My name is Ronn Cantu. I publicly protested the Iraq War as an active-duty soldier. Ask me anything about dissenting while on active duty and pushing the limits of free speech under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Hi y'all. My name is Ronn Cantu and I publicly spoke out against the Iraq War while on active duty with the United States Army. I was threatened with legal charges, received death threats, someone online even called me fat :'(
At the time, they told us we were fighting for freedom but I thought that was a bald-faced lie. More than fifteen years later and law enforcement all over the country has proved it was. They told us that it was better to fight the terrorists "over there rather than over here" and now look where we are.
In 2006, I couldn't convince other soldiers that the rights I was flexing were their rights too.
This past week, an Army regional commander--a 4-star general--sent an email to everyone under his command an affirmation that soldiers do have the right to "participate in off-post demonstrations in the United States when they are off-duty, out of uniform, when their activities do not constitute a breach of law and order and when violence is not likely to result."
The general went on to specify "My general order prohibits social and recreational gatherings. I do not view those who want to exercise their first amendment rights as engaged in a social or recreational gathering. "
This. Is. Huge. The general is tacitly giving all soldiers under his command permission to take to the streets in order to speak directly to their civilian leadership!
The general is obviously correct but his email didn't go far enough. In addition to having the right to participate in off-post demonstrations, active-duty servicemembers have the right to speak to media and voice their dissent provided they don't use slanderous language against anyone high up in their chain-of-command (anyone with stars on their uniform or "secretary" in their title and definitely not the Commander-in-Chief).
I will caveat this to mention that the Army picks and chooses the charges it brings forward. I did a radio interview with an active-duty soldier who absolutely called George W. Bush and Dick Cheney "liars" and I'm friends with an active-duty NCO who publicly spoke out against the war IN UNIFORM. Neither were punished.
In the interview I talk about in the below clip, I was not off-duty, nor out-of-uniform, nor off-post, and I wasn't punished.
All of us were honorably discharged.
These are the times when heroes identify themselves and right now the country could use a hero if not a thousand.
Ask me anything! :)
The following list is not exhaustive. I talked to any journalist who would listen; LA Times, Houston Chronicle, BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Those were probably some of the biggest outlets plus a myriad of smaller ones.
60 Minutes - GIs Petition Congress to End Iraq War - The one that got me and IMDB credit and body shamed. In the weeks leading up to my second deployment, I was eating all the fast food I knew I wouldn't be able to for the next year. I'm not sorry. Not even a little bit.
Future of GI Resistance - I wasn't scheduled to speak on this panel. I happened to be present when the original speaker threw a tantrum and quit. I was asked if I wanted to speak and said sure! I went before a live, international audience with nothing prepared. The story about my captain having to call me back into her office to rescind her order is 100% true.
I joined the Army because I was just meandering around the community college campus not knowing what I wanted to do in life. My dad had served, both grandfathers. It was my New Year's resolution in 1998 to "do my time."
What lessons did I learn? That's a big question but the answer that comes most immediately to mind is becoming aware of my own racist views.
The death threat was in the comment section of that 60 Mins interview. It was the same post that body shamed me. It was something along the lines of Yeah, if I saw that fat fuck, I'd probably cap him.
He was talking about me :'(
Hey Ronn, I'm writing a book. It's about a racing driver, a kid who starts out racing at a young age, but the reason why it relates to this is because he loses his dad from fighting in Afghanistan.
I want to be able to ride the line of being respectful to the troops but also showcase that war really is just so unnecessary and damaging. What advice do you have?
Also, I salute you sir. Takes a lot of guts to stand for something that the big wigs in power can just decide on without thinking about the major consequences
I mean, active-duty and veterans run the gamut across all spectrums. I think just the fact that you're trying to be respectful is proof that whatever route you're going will be fine :)
How long after being called fat did you start to feel better?
Some wounds you never recover from :(
What's your opinion on Donald Trump?
So, one of the rules is you can't say anything slanderous toward anyone in senior leadership. That's a definite no-go. One of the gray areas is when a reporter asks "If President so-and-so were here right now, what would you say to him?"
Just don't go there.
Edit: Go there at your own risk. A lot of these rules are just something the DOD imposed on itself. I don't think any have actually been taken before the Supreme Court. That might explain the reluctance to actually punish for violations of these directives.
I won't be voting for him. That is fa sho.
Did you find it weird that you didn’t get more support or did you expect all that backlash? I always find it odd when someone assumes you’d be pro-current-leadership-no-matter-what-because-murica-and-uniform when millions have taken the same oath on day one that says “to defend the constitution against threats foreign OR DOMESTIC”? Like, is it like being in the twilight zone to be punished for something they had you promise to do or were you not shocked at all?
