• Feature

Aaron Bushnell opposed ‘all state-sanctioned violence’ — not just the war in Gaza

Before his self-immolation, Aaron Bushnell supported his friend’s conscientous objection and deeply regretted joining the military.
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Levi Pierpont’s voice was steady, the day I called him to ask about his friend Aaron Bushnell. “He was the sweetest guy you’d ever meet.”

The 23-year-old Air Force veteran was talking about one of his military peers whose name was suddenly everywhere. Four days earlier, on Feb. 25, Bushnell had set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., to protest U.S. support of Israel’s war on Gaza.

I’d reached out to Pierpont because he’d left the military last year as a conscientious objector, long before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that burst the blister of Israel’s long siege. As someone who has spent much of the last 20 years writing about such servicemembers, I wanted to know more about Pierpont’s journey — and his response to his friend’s far more visible and permanent act of conscience.

In the three weeks since that day, Bushnell’s name has been spoken often at the near-daily Gaza protests across the country, especially those organized by veterans of the U.S. military. Last week, artist-activists got his words on the New York City subway, replacing ads with his final statement on social media: “Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”

Pierpont talked to me shortly before The Guardian published his op-ed: “Aaron Bushnell was my friend. May he never be forgotten.” When I talked to him it was still very fresh; his voice trembled a little as he described his journey, one he wishes Bushnell had shared more fully.

They met in May 2020 at Goodfellow Air Force Base, at the beginning of basic military training. Bushnell arrived almost too late to start training; Pierpont said he “stood up for me” when Pierpont felt harassed. Bushnell’s bonhomie was a salve, Pierpont told me, amid basic training’s stereotypically loud atmosphere. Both were moving beyond their restrictive Christian families — Pierpont’s in evangelical Michigan, Bushnell the secretive Community of Jesus in Orleans, Massachusetts. And both were going on to work with intelligence with high-level security clearances.

“[W]henever people in basic training would talk about me or would talk about him, we would stick up for each other. And he always stuck up for me,” Pierpont told “Democracy Now!” on Feb. 28. They spoke and texted often, even after basic training ended and they pursued different divisions of Air Force Tech School, Bushnell for cybersecurity and Pierpont for Operations Intelligence. Pierpont later started to ask the questions that would ultimately lead him to seek discharge as a conscientious objector, just as Bushnell was exulting on social media, “Man, the Air Force does some cool-ass shit.”

Still, Bushnell’s own doubts about the institution would grow after he was a firm member of the 571st Cyber Division, with access to real-time intel about what the Air Force was up to. The two of them didn’t talk much at Tech School, but did once they were at their respective bases, Pierpont at Minot AFB in North Dakota and Bushnell staying in Texas at Lackland AFB.

By then, Pierpont had left Operations Intelligence behind. At Tech School, learning to develop “intelligence products” assembled with Microsoft PowerPoint, he was bemused by its focus on Russia and training products he called “Secret YouTube and secret Wikipedia.” Less amusing was a video in which his whole class watched the death of an enemy combatant. Pierpont found himself feeling bad for the guy’s family, even if he was one of the terrorists they were being trained to hate. When “a bunch of my classmates laughed at that video,” Pierpont realized he wasn’t one of them. He asked to change classifications, so he wouldn’t be so directly involved in violent “operations.”

At Minot, Pierpont was 2ROX1, a Maintenance Management Analyst — in charge of generating and monitoring data on the maintenance of Air Force planes and equipment. It wasn’t a stress-free gig, though; all that data was in service of weapons of war, like Minot’s 488,000-pound B-52 bombers. “It was very traumatic for me to think about those aircraft,” Pierpont told me. After nearly a year, he contacted the Center for Conscience and War, and began working on his application for conscientious objection, or CO. He told his friend Aaron about it all “and he was really supportive,” he said.

In June 2023, Bushnell said on Reddit that he agreed with Pierpont, noting that “Apparently it’s very doable to become a ‘conscientious objector’ on religious grounds even after voluntarily enlisting. It’s a bit of a process and it takes about a year, but there are organizations to help guide you through it and the success rate is very high.”

But in his case, Bushnell said, “I’m sticking it out to the end of my contract, as I didn’t realize what a huge mistake it was until I was more than halfway through, and I only have a year left at this point. However it is a regret I will carry the rest of my life.”

Pierpont, who now identifies as more of a Buddhist than a Christian, said he had told Bushnell that CO wasn’t only for religious resisters, but respected his commitment not to break his contract. Still, Bushnell told Pierpont that he “wanted to take a stand against all state-sanctioned violence.”

