I can’t stop reading Rory Fanning’s Worth Fighting For. Every time I pick it up to check something, I’m swept into this prose poem disguised as a veteran’s memoir.
moments, its first a sergeant’s 2002 shout of “Gimme 20, Tillman!” addressed to Pat Tillman, college football legend turned Army Ranger trainee. Tillman’s dignified, defiant response, refusing to be humiliated after following orders, sets the tone for the rest: be smart, be critical, be worth admiring.
Along the route Fanning has raised $45,000 for the Pat Tillman Foundation, mostly not talking about the fact that he was also a conscientious objector or that Tillman had considered doing the same before dying by friendly fire in 2004. Fanning walked to learn more about this country and its people, and many of the moments include those people, paired with his own memories and those of the nation.
The title of this post is an excerpt from the Ranger Creed, which Fanning provides in full mid-way through, adding that “I’m sure I both betrayed and honored every word of this code.” Those words, of course, remind me of so many other soldier-dissenters: I can still hear shards of Army/Navy/AF creeds in the voices of young vets who talked to me, most then saying that it was their command violating the requirement of honesty, integrity, selfless service.
This essay is thus less a review of Worth Fighting For (which you should absolutely buy) than a meditation on what he turned up, adding a few notes to his powerful music.
In each of the book’s moments,Fanning alternates telling his (and Tillman’s) story and offering glimpses of what he learned on the road, whether it’s the amazing people who welcomed him or the history evoked by each spot.
As he hits Raleigh, NC, he flashes back to his early days at Fort Lewis, having enlisted shortly after the September 11 attacks — and to his most high-stress/low-profile Ranger mission, jumping “into a desert that may or may not have been in Iran…The Iraq War broke out at the end of this tour.” Fanning then inserts a visit to nearby Monroe, NC, site of open war in the 1960s between black residents and the Ku Klux Klan.
In Chatsworth, GA he’s back to Ranger school, which he began after “nine months intimidating poor people in Afghanistan […] Men stood in front of their clay homes in some of the most impoverished villages on earth, forced to grin as Humvees, machine guns, and bombs rolled down their streets: Any signs of disapproval and they’d be subject to the [U.S.’] violent whims….” Such reflections built toward that moment when he told a Ranger School instructor: “I don’t believe in what I am doing anymore. I want out.” For this reader, that moment recalls Lt. Fred Marchant in Okinawa after seeing photos from My Lai, tearing through the base legal library until he saw the words “conscientious objection.” I don’t want to be part of this.
Fanning instead reaches toward a different time, when in-service CO discharge didn’t exist, as he reaches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Ambrose Bierce recovered after numerous battles and before writing his trauma-scarred stories. Fanning contemplates evidence that most Civil War recruits died with their muskets unfired: Had he been there,”I likely would have been part of the majority who died with loaded weapons in their hands.”
Reading the above, I found myself wanting to tell Fanning about Bierce, or about the real Civil War COs: Cyrus Pringle, who starved rather than accept any military designation at all, or Jesse Macy, who fought to stay in uniform as a noncombatant. But Fanning’s four-paragraph essay on that ‘majority’ likely offered better comfort. Compression is a tool used by poets to maximize impact, and it worked.
Near the Oklahoma border, Fanning talks to veterans about Tillman, recalls being deployed again to Afghanistan as a pariah after his CO decision, and reflects on the Ranger Creed before reflecting on the real story of Oklahoma as former “Indian Territory.” He traces their fate to the tribes who supported the losing side in the Civil War, and gives the result in numbers: the 1890 census “showed 237.000 Natives living north of the Rio Grande,” a 97% decrease from their estimated numbers before colonization. This time I wanted to introduce Col. Benjamin Grierson, who intervened so often on Indians’ behalf around 1890 that his command thought him “too Quaker” for the job.
In Texas, Fanning similarly gives a lot of ink to the San Patricio Battalion, who switched sides during the Mexican-American War — after a valentine to the town of Commerce, TX, which had declared a “Rory Fanning Day” in his honor, and before meeting an activist who herself had walked across America — but in 1986, in the anti-nuclear Great American Peace March.
In New Mexico, a state whose grandeur he already adores, Fanning also puts his descriptive talent to work at the White Sand Missile Range: “That night, under all the stars and in an exhausted trance, I listened to Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Lovesick Alien‘. Then the earth shook […] The major explosions went on for hours.” Camped just outside the testing, Fanning endures the sound of “blacked-out helicopters unloading heavy machine fire.” You almost don’t need his interstitial essay on “Trinity Site Nuclear Testing” after that.
By the time Fanning reaches that west coast, we’ve learned the whole story of Fanning’s journey and the crucial ways Tillman supported it. One finishes having learned, we feel, nearly as much as Rory, and grateful to him for taking us along.
In addition to my own obvious desire for a dialogue between Fanning’s book and mine, I read this with a mix of admiration and deep sadness, for the string of broken promises he notes. But that could have as much to do with this year’s entry into Iraq War III as anything else.
Most of all, I felt myself savoring his poem, and glad that we’ll likely be having this conversation for years to come.
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