“Commie Cadet” Spenser Rapone On Why He Left the U.S. Military and Became a Socialist

In an interview, Rapone explains how he went from a proud teenage Army private to an anti-war activist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Ryan Smith

The "commie cadet" in action. (Spenser Rapone)

The so-called Commie Cadet” was anything but a communist at the start of his military career.

Soon after getting to West Point, I saw that this was a structural problem across the military and that the military itself, its material relation to power, serves the capitalist class.

Spenser Rapone was like a character who stepped out of a Bruce Springsteen song. He was an idealistic teenager from the rural Rust Belt town of New Castle, Pennsylvania (literally the Fireworks Capital of America”), who embraced patriotic jingoism and enlisted in the army straight out of high school.

But after being deployed to Afghanistan and seeing the violence his unit was helping to inflict, Rapone grew increasingly disillusioned with the military. He studied political theory, radicalized, and eventually turned to socialism. Inspired by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously took a knee to protest police violence, Rapone wore a Che Guevara T-shirt to his West Point graduation in May 2016 and turned his cap over to reveal the hand-scrawled message, Communism will win.”

Photos from the graduation posted on social media earned the vitriol of many his fellow soldiers and a vocal cadre of right-wing politicians and media — even death threats. Sen. Marco Rubio caught wind of Rapone’s protest and demanded that the Army boot him from the service. In June, Rapone resigned and now he’s out with an other-than-honorable discharge.

In an interview with In These Times, Rapone tells his story of his journey from GI Joe to an anti-war activist — and why Rubio got him wrong.

Why go into the army in the first place?

At a young age, you’re inundated with propaganda and patriotism, and I thought I could make a difference joining the Army. But then I got deployed to Afghanistan, and my experience overseas showed me that if anything, I was making a difference for those with power and wealth. In fact, I didn’t really find what we were being told in America to be reflective of what was really going on in Afghanistan. In the simplest of terms, I felt like we were the big bully and the purveyor of violence. I was just using all of this expensive equipment in one of the poorest places on earth to serve the interests of a capitalist class.

Can you describe what you were seeing in in Afghanistan with your own eyes?

In my own unit, I saw no commitment to learning about the Afghan people or trying to understand them or their culture. It was more about taking pleasure in going out every night and killing people with impunity. Even on nights when we didn’t have kinetic engagements, we would just roll up to villages and ransack them; we’d separate women and children, put bags over people’s heads, lock them up in flex cuffs.

We’d call them detainees, which is just a euphemism for prisoner, and we’d do this kind of thing every night, even sometimes without proper intelligence. Most of the guys I was with — even and especially the leadership — relished in the fact that we could kill human beings. So, for me, I was trying to resolve this contradiction because no one over here was threatening freedom or democracy or anything like that. We were just going in their homes and threatening their villages and were creating nothing but chaos and destruction.

After a mission, we’d have a debrief and, if something particularly violent would happen, officers would say something like, That was kickass!” They said if we didn’t like it, we were in the wrong place. Even the army chaplain would give us these kinds of speeches. I remember one time it a chaplain said we were about bringing wrath upon these people,” and I was like, Wow, these people have some kind of crusader fantasy.” It was pretty unsettling.

I started to think, If I were a guy in Afghanistan, how would I feel about this?” I think it’s no secret that many people in America would take great umbrage if someone was walking through their homes. For me, I couldn’t shake the fact that what we were doing was wrong and morally reprehensible.

But you felt like you couldn’t do anything about what you were experiencing.

At the time, I was a 19-year-old private, so I feel like I couldn’t voice anything without being told, Shut the fuck up and execute your task.” But I guess I was slowly radicalizing. I wasn’t quite a socialist yet, but I knew I was against the war. I still had this liberal idea that I could affect change from the inside, so I applied and got accepted to West Point and thought, I won’t fail my men, like leadership failed me.

Soon after getting to West Point, I saw that this was a structural problem across the military and that the military itself, its material relation to power, serves the capitalist class. At West Point, I realized I might be a socialist. So, I started reading theory. I was a history major, and I studied Middle Eastern history specifically. When you study the role of the United States and the British and the French pre-dating them, you start to understand what imperialism really is. You start to see why these wars are endless. They’re designed to be profitable. They’re not designed to achieve any sort of objective.

