I’m still trying with podcasts. I know that I personally have achieved a medium amount of fame via podcast work. I also know that I’ve very publicly shat on the medium before, at least in a theatrical way that invited participants to engage with streaming audio in a more personal way. This is all to disclose that I have personal podcast interactions, but I also have a personal desire to let podcasts into my heart in the way that so many of my friends can. Podcasts for so many of them is a line-in to new information and other lines of inquiry. I am starting to tap into that world, albeit on a very limited basis so far.
It’s with great trepidation that I venture forth into that world. I get offers on shows that others promise will change my life and I avoid those offers at all costs. Let that be the standard by which you judge when I offer up that the show I’m writing about today is one of the five or six podcasts that I set aside time for whenever there’s a new episode, because the perspective that it brings provides a value and an insight that I’m not finding anywhere else. In today’s political landscape that perspective has been invaluable in shaping my political and personal hills to die on.
The podcast is called What a Hell of a Way to Die and it features two leftist leaning military dudes talking about issues that affect the military, our military plans, and, now, issues of gun control. It’s a plainspoken, honest back and forth between two men with vastly different military experiences who both center pressing American issues in a fascinating way, but also prove that the concept of patriotism does not belong to right-wing politicians (and that the left is ignoring an entire population of citizens that aren’t the kind of jarhead that unfortunate stereotypes have created.)
It is, to put it simply, one of the most unexpectedly funny podcasts you can stumble upon. It is a mix of the two things I need as a listener: an expertise level of knowledge on the subject and an unwavering level of personality. Nate Bethea and Francis Horton keep me coming back, week by week, to do deep dives into military-political issues that range from “matters directly related to me” all the way to “I would have no idea about this except for them.” And I get a weird jolt of participation from the entire experience. It becomes, over time, its own clandestine world in which I’m an associate or co-conspirator. This podcast is so far outside the range of my world that I unquestionably learn more from each hour of this than any other podcast, but I have also learned innumerable opinions on issues that I previously didn’t even know existed. And I found myself here mostly through scoffing at the idiocy of what believing the opposite would look like.
To hear how funny the show can get, I recommend this review of Steven Seagal’s deep-state novel The Way of the Shadow Wolves.
To hear how specific the show can get, I recommend this episode about the frustrated reactions of military bros to a satirical listicle about the equipment that Seb Gorka carries with him wherever he goes.
To hear how technical and bleak the show can get, take a spin on this episode about guns in schools and what it would take, realistically, to defend an American high school from an active shooter. Be warned, this one messed me up real bad, so it may do the same to you.
I sat down with the two hosts of the show to discuss how hard it is to be some of the only voices in this part of the political spectrum and how they make comedy out of loss, tragedy and the crushingly bleak state of today.
Paste: People sometimes get your voices confused which seems ridiculous, except I realized that I cannot tell you apart when you are both shouting because you both have the same angry-at-shit voice.
Nate Bethea: Yeah, we’ve both had to yell at troops and I think you just learn to have the same “what the fuck, guys?” voice. We do both have the same Angry Army Man voice.
Paste: Right off the bat, let’s just establish who you gentlemen are and what your history of service has been?
Francis Horton: I joined the army at the age of 17. I needed to get my parents’ permission to join which I always found ironic because they wouldn’t let me play football because they didn’t want me to get hurt. This was before 9/11 so they saw it as a nothing thing. I am still in, just fulfilling my contract. I’m a reservist now. In the Army, I do mostly writing and photography and Public Affairs. I went to Afghanistan in 2004 and Iraq in 2009.
Bethea: I’m not in the military now. I served from 2007 to 2014. I graduate from school, became an Army officer, and served out active duty. Barring a World War II level national emergency, I’m not going to get called back ever. I was an infantry officer deployed to Afghanistan in 2009-2010. Now I’m a digital media producer and freelance journalist. I’ve written for the New York Times, The Daily Beast, etc. I vent my communication needs through the show.
At this point I learn that Francis and Nate have never actually met. I also learn that Household Six is a shorthand joke from the military about asking permission from your wife. I’m making this note so I can use it in the future.
Paste: If you were strangers then how did this show come about?
Bethea: We were both activated by the 2016 election.
