It’s been 20 years since the lies and obfuscation that led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. I’m about to turn 37 and it hit me: those events 20 years ago were how I began my political journey, though I didn’t know it at the time. As a progressive activist, one doesn’t easily lead with: “As a teenager, I joined the Marines”… but I did.
At the intersection of my life as a high school kid living just outside NYC during 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, and of my life as a Marine Corps Officer Candidate during the first years of the US war on Iraq, I unwittingly launched myself into becoming a quitter. It has taken some time, but I can finally describe myself with that word, quitter, with self-respect. I am not a veteran, nor even really a conscientious objector in the formal sense – maybe I’m a conscientious quitter. I did not sign on the dotted line for a commission and was never court-martialed or jailed for my defection. I didn’t have to run away and hide for safety. I never went to war. But I did get some insight into what soldiers experience and understand, and what they are forbidden to understand.
When I was 17, I applied for a Marine Corps university scholarship and didn’t get it. I lost to a guy who eventually became a dear friend during training. Like me, he was smart, driven, athletic, and had a desire to do everything in his power to make the world a better place. Unlike me, he was male, built like an all-American tank, already rocked a high and tight, and had a father who was a decorated Marine. Fair enough, I should’ve seen that coming. To all appearances, I was an amusing 110 lbs. of good intentions from a family of academics. I didn’t accept the initial rejection and showed up in Virginia anyway, started training, graduated ‘hell week’, and forced my way into a Marine Officer Candidate track at the University of Virginia’s ROTC program studying international relations and Arabic.
I thought I was embarking on a great humanitarian and feminist path where I would be helping to liberate Afghan and Iraqi people, especially women, from religious and authoritarian tyranny, as well as helping to prove at home that women could do anything men could do. The Marines were only about 2% female at the time, the lowest percent of female service members of all the US military branches, and it was just the very beginning of females being allowed into combat roles. Misguided? Definitely. Ill intentions? No. I had dreams of travel and adventure and maybe even of proving myself, like any young person.
Within the first year, I learned enough to start asking questions. UVA is not known for its radical program, quite the opposite. It’s basically a funnel into the DC/Northern Virginia establishment. I graduated with a degree in International Relations and never read Chomsky, Zinn, or Galeano – didn’t even know their names. Regardless, my teenage mind somehow perceived enough logic that didn’t hold, and equations that didn’t add up, to ask questions. These questions began to gnaw, and I wasn’t able to reconcile them by talking to ROTC peers or professors, which led me to finally question my unit’s commanding officer directly about the constitutionality of the US military campaigns in Iraq.
I was granted a private meeting in the Major’s office and given permission to speak my business. I began by stating that as officer candidates, we were taught that upon being commissioned, we would take an oath to obey and give orders through the chain of command and to uphold the US Constitution. This was a structural concept that we were expected, at least in theory, to understand and internalize. I then asked the Major how I could, as an officer upholding the Constitution, order others to kill and be killed for a war that was itself unconstitutional? That was the last time I was inside the ROTC building. They didn’t even ask me to come back to hand in my boots and gear.
A conversation begun in earnest, seeking answers to the unanswerable, swiftly resulted in my quiet and “mutually agreed removal” from the program. As soon as it had departed the sovereignty of my mouth, my question was converted into a declaration of "quitting". The unit’s brass likely assessed that it would be better to send me on my way immediately, than to try and keep me until I inevitably became a bigger problem later. I obviously wasn’t their first Marine with the wrong sort of questions. As Erik Edstrom says in, Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of Our Longest War, "I was taught to think about how to win my small part of the war, not whether we should be at war."
Leading up to my chat with the Major, I had been wrangling moral problems beyond constitutionality concerning the reality of war, a reality which had never dawned on me fully before training. Technical specifics were just the way in which I was finally able to grab something very tangible to address – in terms of legality. Though morality was at the heart of my crisis, I was sure that if I had asked to speak to our commander and told him that the Middle East campaigns seemed morally wrong, and even strategically wrong if the goal really was to foster democracy and liberty abroad, I would’ve been easily dismissed and told to go read some Roman general’s take on "if you want peace, prepare for war".