I actually got a lot more support than I thought I would. Even when people were against what I was doing, their arguments weren't necessarily against what I was saying, but that I shouldn't be saying anything at all. Just shut up and do what you're told. The support was also greater among lower enlisted than upper enlisted and officers (which I think is typical). I got a mystery email from someone claiming to be a sergeant first class telling me he had heard my interview on Democracy Now! and that he supported me but he told me to be careful.
I think it was my battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, who was personally offended by what I was doing. He was the one pushing to charge me for dissing the president.
I also wasn't so in-your-face about my stance while at work. Most of my interactions with peers were convos around the smoke pit.
To anyone reading this: If my answers seem disjointed, it's because I haven't thought about some of this stuff in over a decade.
What was your MOS?
I was an 11B (an Infantryman for non-vets out there) for roughly seven years before reclassing into 97E (Human Intelligence Collector - later changed to 35M).
When I was being investigated, I found out the leadership was reading all my blog entries across all platforms (we were required to disclose them upon arriving in theater). In one blog post, I identified myself as a Human Intelligence Collector and that, specifically, was something they tried to charge me with. They claimed it was an OPSEC violation.
Again, in the end, I wasn't charged with anything.
Good question! Thank you!
What made you realise that the “war on terror” or the Iraq war was bullshit?
Prior to arriving in Iraq the first time, we were trained to continue driving if a bomb went off and there were no injuries and the vehicles were still capable. We were also trained to not shoot unless we could identify our target.
Within about a month of arriving in Iraq, we were bombed and pushed through. No one fired a shot. When we got to our destination, our platoon sergeant told us that the next time that happened, we need to "make a statement." We assumed we could force them into submission.
I was part of OIF II and the soldiers from OIF I left the country in pretty good shape and on good terms. That was a problem for the fresh soldiers who wanted their own war stories to tell.
Once we were authorized to meet violence with violence, we went nuts! That only prompted them to escalate...which prompted us to escalate! They were fighting for their country, we were fighting to live for just one more day.
I think it was after one of our first violent responses, when I saw the damage we had done, that I remember thinking "This isn't going to work."
Thank you for the question!
Sounds like American Exceptionalism - an illogical belief by politicians, commanders and civilians that the US will win because it's the US.
Same flaw in Vietnam.
Did you ever meet or serve with EU troops? Did they have different attitudes or tactics?
I was stationed in Germany prior to my first deployment and though German troops used our post, I never interacted with them.
In Iraq, no. I never even saw any foreign soldiers except when we were leaving the country. I saw some armored vehicles with various flags on them, the only one I can recall is Japan.
Speaking of Vietnam, we went to Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. It was believed that if left unchecked, communism could spread through the region--Domino Theory.
I recall Bush saying something along the lines of Once we install democracy in Iraq, it would spread throughout the region.
Muthafuckin' Domino Theory.
Do you hate the US and/or the US military?
Has this experience made you regret joining the Army?
I hate neither! I thought I'd make it a career! I left as a Staff Sergeant with nine years of total service. If I were to pin my anger on anything, it would be on the Bush administration and starting this war with the flimsiest of proof then leaving us there way beyond the point when it became a lost cause.
Not even a little bit. There were far more pros than cons. The cons were pretty big tho...
The reason the military dissuades protest in uniform is because it is extremely important to safeguard public perception of the military as a non-political entity -- we will obey the (legal and constitutional) orders of elected civilians regardless of which party or politics they represent.
Do you agree that the apolitical perception of the military (which I believe is why the military remains one of the most trusted institutions in American life) is something we should seek to safeguard? Do you think the good that you accomplish by protesting is worth the risk of damaging public perception of the military's impartiality?
I never advocated that anyone break the law or violate the UCMJ. I fully understand why protest in uniform is dissuaded and yes, I agree.
Politicians have no problem politicizing the military and I don't think the public generally views the military as apolitical. I think the public perception of the military is that it's a right-leaning organization.
The Navy and Marine Corps only recently banned display of the Confederate Flag on post. The Army and Air Force have yet to follow suit which doesn't surprise me. There were a lot of confederates in the Army when I served and I can't imagine much has changed.
As far as reputation, though, I think the Air Force takes the cake there.
Probably been asked before but, when did you join the army? And why? I'm guessing because you wanted to serve your nation, but is there anything beneath that?
It was 1998 and I was 19. There was an underlying desire to just move away from home. I'm from Southern California, I went to up-upstate New York. I couldn't move any farther away from home and still be in the country.
I just want to ask one simple question. Why did you do that?
I realized the war was bullshit in early 2004, just a month or two after arriving.
As I was gearing up for round two in 2006, I thought of all the bombs and bullets that I avoided during round one. I wasn't convinced I would survive my second tour and so I wanted to leave a record of my opinion, should I not survive. I sought out like-minded servicemembers and found the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War. I posted an essay to their website that gained notoriety in left-leaning circles and, from there, the interview requests started trickling in. I just said yes to everything and went from there.
