The 9/11 attacks will always remain a foggy memory for me. I was 9 years old and in the first couple weeks of fourth grade when the towers came down. The adults’ fear permeated every part of life in the days and weeks afterward. My parents sheltered my sister and I in the basement after school and rumors echoed throughout our suburban Chicago neighborhood that the Sears Tower was being targeted next. Of course, that didn’t happen.
The towers coming down didn’t affect me much beyond that. But the aftermath–the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hardening of the United States’ military empire, and much more–continue to haunt my life and those around me. Even though I was too young to understand what was happening, I knew that something about the world was permanently changed. I am still discovering how.
In those early years of the War on Terror, the United States’s approach to the rest of the world went through a phase shift. The 90’s were a time of confused triumphalism–capitalism had defeated communism, or so the media talking heads said. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc signalled the end of the Cold War and with it the US state’s apparatus for managing conflicts and class struggle abroad.
Post-World War II (and particularly post-Vietnam) US foreign policy focused on heavily tipping scales in dirty wars around the world. Coups were staged by the CIA in Iran, Chile, Indonesia, and Vietnam, among others. In the 90s, many such military conflicts were sidelined by a subtler economic imperialism typified by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization.
After the 9/11 attacks, the US war state pivoted to a condition of permanent war that had been prepared for years by the war’s architects: Dick Cheney, John Bolton, etc. The bogeyman changed from Red Scare rhetoric of “the Russians” to “terrorists.” The war’s drumbeats echoed through my elementary and middle schools as the Bush administration marched toward Iraq. I remember watching the news in social studies classes and seeing scenes from besieged Baghdad. My classmates–particularly the few people of color in my lily-white town–began to refuse standing for the Pledge of Allegiance and carry out other small acts of resistance. The sickening cultural patriotism oozed from my parents’ favorite radio stations. I can’t even remember how many times I heard “Proud to Be an American” and “Have You Forgotten” in those days.
I started high school right around the time of the “Troop Surge” into Iraq. I grew more aware of the propaganda as the military’s recruitment efforts ramped up. My working-class town became a hotspot for the recruiters; for months at a time, the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps recruiters set up shop outside our cafeteria. They would challenge the teenagers walking past them to pull-up contests and detail how the military provided them a path in life. Navy SEALs would occasionally take over gym classes and have the students perform the SEAL morning workout (which was pretty funny for my class, which was mostly queer and nerdy band kids).
In that underfunded public high school full of children from low- to middle-income working class families (and a below average rate of students moving to 4-year universities), the recruiters found fertile ground. Many of my classmates signed up with the military–including one of my best friends, who was three years older than me. I didn’t hear from him for close to five years, when his enlistment ended.
I was lucky enough to earn good grades and test scores, and I went off to a 4-year public university on a half scholarship to study engineering. The war machine’s tendrils in the university system were clear from day one. My professors were all working on weapons research; the Reserve Officer Training Corps trained every day on public grounds; the engineering textbooks all had some form of weapon on their covers.
What hurt me most was seeing so many of my friends unable to afford college and enlist in
the ROTC to pay tuition. I quickly learned just how heavily the so-called “volunteer army” preys on poor people–they get people right out of high school when they’re struggling to take next steps, and they get people in college when they have to turn to the military to cover their tuition.
My parents and family were extremely pro-war. My father almost exclusively watched the violent war movies being made as propaganda to support the Iraq War. I remember him once crying at the end of a war movie that featured an attack helicopter flying through a town full of Afghanis, gunning down hundreds in an attempt to rescue a soldier. He said he cried because of the “heroism” of the soldier and the helicopter pilots.
One of my cousins married a hardcore Marine around 2011. My family adored him; he was a young Latino man who had served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also extremely abusive. I never found out exactly what he did to my cousin, but one summer around 2014 she showed up in my family’s town needing a place to live with nothing but a suitcase full of clothes. Nobody ever talked about her now ex-husband again.
Around this time two other major events happened in my life.
First, I reconnected with my old high school friend who enlisted in the army and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. We met for beers in a little bar in Franklin Park, Illinois, near where we grew up. The young, goofy, happy-go-lucky kid I knew and looked up to was replaced by a distant, hardened, and hurt young man. He recounted the beauty of Afghanistan and the horror of the Iraqi oil fields and his view that the whole Iraq War was being fought on behalf of America’s oil industry. We talked for a few hours. I never saw him again in person. Shortly after, he disappeared from social media and changed his phone number.
The second event was more tragic. My friend’s brother, a working class kid fighting a rich man’s war, was killed in action in Afghanistan. His family was well-liked in my town, and my friend was a popular goofball when we were classmates in high school. That was when the war really hit home for me. It was no longer something abstract, this place where people went, fell out of contact, and came back. It was a place where people I knew died young–for literally no comprehensible reason.
My anti-war views grew and sharpened throughout this period in my life. While I was graduating from college with an engineering degree, I told my family I would never work in weapons or defense. I got a lot of flak for that–especially when I started voicing anti-nuclear weapons views.
That period was formative for everyone in my age group. One of my close friends married an Air Force ROTC graduate in 2014 at age 22. They moved around a lot and, like so many military couples, got divorced just a couple years later. I recently asked her why, curious to find out more about the military life. She wouldn’t tell me, which I think is an answer itself.
The only job I could get after college was with arch-weapons manufacturer Boeing, albeit in the commercial aviation section. My time working there cemented all my views about war and helped develop my environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and support for union struggle. I was submerged in pro-war and pro-company propaganda from management. The executives would massmail the entire workforce to brag about winning nuclear weapons upgrade contracts; most of my managers had worked on weapons; management cut multi-billion-dollar deals with the genocidal Saudi regime.
I eventually left the Boeing job because I couldn’t handle the jingoism anymore. I couldn’t sell my labor to a company that profits from nuclear war and climate change. Most workers can’t make the choices I made–they have few to no options available. Major bases for every branch of the armed forces sit within 50 miles of Seattle, making the military one of the largest employers in the Puget Sound region: Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Tacoma, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Bangor Trident Base (home of over one third of the US nuclear weapons arsenal), Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Naval Station Everett. We are reminded of our military empire yearly during Seafair and Fleet Week with Blue Angels flyovers and warships plying Elliott Bay.
I learned much more about working class struggle within and outside of the military when I joined the IWW and organized with working-class veterans and former anti-war organizers. And that’s why I stuck with the IWW. The Wobblies are one of very few organizations around the world that have concrete strategies to not only end war, but also to end the social and economic conditions that war is based on. It all starts with building the One Big Union on the shop floor.