Society / February 28, 2024

Taking Aaron Bushnell at His Word (and Deed)

The airman who set himself alight on Sunday signed up to sacrifice himself for the greater good—only to discover that he had become an accomplice to evil.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin
Aaron Bushnell
Aaron Bushnell, who died after setting himself ablaze in protest of Israel’s war in Gaza. (Screenshot via CBS News)

I will leave it to others to discuss the precedents for Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, from Thích Quảng Đức to Norman Morrison to Mohamed Bouazizi to Irina Slavina to Wynn Alan Bruce. Yes, this has happened before. The world has been a terrible place for too many for too long, and for that reason, the rare few most inclined to feel that terror, to breathe in its ashes, have found no other option but to set themselves on fire in protest. So that others may be forced to breathe in some of those ashes too.

A debate has erupted about how best to interpret Bushnell’s last act. Was it heroic? Pointless? Another opportunity to opine on the need for more robust mental health services. Or to scold those who have dared to take Bushnell at his word. After all, he was anything but inexplicit: “My name is Aaron Bushnell. I am an active-duty member of the United States Air Force. And 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 colonizers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.”

When someone commits an act like this, and leaves us with words like that, I feel obligated to take the person at their word. And the words couldn’t be more instructive.

Bushnell begins with a pertinent self-identification, as an active-duty member of the United States Air Force. Given the sincerity of his last moment in uniform, it seems he was also announcing his vocation. He was someone who had signed up to sacrifice himself for the greater good, only to discover—as so many of us, myself included, have discovered—that he had signed up for the opposite: to become a willing accomplice to evil. 

Bushnell doesn’t spell out the precise nature of his complicity. But the mere mention of his branch of service suffices. The US Air Force has played a significant part in the killing spree in Gaza, assisting with intelligence and targeting. It has helped build Israeli airpower for decades now, and shares the same suppliers of aircraft, missiles, and munitions that have contributed to what the political scientist Robert Pape has called “one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history, [now sitting] comfortably in the top quartile of the most devastating bombing campaigns ever.”

The airman goes on to call the crime by its name: a genocide, an attempt at destroying a people. Their homes and farms and orchards and entire means of subsistence. Their schools and hospitals and universities. Their journalists and professors and teachers and students. The whole of their intelligentsia and their children—so many of their children. An unprecedented number, an almost instant mass killing of children too grotesque to even fathom for more than a second. Their museums and archives and age-old mosques and churches. Hundreds of registered ancient sites. Their past and present and future. Even their cemeteries, their last and only resting place.

Current Issue

Cover of April 2024 Issue

Bushnell concedes that his protest is extreme. And yet it pales in comparison to the extremism it is protesting. An extremism not just of everyday death and destruction, but one that qualifies as colonial domination. It is not only that the Israelis or their patron, the Americans, determines which Palestinian lives or dies today or yesterday or tomorrow. It is that they—we—decide how they get to live or die. With or without shelter or food. With or without gainful employment or a loved one or the capacity to move across this or that otherwise invisible, arbitrary line. It is impossible to connote in a single paragraph the depths of this humiliation, of having one’s bare existence leashed to the whims of an undeserving, self-satisfied master. I enforced a related, humiliating relationship in Afghanistan almost a decade and a half ago, as one of many uniformed humiliators. I still haven’t figured out how best to communicate that vice. I don’t have it in me to say Bushnell has found a better way. The implication of that conclusion is too dark. But I do hope he’s done it better.

I’d be remiss without noting Bushnell’s penultimate sentence on this earth, right before the necessary “Free Palestine.” He curses our ruling class for making all this normal. All of it. The spoken and unspoken. The sometimes beautiful and joyful but often needlessly cruel world that’s been built in our name. For our purported security. It’s a plea for the rest of us, those still living. Bushnell’s fellow service members specifically, many of whom entered their service with similar doe eyes. Veterans like myself. (For good or ill, we enjoy a certain discursive power most don’t. And with that, as the cliché goes, comes responsibility.)

I doubt that Bushnell would have wanted us to follow in his footsteps—at least not by dousing ourselves in accelerant before a sad and enraged farewell. But he no doubt was counting on us—and not just us service members or vets—to convey and make use of the sadness and rage in our own ways. In manners that burn and last. Beyond the man-made firestorms in Gaza. Beyond the all-encompassing fire.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin

Lyle Jeremy Rubin is the author of Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body: A Marine’s Unbecoming. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who writes about capitalism and U.S. empire. He has a doctorate in history from the University of Rochester and has contributed to a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Raritan, and n+1. When he is not working or reading, he likes to pay attention to the birds.

More from Lyle Jeremy Rubin

Bowe Bergdahl’s Story Was Never Just About One Soldier’s Desertion

Bowe Bergdahl’s Story Was Never Just About One Soldier’s Desertion Bowe Bergdahl’s Story Was Never Just About One Soldier’s Desertion

Matt Farwell and Michael Ames’s American Cipher goes behind the Bergdahl saga to probe America’s imperial past.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin

US Soldiers in Afghanistan

The Forever War’s Cheerleaders The Forever War’s Cheerleaders

Democrats, liberals, and progressives have become some of the biggest hawks in Washington. That needs to change.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin

A map showing the US empire in 1898

The Left’s Embrace of Empire The Left’s Embrace of Empire

The history of the left in the United States is a history of betrayal.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin

Soldiers mourning

As a Former Marine, America’s War-Making Haunts Me—It Should Haunt Our Politicians Too As a Former Marine, America’s War-Making Haunts Me—It Should Haunt Our Politicians Too

I am a veteran of the Afghanistan war, and I refuse to stop bearing responsibility for my past.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin

A Former Marine Explains All the Weapons of War Being Used by Police in Ferguson

A Former Marine Explains All the Weapons of War Being Used by Police in Ferguson A Former Marine Explains All the Weapons of War Being Used by Police in Ferguson

There’s at least one line every Marine knows: “Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.” The St. Louis County Police Department apparently nev...

Lyle Jeremy Rubin