How a Defender of American Empire Became a Dissenter

How a Defender of American Empire Became a Dissenter

How a Defender of American Empire Became a Dissenter

A conversation with Lyle Jeremy Rubin about the complicated ideology of the marine corps, America’s obsession with war, and his new memoir Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body.  

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When Lyle Jeremy Rubin enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in the mid-2000s, he possessed an unwavering commitment to America’s democratizing mission. As a young man, he was attracted to the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party and believed in the War on Terror as a moral project. In his own words, he embraced “the inevitability of capitalism, the primacy of the United States and the naturalness of a special relationship between the U.S. and the Jewish state.” And his decision to join the Marines was inseparable from a strict code of manhood that military service would bolster.

Yet by the time he left the Marines in 2011, after having served in Afghanistan, Rubin’s thought underwent a radical ideological reversal. His experience in the Marines forced him to reckon with the violent realities of American military imperialism, his own masculine excesses, and the racial and class hierarchies of the US military machine. Rubin’s new memoir, Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body: A Marine’s Unbecoming, explains how he became a defender turned dissenter of the American empire.

The Nation spoke with Rubin about the cultural and political influences on his early thought, what role they played in his decision to join the Marines, and the key events during his time as a soldier that turned him into a critic of the military and caused him to reevaluate his political commitments.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Your memoir might be read as an explanation of the cultural, political, and intellectual influences that led you to become a marine, rather than a chronicle of your time as a marine. In this regard, you lay repeated stress on how what you describe as “late 20th-century Jewish intellectualism, neoconservatism and Zionism” proved to be formative influences on your thought. In what sense?

Lyle Jeremy Rubin: I’m describing my journey from a willing tool of empire to a self-conscious critic, and I’m interested in the interplay between my pathos and my politics. I grew up in a liberal Jewish family at the end of history. This meant I woke up every morning to my parents reading the Times, and their library being stacked with books by Thomas Friedman, Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel, Susan Sontag, Amos Oz, and so on. My folks weren’t all that political, but they raised me to think about what it might mean to heal the world, which required study and (at the least) voting Democrat.

As the list of writers suggests, there wasn’t a single liberal Jewish line, and a range of opinion existed between Dershowitz, Sontag, and Oz. But if there was any consensus, it was defined by what tended not to be questioned—namely, the inevitability of capitalism, the primacy of the United States, and the necessity of Israel.

With that came corollary presumptions about the obsolescence of the labor movement, the indispensability of American power as a force for good, and the naturalness of a special relationship between the US empire and the Jewish state that made it easy for a brat like me to gravitate toward the most extreme version of these presumptions—first as a budding neoconservative, and then as a marine. I thought (and felt) like I was rebelling against the old man while becoming my own man, but I was just performing a caricature of received wisdom.

DSJ: How important was 9/11 in all this?

LJR: I was two weeks into my freshman year of college when the towers fell, and the attacks offered me a ticket to manhood. I’d lived a charmed life, but one still touched by common fatherly aggressions or “boys will be boys” mischief. This mischief, which at times escalated into violence, threw me into a state of confusion and, in turn, into the arms of various politics of overcompensation.

For a much longer haul after 9/11, my thinking became defined by the so-called War on Terror. I say “so-called” because the branding now strikes me as embarrassing. What was driving me, though, was a need to no longer feel defenseless, which meant feeling strong in pathetic ways.

To borrow an old military saw, I felt an increasing need to always have my head on a swivel. The threats were everywhere. They included cultural decadence one day, an overbearing federal government the next. In time, the overriding threat became what people like me used to call “radical Islam” or “political Islam” or “Islamism.” Again, more deflecting salesmanship.

The fact is I was terrified of the world, and the last person equipped to heal it. But I projected my terror outward onto people I knew next to nothing about. And when that wasn’t enough, when hawkish talk wasn’t enough to make me feel safe, I took the next step in my psychodrama and joined up.

DSJ: Let’s talk about your time as a marine. Perhaps due to films like Full Metal Jacket, most onlookers think of basic training as a kind of vulgar attempt to break down enlistees in order to remake them into soldiers. But you are clear that there is a philosophical ideology that motivates a “marine’s becoming.” You refer, for instance, to the Corps’ Warfighting manual and state that you were struck by its philosophical influences—“a stealth crash course in modernity,” as you call it. Can you describe these influences?

LJR: The Warfighting manual, MCDP 1 (Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1)—we’d call it “Mick-Dip One”—makes for a wild ride. I’d love to study up on exactly who did the research and writing for it, because it’s bursting with philosophical abstractions.