Thank you for your question!
What are something that average soldiers wants to see being implemented? Both in Army/Navy/Air force and in general. This could be anything from food to politics to anything.
Oh geez. I've been out for over a decade. I really couldn't tell you :(
Did you have fun moving your favorite roommate out of his ex gf’s place in HB?? I already know the answer is yes!
My first--and only!--post-military raid. I did get that adrenaline rush. I think we had both cars packed and scrubbed all evidence of your existence in barely 25 mins? I remember timing us but don't remember the result lol
Good times, good times :)
Any noteworthy reactions from war-supporting US civilians when you told them your views?
No. I really can't think of any. Never any violence. I found that most pro-war arguments were disconnected and taken from bumper stickers. The extent of their argument was "Better to fight them over there than over here" or "I'll fight them so my son doesn't have to" (how'd that work out?) or "Freedom isn't free."
In the instances when I was able to cut through that rhetoric and get to the root of their pro-war view, it generally boiled down to something supremacist: either white or Christian.
Again, at work, nobody engaged me in these kinds of discussions (I wasn't saying anything publicly that I hadn't heard servicemembers say privately) and they weren't the type of folks I was hanging out with after hours either.
Thank you for your question!
I know this inquiry has little bearing on the overall title, but as a professionally trained warrior what are some basic skillsets that you acquired in the military that you feel a civilian should attain?
I think one of the biggest pros to military service was the exposure to so many personality types from across the country. You learn how to make a team work regardless of the people you've been given. You also learn to set aside your personal wants in order to accomplish the team's goals.
That's not always present in the civilian world.
Other than that, maybe basic first aid? Land nav?
Tbh, if you were to drop me off in the woods, now, with only a map and compass, I'd probably die of exposure in about 45 mins or so.
Thank you for the question!
What question do you wish you were asked more often? That you don't asked enough. You mentioned having to change some of your racist views from the military. What exactly spurred that change?
The area where I grew up was pretty much half-white, half-Mexican (I'm half Mexican). I didn't grow up around with any black people so it was easy to go along with the casual racism I was exposed to. It was southern California so I wasn't from some backwoods hillbilly town where black people didn't exist, I just didn't have any black friends or know anyone who did.
Joining the Army was my first time meeting/talking/hanging out with black people and I loved it! I remember driving a bunch of us to a club in Oswego, New York (I was stationed at Fort Drum at the time). We were packed in the car, two in front and three in back and got pulled over for speeding (I was just enjoying myself not realizing I was going double the speed limit. As the cop approached the car, the only black soldier with us got his license out. He said the cop was going to ask to see it...and he was right. That would end up being the first time I witnessed that.
I was motivated to do this AMA after meeting a black active-duty soldier who told me he wanted to attend a Black Lives Matter protest but was told by his commander that he would get in trouble if he did.
That kinda pissed me off. Black soldiers are expected to lay down their lives for a country where the police are fighting for the right to kill them without consequence. That's not ok. Black people make up about 20% of the Army.
There were a lot of confederate soldiers in the Army back then. I can't help but notice that the Army and Air Force have yet to bar the confederate flag from post so...I'm assuming there are still a lot of confederate soldiers currently serving in the Army.
So I guess the question I would like to get asked more often is "Can I do what you did?" from an active-duty servicemember. The answer is yes.
Thank you for the question!
Did you earn your CIB?
You don’t think you let your team/squad/platoon members down by putting your personal views about the war before your job and duty to them?
I did get my CIB! I got to my unit late and the line companies had all been fully staffed already. As such, I got thrown into the support platoon and I was pissed.
Turns out, we took more contact than the lines companies combined. Something about attacking a bunch of unarmored trucks full of food and water was more appealing than attacking Bradleys and up-armored humvees.
I never put my personal views before my job and duty to them. My support was actually higher among lower enlisted than senior enlisted (natch). Having said that, I guess my only "punishment" was that I was removed from a leadership position.
Keep in mind, I was terrified every time I opened my trap to a reporter. I already had 6-7 years of...mostly spotless service. After I started talking, I became super sergeant. I toed the line while on the clock. I didn't want to even be perceived as a shit stirrer.
Before deciding to do this AMA, I reached out to the few soldiers from the time that I'm still in contact with. They were just told to not talk about it...which is such an Army answer. Just ignore it lol
Thanks for the questions!
Welp, now we are fighting the terrorists over here, so... good job?
I do think the displays of force by the police lately kinda shit all over the sacrifices of those who gave all for "freedom."
Just my two cents...
What influenced your decision to join the Army?
What lessons did you learn there?
How many death threats did you receive? What was the best one?
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