“I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I’m about to engage in an extreme act of protest. But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonisers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal. Free Palestine.”

These were the last words of US Air Force Airman Aaron Bushnell before he set down his phone, stood in front of the gates of the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, and self-immolated on 25 February.

A large proportion of the corporate press subsequently engaged in a concerted effort to downplay the political content of the soldier’s act.

Bushnell was protesting US involvement in the ongoing genocide in Palestine. Fighting back immense pain, he chanted “Free Palestine!” until the end—an act that stands in stark contrast to the moral bankruptcy of the institutions of the US and world capitalism aiding and abetting Israel’s genocide of the Palestinians. 

Bushnell’s words that he would “no longer be complicit” highlight one of the often overlooked aspects of the military: it’s never the rich and powerful behind the guns. They create an armed body of working-class men and women to fight and die for them instead. 

We are constantly fed the idea that joining the military is honourable or that enlistment entails great fun and travel. For most enlistees, though, the military is sold as a way to get out of poverty. 

From the moment you step out of the recruitment office and onto the bus, you’re reminded of how much the nation has spent on you, how you have signed the contract and if you void that contract, you’re liable to pay it all back. If you leave, you lose subsidised housing, guaranteed pay, subsidised utilities and food. It is designed to make you financially reliant on staying in and never questioning your role. You are blackmailed, you are coerced, you are disciplined.

Aaron Bushnell reportedly spoke often about his disagreements with the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He complained about his work schedule and lack of sleep. He expressed to friends and family his objections to the military and his desire to leave after experiencing the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. But his chances of leaving after joining only a few months prior were near zero. 

Yet the history of any military is also a history of protest and dissent. The dehumanising experience of rank-and-file soldiers and sailors can create resistance. Like Bushnell, many who have been made to feel like just another number in the war machine have rebelled. 

Protests like the incredible 1916 Liverpool riots in Sydney, the 1918 Kiel mutiny in Germany that sparked a revolution ending World War One, and the GI revolts and massive anti-war protests in the Vietnam era are but some. Self-immolation carried out by monks was one of the most extreme forms of protest against the latter war. 

Aaron Bushnell represents all those in the military today who are opposed to US involvement in Israel’s war on Gaza. Twenty-four hours after his protest, veterans in New York burned their uniforms and active members protested in Washington, DC, in an act of solidarity with Bushnell and Palestinians.

Unsurprisingly, there was very little media coverage. 

The US’s unyielding military support for Israel led to Bushnell’s protest. As long as we continue to fight like hell for a free Palestine and against all imperialist wars, his death will not be in vain. 

Rest in power, Aaron Bushnell.

Ryan Chapman is a Royal Australian Navy veteran.