Hosts of the “Eyes Left” podcast join the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast to talk about creating the conditions for more resistance within the United States military.
Spenser Rapone, known as the “Commie Cadet,” spoke out for NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and expressed his support for left-wing politics. He unconditionally resigned from the military a little more than a year ago.
Michael Prysner enlisted in the military following the 9/11 attacks and later became an antiwar activist after leaving the military. He is also a producer of the “Empire Files.”
Together, they share their thoughts on antiwar organizing under President Donald Trump and whether the terrain has shifted considerably since President Barack Obama was in office. They share their back stories, address the never-ending war in Afghanistan, discuss U.S. support for a right-wing coup in Venezuela, and more.
Listen to the interview by clicking the above player or go here.
Below is a partial transcript of the episode.
GOSZTOLA: People who listen to the show probably don’t know either of your back stories or where you come from. So why don’t we start with Spenser – could you introduce yourself?
RAPONE: I’m Spenser Rapone. I recently resigned my commission from the United States Army back in June one year ago after voicing my support for Colin Kaepernick and his protest against white supremacy as well as espousing my own communist political line. I had been in the Army for two years as an enlisted man. I deployed to Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. I didn’t like what I saw, but at the time, I thought maybe I could change things from the inside, as the old adage says.
Upon going to West Point, staying there four years and graduating, I viewed President Obama, Bush, Clinton, and everyone before them as imperialists in the same way, pretty much on the macro. When Trump was elected, for me, that meant a heightening of political contradictions. So I tried to find a way to resist and speak out that would actually matter. Given the national anthem protests were becoming a bigger and bigger deal in this country and the president himself started to speak about them, I thought maybe I could do my small part. Because Colin Kaepernick was blacklisted from the league because of his actions so I tried to do my small part.
After speaking out—and pretty much one year ago now, I was under investigation for several months. I tried to resign initially in February of this year with the condition that I receive nothing less than a general other-than-honorable conditions discharge. They denied that, and eventually they gave me the option of facing a board of inquiry, which would have been essentially a show trial, or to submit my unconditional resignation. Considering I didn’t give a shit anymore about being considered honorable or not by an imperialist Army, I submitted my unconditional resignation, and I’ve been out now for about three months.
KHALEK: Well, welcome to the other side.
RAPONE: Thank you. Great to be on the other side.
KHALEK: You wore like a sign that said, “Communism will win.”
RAPONE: Oh yeah.
KHALEK: You were in your uniform. [laughter]
RAPONE: That’s it. Graduation day, baby. [laughter]
KHALEK: That’s kind of awesome. What did your friends think of it? Was anyone supportive or were they hostile? Or was it mixed?
RAPONE: No one was really hostile by any means. There’s actually a lot more sympathetic soldiers and military personnel than you might think. You know for some people it’s tough because you can suffer greatly when you speak out against the military. There’s an abundance of right-wingers that have said dumb shit as part of the military, but they hardly ever get punished at all. Maybe a slap on the wrist. But if you espouse any type of leftist politics, you’ll get crushed pretty easily. So it’s tough for a lot of people. But, I mean, I had a number of military personnel—both active duty and those that got out a long time ago—who sent me solidarity messages. Some of my own classmates are grappling with it themselves. Some are pursuing CO [commanding officer] status, and some are finding other ways to resist.
There are a wide variety of perspectives on it, but point is, it’s a little bit more encouraging than one might think, which is a little bit good.
GOSZTOLA: So, Mike, tell us a little bit about yourself.
PRYSNER: I joined the Army three months before the September 11th attacks. When I joined, everyone going to the military at that time had a different conception of what it would mean to be in the military. Then it very quickly changed. I was in when that happened, and then, really quickly things developed into the Iraq War, [inaudible] the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and then I was there for 12 months.
I was like Spenser too. I was one of those people, who really believed in the military, believed in U.S. policy, that it was like this force for good in the world, that the Army freed the oppressed and helped those in need, and all that great stuff. And especially defended our country from foreign threats. So that’s what I had in my head going into the Iraq War, and then within a couple of months, all of that kind of fell apart based on the reality I saw there of the occupation.
