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No More Aaron Bushnells

Aaron Bushnell was a victim of the U.S. military and a world where it’s normal for people to burn. He should inspire a massive movement for a world without despair.

Samuel Karlin

March 3, 2024
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Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

For a week straight I’ve had a picture of Aaron Bushnell ingrained in my head. It’s not a picture from his protest for Palestine where he self-immolated in a desperate cry to end a genocide. It’s his Air Force recruitment picture which has circulated online. The picture feels like a sick joke.

It’s a picture of a kid with a smile so full of life, wearing a t-shirt with the logo of an institution that exists to snuff out life on a grand scale. It’s sick that this happens, that so many kids join such a vicious institution. It’s sick that the military, which is currently aiding a genocide, preyed on this kid with a giant smile and filled him with so much despair and guilt that he felt his only option was to livestream himself burning to death, to remind people that’s what the U.S. military does and is currently doing to Palestinians by aiding Israel.

Aaron was a very different type of victim of U.S. imperialism than the tens of thousands of Palestinians massacred since October 7, and all the Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Koreans, and millions and millions more massacred by U.S. imperialism abroad. But I see him as another victim of this reactionary institution that kills and kills and kills and continues to get away with it.

I assume there are other Aaron Bushnells still in the military, people who are questioning its violence at this moment when the brutality of U.S. imperialism is being live-streamed to the entire world. I hope they find some of the many anti-war veterans who have been amplifying resources available for people to leave the military immediately. I hope they leave before they lose hope, or end up having their minds and bodies destroyed, or dead like the three troops killed in Jordan, or poisoned like 600,000 U.S. troops exposed to forever chemicals, or sexually assaulted like 53 women and 45 men in the military are on any given day. The U.S. military is an evil institution. I hope people leave it.

More than any of that, I hope kids stop joining the military in the first place. I hope we can build the type of class consciousness in the United States that keeps kids from joining the military, that makes it impossible for them to deny that it’s an institution only fit for committed reactionaries, only in existence to destroy workers and oppressed communities on behalf of capitalists. I hope we can use this moment of genocide in Palestine to keep other kids like Aaron from joining the military.

I hope the media pundits and writers slandering Aaron shut the fuck up. I know they won’t but I hope for it so much. Aaron could not have been more clear. His death was not about mental illness or because of how he grew up. It was because he wanted the genocide of Palestinians to end. He was desperate for that. So desperate, so convinced of the necessity of it, that he was willing to light himself on fire to try to get people to fight for the genocide to end.

I hope no one else lights themselves on fire. I hope we stop living under a system that makes people so desperate for change that they feel that they need to light themselves on fire. It’s an injustice that capitalism has created the conditions for that. Before Aaron, a woman in Atlanta lit herself on fire to try to stop the genocide. We don’t even know her name. As Aaron sought to remind us all, it’s become normal under capitalism for people to be lit on fire, though usually it’s not their choice but the war machine turning their skin to ash, twisting mouths that once smiled into screams of agony. 

I’m terrified that someone I know will be next to choose this. Almost everyone I know who’s been rallying for Palestine for the past five months is so full of despair, at a loss for what more they can do. I don’t want their flesh burning, not even out of commitment to ending genocide.

In the past week I’ve felt so many awful emotions. Not once have I felt despair. I still believe we can massify the movement for Palestine. There is so much power this movement hasn’t tapped into yet. There’s the power that can come if the different leaderships of the movement unite their efforts, organizing giant joint marches that bring new people into the streets. There’s the power that can come if the movement starts holding open assemblies, where we can all discuss together our shared experiences and learn from each other and strategize a way forward democratically. Already activists in Detroit are attempting this. I’m so excited to see what comes of it. There’s the unrivaled power of the working class which can take up the movement. Yes, we’ve seen workers organize their unions to make statements for a ceasefire, and even some examples of workers blocking shipments to Israel. That’s important. But we haven’t yet seen the working class use its full power to grind the economy and imperialism to a halt in solidarity with Palestine. I still believe we can see that.

I don’t believe there needs to be another Aaron Bushnell. Not for this movement or any other fight against oppression, injustice, and the rottenness of capitalism and terror of imperialism. I hope we can all let ourselves feel the rage and sadness that motivated his protest, but I hope we can channel it into collective struggle, the likes of which we really haven’t even seen emerge from this movement yet, but which isn’t off the table.

I hope Aaron’s protest inspires none of us fighting for a Free Palestine to subject our flesh to fire, but inspires all of us to double down on building a massive movement, bringing new people into the streets, and organizing our workplaces to shut it down for Palestine. I hope his protest inspires the type of movement that could have kept him from despair. The type of revolutionary movement that can actually succeed at freeing Palestine and do it as part of a larger fight to end the whole system of imperialism which creates the conditions where it’s normal for people to burn. 

I hope we see no more Aaron Bushnells. I hope he’s the last person to self-immolate, and that we all take our rage and grief at his death to create a world where kids can smile so full of life, absent any institutions for killing, no genocide, and no despair.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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