by Cameron Crowder
A black working-class family could have never afforded the college of my dreams. By my sophomore year, it was my family’s nightmare. My parents could not make ends meet because of Parent PLUS loans; who knew the government needed another predatory program? Before each class period, I transmogrified into the cement shoes that dragged my parents underwater on payments. I watched them drown.
I went home one weekend. Once I walked past my mama toward my room (my parents live in a one-story house), I eavesdropped on my mama’s conversation on the phone with my maternal grandma. Apparently, my parents considered bankruptcy only to learn it was of no use. It’s near impossible to discharge student loans through bankruptcy (Thanks, Joe Biden). I was guilt, I was grief, not merely stricken by such powerful emotions but embodying them. I was not correct in feeling— rather, being—this way but you couldn’t tell me otherwise. I did not have the grades for scholarships, I did not have enough money to finish my bachelor’s degree. With nowhere else to turn, I turned to the military.
I independently researched the North Carolina Air National Guard (NC ANG), a part of the U.S. Air Force. I found it would pay for a portion of college, easing our family’s burden. I was a teenager. I did not know about imperialism or anti-imperialism. I knew nothing accurate about capitalism or communism. I knew nothing about politics aside from “Republicans are bad, Democrats are good.” I was an Obamacrat who did not know what he did not know. All I did know was that I wanted to embody relief, for once. No, I did not want to be in the military—it was not ideal—but at the time, I did not know anything else. With hindsight, I know my material conditions affected how I viewed my options.
My “ideal” job was one with a low likelihood of deployment, low likelihood of combat. With my parents, I stumbled upon the occupation “Airfield Systems Technician.” It seemed like a simple enough job: work on radios and the communication panels used by air traffic controllers. Although it had no crossover with economics (or anything else I was studying in school), it was “uninvolved with conflict,” or so I thought. Now I understand that no job as an agent of imperialism does not play into the maintenance of U.S. hegemony. By that, no Air Force job is “uninvolved with conflict,” not even a dentist.
More than halfway through my enlistment contract, my consciousness about the military began to shift. A culmination of world events led to this moment, but I learned the history of U.S. military interventions around the world, past and present. I cycled from progressivism to social democracy and eventually socialism as I navigated these new and conflicting feelings. I don’t carry a rifle, I haven’t gone downrange, how complicit am I in these atrocities? All I do is work on some radios one weekend out of the month. What is my level of personal responsibility? I was guilt, I was grief, I wasn’t merely stricken by such powerful emotions but only this time, I was correct in my being. I was correct to embody these powerful, appropriate emotions. There is no pride in participating in a machine fueled by the corpses of colonized persons in the Global South, especially as a colonized person in the Global North.
No, my time in uniform did not mean I carried a weapon. No, I did not do any secret squirrel stuff. No, I was not directly involved in “the violence,” by which I mean kinetically inflicting physical harm on others, but that did not minimize my culpability as much as it soothed my ego. As a veteran, I understand that I once contributed to an institution I have come to know as the world police and world regulator of capitalism. This is the bipartisan “blessing” of our so-called two-party system. Yes, I did this because I could not afford to go to school but no working-class person in the Global South who has ever stared down the barrel of an American rifle would ever care—nor should they—that this working-class American was staring down the barrel of financial ruin.
American capitalism and imperialism are a part of the Orthrus: two-heads on the same vicious, snarling, infernal beast. The two-headed beast inhales broken people and exhales private profits for those whom it guards: the ruling class. My present understanding requires that we, the working-class, slay the accursed beast. But global capitalism and imperialism inflicts their terror in concert: they force many of us into economic precarity, and then force some of the most economically precarious amongst us to exploit other economically precarious people all the world over. Bizarrely, the Beast seeks out the lumpen-proletariat and the proletariat, all the folks who are most often swallowed up and regurgitated by said Beast. The “spared” class of persons is metamorphosed from prey-to-be-devoured into full-fledged white knights for the Beast. Your knowledge of your own metamorphosis is not requisite. Hence why slaying the Beast is such a Herculean undertaking. Be ye consumed or be ye converted but never be ye conquerors.
For those who are seeking higher education but are drowning in debt, the military weaponizes your desperation to meet its recruitment numbers. Debt is a form of social control, an economic force that pushes people into the uniform, especially within a capitalist society. Let me be abundantly clear: to the oppressed in the Global South, the economic forces that pushed the oppressed in the Global North into economic-based conscription does not matter in the least. When you are a member of the military, whether you carry a rifle or sit in a cubicle, you are an agent of the empire. That said, we must not ignore the complexities. Maybe you never needed to consider joining the military as a teenager: good for you. Not everyone is able to see past their present dilemmas for future solutions. If I could have afforded college the first go-round, I would not be a veteran.
For the rest of my adult life, I will be atoning for my sins; anti-imperialist organizing is a form of repentance. My “protestant work ethic” is made manifest in the liberation struggles for colonized persons here and abroad. From every platform I occupy, I will spread the good word of Marxism to those who are willing to hear the truth about capitalism. As much as I would love for everyone to extend forgiveness toward me, it is not realistic. I do not want well-to-do white ex-liberals who grew up in houses with kitchen islands to judge my past decision. They were never in my shoes nor were they ever in the shoes of any person, especially a colonized person, pushed toward the military based on their economic circumstances. This sentiment does not extend for colonized persons, especially those who were direct victims of American imperialism. For them, condemning me for my past participation is not an exercise in self-righteousness but rather righteous indignation.
You cannot easily decouple individuals, especially colonized individuals, from the forces that pushed them into economically incentivized conscription. A dialectical idealist in Marxist clothing will—in a bid to censure anti-imperialist veterans—sound like a libertarian in their condemnations. They will say things like, “there is always a choice” and “there are plenty of jobs in the marketplace.” When it comes to economically incentivized conscription, some so-called Marxists possess more faith in the free market’s ability to provide other forms of employment than Milton Friedman in his heyday. While dialectical materialists, a.k.a. Marxists, never excuse participating in an imperialist institution, they certainly understand the forces that drive people into its employ. I am not a perfect Marxist with a perfect past. No one is. This should make us even more incensed about the machinations of capitalism and imperialism. I cannot change my past no matter how I try, but I am working so that my positives outrun my negatives by the time I leave this mortal coil. That should be the cause of every veteran marching to the left.
Cameron Crowder is a member of the Piedmont Left Review Editorial Collective.