An Airman Set Himself on Fire in Protest. The Response Inside the Military Was Telling.

On Monday, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Aaron Bushnell died of his injuries after setting himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Bushnell shouted, “Free Palestine!” as police tried to douse him. The airman had previously told a friend that he had access to classified intelligence that showed U.S. troops on the ground killing Palestinians in Gaza.

A cyber-defense operations specialist assigned to the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron, Bushnell certainly had access to top-secret information, but he was also a turbulent young man, raised on a religious compound and highly politically active online. This background, coupled with his direct insertion into what is possibly the most divisive political issue of the day, sparked an outpouring of commentary from his fellow service members across the internet, on active duty/veterans forums, on social media, and in the comments sections of blogs and news outlets, revealing a military as passionately divided over Bushnell’s protest as the civilian community it serves.

Comments have included the gallows humor that is a signature of militaries worldwide. These particularly dark jokes were how I got through both indirect fire in Iraq and crisis-response work domestically, and I was unsurprised and comforted to find that this kind of humor was ubiquitous among my Georgian, British, and Australian counterparts (and Nepali private security contractors) in Iraq, as well as my German, Polish, Dutch, and other European colleagues during military exercises in Germany. There’s something of an unspoken rule that jokes and rants that would be beyond shocking in a corporate workplace get a pass in the extreme pressure of a military operational environment, provided they don’t generate public scrutiny.

But the whole world sees online commentary, including users who identify as service members making references to Bushnell as “the Airman a la Flambé” and others punning on “burning questions” regarding his motivations. Although public-facing commentary is limited by military policy, internet anonymity allows service members to let their real thoughts fly with little fear of reprisal. Some of the commentary is less about comedy and more about real criticism of military culture and policy, or the ethical ramifications of Bushnell’s act. “WHERE THE FUCK WAS HIS LEADERSHIP?” was a comment appearing in one thread, alongside another: “Imagine leaving behind your wife and children to make a political statement.” In the first instance, the commenter wondered if Bushnell’s leadership could have intervened to provide the airman with support or discipline that might have headed off his fatal protest. In the second instance, the commenter condemned him for abandoning family in the interest of making a point. (It’s not clear, in actuality, that Bushnell was married or had a child.)

This outpouring of military opinion can be shocking to the American civilian population. It shouldn’t be. In 2011 the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Michael Mullen, said of the American military: “We don’t know the American people and the American people don’t know us.” Indeed, that divide persists today—less than 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform, and roughly 6 percent have ever served. Any surprise over military reactions to Bushnell’s actions points to Mullen’s warning that this disconnect is “a very dangerous force.”

The issue stems from the perception that military service isn’t just a job, but rather an identity entire. This is partly true. Military service provides community, culture, and custom, and it certainly can pervade every aspect of someone’s life. Military members and veterans have our own argot that pervades civilian life (plenty of people who have never served affirm understanding with “roger”), as well as brands that specifically target and serve us. We spark and participate in trends in the wider culture. Indeed, some studies show that military identity is so powerful that retirement can instigate a potentially fatal identity crisis.

But while this is true, it is equally true that for many, the military is just another job. One that, at the end of the day, involves taking off one’s uniform and getting on with one’s regular life of fandom, family, and yes, political activism. Military members, often young and single, take part in social media trends, posting thirst traps or photos of themselves looking attractive online. (The images are inevitably aggregated by voyeur accounts.) These are activities that are absolutely normal in the civilian population but in a military context lead to conspiracy theories about recruiting “PSYOPS.” While there have been social media explosions, the military is aware of the ubiquity of the modern internet and is by and large embracing it, while also posting guidelines directing the use of personal social media, hoping to avoid public backlash and reputational damage.

Many of the comments about Bushnell’s actions online certainly could run afoul of the Air Force’s social media guidelines, which are very similar to those of the other branches. Guidance includes “Don’t post defamatory, libelous, vulgar, obscene, abusive, profane, threatening, racially or ethnically hateful or otherwise offensive or illegal information or material” and “Any time you engage in social media, you’re representing the DAF [Department of the Air Force]. Don’t do anything that discredits you or our service.” These rules are written broadly for a reason. They give the military latitude to decide what constitutes vulgar conduct or what discredits the service.

Yes, military service does come with restrictions around political protest and the release of sensitive or classified data. But military members, who are humans, violate these all the time, just as they violate policies on drug use, sexual assaultcriminal conduct, how to wear their uniform, tardiness (I personally had to discipline sailors who were chronically late for time-critical operations, like going on patrol), and a host of other rules. In short, they are just like every other organized community of humans on the planet. Indeed, acts of political protest, sometimes related to the release of classified information, are common, to the distress of some. Names like Chelsea ManningJack Teixeira, and John Walker are likely familiar to most because they disclosed classified information, but in all cases the service members were ideologically motivated, and the actors believed, precisely like Bushnell, that what they were doing was an act of protest against injustice. Notably, some military members were involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection. The U.S. military has roughly 1.29 million active-duty members and more than another 767,000 reservists. While this is arguably understrength to meet the challenges facing the American military at the dawn of 2024, it remains an enormous population of fallible and variable people, most of whom are not in combat arms roles, and most of whom are very young and possess all the decisionmaking tendencies and the passion of folks with an average age of 28 ½ years.

To civilians and non-veterans reading the military commentary surrounding Bushnell’s death, it might seem to be a passionate and undisciplined conversation that clashes sharply with public perceptions of the stoicism, commitment to the mission, values of service over self, and ethic of the “quiet professional” so often associated with military service. But the civilian-military divide highlighted by Mullen in 2011 has only worsened, and has resulted in a mirage not easily pierced. That mirage obscures the reality that the military is a workplace much like any other, an enormous population of laborers, technicians, and knowledge workers who will never fire a gun, who are mostly young, and who are subject to the same passions, political motivations, desire for recognition, and just plain errors in judgment as the rest of us. Whether or not you agree with Bushnell’s actions, he was a human being, and his membership in the U.S. military does not change that.