Horton: I looked at my new Commander-In-Chief and I wanted to be an outlet for left-leaning veterans. But they’re hard to find. I’m in St. Louis and it is hard to find socialists here. I started the podcast on my own and we had a friend named and Adrian and then we —
Bethea: I was writing about my deployment. In 2010, McSweeney’s brought me on. I didn’t know how twee it was, but I just wrote about my deployment there. And they told me to start a Twitter account. My politics shifted and I was near the end of my Green Beret course training, and then I saw John Wayne memorabilia of him shooting a bazooka at foreigners and you suddenly realize that you’re on the wrong side of this. The binary of what I was up against made me bail on this. I wound-up doing grad school in New York and become more online and found more left leaning ideas. I saw Francis online, and he was funny and in the military and left leaning and—look, in the military, when you try to make leftist friends in the military? You get called a baby killer. So I saw what Francis was doing and I really enjoyed that. Also, just to let you know, I was in the unit that Bowe Bergdahl was in. I wrote the piece that basically broke the news on that. When they decided to charge him, and when Serial decided to do a season on him, this website Task & Purpose reached out to ask if I wanted to be a part of this podcast. I didn’t know what a podcast was.
Paste: Sometimes, when pitching the show, I come back to a very easy place. My wife is a San Francisco godless liberal hippy, and there are two things in this world which light her aflame like the Salem witches of old—and your show hits on both of them. One is the idea that only religious people can be “good” and the other is that only conservatives can be patriotic. Did you start from that place or is it inherent in what you’re doing?
Horton: The right co-opted the idea of patriots. I want to see America do well. And I don’t think we are doing well. I currently live in a mixed / class-divided neighborhood. I got more involved with my community in my microcosm. There’s an opium problem and there are tent cities. To be a capitalist after seeing stuff like this is just cruelty.
Bethea: My mom and dad were both in the Army. I grew on on bases. We have family histories stretching back to great-grandparents. I grew up without the fist-pumping but I considered the military to be a vocation. My mom and dad were on active duty under Reagan. I grew up apolitical with conservative leanings. Seeing the misery of people around this country is what radicalized me. I was telling my mom I wanted to join the Navy over things like hotel rates. And the Army said: “Wait you have a pulse and you played sports and you’re going to graduate? Oh my god.” This is 2002-03. They didn’t care what your major was in college. So one of my best friends went to college for metalsmithing and went on to become an armory officer. I grew up thinking this was a civic obligation I should fulfill. But no one shouted the colors of the flag at me, and the people that did that kind of fetishization and flag-fucking were often bad at their jobs and everyone knew it. I had a commander who threatened to cure me of my Francophilia because he knew I read books. So I said to him that he needed to tell me what he considered a patriot to be and that I could then tell him if I was one or not. If I had to say that the sky was yellow instead of blue then no I’m not going to lie about it. There’s a weird world view that sells out all these ideas but also involves thinking that somehow the liberals are betraying you? No one wants to participate in this.
Horton: It’s a job better than anything you can get at the age of 18. There are good benefits for you and your family. For 18 years I’ve been doing this but I also hit a point where I believe that this is gross. But then you get a $10k signing bonus. My patriotism was third on the list of priorities when I first joined. It’s the post office with guns.
Bethea: But no one would expect a person at the post office to say “I’m just so dedicated to delivering the mail and that’s why I have all these guns because it’s my duty and I deliver the mail.”
Horton: I don’t tell anyone to join the military now because god knows what the next year is going to be? I tell people to join the Air Force because they’ll teach you somethin’.
Bethea: There’s an angry bearded guy online that I disagree with who says some things about cost benefit situations here and how the worst possible thing could happen. Eighteen year olds aren’t famous for their practical experiences with life. People online will hand-wave away a subset of the population based on these ages. Everyone wants benefits. I would still recommend against it because the recourse if something goes wrong is nothing. If you have leftist convictions and you think you can cause change—that’s setting yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment.
Horton: It’s a lot of people just trying to collect a paycheck. And if you get fucked up and you wind up out of the Army? They’ll forget about you. And everyone has a story about someone getting booted. And you wind up asking “Hey why are you getting drunk all the time?” Well, I picked my friend’s brains out of a helmet. I wasn’t coming back okay. And then someone kicks you out of the military because you’re being too weird and dark for everyone else.
Bethea: There was a guy who was an NCO who was great at his job and then went through some shit and wound up robbing people, looking for pain pills. You try to attach that guy to a responsibility and it becomes a game of folks not accepting responsibility and its this criminal shuffle. No one wants to take responsibility.
We all share stories of military friends who never have taken responsibility nor has the military taken responsibility for them.
Horton: I’m not going to compromise myself and my wife and my child just because I found a conscience. I think this podcast is an outlet for that.
Bethea: We aren’t mercenary assholes. On active duty, you have to legally show up every day and it is hard to show up every day and think, in your heart, what I am doing is actively wrong. I’ve never met anyone who walked away on purely moral grounds. But in my entire personal history of the military, I never saw anyone take a stand against any of this. Feeling like you are morally wrong about something means that you have to swallow being morally wrong. And that ruins people.