Really quickly I started to hate the military and hate what we were doing. Unlike Spenser, I did not speak out while I was still in. So I waited — I was planning on having a career in the military, and then after the Iraq War, I was just like I got to get out. So I was fortunate to be able to get out. Everyone was getting stop-lossed at that time, but I was able to find a way out and not get stop-lossed. And as soon as I got out, I joined the antiwar movement.
This was at a time when hundreds of veterans were joining the movement, especially Iraq War veterans. You know, demonstrations back then—People forget. We think a demonstration’s big when there’s over 10,000 people. Antiwar marches then were over 100,000 people on a really regular basis, like every couple of months or something like that. So I was part of this generation of service members that came out of the military into this mass movement.
That’s where I spent most of my time organizing. I was a staff member of the ANSWER Coalition, and I spent all of the Iraq War years organizing the antiwar demonstrations but also, in particular, organizing other veterans and active duty service members—both to join the movement against the wars in the form of protest and civil disobedience and things like that but also reaching out to people in the military and helping people refuse orders to Iraq and Afghanistan and things like that.
One of the things we did, we had this campaign called “Our Lives, Our Rights.” We went to military bases around the country that had a deployment coming up. We’d leaflet on the base, telling them there’s ways to get out of the deployment. Things like that.
That was the focus of my antiwar work for a long time. Now, we’re in a different phase of the wars. Iraq War is essentially over, although U.S. soldiers are still there. The Afghanistan War has really wound down to where there’s still U.S. soldiers there but it’s definitely not the scale that it was in the past. So yeah me and Spenser started this “Eyes Left” podcast, which our way that we’re doing antiwar organizing in the current conditions that we’re in.
The point of the show is to have something that is going to reach people in the military that explains the process we went through but helping them through that process. When I was in the military, I was 18 when I was facing going to Iraq. I wasn’t sure if I believed Bush and things like that and so if I had something like this at that time I probably could’ve been convinced not to go. So that’s the goal with that—to not just give our own analysis and commentary on things but to try and reach people who are in that questioning phase, like Spenser and I were in our early years in the military, and help them come over to the right side.
KHALEK: Our military campaigns require less combat troops on the ground, these days at least. Because a lot of it is drone warfare or these special operation forces that are small elite units that go into countries we don’t even know we’re at war with. Also, they use proxy forces in Syria with a limited amount of U.S. troops.
Serving in the military now, does not necessarily mean you’re going to be deployed? Does that make it more difficult to get soldiers to understand the way the U.S. military is used as a force for oppression around the world?
RAPONE: I think that’s a critical point. Even those that do deploy a lot of times they may not necessarily be involved in combat operations. That might also give them a false view of the violence being inflicted on the local population. Now, of course, even the presence of an occupier is inherently violent, but for a teenager who is enlisting without a conception of the larger implication of the war, it might be difficult for them to realize that at first.
For me, personally, I was in one of those small elite special operations units. I was in the First Ranger Battalion, when I enlisted and when I deployed. You’re absolutely correct that those are the units that really face the brunt of the conflict and carry a lot of the most heinous violence. Now the problem is, a lot of times to get to those units you have to be a certain level of committed to what the Army is trying to do and internalize those values.
Although from the special operations world, you do get some people who speak out—myself, Rory Fanning, who was a former Ranger as well, and there’s been several others. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what goes on there because it’s almost like with the Army at large it’s almost like it speaks its own language. And then, that’s intensified to a new level within this special operations world.
I think any semblance of a mass movement it’s going to come from the military at large. You really can’t rely on hoping to radicalize special operations forces, even though like I said that exists. I think part of why I was maligned and part why Rory faced a lot of repression it’s almost like you’re viewed as breaking some kind of code when you do speak out in those units. You are taught to view the rest of the Army and military with contempt. Those are the regular troops. They’re beneath you.
KHALEK: The normies.
RAPONE: Right, exactly. The normies. You go to the big Army as it’s called and you’ll be a bullet stopper.