But I was kind of stuck at that point because after your second year, you have to do what’s called affirmation.” If I dropped at that point, I would either be kicked back into the enlisted ranks or be forced to find a way to pay for West Point. I graduated and went to officer training, but once Trump got elected, I thought this was a particular political moment when I was like, Ok, now more than ever, it would be inauthentic of me to continue.”

So I started to think of what I could do and then 10 months after Trump was elected, Colin Kaepernick lost his job essentially. He lost his career for speaking truth to power. I figured if he could put his skin in the game on a national stage, then I could do my small part and it kind of took off from there.

Can you describe the backlash you experienced after that?

The day after I posted the pictures, my chain of command approached me, read me my rights, and told me I could talk right now or wait for an attorney, so of course I waited for an attorney. I was in the field at the time helping at a fire range and so they took me out of the field, met with my attorney and was told I was under investigation. I got flagged and essentially told that if I posted anything else, I would be in more trouble.

Outside of my chain of command, people were threatening and silencing me and I had tons of alt-right and neo-fascists sending me death threats. From there, I spent a long time in limbo because I was under investigation — they were waiting for me to make another screw-up in their minds. But I didn’t say too much after that.

They compiled all the things I’ve said, the subversive things I’ve said about Trump and various elected officials like General Mattis, and essentially gave me a number of options. I’d have to do a show cause board, which is essentially me convincing them why I should stay in the military.

From there, I would either be retained or kicked out. But I had no desire to serve any longer — I disagree with what the United States military is doing — so I submitted a resignation in February with the condition that, as long as I don’t receive anything lower than a general discharge, I would go.

But they kicked it back and said I would go before a board of inquiry, which is an adversarial trial where I present my case and they present theirs. Or, I could submit an unconditional resignation and they can give me whatever discharge they want. At that point, again, I wanted nothing to do with the military because I find their rule morally reprehensible and ethically unsound, so I submitted my resignation. Two weeks later, they issued me my discharge papers and I left. Throughout this whole process, the military has certain ways of coercing you, so there was always a threat of more punishment.

In the middle of all of this, these right-wing sites were saying stuff about me and I was under investigation, so I couldn’t say anything because they’d use that as ammunition. I had a statement I was working on for several months and was waiting for the right time to say it without having to worry about punishment.

It’s out there now and I think the narrative of this is starting to shift a little bit, which is good because people are starting to understand my experience. The more important thing is that a lot of other veterans and active duty personnel have had similar experiences to me and have come to similar conclusions, if not the same, and I hope that by speaking out. It will give them a platform so they don’t have to do this anymore — so they don’t have to be a cog in the imperialist machine anymore.

And Marco Rubio said you advocate violence against America?

In October, he said that I advocated violence and was a threat to national security and I should have my commission revoked, my degree revoked. He wrote this letter to the acting secretary of defense who was Ryan McCarthy. He said that we need to do something about this Rapone guy. I’d have to file a FOIA request to figure anything out, but I think he may have moved the needle a little bit. There’s no doubt that some of the generals and higher ranked retired officers and defense contractors had a voice in this. Rubio was a part of that cabal of capitalists and collaborators.

The term communism” itself seemed to engender a certain response from Rubio. It’s a typical right-wing canard with communism that it’s a totalitarian entity, but that’s not what it is. It seeks to create a stateless, classless, moneyless society. Although I’m not a pacifist, I never called for any explicit violence. I think it was just him seeing the word communist” made him draw his own conclusions from there.

Could you explain the type of discharge they gave you?

It’s the worst administrative discharge. Obviously this didn’t go to court martial. My attorney told me they wanted to get a pound of flesh from me, but I didn’t do anything illegal. It’s not illegal to be a communist in the military, but since I was in uniform, and in their mind, making a political statement and posted on social media, they lumped it all together as this nebulous unbecoming conduct” charge and said I was advocating for violence.