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The last time they saw one another was in January 2024 in Toledo, Ohio, after Bushnell moved to Akron for SkillBridge (a transition program for members about to separate). They talked about Pierpont’s CO discharge, which had been approved in July 2023; they did not talk about what happened two months later, the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. “We never talked about Gaza” he said. Pierpont felt it was due to his own “centrist” position on the conflict, since Bushnell was on Reddit describing Israel as a “settler-colonialist apartheid state.” Back then, said Pierpont, “the Gaza war felt complex to me … but that was before 30,000 were dead.” And in the meantime, Bushnell was learning more about what he considered U.S. complicity in those deaths.

Afghanistan veteran Jeremy Lyle Rubin, pointed out in The Nation that “The U.S. Air Force has played a significant part in the killing spree in Gaza, assisting with intelligence and targeting.” He added that the U.S. is contributing 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.’”

Given Pierpont’s Buddhism, I asked him if he knew about the high-profile Buddhist CO, Aidan Delgado. He had not; neither did he know about Norman Morrison, who set himself on fire nearly 60 years ago, to protest the U.S. war against Vietnam.

I don’t mention Morrison in my book “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” a history that focuses on dissenting military personnel like Pierpont and Bushnell, drawn on those I spoke to daily in the 1990s as a staffer with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. Many of the latter were like Pierpont, describing how military service had triggered a moral crisis that made it impossible to stay in the military.

The book does describe the all-hands movement against the Vietnam War, which included many Quakers like Morrison, whose fiery death, on Nov. 2, 1965, came as the U.S. war against Vietnam was metastasizing. At his Baltimore Quaker meeting, Morrison and his wife Anne watched, worried and prayed as more than 100,000 servicemembers were shipped to Vietnam and TV screens showed the massive bombing of North Vietnam by American fighter planes.

Morrison’s revelation of “what I must do” was triggered, his wife wrote, by an account in Paris-Match of the incineration of families in the village of Can Tho. “I have seen the bodies of women and children blown to bits,” a French priest told the author, Yves Larteguy. “I have seen all my villages razed. By God, it’s not possible!” Morrison circled that sentence in the clipping of the article he mailed to Anne from the Pentagon, just before he poured kerosene on himself and lit the match in full view of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Though it still took 10 years for that war to end, Morrison’s act helped catalyze the sustained anti-war movement that shaped how it ended.

As Colonel Ann Wright points out, the death of Morrison and others “mobilized the anti-war community,” with years of weekly vigils at the U.S. Capitol that ultimately persuaded members of Congress to stand up against the war, the first of whom was Rep. George Brown. “After the Quakers were arrested and jailed for reading the names of the war dead, Brown would continue to read the names, enjoying congressional immunity from arrest.”

Perhaps hoping to build similar momentum to end the war in Gaza, Veterans for Peace and About Face — the antimilitarist group formerly known as Iraq Veterans Against the War — swung into action after Bushnell’s death. They expressed regret that he never connected with either organization. In Portland, some About Face members burned their uniforms, and the group has seen a surge of new members since those protests.

In addition to these actions, a separate “autonomous network of active duty service members across nearly all U.S. Armed Forces branches have released an open letter condemning Israel’s genocide in Gaza,” journalist Talia Jane tweeted on March 4.

Activists have still had complex responses to Bushnell’s “extreme act of protest,” wondering whether self-immolation damages the movements they’d hoped to propel — in addition to the damage to their families. Anne Morrison writes that she and her three children suppressed their pain and rage for years. Advocates for servicemembers and veterans raised the alarm that valorizing Bushnell’s death would do nothing to abate the already-high suicide rates in both populations.

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Nonetheless, Bushnell’s name has been invoked frequently by the “Vote Uncommitted” movement, an electoral pressure campaign that made a noticeable impact on the primaries in Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Georgia and Washington State.

Many of the vigils broadcast Bushnell’s last words, livestreamed on Twitch before he lit the match: “I am an active duty member of the United States Air Force. And I will no longer be complicit to genocide. I am 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.” Those words have been ubiquitous on the internet ever since.

So has the voice of Levi Pierpont, who is now volunteering with the Center on Conscience and War and active with the divestment coalition at Michigan State University. “I want people to remember that his death is not in vain, that he died to spotlight this message,” he said in his interview with “Democracy Now!,” which has played at numerous vigils. “I don’t want anybody else to die this way. If he had asked me about this, I would have begged him not to.” But after seeing the way the media responded to Bushnell’s immolation, he added, “it’s hard not to feel like he was right, that this was exactly what was necessary to get people’s attention about the genocide that’s happening in Palestine. And so, I just — I want people to remember his message.”

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