Photo credit: Francis Horton

What a Hell of a Way to Organize: An Interview With Francis Horton

Francis Horton is that rarest of U.S. soldiers: a leftist and self-identifying socialist. Born in Missouri in 1983, he joined the U.S. Army in July of 2000 and served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and various NATO countries. Currently he serves as a Public Affairs Non-Comissioned Officer and lives in St. Louis. He is also the creator of What a Hell of a Way to Die, a podcast examining military politics from a left perspective. After gaining some popularity on Twitter (@armystrang) and an appearance on Chapo Trap House, Horton launched the podcast over a year ago and was soon joined by fellow soldier Nate Bethea. It’s a witty, fun, and informative look at the absurdities of military life and American empire.

Are you a DSA member or member of any other socialist or left group? To what extent is political involvement curtailed for on- and off-duty soldiers, particularly PA officers?

I am not a member of the DSA because I am aware that there are some in the DSA and other leftist organizations who wouldn’t feel comfortable with a currently serving member of the military in the ranks. Though I am familiar with my local DSA chapter and have done a meet and greet with them at a local gun range.

I’ve never noticed political involvement being curtailed. The UCMJ (Uniform code of military justice, basically our laws in the military) say troops are encouraged to be active in politics, but we can’t wear our uniforms or belong to hate groups. My commander isn’t really concerned with anything we do as long as it isn’t illegal, nor are most leaders. The important thing is keeping it to yourself and not bringing it into work, just like any other job. My job in public affairs isn’t anymore a help or hindrance really. Though I do hear stories from time to time about leaders who try to push their politics onto their soldiers. As always, it depends on the person above you. Personally I’ve been to rallies and protests and no one seems to care as long as you aren’t breaking anything.

What were your politics like before joining the army? What was your reason for joining?

I can’t say I really had politics before joining as I was 17. I voted for Bush in an absentee ballot in Afghanistan in 2004 with the resounding logic of “Well he started it so I guess he should finish it out,” which we see how well that went today. I was 20 and didn’t know any better, which should be a little frightening when it comes to who is doing the voting in this country. I’m from Missouri though, so my presidential choices don’t mean squat. As for why I joined, I guess I saw my incredible privilege as something I owed back to the country and not exactly what it was, the privilege of being born a straight white dude into a middle class Midwest family. Though I got lucky as my father is a socialist as well, but never really talked politics at the dinner table. I didn’t have to deal with super racist family members as even they knew better than that.

These days, I know I joined because I was bored and had no idea what I was planning to do with my life at 17. I knew I didn’t want to go to college, and figured I’d join the reserves. Not like we were at war or anything. 

What caused you to move left or explicitly identify as leftist or socialist?

I suppose I moved left after the 2016 election, though it was a direction I was always headed. I saw that democrat leaders were staying beholden to whatever was going to keep making them money, and I was tired of being scolded by Hillary supporters for daring to question voting for more of the same. I saw that better things were possible and I was mad people wanted to keep it the same for their own selfish reasons. That’s not how you have a healthy country and it’s not how you stay strong together.

What caused you to start What a Hell of a Way to Die?

I felt there had to be more veterans and soldiers like me. And not even necessarily socialist, but certainly not right leaning. Nate and I get messages all the time thanking us for being a voice for the more left veteran community, and I think that’s why we like to keep doing it. As someone still serving on a contract, the world has somehow become even more uncertain and awful for troops, and it’s good to know there are others you can reach out to and have that connection you might not be able to find in your own unit.

I also wanted to be a bridge between the military and the civilian world as there’s a huge gap between the two. Many civilians don’t know a troop, and I want to be more accessible to them.

Besides your podcast, are there outlets for discussion and promotion of socialist thought in the veteran community? You’ve written for Task and Purpose, is that a potential opportunity for left-wing veterans?

My writing isn’t particularly socialist for T&P, and I’ve bee approached a few times for pitches as a socialist veteran, but veterans don’t read Jacobin. The easiest way to spread a message of socialism is to show troops they’re already living it. Guaranteed housing or housing stipend, education benefits for you and your family, guaranteed healthcare, tax-free shopping, maternity leave, 30 days paid vacation from day one. We have it really good on active duty. Once you get out into the civilian world, you find it a lot harder. I’ve met more than one veteran try to scramble back into the military or go back to active duty following separation because, as hard as we think we have it in the Army, it’s really hard out here for civilians.

Service members are stereotypically reactionary; How frequently does one encounter left-leaning soldiers and vets?

I don’t meet left leaning veterans because I don’t talk about my politics in ranks to anyone other than people I already know lean Democrat. And even then it’s sparse. It’s not that I don’t trust people to not do some kind of witch hunt, but I just don’t want to deal with a lecture, nor do I want anyone to think I’m lecturing them.

Thomas Frank wrote in What’s the Matter With Kansas about how many Vietnam vets leaned left rather than right. What do you think has changed since then?

When Vietnam vets came home, they weren’t greeted with the heroes welcome veterans today enjoy. Vietnam was a war that took kids from their families and flung them overseas to a war most people couldn’t understand why we were fighting for so long. The image of the soldier coming home was a perfect target for a nation mad at their government. Like screaming at the customer-service representative when the electric company raises your rates, it was an outlet for rage, and the victims of that rage stood against the war themselves many times. Not only was it shit overseas, but it was now shit at home.

