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Dangerously Comfortable

Josh Von Kuster
On War (January 2013)
Inward Light

My experience as a Navy pilot for a third of my life is fundamental to who I am.  The military has significantly impacted my experience as a Quaker. This is most evident to me when I compare the Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Peace with the military codes and traditions that have shaped me.

Simplicity is one of the areas of greatest similarity between the military and the Society of Friends.  Effective military thinking, from tactics to infrastructure, is enmeshed with simplicity at every turn.  At their best, military decision-makers and operators are asking “What is essential to get this job done, and what can be discarded?”  The most successful operations and units are those with the least complication.  Even the element of surprise that is crucial for an inferior force to succeed is most effective when kept most simple.

My admiration of simplicity often leads me to the most frustration with Quaker process.  I find it difficult to tolerate Quaker process when viewing the situation from my results-oriented perspective, including the Quaker practices of making room for the Spirit, ensuring all voices are heard, and seasoning.  These practices hardly seem simple to me.  My military experience tells me that decision-making is simplest when concerns are aired immediately, and when decisions are either made promptly or are referred directly to an evaluation process that has a clearly stated time-frame.  I am still working to understand how we are served by proposals and nominations being shelved for a month or more so that people can discretely voice their concerns in private: the opposite of transparency. 

It takes great faith for me to accept that decisions don’t need to be made immediately and openly.  And I wonder:  Does secrecy on controversial matters add value to the outcome in excess of the cost in time?  Does this embody simplicity?

Integrity was one of my disappointments with the military.  On the surface, each Department within the Pentagon holds integrity, or something synonymous, as a core value.  Deceit can constitute grounds for court-martial.  Integrity is valued above community.  Dishonesty is dealt with quickly and openly, at least outside the high ranks. In the military it is more important to have an honest unit than a cohesive one.  A service member is expected to say what he or she means. 

Unfortunately, integrity is not treated in actuality as primary or universal, and many of the people with whom I served compartmentalized their lives ad infinitum.  This is another place where Quakerism speaks to my condition.  We seek to integrate more of our life into wholeness: to bring all our activities, thoughts, ambitions, and desires under the guiding universal light of Spirit.  It is our clear insistence on seeking to live entirely in the Light that inspires me to call myself a Friend.

The Quaker testimony of Community seemed quite familiar to me when I first encountered it, because of my experiences in the Navy.  The military’s commitment to building a sense of community between new recruits and their units has been shown to be the single greatest determinant of operational success.  The military has developed a sponsorship program specifically devoted to welcoming new members.  Individuals are quickly and profoundly welcomed into the work of their units, and they are expected to give and receive assistance from day one.

In light of the intentional procedures that the military uses to build community, I wonder if our Quaker communities do such a good job.  Do we seek to understand new individuals in our community?  Do we work to encompass them in our life and to include “them” with “us?”

With its strong emphasis on high standards, however, the military has little use for leniency in its style of community building.  Individuals who fail to conform to established standards of performance or behavior are disciplined promptly.  When the commander determines a soldier to be detrimental to the unit, that soldier is excised from the community.  I do not suggest that we should emulate this model, only that we should recognize it enhances community performance, even while it rejects leniency for individual error.

At the intersection of Equality and Peace, I find the gateway to the world beyond words. 

Equality is the primary reason I identify as a Quaker.  The military, of course, is inherently unequal.  As an officer, I was required to compel salutes and formalities from all those I outranked, and I found it unpleasant, even more unpleasant than rendering salutes and formalities to my superiors.  By design, the rank system in the military is inherently inequitable.  I most often explain the difference between officers and enlisted as being like the difference between masters and slaves.  The tale of George Fox treating the king with the same candor as a prostitute remains my favorite Quaker tale.  It is important to note that my perspective on equality is not common in the military: there were very few officers and surprisingly few enlisted who rankled at military courtesy and caste.

Peace is a distant goal for all humanity.  The military exists to impose the will of our American government on anyone anywhere anytime, using every means necessary.  It is inherently un-peaceful.

Quakers by and large identify as pacifists, as dedicated to Peace above all else.  But how many of us are willing to give up our automobiles and dependence on petroleum to eliminate the cause of every American war since the 1950s?  How many of us value commitment to peace above dependence on liberty?  How many of us are in the trenches, breaking the laws of the government, which uses our tax dollars to fund war and buy the tools of death?

For me, equality and peace cannot coexist in our actual world of today, even though I see both coexisting in the world beyond words.  Unfortunately, in today’s reality, equality requires defense.  It is because of my commitment to equality that I was prepared to use lethal force in the military, and I am confident that I speak for many service members here.  I have tremendous respect for the dignity of life. I would lay down my life so that others might live.  But if an oppressor compels another to forfeit their dignity, then that oppressor forfeits their own right to dignity.  So long as we lack complete peace in the world, we should be prepared to forgo peace for equality.  Insofar as the United States is founded on the principle that all are equal, then the principle of equality is precisely what the military exists to defend. 

It is dangerously comfortable to sit back in our simple chairs, worshiping silently. The wages of sin are being doled out, on our behalf, by the president we elected.  We assign blame to “those people” – the ones who voted for the other guy, who harass Arabs, who carry M-4’s and who fly drones.  But as long as we pay taxes, drive cars, and value comfort more than justice . . . As long as we remain silent . . .  As long as our community rests self-assured that the problem lies without, then we are not seeking the end of all wars.  ♦

Josh Von Kuster attends Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oregon.

Veterans Integrity Militarism community Peace Justice

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