- Interview by
- Rory Fanning
Spenser Rapone was accepted to West Point in 2012, graduated in 2016 — and received an “other than honorable discharge” in June. His expulsion came after a viral tweet showing him — clad in uniform, fist raised — displaying a hat reading, “COMMUNISM WILL WIN.”
“I was always told growing up that the US military protects the innocent, that we fight for freedom, truth, and justice,” Rapone tells Rory Fanning in the following interview. “It didn’t take me long to realize that my experiences did not reflect that in the slightest.”
Fanning — himself a former Army Ranger — spoke with Rapone at the Socialism 2018 conference in Chicago earlier this year. They discussed Rapone’s time in the military, the myths of American empire, and how to rebuild the antiwar movement. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you start off by telling us about your background and why you decided to join the military?
I’m from New Castle, Pennsylvania, which is a classic Rust Belt city. I’m one of six children from, at the time, a single-income family. I did well in high school, and I might have been able to go to a state school, but I really couldn’t afford it. And I was a young male in American society, so I watched a lot of Hollywood movies, a lot of TV shows. That conditions you to think a certain way about the world, about what’s morally right and ethical. So I decided to enlist as an infantryman out of high school.
Soon after enlisting and finishing basic training, military airborne school, and ranger selection, I was deployed to Afghanistan, to Khost Province — right on the Pakistan border. I was told I was in this elite unit with elite soldiers. But the men I was surrounded by took active pleasure in killing other human beings and dehumanizing people because they have different cultures or a different religion. I was always told growing up that the US military protects the innocent, that we fight for freedom, truth, and justice. It didn’t take me long to realize that my experiences did not reflect that in the slightest.
I was deployed for most of the summer of 2011. I got back and began trying to process what I witnessed. At that time, I had some idea of what US imperialism constituted from my own experiences, but I didn’t have a political education, which is crucial to understanding these things. So I thought, like the adage goes, maybe I could “change things from the inside.” I applied to West Point, and got accepted.
From there I began to realize the issue was a structural phenomenon — that one good person can’t effect change when the system is inherently wrong. I soon found myself trying to resolve the contradiction of my future officership. I wouldn’t just be a soldier — I’d have to influence soldiers who were my subordinates. I’d have to tell them the mission we were doing was right when I had firsthand experience as a teenager in Afghanistan that what we were doing was not right. We were just persecuting and terrorizing some of the most exploited people on Earth with one of the most technologically advanced militaries in history.
You served under both Obama and Trump. Can you talk about some of the differences among active-duty soldiers under each president?
When I enlisted during the Obama era, one of the prevailing themes was “the commander in chief doesn’t understand what we’re doing.” The casual racism you see in American society is intensified in the military because of the hyper-masculine environment, especially in combat arms.
At the end of the day, the material effects of US foreign policy are largely the same [between administrations], but when Trump was elected, there was a noticeable shift. Before, soldiers would feel hesitant about saying blatantly racist or sexist things. Trump’s election emboldened them to act out in a way that wasn’t typical before.
While Trump himself may be more of a parody-fascist than a fascist, it was as if that election was releasing the forces of a new kind of fascism. Within the military ranks, that was prevalent. A lot of guys were getting excited at the prospect that we might go into North Korea or possibly Iran.
We have to talk about the picture that caused this whole situation for you. For those who haven’t seen it, Spenser is at his West Point graduation. He’s holding up a sign under his hat, and it says, “Communism will win.” But you sat on the photo for a while. You posted it with a hashtag, #VeteransforKaepernick. Can you describe why you decided to say that?
I sat on those photos — the first one of “Communism will win” inscribed in my hat, the second one of me wearing a Che Guevara shirt underneath [my uniform] — from the time I graduated in May 2016 to September 2017.
This was for a couple reasons. First, to get through West Point despite my political beliefs — I was almost kicked out my senior year for espousing a communist political line. Second, I knew if I was authentic in my worldview, I wouldn’t be able to continue serving my full commitment. I’d have to find a way out somehow. Getting out of the military is daunting, especially as an officer.
