Anti-War Veterans Groups Echo Aaron Bushnell’s Demand for a Ceasefire in Gaza

When 25-year-old U.S. Air Force service member Aaron Bushnell took his life in front of the Israeli Embassy in D.C. this February, the phone lines at the anti-war organization Veterans for Peace started lighting up. Current and recently retired members of the military were calling to say they were disturbed by Bushnell’s act of self-immolation. Many of them had been privately nursing their own angst and misgivings about U.S. support for the war in Gaza. 

“We have been receiving many calls from concerned active duty and recently discharged veterans talking about their personal disgust with our foreign policy in light of recent events, and also talking about how these are effecting them psychologically,” said Mike Ferner, the director of Veterans for Peace.

Members of Veterans for Peace, like other anti-war veterans groups, have mobilized around the Israeli war in Gaza, organizing protests across the country and calling for an immediate ceasefire. Following Bushnell’s death by self-immolation, veterans at a protest in Oregon burned their uniforms in tribute to the deceased airman and to register their opposition to the war. Anger over the civilian carnage from the war, coming on the heels of two decades of disastrous U.S. military involvement in the region, has galvanized some veterans who experienced these conflicts up close.

“It’s fair to say that people’s psychological trauma is being activated again by what they are seeing in the news,” Ferner said, “especially people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and have been through the meat grinder once already with the U.S. military.”

The U.S. has indeed been intimately involved in Israel’s war in Gaza, which has killed at least 30,000 Palestinians since last October, providing its Middle East ally with extensive military aid and diplomatic cover, despite widespread public opposition. For years, Israel has received billions of dollars in military aid from the United States annually. The Biden administration has maintained that support and also asked Congress to approve another $14 billion in the wake of the war, while bypassing Congress to approve emergency weapons sales to Israel.

The U.S. has also provided intelligence support for Israel during the offensive, much of it focused on efforts to deter Iranian-backed militants across the region. As The Intercept previously reported, the U.S. had begun quietly expanding a military base it operates in Israel’s Negev desert, just 20 miles from Gaza, in the months prior to the war. That base, known as “Site 512,” is believed to help Israel track missile strikes, including from Iranian-backed groups in the region.

Despite the desire of most Americans to stay out of the Middle East, blowback from the Israeli war in Gaza is directly dragging U.S. troops back in — with military casualties as the consequence. Earlier this year, Iraqi militias attacked a base in Jordan that was being used to help deter Iranian-backed groups seeking to build up their forces near Israel’s borders, killing three service members.

Many military veterans who have sacrificed their physical and mental health over two decades of disastrous U.S. wars in the Middle East have been enraged by the continued waste of U.S. lives, resources, and moral credibility in the region. Following Bushnell’s death, Dennis Fritz, who served as an U.S. Air Force officer for 28 years, traveled to D.C. to attend a vigil at the site of Bushnell’s self-immolation. Fritz, who worked for years with wounded veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following his resignation from active duty, said that he felt an obligation to pay tribute to Bushnell’s sacrifice.

“As a former senior enlisted leader in the air force, Aaron would have been my responsibility,” Fritz said. “As an officer I would have been the one who would have checked on him to make sure he was OK. So the news of his death struck me very hard.”

Since leaving the military Fritz has worked in anti-war activism as part of the Eisenhower Media Network, a group of former military officers critical of U.S. foreign policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, “Deadly Betrayal: The Truth About Why the United States Invaded Iraq.” Fritz said that he and other former U.S. military officers who had already been critical of U.S. policy in the region are angered by what they are seeing unfold in Gaza. They now believe that the U.S. government is assisting in the perpetration of war crimes in Gaza.

“They have the capacity to do precision bombing, but they are conducting indiscriminate bombing.”

“When we are in the military we are taught the Geneva Convention and the law of armed conflict. This teaches us not just that we must do everything we can to protect civilian life, but even the property of innocent people,” Fritz said. “The IDF” — Israel Defense Forces — “is definitely not doing that. They have the capacity to do precision bombing, but they are conducting indiscriminate bombing.”

Bushnell himself has become well-known for his sacrifice, both in the U.S. and abroad where his image has often appeared at protests denouncing U.S. complicity in the Gaza war. After attending Bushnell’s vigil, Fritz himself said that he holds the U.S. government responsible for Bushnell’s sacrifice, given its lockstep support for Israel in its assault on Gaza.

Fritz said, “Aaron died for the sins of our Congress and the Biden administration.”

The Intercept’s coverage of veterans’ health is made possible in part by a grant from the A-Mark Foundation.

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