Paste: You’ve talked on the show about PTSD and about how PTSD can absolutely apply to people who never saw active combat, even though some people online can’t get behind that idea.
Bethea: The big takeaway is that junior officers get PTSD because they aren’t aware of what is happening, whereas the higher-ranking officers above them do. I think it’s just a powerlessness. That does stuff to people. Even if you weren’t in a firefight, the stress of the totality of it can do something terrible.
Horton: There’s always a low hum in the background because anything could explode. I was in Southern Iraq and we got hit a lot. Even though it was technically safe. Anything could happen at any point—and you switch that point of your brain off. We had wooden structures we were living in that would burn down but we were in a place where you’d have to ask if your friend just burned alive. It’s different at war versus at a drunk driving accident? My best friend was burned up with a 122 mortar—doesn’t make sense. I’ve had some rockets and some general rounds in my general area—no one was ever angry enough at me just angry at my general area. The concussive blast at 5 AM my last week there, that did something to me. So now I live in an area where I can see the people back in Missouri who are firing guns when drunk, and man. I’ve called the cops on people shooting at their own house. I don’t need more than a flashlight to help defend my own house. At 3 AM I’ve heard people empty guns into their own homes.
Bethea: I used to snap up in New York City and look for my gun. PTSD is a natural reaction to danger but it feels completely outsized in the modern world and that makes you feel like a dumb-ass and you decide to isolate yourself. Alcohol and weed and living in your house and never going out—these all mitigate the effects.
Paste: You have a very funny show and you keep horribly dark subjects very light. There’s a comedy that allows an accessibility. But also you have Army Talk which is like me when I was a dumb idiot and shouting about videogames and horror movies at girlfriends in high school who had no context for what I was doing. But your words are, you know, shit that matters. That’s how I feel sometimes, using the context clues of your show to figure out what you’re talking about and why it makes the two of you laugh so much? You both go out of your way to explain that you don’t really “fit” with this type of show but you’re excellent storytellers. How does that come together?
Bethea: Part of being in the military is storytelling and bantering a lot. From brand new private to general officers in a room. You shoot the shit and you tell stories while making it lighter. So much of what we choose to talk about in 2018 is so absurd that if you can’t laugh at how ridiculous things are, your only other option is to be sad or angry. The best experiences we get are when we share stories and people email from active duty to say “Wow, I wasn’t alone” or “Now I get what these other people are going through.” When you’re training you share these stories. It’s never about crying in the dark. It’s about a guy who ran through the darkness naked firing a crossbow at people.
Horton: We remind each other to alleviate the heavy stuff. We also find angry veterans to be hilarious because they’re so absurd and we never want to be those guys? Our friend The Warax (ed note: an injured veteran who guests on the show and operates anonymously because he is often attacked/doxxed for his opinions) who said that you get blown up and you either get sad about it or deal with it. And you know, we could be the vets who just live at the VA and only our friends are vets and that’s… that’s something I could be. Instead, this podcast is just a fraction of who I want to be. Because the Army can be dumb and stupid sometimes. Basic Training is changing right now, and we got 30 minutes of comedy out of that?
Bethea: There’s a slice of the Army that wants to get back to when “Men Were Hard” and now drill and ceremony stuff is coming back. As if that’s part of a time where the military wasn’t as fucked up as it is now. The priorities are constantly changing. Mismatches and stupidity and weird situations are the standard for an organization where a 48 year-old man calls me sir even though I’m just a second lieutenant, but it doesn’t matter because we have to play the absurdity game. Making a show for civilians means doing something more accessible.
Paste: Do you hope that you’re defining the future of what veteranship and emotional availability looks like?
Horton: I just want to show other leftist veterans that they aren’t alone. It’s hard to be a socialist or an atheist. And to bridge between civilians and military. Leftists might see every veteran as a grunt in some shitty shirt. Here’s us: saying that the military is only successful because you keep failing yourself to victory.
Bethea: Or a predatory economic system that forces people to forego moral choices to make sure they don’t starve or die of preventable illnesses. There’s a weird veteran culture where you’re either political and right-wing or politics are, and there’s no better way to say this, politics “are gay.” We were in a totalitarian situation and we’re trying to find something more progressive. And then the left feels weird about accepting us too. People sometimes think we didn’t sign up for the military to get paid, they think we just signed up to kill people. The landscape is broken. If they don’t know anybody like us, what are they going to do? Google “veterans” and find a guy with a bunch of guns who REALLY hates Muslims? Popular veteran culture is a right-wing ideologue culture. So I hope people listen to the show and find people who aren’t afraid of discomfort. There are goals of building socialism and you’re never going to find it from people that were magically born into it.
You can support the show’s Patreon here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.