So I took those pictures both as my own individual act of rebellion, but also so that if there was ever an opening, I could use them for some larger, political purpose.
The opening I saw was the one-year anniversary of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality. A year prior, you had taken a picture at a Cubs game holding up a sign saying, “Vets for Kaepernick,” and I kept that idea in my back pocket. The debate on Kaepernick started up again, with Trump denouncing him and other football players expressing solidarity.
I decided that was an opening to express how I feel. I didn’t expect it to go viral like it did, but I thought maybe I could influence other soldiers. Or at the very least, I’d be able to remove myself from the army and find a way to talk about my experiences in some type of antiwar movement.
Plus, Colin Kaepernick risked his career to support a cause. He could have been comfortable for the rest of his life. But he put some skin in the game, and he suffered for it. I figured this was the least I could do if I was serious about my own beliefs.
Can you talk about the repercussions afterwards, not only from the military, but the right-wing media, your family, etc.? Thoughts like yours go through a lot of soldiers’ heads, but it’s the repercussions that keep them from acting on them.
The next morning, one of the field-grade officers said to me, “So, I hear you’re a fan of Colin Kaepernick,” and I thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” Then my chain of command pulled me aside and told me I was under investigation. They read me my rights and told me I had the right to an attorney. Then they essentially confined me to a range tower, which is a tall structure where you can oversee all the different operations happening on the rifle range.
They made me stay in there for what they told me was for my own safety. Immediately, I had friends and family members reaching out to me. The right-wing hysteria was quickly whipped up: publications like the Daily Caller and Infowars ran stories. Alex Jones challenged me to a boxing match. That didn’t faze me too much, but my family was worried, and began to get “alt-right” trolls trying to dox me and find their information.
My attorney told me that the military would win in this situation because of the way the uniform code of military justice is structured. You’re essentially guilty until proven innocent. Although it’s not illegal to be a communist in the military, there are other ways to formulate their arguments to repress you.
Eventually I was pulled out of the field and went through the different legal channels. Within that time period, Marco Rubio wrote a letter to the acting secretary of the army, Ryan McCarthy. He said I should have my commission revoked, my degree pulled — unclear how that latter demand would work — and called for a larger investigation of other troops. This launched a separate investigation back at West Point: hundreds of cadets who were even remotely associated with me were interviewed, and they were asked about their politics.
While waiting for the verdict, I was told I couldn’t say anything publicly. I had to bite my tongue and wait until I was officially reprimanded, which happened in December 2017. I was told this would initiate a show-cause board, which is where you show why you should be retained, or you show why you should leave on their terms.
I tried to submit a conditional resignation, saying I wanted to leave, and asked for a general discharge. But they said “no,” and that I could either go to a board of inquiry, which is basically an adversarial trial — one side presents their case, I present mine — or I could leave unconditionally. I didn’t want to grovel before the empire, and knew it’d be a show trial at best, so I submitted my resignation. That was accepted, and I got issued an “other than honorable” discharge.
I want to shift gears. We’re in Chicago. This is home to the largest concentration of JROTC students in any school district in the country. Ten thousand students are enrolled in the program; 55 percent are black, 40 percent are Latinx. But when you talk to these kids who are signed up, they can tell you very little about the last seventeen years of the war, much less the history of US imperialism around the world. You signed up and went to West Point, in part, for an education. What would you tell these kids who are looking for an education, looking for a way out of poverty, about the military?
First, when you’re talking to a teenager about this subject, there’s no effective argument that says, “You’re too smart for this, you could do better, etc.” That’s usually condescending. But you can explain what their material relation to violence and power will be as a soldier and the harsh reality of what that means.
