and political discourse. The uniformed soldier is routinely featured at sporting events large and small. Military induction ceremonies are performed at half time. The president’s annual state-of-the-union speech spotlights military heroes. We are reconstituted as a people in the image of the warrior on such occasions. We become one people in mind and spirit.
The soldier within our composite identity is a figure of credibility and authority. The reflections of warriors legitimize us when they conform to conventional wisdom and unsettle us when they don’t. The dissonance created by the informed and measured criticism of a veteran of an ongoing war is not easily resolved. It calls us to account in terms of some of our most basic assumptions about why we fight.
Rory Fanning is a graduate of Notre Dame University and a veteran of America’s seemingly endless and limitless war on terrorism. He fought with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment of the U.S. Army in two deployments to Afghanistan. His experience transformed him from a military to a social warrior.
On January 13 of this year, TomDispatch.com published an open letter from Fanning to young Army Ranger recruits, which offers them “a perspective [maybe] you haven’t considered” about this war that “has been going on for a remarkably long time.” Fanning challenges the image of his country fighting terrorism in the defense of freedom and democracy. The Global War on Terror, now fourteen years old, has produced nothing more than blowback, he maintains. It is a bureaucrat’s war fueled by racism that dehumanizes, poverty “unlike anything you have ever seen,” the search for an enemy that “presents no existential threat to American security” and that is, “at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country,” and the killing of more civilians than militants. He learned that his contribution to this remarkably long war had made the world more dangerous rather than more democratic or free.
Fanning’s reflection as a veteran of this long-drawn-out war channels the esteemed advice of the ancient Chinese warrior Sun Tzu who warned in The Art of War (trans. Lionel Giles, New York: Barnes and Noble, pp. 8-9) against fighting a protracted war: “the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain . . . . There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” Prolonged campaigns serve only to demoralize and impoverish a people, said Sun Tzu.