For me, it was always bizarre how even within the confines of the organization itself it almost is like this cannibalistic mentality you have to take toward your fellow soldiers. But being on the other side and when I started to radicalize, I realized within that paradigm that there’s a major opportunity for effecting some degree of political change.
KHALEK: Since we do have you on and you were deployed to Afghanistan, although it was some time ago, we’re entering the 17th year of the war in Afghanistan, which is crazy. Because in one more year, we might have 18 year-olds deployed to Afghanistan, who weren’t even born when we invaded which is insane to think about.
The reasons for being at war with Afghanistan have shifted so much. Was there like a main reason? What was the sort of justification that you were fed about why we were at war in Afghanistan?
RAPONE: I gotta tell you, Rania, I’m still trying to figure that out. But what they told us, of course, like they tell many soldiers. We’re going there to kill terrorists and protect freedom; you know, some nebulous conception. We’re going after the people who were associated with maybe some of the actors who might have had a role in 9/11. Of course, it’s complete fabrication and nonsense.
When I was there, I did ask some of my leaders who exactly we were fighting with. For my area of operations, I was in the Khost province, which is in the eastern part of the country bordering Pakistan. We were going after what’s called the Haqqani network, which was some terrorist organization. They were viewed among my leadership as an imminent threat to the security of the United States. Not once when I was there did I see anyone that was a threat to the United States or anyone else for that matter. The only imminent threat to anybody was us and what we were doing.
And so, there isn’t really any justification. I was talking to someone the other day about this. My freshman year at West Point. I was in this “Intro to Psychology” course. My teacher was a special forces officer. At that time, I was questioning my deployment, U.S. foreign policy in general. I was wondering if maybe this guy would have the answer. So I asked him, what are we exactly doing in Afghanistan? What’s the strategic goal here? What’s the justification that we’re being told?
He told me he had this closed roundtable discussion with the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Dempsey had some talk, I think, it was at Harvard or some Ivy League university. Someone asked that question, like a higher ranking officer. And Dempsey said to be honest we really do not know. We really do not have any idea what the strategy is. So when the highest general in the land doesn’t have a clue, when it’s clear that no one has a clue currently—I mean, the only reason we’re there is for U.S. hegemony and profits, of course.
I think we’re rapidly approaching a stage, because we’ve been there so long, that they don’t even need to pretend to justify it anymore. Which is scary in and of itself. But yeah, there’s never been an adequate justification. I don’t see there ever being any one soon. Because we’ve been there, I don’t think they’ll ever articulate it. Unless something major happens soon, it’s going to continue to persist and that’s why Mike and I are trying to do our small part in changing that.
KHALEK: With Afghanistan, I just don’t see how it serves U.S. empire. It does not really make sense. With Afghanistan, it’s just an issue of the U.S. not wanting to admit defeat. There is no victory narrative so we can’t leave until we have a victory narrative. I don’t know if that’s maybe wrong. I don’t know if Mike would agree.
PRYSNER: That’s definitely true. The same thing happened in Vietnam. They acknowledged it behind closed doors—all the general in the Pentagon, all the politicians. They knew that they were going to have to retreat from Vietnam. They knew that they were defeated, and they knew they were going to have to retreat and leave the country. But they took years after that to actually leave. It was like this slow motion retreat. They slowly retreated over the course of years so it didn’t look like we lost so we’re going to suddenly leave the country. It was a gradual thing, where they had to maintain the appearance they were leaving on their own terms.
A big part of it is the U.S. wants to maintain military bases there because geostrategically it’s an important region. It’s close to India and all these other rising powers. U.S. really wants a base of operations there like they want everywhere. But a lot of it is the arrogance and hubris of politicians that don’t want to accept defeat on their watch. They’re not in these positions for very long so they can kick the can down the road. Whoever the top commander is, he’s going to retire anyways. So it doesn’t have to be on his watch that they admit defeat. He can just wait for the next guy. And the politicians do the same thing. So a lot of it is just them just being terrible people.