Whether you’re in combat arms or not, there’s a tangible chance that you’ll be killed. But as bad as that is, there’s something very different about taking a human life yourself, let alone if you don’t understand what cause it’s serving. So, you explain that, and ask questions about how if you’re an infantryman, and you’re forced to kill another human being, whose interest is that serving and why were you so prepared to take that human life in the first place?
And even if you’re not in combat, you’re supplying the bullets, you’re supplying the food, to aid in the war effort. Whether you’re on the front lines or not, you’re still complicit in the killing of other human beings and the pursuit of US foreign policy.
If you’re able to articulate what that will do to you as a human being, and how you’ll be forced to live with that — and that’s not scare-mongering, it’s speaking to what they will actually have to execute as a soldier in the US military — that can at least plant the seed for them to grapple with these questions. Even if they decide to join, at least they’ll be armed with some degree of critical thinking. When they’re faced with those situations, they might find the courage to resist, or find a way out.
During the Vietnam War era, we had hundreds of union meetings happening within the rank and file of the military on a daily basis. We had hundreds of incidents where soldiers were fragging and killing their officers. We saw people hijack helicopters within the ranks to drop propaganda flyers over military bases. But we also had a large student movement that was providing a support network, with coffeehouses and structures to welcome soldiers who were resisting back into civilian life and treating them with the respect they deserve for resisting. We also had the Viet Cong resisting.
The Viet Cong and the Afghan resistance — that people in these countries are resisting — is the only similarity I can see between the Vietnam era and the current global “war on terror.” For example, it’s illegal to have union meetings in the military now.
It’s a big question, but how do you see soldiers organizing now? You’re proof that resistance is still possible within an all-volunteer military, but how do we create more of that?
The war resisters from Vietnam were not all draftees; a substantial portion were volunteers. The narrative that a conscription army is the only thing that will produce war resisters is flawed and ahistorical.
Yes, there were attempts to create military labor unions. It’s now in US military code that that’s illegal. In fact, in the documents about my investigation, one of the charges against me was about advocating for military labor unions.
But you asked how we get more people to resist. Part of it is how we term “antiwar,” and what that means. Initially, after the invasion of Iraq, there was a substantial antiwar movement, but five years later, with the election of Barack Obama, a lot of that dissipated.
When it comes to antiwar resistance there’s an insistence on making it anti-Trump, or at the time, anti-Bush, rather than antiwar. So, one key is articulating “antiwar” in terms of the structural phenomena we witness: how war is profitable, how it’s designed to be endless. There’s no tangible objective other than to make it endless, to continue lining the pockets of Raytheon, Boeing, and so on.
As to how to reach soldiers, you need to meet them where they are. No one likes being in the military, in the moment. But what happens is that because in the US our civic religion is patriotism, folks who at one time had nothing but hate for it — they couldn’t stand being in the field, waking up for [physical training] — when they get out, they’re placed on a pedestal as a veteran. If we reach them and can tell them that none of these people who sing your praises now really care about you outside of serving their own political interests, that’s critical. A glaring example of that is that many of the politicians who claim to be staunch patriots and support the troops want to privatize the VA.
Aside from that, reaching active-duty soldiers? No one likes to deploy; no one likes to be separated from their friends and family to go inflict violence on human beings. Even some of the true believers who claim they enjoy it or relish it — deep down, they know what they’re doing.
But it’s very daunting: how in the world are you supposed to say, “No, I’m not deploying.” That’s on us to create the structures — to have places for dissident soldiers and military personnel. To tell them that there’s more to your skills as a soldier than firing a weapon. There are many different social movements and organizations you could join, where you could actually aid people, and actually fight for freedom, for liberation, for emancipation.
Playing the denouncement game toward those soldiers isn’t politically viable, nor does it make much sense. That said, we also need to do some de-programming with soldiers — I myself had to go through it — and it’s going to take a lot of patience. But we need to find a way to bring them in, create spaces for them to name their experiences, and then use their knowledge and abilities at organizing and working on a team to support emancipatory movements and socialist politics.