To Live and Die for a Cause: A Tribute to Aaron Bushnell

By Coco Smyth

Note: this statement was a speech given by one of our members at a community vigil for Aaron Bushnell on March 1st.

The self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell has led millions to think through what his sacrifice means and what effect it has. In a certain way, Aaron’s sacrifice Aaron is normal for a soldier — he died fighting for a cause he believed in. In important ways, it is very abnormal though. Much has been made of the fruitfulness of self-immolation as a protest tactic, think the thing that really separates Bushnell’s sacrifice from the usual sacrifice of an American soldier is that he died for a just cause.

As Americans, we are constantly inundated with rhetoric from our government and media lauding the sacrifices of all of those who have served in the U.S. military. Of course, all sacrifices soldiers make can be seen as heroic in an abstract way — they in one way or another laid down their life for something. But what gives meaning to a sacrifice is understanding why the sacrifice was made and for what cause. The unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of U.S. soldiers who die, die for nothing. Or more accurately they do die for something — just not the thing they likely think they’re fighting for. These soldiers are told they are to live and die for the freedoms, liberty, and safety of the American people or even the people whose countries they are occupying! But we have to see their sacrifices for what meaning they have overall, rather than what individuals think their sacrifices mean. The sad truth is that most U.S. soldiers who have died have died preserving the interests of the American ruling class — its wealth and imperial control over whole nations.

Understanding this is what can lead us to see what is so unusual about Aaron Bushnell’s sacrifice. On its surface, he died for “America’s enemies.” He died protesting America’s closest ally Israel. This is in fact true, he died for those who America aims to destroy. And this makes his sacrifice all the more heroic — he died as a traitor to the American government and what it stands for. He died a traitor to injustice and as a friend and comrade of the Palestinian people, and the millions all over the world fighting for liberation and a better tomorrow. For this treachery, the American ruling class has attacked and discredited his sacrifice as a product of “insanity” or mental illness.

What should Aaron’s sacrifice mean to us who see it for what it is? We need to live as Aaron died — without fear or doubt and with total dedication to the cause of the liberation of Palestine and for a world where all people can live — with freedom and inequality.

There is another force whose sacrifices for the cause match that of Aaron Bushnell’s — all of the brave Palestinians who have taken up arms to stop the genocide and bring an end to occupation, colonialism, and racial rule in their homeland. The only thing standing between Israel and their desired final solution — the total destruction and dispossession of the Palestinian people — are the guerrillas making every step by the Israeli Army dangerous and costly. Many of us, including comrades who are totally dedicated to the cause, feel hesitant to acknowledge those who are resisting Israel by force. It makes sense — recognizing Palestinian’s right to exist and resist, while a hated and unpopular opinion within our ruling class, is more and more acceptable an opinion to hold. But recognition and moral support for those fighting back against the invasion is decried as going too far. It is the oppressors who we should decry for going too far, those fighting oppression only go as far as the oppressors force them to, to win their liberation.

Aaron and the countless martyrs of this struggle died for the cause so that we can live for it. If we fight for justice and liberation with half their vigor, victory is possible. But it’s only possible if we understand what we’re fighting for and know how to fight for it. We have to really know what our aims are, and who are allies and our enemies are. Genocide Joe and all of our so-called representatives in government stand in the way of a free Palestine and a world without imperialism. There are many powerful people who will pose as friends of the movement in order to smash and disorganize it. Biden and the Democratic Party – and it goes without saying also the Republicans – have been very clearly where they stand and we should believe them. They are unequivocally for Israel and that isn’t going to change. Biden has pushed for deceitful non-solutions like a “humanitarian ceasefire” and more recently for a “temporary ceasefire.”

Many comrades will see this as an unequivocal victory, but we have to be alert to how the ruling class works to destroy progressive movements. If Biden and friends really wanted an end to the genocide and a Free Palestine, we would have it already. Israel could not conduct this ethnic cleansing campaign without unequivocal U.S. support. They will never advocate for a ceasefire or peace that threatens Israel’s interests or advances Palestine’s. A peace predicated on the destruction of Palestinian political parties and the occupation of Gaza or the expulsion of more Palestinians is no peace at all. The United States and Israel are adept at these kinds of maneuvers to disorganize progressive struggles – the Oslo Accords and the Peace Process it inaugurated, rather than assuring a Free Palestine has led us to this point today, moving Israel closer to completing the Nakba and eliminating the resistance.

The way we resist Zionism, imperialism, and colonialism is not through voting for one representative of the rich or the other. We have no power as isolated individuals in the United States. However, we are more powerful than the most powerful government in the world when we act as a collective. The sacrifice of Aaron Bushnell and all of the martyrs to the Palestinian struggle should push us to complete the work they set out for us. If you want to change things, now is the time to get organized. What will determine whether we can play a role in stopping the genocide and freeing Palestine is whether the hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are enraged at these injustices turn their despair into action. The small organizations that exist cannot push the movement forward alone, we need every single person who wants to fight for what’s right to join the grassroots movement.

We will not let Aaron’s sacrifice or the sacrifices of any of the Palestinian martyrs be in vain. We will pick up where they left off – until their dream of a Free Palestine is finally achieved, by any means necessary.

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About the author

Coco Smyth


Coco is a member of CORS.