Today veterans are put up on a pedestal for joining and going overseas. It’s actually a very impressive massaging of propaganda aimed at the civilian masses to support the troops, even if you’re against the war. But at this point, no one who is a troop has an excuse. The war has been going for 16 years and it’s ramping back up. But this time the deployments are small enough that the volunteer military can fill in (even though the cracks in our ranks are showing and we’re absolutely not ready for any of the conventional wars we’re beating the drum for). Couple that with extremely low fatality rates in a nation that doesn’t even slow down when 500 people are wounded at a madman opening fire on a concert in Las Vegas and you have a country that is placated.

Maybe it’s also that some of us are spoiled. They were told they were owed and they still have their hands out asking for things. Asking for your respect. Asking you to shut up because the troop is talking and you’re just a weak civilian who never joined because you’re a pussy. Really there’s lots of small things that I think make this big right-wing stew. Isolation and insulation away from the civilian world and thinking that because we dragged a rifle across a foreign country we suddenly have some trump card in any argument.

That was super rambling, but I think it will make a good podcast episode after I sort my brain out a bit more.

St. Louis has been at the center of movements for racial equality in the last decade or so. How have soldiers reacted to the protests surrounding Ferguson (2014) and the Stockley verdict (2017)? Do servicemen find anything objectionable about the militarization of local police departments? How about you personally?

Lots of troops are against the militarization of the police because the cops are getting weapons that they don’t have the same training regimen as we do. Combat troops are always (in theory at least) training on their various weapons systems. When you aren’t actually doing war, you’re practicing. Police don’t have that same luxury and end up driving black MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) out to a peaceful protest in case it gets violent. Those things are meant to keep you safe from anti-tank mines, you don’t need it if someone chucks a bottle at you.

I’ve watched our police department make mistake after mistake with the people of this city and the people who protest, but that’s more of incompetent leadership than anything else. Some of the soldiers I’m around are of the mindset that “protest is fine, just don’t bother me with it,” which is a hard hill to climb and I generally don’t get into it during my weekend duties.

On What a Hell of a Way to Die, you speak facetiously about being an “imperial stooge” and the like. How do you reconcile left-wing, anti-imperial politics with working for what the left considers to be an imperial entity? How do you respond to leftists who feel service members should not be a part of revolutionary politics?

Every troop has to make peace with who and what they are. I can’t get out of the Army without financially screwing myself for the rest of my life, but I’ve found a little corner I can coast out to the end of my contract without contributing too much to the global imperial war machine. For myself and my past in the military, I can only admit that I wasn’t paying attention when I was in, and promising myself to do better with open ears and an open heart in the future.

As for the ones who say I have no part in revolutionary politics, it’s nothing new. As I said, I’m not a member of the DSA or PSL because there are those who wouldn’t feel comfortable with me. But to me, the point of socialism in being inclusive, not exclusive. Will you turn away the person who was a bootstrap conservative if they have a change of heart just to be petty? If so, your socialism needs to be checked, because it’s not one I want to participate in anyway.

Personally, I have little local things I’m a part of to help and give back to the community. For me, the real socialism is finding the people near you and doing what you can to help them if they need it. National politics is fine, but it’s not helping the person down the street with an empty cupboard.

What is the most important thing civilian leftists should know about the military and service members?

We exist, and there’s more than I thought there were. And to not hold service in the military against people. I reenlisted twice because they offered me money, school, and healthcare. If you can’t understand why in this time that might be attractive, then you aren’t paying attention. And don’t discount Democrat troops either. Maybe they aren’t into socialism, but they can still be allies and they can still fight for the things they enjoy in the military, such as housing and healthcare. Some democrats are going to need coaxing over to the left, but it’s important to not shout them down because their politics don’t fully align with yours. Though mostly I only see that online. In person, people are generally more polite.

A century ago, the Midwest was the breeding ground for left movements like the Populists and the Socialist Party. Do you see any hope for a leftward shift in the region? In particular, among the region’s service members and veterans?

I bring up Southern Missouri as a perfect place to kickstart a new socialist movement. I often hear the same with Appalachia because it shares the same economic demographics. The problem with rural areas in the country, and I don’t just mean flyover states, I mean outside the big cities, is that they are largely ignored politically. Democrats see them as lost causes and Republicans do drive-by handshakes on their way to expensive fundraising dinners. But no one actually addresses the issues happening in those areas, like massive opiate problems and crippling poverty. In some ways, Being born in a trailer park can be just as hard to claw your way out of as an inner city. You don’t leave your financial class.

I think soldiers have a unique position as potential ambassadors to these areas. Your average infantry platoon of 40-ish troops will vary wildly from rural Texas, San Francisco, the bayou of Louisiana, at least a couple guys born in foreign countries, and an NYC guy. They all have to work and live together and find a way to talk and get along. I wasn’t born in Southern Missouri, but I know most of the roads, I can put on the accent, and I’m handy with a 12 gauge on a turkey hunt. I also want to make sure you can get that thing checked out at the doctor that’s suddenly started aching but your hours got cut and you can’t afford a 5k deductible.

Francis Horton can be found on Twitter (@armystrang). What a Hell of a Way to Die is available on a variety of podcasting platforms such as SoundCloud and Apple Podcasts. It is free, but Horton offers bonus content to supporters of his Patreon.