And to be honest, I was not yet fully confident that I was right about my misgivings. I had a lot of respect for my peers in the program, who all seemed to still believe they were on a path of service to humankind. The legal loophole of constitutionality, while not insignificant, was just something I could lock in logic-wise and stick to my guns on. It was my way out, both in a technical sense and in what I was able to tell myself. Looking back now, I must remind myself that I was 18, facing up to a USMC Major who more than fit the part, speaking out against the accepted reality of all my friends and community, against the mainstream consensus of my country, and against my own sense of purpose and identity.
In truth, I did realize that I had been under a ridiculous delusion that if I learned language and culture, I could just sweep into a foreign country like some film version of a human intelligence officer and find the few "bad guys" who must be holding their people hostage to a fundamentalist ideology, convince the people we were on their side (the side of "freedom"), and that they’d join with us, their new American friends, in ejecting their oppressors. I didn’t think it would be easy, but with enough courage, dedication, and skill perhaps I was one of "The Few, The Proud", who must rise to the challenge, because I could. It felt like duty.
I was not an idiot. I was a teenager with a consciousness of being born into relative privilege and a desire to make the world a better place, to put service above self. I wrote book reports about FDR and the creation of the UN as a kid and was in love with the idea of a world community with many cultures living in peace. I wanted to pursue that ideal through action.
Neither was I a conformist. I don’t come from a military family. Joining the Marines was a rebellion; for my own independence from childhood and against being "pretty strong for a girl", for the need to prove myself, and to define myself. It was a rebellion against the foggy yet infuriating hypocrisies I had felt amongst my liberal, upper-middle-class surroundings. Since before I can remember, a sense of pervasive injustice infused my world and I wanted to confront it head on. And I liked a bit of danger.
Finally, like so many Americans, I was a victim of sadistic marketing that pushed me to believe that becoming a Marine was the best and most honorable way to strike out into the world as a force for good. Our militaristic culture led me to want to serve, without being allowed to question who I was serving or to what end. Our government asked me for ultimate sacrifice and blind allegiance and gave no truth in return. I was so intent on helping people that it never occurred to me that soldiers are used to hurt people on behalf of governments. Like most teens, I thought I was wise, but in many ways I was still a child. Typical, really.
In those early months of training, I had become deeply conflicted. Questioning not only felt against the social grain, but against my own grain. The anticlimactic quietness with which one day I woke up an Officer Candidate and then suddenly went to bed not – a nothing – was all the more jarring. It might have been easier had there been a fight, some explosion or struggle to justify the inner turmoil of identity-collapse and loss of community. I was ashamed of being a “quitter”. I had never quit anything in my life. I had been a straight-A student, an Olympic-level athlete, graduated high school a semester early, and had already lived and traveled on my own. Suffice it to say, I was a fierce, proud teenager, if maybe a bit too hard-headed. Feeling like a quitter and a coward to the people I respected most was shattering. To no longer have a purpose that inspired awe and respect felt like disappearing.
In a deeper, sadder way, I still knew quitting was right. Afterwards, I regularly whispered a secret mantra to myself, “you didn’t quit the cause, the cause quit you”. It’d be a lie to say I was confident or even clear about this framing. I only spoke it aloud once to each of my parents when explaining why I left the Marines, and to no one else for a very long time.
I have never publicly discussed my experience with the military before, though I have begun sharing it in conversations where I think it’s helpful. Talking with veteran and conscientious objector activists and with Russian refuseniks, and now here in print, I’ve offered my story in an effort to help affirm that sometimes refusing to fight is the bravest and most effective action one can take for peace and justice. It is not the path of a selfish coward, as society often judges. Just as there is respect and honor in acts of service, there is respect and honor in the act of rejecting unjust war.
I once had a very different idea of what it meant in practice to serve the cause of justice, of feminism, and even of internationalism and peace. It reminds me not to become judgmental or disconnected from people who hold different worldviews, because I know firsthand that even when we think we’re acting to make the world a better place, if our understanding of how the world works is highly obscured, we will take vastly different actions in pursuit of similar values. There is so much the American public has the right to unlearn, and it is a new kind of duty and service to help this happen.
20 years and many more hardheaded lessons later, I understand that this period in my life helped set me on a path to continue to question how the world works, not to fear going against the grain, to pursue truth and reject injustice even and especially when it’s painted as normal or inevitable, and to look for better ways. To trust my gut, not the TV.
Alexandria Shaner is a sailor, writer, organizer, and educator. She is a staff member of ZNetwork.org and active with Extinction Rebellion, the Women’s Rights & Empowerment Network, and RealUtopia.org.