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is an early Webb School chapel talk explaining my position as a conscientious
objector. This talk predates even my exposure to the Quakers. I
wrote again about this topic during the Gulf War, still in my pre-Quaker
years. I have grown stronger in my convictions about pacifism over the
years and will probably return to this topic in my writing repeatedly.
One important point not raised in either paper written so far is that
pacifism is not just a personal avoidance of fighting: it is a commitment
on all levels to find peaceable solutions that avoid the occasion for
When I was in college I registered as a conscientious objector. A conscientious
objector, or pacifist, is one who refuses to participate in war for
moral or religious reasons. As it turned out I also had draft deferments
with no end in sight and, most significantly, I drew a high lottery
number, so I was well covered. Still, I went through a period of deep
thinking about the muddled ethics of war and came out with a personal
decision not to participate. This may seem like a dead issue to you,
but wars have not ceased. Every generation of Americans has had a war
to fight. Unless this trend reverses, you too may have a decision to
I did not always have this attitude about war. I grew up thinking that
being in the army was an automatic part of life like going to school.
When I didn't make my bed neatly my grandmother would say that "when
I got into the army" I would have to make my bed just so, and have
inspections and so forth. My father was in World War II. He always told
with pride how he was in charge of fueling the planes that went out
from his air base on D-day and how none of them failed to return for
lack of fuel. We would watch the old newsreel documentaries together
and he would try to pick out which planes came from his base.
When I was in High
School the Vietnam War was building up. I remember writing a term paper
supporting of the domino theory, the idea that we had to stop the communists
somewhere, why not here. I remember reading articles by Bertrand Russell
and other prominent anti-war activists decrying the use of napalm and
bombing villages, but I couldn't understand their point. After all,
that's what happens in war, isn't it?
A turning point
for me came with the Tet Offensive in 1968. Time, Life, and Newsweek
had big spreads with very graphic scenes of the war. There were truckloads
of bodies. There was a picture of two men taking the ankles of a dead
man and dragging him face down to one of the trucks. One sequence in
particular haunted me. It showed several Vietnamese men alive and well,
and several frames later the same men were lined up on the ground in
a mutilated bloody mess. This was supposedly a job well done because
they were the enemy, but it didn't hit me that way. I identified with
them as men like you and me with families that loved them; they were
simply born in a different part of the world. For the first time the
human reality of the fighting hit me, and I saw the war as terrifying
insanity. The whole thing brought on a deep emotional revulsion in me.
For many others the same emotional revulsion to the reality of war came
only when they got there and found themselves immersed in a similar
This was my emotional
conversion to pacifism, but for me this wasn't sufficient grounds for
opting out. I had to come to terms with the more rational issues. This
experience did, however, lead me to work through my philosophical position
To many people
war is black and white. On the one hand you have: "Thou shalt not
kill. War is a violation of this commandment in the extreme. No good
that comes of war can possibly justify the evil that war brings."
On the other hand
you have: "War is a fact of life. Whether you like it or not you
must be willing to defend your country or live in subjugation. To refuse
your responsibility is dishonorable. After all, who but a coward or
a fool would refuse to defend his family against the attack of a maniac?
And isn't defense of one's country a simple extension of the same logic?"
If the issue is
black and white, which side is white? For me it is not black and white;
yet I have come to lean toward the former; enough so to take a stand
on that position.
What about the
maniac attacking my family? I don't know what I would do. I might end
up killing someone in such a situation. I certainly would not simply
stand by, but killing would not be my instinct. But no, the logic doesn't
carry over in any simple way. When you decimate whole villages because
guerrillas may be hiding there, who is the maniac? War is madness.
The whole thing
about "Defense" seems to me to be a euphemism, or cover-up.
We call ugly things by pretty names in an attempt to hide their ugliness.
"The Marine Corps Builds Men" is a saying that tends to obscure
the fact that its primary function is to kill men. We used to have a
War Dept. But someone decided "War" sounded ugly, so we now
have a Department of Defense. "Defending U.S. Interests" is
just another way of saying getting our own way, even if it means taking
over the oil fields of another country or setting up a puppet government.
According to the Hollywood version, we even "defended" ourselves
against the Indians as we took over their land and committed massive
genocide against them.
Joining the United
States Armed Forces does not automatically put you on the side of truth
and justice. The fact is once you are in the army you kill whomever
they tell you to. You have submitted yourself to a war machine--a mechanism
by which nations try to get their own way by force. You are generally
not even in touch with the real reasons you are fighting, any more than
are the men set up to fight against you. The whole training process
is geared to strip you of the will to think for yourself. One phrase
in Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade says it all: "Theirs
not to reason why, theirs but to do and die...." That may sound
heroic, but the logic doesn't strike me as morally compelling. Rather,
it speaks of moral capitulation. For me the war machine, the whole institution
of war, is the real enemy of humanity.
Pacifism did not
start with Vietnam. People have been opting out of wars for religious
or moral reasons throughout history, whether or not there has been a
legal way to do so. Some have been executed, other have been imprisoned
or persecuted. There are members of the local Church of the Brethren
who spent World War I in prison at San Quentin for refusing military
service as conscientious objectors. The laws we have today acknowledge
certain forms of conscientious objection, but they cannot define the
limits of conscience. If you ever come to the point of having to go
outside the law as a matter of conscience, you stand in a rich tradition.
A key component
of pacifism over the generations has been the simple, naive faith that
God will somehow preserve and bless those who trust in Him. This sounds
childish and unrealistic in the face of modern realities. But faith
has always dealt in outrageously childish notions. As Jesus said, "of
such is the kingdom of heaven."
And yet, as I contemplate
the prospect of a nuclear holocaust, the mass slaughter of chemical
and biological warfare, and the balance of terror strategies for avoiding
them, I am led to wonder, what is so childish about childlike faith?