Surely much of it is cribbed from Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. But it’s hard, for example, to read the section on war being a “process of continuous mutual adaptation” and the enemy being the opposite of an “inanimate object to be acted upon but an independent and animate force with its objects and plans” and not also hark back to Pragmatists like John Dewey. Or after reading the warning against reducing “warfare to ratios of forces, weapons, and equipment [while neglecting] the impact of the human will,” to not also think of the “McNamara fallacy,” the Ivy-educated faith of business executives and government officials—from Robert McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld—that success can be secured through the aggregation of quantifiable data.

It’s easy to see something like Nietzsche’s will to power haunting the text, too. “We thus conclude,” its authors declare, “that the conduct of war is fundamentally a dynamic process of human competition requiring both the knowledge of science and the creativity of art but driven ultimately by the power of the human will.”

But if you were to force me to find a doctrinal excerpt that captures the philosophical essence of military training, I’d point to a line in another pamphlet called Leading Marines. There we learn that “Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him, or for whom he is willing to die, is not a man at all. He is truly damned.”

DSJ: Gender, and specifically notions of “manhood,” is a defining feature of this book. What does it quintessentially mean to be a “man” in the Marines?

LJR: The phrase “pain is weakness leaving the body” has become not just a Marine Corps mantra, but a beloved ethos for gym rats the world over. Chesty Puller might have popularized it, but no one is certain of its origins. In any case, its logic is straightforward enough: Strength marks the end, pain the means.

To be a man in the Marines means becoming strong through the giving and receiving of pain. Those who subscribe to this creed are vast, and a sizable number aren’t males or self-identifying men. Some are kind, and they might even have a kind politics. There is something to be said for certain strengths and the certain pains that come with them.

The problem is when such pain-fueled strength becomes a problem—not just for individuals, but for nations. When it becomes the fuel for systems of needless violence and exploitation. The dark side of this masculine ideal is alive and well in the US military, and most militaries around the globe. It is alive and well in the great-power relations in which these militaries are embedded, especially their economic relations. Most of all, it is alive and well in our everyday lives, in ways that make us unwell and drive us toward death.

The point is that militarism and pain-fueled masculinity infuses most of American life. You can see it in policed neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces, as well as surveilled and disciplined workplaces. Dispossessed populations bear the brunt of these harms, and not just in war zones or border zones. But masculine excess or surplus harms more privileged arenas as well. This includes routine browbeating or abuse in middle- to upper-class households. It also includes the highest reaches of finance or the corporate sector, in addition to the upper echelons of most other professions, where millions are working themselves to death for the sake of an ever-elusive, economically secure life.

DSJ: You state the following: “Most Americans prove to be as simultaneously prudish and consumed with killing as they once were about sex.” What do you mean by this?

LJR: I was summarizing an argument from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing—it seems to me Americans are still just as prudish and consumed with sex as they are with killing. But Grossman’s story is instructive. He first made a name for himself writing about the conditioning that goes into training service members to kill, as well as the aftereffects of such training or killing. He had some insightful things to say about all that, but it’s crucial to note his next career move centered on exporting such conditioning to domestic police forces.

Much has been written about the repercussions of training cops like they are killer soldiers, and I won’t belabor those points. What’s relevant to your question, however, is the ambivalence lying at the heart of both our military and carceral institutions. On the one hand, there’s the mythology around the armed services about moral courage and discipline. There’s the couching of militarism for the soft-hearted in the language of humanitarian intervention: the “right to protect,” “rules of engagement,” or “winning hearts and minds.” We see something similar when it comes to the men and women in blue, those supposedly tasked with serving and protecting while exhibiting valor and integrity.

A disproportionate number of those in uniform not only pride themselves on being upright citizens but also God-fearing Christians, social conservatives, or family-values Republicans. When I was in the Corps, you could still get kicked out for adultery. When I arrived in Afghanistan, a first sergeant told the rest of us with a straight face that porn was banned in the country. It wasn’t until 2011 that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was reversed, and Trump’s transgender ban enjoyed mass support within the ranks. Meanwhile, cops continue to police sex workers like the vice squads of yore.

The structural function of US-led militarism and policing has little to do with the preservation of peace and the reduction of harm. To a decisive degree, the opposite is the case. One doesn’t need to read Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living, Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing, or Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ’Til We Free Us to know this (though it would be great if more people read all three). All it takes is watching cops police the poor in Baltimore and protect the rich in Towson, or meeting a single vet willing to open up about the realities of their service. Never mind being the policed, being the warred-against.