There has been a history of conscious objection by soldiers. Are there more restrictions against certain kinds of speech after 9/11?

Yeah. During the Vietnam era, there were various things happening for working-class soldiers and soldiers of color and it was all very vibrant.

I think there’s a couple things that happened since. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, there was an anti-war movement, but when Obama ran as anti-war candidate, his election took the wind out of the sails. I think it shows some people’s priority. I think some people are more anti-Trump than they are anti-war. But Trump is just a symptom of a larger disease. In the liberal mentality, if you get this particularly disgusting person out of office, then things will change. The last 15 years have shown otherwise. So there’s that aspect.

But in terms of restrictions, after the Vietnam era in 78, they put it into code that any kind of military unions or organizing is explicitly forbidden. Then there was the move to an all-volunteer force and that’s interesting because a substantial number of Vietnam resisters were volunteers. I don’t want people saying that because they are volunteers, there’s no room for resisting. Quite the contrary. In many ways, you’re even more disillusioned.

You go in with a certain vision in your head of what being in the military is and then you see the reality of it. So, there’s this combination of an all-volunteer army, the post-9/11 era further instituting our religion of civic patriotism, and then the anti-war movement getting co-opted by liberal movements not interested in structural change. When those three elements combine, that’s what makes it so difficult.

It strikes me how much, as a culture, we’ve praised troops since 9/11. You go to football games and they bring troops out on the field. But yet they’re still an abstraction and not not allowed to have individual opinions.

It’s interesting that you say that because, really, all the whole pregame stuff at games is a recent phenomenon. It wasn’t nearly to that level before the 9/11 era and that’s part of why I speak out. Of the people who go into the military, not many people go with a complete political formation of the world and, unfortunately, being in that world steers them a certain way. Then American society and political culture influences you because we are constantly slapped with patriotism and respecting the troops.” What does that even mean? Some of the people who respect the troops” are also the ones who most want to privatize the VA. They don’t care about veterans outside of serving their politics for a particular right-wing vision. I think that’s a crucial part of it and why I did what I did.

Trump and other right wingers also still trot out Pat Tillman as a symbol. But from what I understand about his life, he didn’t get to the point where you reached, but was still very questioning.

For sure, Pat was a big influence on me. The biggest thing about Pat Tillman was that he didn’t want to be put in a box. He didn’t want all these honorifics. He didn’t want to be paraded around or be used by the Bush administration to sell a war. He wanted to enlist and do his time. Similar to me, after he did his training and found himself overseas, he realized the harsh reality of what the American military was and formed his own opinions. I mean, he had a correspondence with Noam Chomsky.

He didn’t really partake in the social life when he was at the Ranger Battalion. While they were going out partying and drinking, he was a very intellectual man. The Bush administration saw this football player and this guy who looked like G.I. Joe, but he wanted none of that. Seeing and learning about Pat Tillman and how he was able to never be fully assimilated into military culture, it was really inspiring to me and kind of gave me an example to follow in terms of resisting this indoctrination and dehumanization that the military puts you through.

And you’ve heard from other veterans and service members? 

Yes, Rory Fanning I’ve had correspondence with for awhile. Another figure who’s had a big influence on me was Stan Goff. He was in the army for 26 years and was in special operations. He got out on the other side thought and became an anti-war activist and a socialist. I read a number of his books and he helped me understand my experience. No matter what you did in these imperialist conflicts, there’s a role you can play in ending them and try to help emancipate and liberate people. Then, there’s a number of people who I can’t name because they might face repression themselves, but a number of active-duty service members and enlisted soldiers who I’m trying to help work through things and counsel them and hopefully inspire them to take the measures to stop serving the American Empire.

What do you think your path is now?

I’m probably going to take some time to decompress and process all I’ve been through. Then, I want to get active. I’m a member of the DSA, so I want to get involved with socialist politics and affect some change. I’ll probably be doing some learning and listening to some activists who have been doing this longer than I have to find my place in this.

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Ryan Smith is a Chicago-based journalist. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Jacobin Magazine, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Belt Magazine and other publications.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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