The troops live under
The cannon’s thunder
From Sind to Cooch Behar
Moving from place to place
When they come face to face
With a different breed of fellow
Whose skins are black or yellow
They quick as winking chop him into
—“The Cannon Song” from “The Threepenny Opera”
The soldier’s tale is as old as war. It is told and then forgotten. There are always young men and women ardent for glory, seduced by the power to inflict violence and naive enough to die for the merchants of death. The soldier’s tale is the same, war after war, generation after generation. It is Spenser Rapone’s turn now. The second lieutenant was given an “other than honorable” discharge June 18 after an Army investigation determined that he “went online to promote a socialist revolution and disparage high-ranking officers” and thereby had engaged in “conduct unbecoming an officer.” Rapone laid bare the lie, although the lie often seems unassailable. We must honor those like him who have the moral courage to speak the truth about war, even if the tidal waves of patriotic propaganda that flood the culture overwhelm the voices of the just.
Rapone enlisted in the Army in 2010. He attended basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. He graduated from airborne school in February 2011 and became an Army Ranger. He watched as those around him swiftly fetishized their weapons.
“The rifle is the reification of what it means to be infantrymen,” he said when I reached him by phone in Watertown, N.Y. “You’re taught that the rifle is an extension of you. It is your life. You have to carry it at all times. The rifle made us warriors dedicated to destroying the enemy in close personal combat. At first, it was almost gleeful. We were a bunch of 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds. We had this instrument of death in our hands. We had power. We could do what 99 percent of our countrymen could not. The weapon changes you. You want to prove yourself. You want to be tested in combat. You want to deliver death. It draws you in, as much as life in the Army sucks. You start executing tactical maneuvers and battle drills. You get a certain high. It’s seductive. The military beats empathy out of you. It makes you callous.”
He was disturbed by what was happening around him and to him.
“When you get to RASP [the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program], you’re told you not only have to understand Ranger culture and history, you have to adopt what’s called an airborne Ranger in the sky,” he said. “They make you go online and look at Rangers who were killed in action. You have to learn about this person and print out a copy of their obituary. It’s really unsettling, the whole process. This was a class leader acting on behalf of the cadre, he said something to the effect of ‘I’ll give you a hint, don’t pick Pat Tillman.’ ”
Rapone began to read about Pat Tillman, the professional football player who joined the Rangers and was killed in 2004 in Afghanistan by friendly fire, a fact that senior military officials, including Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who at the time was the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, covered up and replaced with a fictitious Hollywood version of death in combat with the enemy. Rapone watched the 2010 documentary “The Tillman Story” and would later read the 2006 Truthdig essay “After Pat’s Birthday,” written by Pat’s brother Kevin, who was in the Rangers with Pat. Pat Tillman, who had been in contact with Noam Chomsky, had become a critic of the war. In addition to lying to the Tillman family about Pat’s death, the Army did not return, and probably destroyed, Pat’s papers and diary.
“Pat Tillman showed me I could resist the indoctrination,” he said. “I did not have to let the military dehumanize me and turn me into something monstrous. When I learned how his death was covered up to sell the war, it was shocking. The military wasn’t interested in preserving freedom or democracy. It was only interested in protecting the profits of those in power and expanding the U.S. hegemony. I was not a Hollywood freedom fighter. I was a cog in the imperialist machine. I preyed on the poorest, most exploited people on the planet.”
“We were told to ‘shoot, move, and communicate,’ ” he said of his Ranger training. “This became our entire existence. We did not need to understand why or the larger implications. These things did not concern us.”
By July 2011 he was in Khost province in Afghanistan. He was 19 years old. He was an assistant machine gunner on an Mk-48, an 18-pound weapon that is mounted on a tripod and has a fire rate of 500 to 625 rounds per minute. He carried the spare barrel, along with the ammunition, which he fed into the gun. When his fellow Rangers cleared dwellings at night he set up a blocking position. He watched as the Rangers separated terrified men, women and children, treating them “as if they were animals.” The Rangers spoke of the Afghans as subhumans, dismissing them as “hajjis” and “ragheads.”
“A lot of the guys would say, ‘I want to go out every night and kill people,’ ” he told me. “The Rangers are about hyper-masculinity, misogyny, racism, and a hatred of other cultures.”
His platoon sergeant had the hammer of Thor, a popular symbol among white supremacists, tattooed on his arm. The sergeant told new Rangers that if they saw something that upset them and wanted to speak out about it they were “in the wrong fucking place.”
Rapone left the Rangers to attend West Point in 2012. Maybe, as an officer, he could make a difference, infuse some humanity into his squads of killers. But he had his doubts.