It is not that most Americans don’t know, or even that they’re hypocrites. It’s that they know, and it is this very knowledge that makes them so prudish and sentimental. They know the purpose of the thin blue line isn’t to ensure a peaceful order. Rather, it is to maintain a specific, capitalist disorder defined by the utmost violence—the violence that comes from pitiless levels of inequality, poverty, unemployment, and the incarceration of those unfortunate enough to have been born wrong (or to have stumbled wrong) on the wrong side of the tracks. To the extent the public acknowledges the all-encompassing violence (and sexual violence) that makes up so much of American life, they do so as consumers. Their revealed preference for certain music, movies, and TV shows tells the truths they cannot. We are consumed by the truths we cannot tell.

DSJ: “Critics of America’s wars,” you observe, “mock the fact that most of the wars’ architects haven’t experienced combat or even enlisted.” You go on to say that what you find actually more appalling is how ordinary war is for these architects. What do you have in mind here, specifically when saying that such architects have fought “their way into once exclusive, waspy corridors”?

LJR: That section is about the role militarism and empire building have played in making various groups “white.” It’s long been said, in so many words, that the Irish earned their white stripes when they adopted anti-Black prejudices or signed up to become strike-breaking cops. Once they became convenient tools for their historic oppressors, they started being seen by their historic oppressors as fellow whites. But this happens at a global scale, too.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s pathologizing of the ostensible criminality of the Black underclass was somewhat old hat by the 1960s. And his Cold War hawkishness was redolent of John O’Sullivan’s boosterism for the Mexican-American War. (O’Sullivan was the Irish American newspaperman responsible for coining the term “Manifest Destiny.”) But the ways Irish statesmen like Moynihan joined forces with Jewish neoconservatives like Elliot Abrams to sabotage the Global South’s New International Economic Order (NIEO), or to authorize the Israeli domination of Palestinians, spoke to something depressingly new, as well as something worse than the mere presence of chicken hawks. The determination of these men to fight their way into once-exclusive waspy corridors, and the speed with which they adopted the WASP’s sting, brings us back to the theme of a self-defeating, preemptive security.

DSJ: How do you reconcile your critique of America’s war obsession with Russia’s military ambitions? What do you say to those critics of the left who believe that critiques of American empire have been made to look foolish given the war in Ukraine?

LJR: I’d begin by insisting that Vladimir Putin’s predations in Ukraine, and before then in Syria, Georgia, and Chechnya, cannot be understood in a vacuum. It’s impossible to make sense of the rise of Putin without understanding Putinism’s relationship to the Cold War, capitalist shock therapy in post-Soviet Russia, US meddling in Russia’s 1996 election, the uses and abuses of NATO, and Russian-American partnerships during the War on Terror.

The great-power rivalries of the last century made it fashionable to speak of a US-led “West” and a Russian-led “East.” No one should be surprised that propagandists on both sides drew such hard, ahistorical lines, but I see no reason why the rest of us must continue the tradition. I am the furthest thing from an expert on these questions, but I know enough about the annals of European colonialism to know Russia has played a part in them.

I don’t think my critique is at loggerheads with the demands of the present moment. To the contrary, I’d argue critiques like mine have never been so relevant. Does my book offer a clear path forward when it comes to supporting Ukrainians against Putin’s war of aggression? Of course not. Does it offer a warning about the impossible (potentially catastrophic) choices people are compelled to make in an imperialized world? Yes, I think it does.

I’ll wrap things up by returning to a motif I touched on briefly in the beginning—namely, my Jewishness. I’ve always had a tortured relationship with my Jewish identity, and I wrestle with that relationship a bit in the memoir. At times I’ve chosen to double down as an observant Jew or Zionist Jew; other times I’ve chosen to put my Jewishness on hold and just become another anonymous marine. In recent years I’ve tried to contain that tension, as if the tension itself was the point.

As far as I can tell, many people struggle with their identities in similar ways. I’d argue it’s related to the pain and suffering we’ve faced, or fear we might face, and the search for a modicum of stability or community, some semblance of feeling safe. And I guess what I’d like to part with is that shared vulnerability. And how the unhealthy versions of masculinity we’ve been discussing all seek to escape that vulnerability once and for all through a skin-deep strength. That by making oneself bigger than others, and then by lording over them, one achieves a lasting self-defense.

But what if the simplest way for men to avoid this trap of manliness is just to accept themselves as men among men. Accept the basic fact that we have no idea why we’re on this rotating rock—the spinning is dizzying and rough, and we’re all in this together. Or as my people like to put it: What if being a man meant being a mensch?

Didn’t think I’d end this with a sermon on Menschkeit (manliness as goodliness), but there you have it.

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