Paradox defined: “Items and situations that seem mutually exclusive, yet somehow reflect upon each other, often creating a deeper, more nuanced truth, perhaps in dynamic tension, or complementing each other.” Like a Quaker serving in the military. I lived that paradox intermittently for seven years while serving in the reserves during medical school and residency. Then I lived it full-time during four years of active duty, which started when I completed my medical training in 2000. My first year of active duty seemed pretty benign, then 9/11/2001 happened, and my situation instantly became truly “military.” I faced impending deployment to “the sandbox,” the Middle East.
I was a non-traditional student of medicine. I didn’t begin medical school until I was almost thirty, after attending graduate school in biomedical engineering, which came after several years spent studying and then working as an electrical engineer. By the time I decided to attend medical school, I was broke; and I simply could not ask my already retired parents to support me. I looked around for ways to pay for medical school, and finally, I decided that pursuing a military scholarship was my best option.
Deep down, I wrestled with that decision from the start. I never was sure that joining the military was consistent with my values. However, I adopted the justification that, as a medical professional in the military, I would not be actively participating in violence, but rather, I would be helping people. I knew this was a dubious argument and self-serving. I could see that helping perpetrators of violence would make me culpable, or at least, would make me condoning of violence.
I started attending Quaker meeting in Germantown, PA, shortly after I started my military training and medical studies. In retrospect, I see that I was probably drawn to Quakers as a coping mechanism for my internal struggles.
In my “Officer Indoctrination Course” (Yes, it’s really called that.) and at “pep rallies,” we were led in chants set to grinding, heavy-metal music, pumped at high decibel: “Let the bodies hit the floor!” “One bullet, one kill!” We also learned that the Air Force’s unofficial slogan is: “Shoot people and blow things up!” What had I gotten myself into? Then 9/11 happened. Perhaps even more disturbing was the realization in 2003, as troops started returning from our war, that our government had no coherent plan for dealing with the mental and physical damage that our troops sustained.
Being in the military, especially in the context of active war, precipitated an existential crisis in me. I considered the possibility of retroactive conscientious objector status, but in the end, that felt disingenuous to me. Back when I had made my original commitment, I knew full well that I was entering into morally ambiguous territory. Later, my sense of integrity told me I had to continue making the best of my situation.
During my four years of active duty, I attended Quaker meeting regularly. The meetinghouse provided relief. A peace-studies book club sprang up, further providing me with perspective and balance. We studied and I wrestled with Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.
In the end, the Latin phrase “Amor Fati” – love of fate – sustained me. In Stoic philosophy, this is shorthand for “Accept and embrace all that comes your way.” While the path I was walking was not the one I had envisioned for myself, it was full of personal growth. Consequently, when I was scheduled for deployment to the Middle East, I was able to anticipate that eventuality as a new life experience. When I subsequently fractured my wrist in an accident shortly before my deployment, leading to the cancellation of my deployment, I accepted that turn of events as well – certainly more so!
My time as a part of the military gave me greater insight into dichotomies and paradoxes of violence and peace – in their many varieties. Our civilization, as flawed as it is, would not exist without an active military.
We can certainly debate whether a better civilization can be attained, one that is less interventionist and less violent – both in terms of national defense and day-to-day living. We can certainly envision a Department of Peace on par with the Department of Defense. At the same time, we can also imagine an even more brutal civilization than the one we live in now. Great violence was done against our country and against 3,000 citizens on 9/11. Our government faced choices over whether to respond with violence and to what degree. More violence could have been used, or less could have. The choices that were made have resulted in the longest continuous war in U.S. history – seventeen years – but our nation has also experienced no significant terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in that time.
After having served in the military, I better appreciate the value of actively supporting our representative democracy. I am now an advocate of compulsory public service after the high school years, like many countries require, notably Israel and Brazil. My caveat would be that multiple options should be offered – both international options, like the military and the Peace Corp, and also domestic options, like Teach for America or the infrastructure work programs of the 1930s. It seems to me that such public service would spur the populace to have more “skin in the game” for our government, that it would diminish the outsider sniping currently coming from a whole range of political persuasions – left, right, center, libertarian, etc.
My experience in the military also forced me to confront what I truly feel and think about personal physical violence. As an example: Small arms training became mandatory for all officers after 9/11, including medical officers. I struggled with whether I should refuse that training, citing conscientious objection, given that my superficial philosophizing on the peace testimony made me think I could never shoot another person.
Then I remembered I had grown up shooting bb-guns and rifles – at targets, yes, but still shooting. I decided it would be no big deal to do the training, since I knew that I myself would be unlikely to ever be put into a position where I would be expected to shoot a fellow human. Yet I had to consider the possibility.
If I were deployed, if I or my fellow soldiers were menaced, did I think I would raise a gun in response or not? What would I really do? Allow my troops and myself to be slaughtered? Bringing it closer to home, to the classic scenario posed to all pacifists – What if your spouse or child were in mortal danger, and you had a gun in your hand, what would you do? The peace testimony is good in theory and in many practical situations, but what about absolutely dire situations?
To paraphrase and mash up Parker Palmer and Rainer Maria Rilke: “The point of life is to live everything, to live the fill-in-the-blank now, to embrace it.” If we are to live life fully, we must live the questions, the contradictions, the tensions, and the paradoxes of life; we must embrace them. Amor Fati. ~~~
Keith Dickerson, MD, lives, works, and plays in western Colorado. He considers IMYM to be his spiritual touchstone and home. He jests that he is currently a free-range Quaker.