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Friends, Veterans, and the Military

James Summers
On War (January 2013)
Inward Light

I remember what it felt like, during the last two years of the Vietnam War, to go into town wearing my US Navy uniform.  Often, I felt invisible.  Sometimes, just silly. Frequently, I got the cold shoulder. A couple of times things got close to getting physical.  I was called a “paid killer” at my neighborhood food coop by someone who couldn’t read the shoulder insignia that identified me as a Hospital Corpsman and noncombatant.  He knew nothing about me, my job, my personal history, or my values.

Years later, when I attended my first Pacific Yearly Meeting, at a time when all of those memories were long buried, PYM seemed like a magical place. The Spirit moved my heart. I saw it moving around me.  I felt I had surely found the spiritual community I wanted for the rest of my life.  One afternoon late in the week, a couple dozen Friends were standing around between sessions when four National Guardsmen in uniform walked into the facility to inquire about booking it for a dance.  The Friends disappeared as if by magic, and only one besides me remained. She grabbed some Quaker literature from a nearby table, thrust it into the hands of the soldiers, told them why they should read it, and left. I felt hurt and embarrassed as I walked over to them, made small talk, and helped them find the office they were looking for.


At the same gathering, I camped near a Friend from a small outlying Meeting who carried many wounds as a veteran.  He hovered around the periphery of activities, wary and silent.  When he found out I was a veteran, the floodgates broke.  He talked.  We became friends.  He found it difficult to be among Friends.  He felt like an alien.  I no longer see him at PYM, and I miss him.

Sometimes it feels like these two parts of my experience, my time in the Navy and my time in the Society of Friends, are of two different worlds.  Over the last few years, they have been coming together.

Soon after the Iraq invasion of 2002, my friends in San Diego Veterans for Peace and I began attending a variety of peace demonstrations in our very military town. In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, feelings were running high. We found ourselves between groups of rabid, loud, super-patriots and equally vociferous peace protestors.  As veterans, we found ourselves in the middle in more ways than one. To the pro-war people, we could talk with authority that they sometimes recognized.  Often, we were able to disarm a situation that was about to explode.  Sometimes, however, the real challenge was with people on the other side of the line, protestors for peace whose language could be just as violent and hateful as that of their opponents.  Patiently, over the course of months, we reasoned with San Diego’s peace community to tone down the hate in some of their messages.  Particularly painful for us were epithets hurled at those in uniform.  We developed some consistent messages:  “Please don’t talk to our future members that way…” or “When you say that to them it feels like you’re talking about me…”

Peace activists in general and most Friends in particular are unfamiliar with military life and experience.  This ignorance has grown worse with the end of the draft, and sometimes limits our ability to work effectively for peace.  Even worse, for years this ignorance has closed Friends off from some of the people most in need of the healing power of the Spirit – soldiers and veterans – who also might become our partners in working for peace.

Early Friends were no strangers to war, or to soldiers and veterans of military service, either in Britain or in North America.  The Religious Society of Friends was born into a Europe that had been wracked by religious wars for a hundred years.  The British Civil Wars of the early 1600s spread devastation throughout Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where Quakerism was expanding rapidly.  In America, early Quakers also had direct experience with war and soldiers as European settlers inexorably committed violence and war against Native Americans whose lands and labor they coveted. For early Friends, encounters with soldiers and veterans were common.  From the start, Quaker testimonies of peace and equality were forged in the fires of war, and living them was not easy on either continent.

During the American War for Independence, Quakers were abused from all sides for their refusal to take up arms.  Some stood fast, some fled.  Others chose to fight, and did so with distinction. Brigadier General Nathaniel Greene, the “Fighting Quaker,” was instrumental in the success of the American army from the start to the finish, from North to South.  Quakers Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox designed and built the six innovative frigates that were the first ships in the world that were able to beat the British Navy.

This same pattern continued through the massive wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Many Quakers throughout the UK and the US maintained their peace testimonies, sometimes at great personal cost.  Many other young Quakers enlisted and fought in the Civil War and in both World Wars, and were sometimes disowned by their Meetings for doing so.

During the Vietnam War, many Quaker Meetings in the US were galvanized into support for conscientious objection and war resistance. Peace activists, including veterans, joined Quaker meetings in significant numbers.  Membership grew.  Meetings became bastions of anti-war, anti-military sentiment.  One of the few things everybody knows about Friends is that they oppose war and the military.  But many Friends, unless they are veterans, know little of military life or culture.

Why might good people join the military?  The costs of war are endless, and endlessly horrible, and this is one of the primary messages I carry as part of my work with Veterans for Peace.  At the same time, we need to recognize the robust, positive, even essential services the military provides to its members and society.  For a start, the US military is the only large-scale institution where Americans who don’t look like each other or talk like each other can meet and learn to work together, especially now that our public schools are even more segregated by race than they were in 1954.  Problems endure, and racism in the military continues, but overall there has probably been more progress on these issues in the military than in any other major American institution.  If only the Society of Friends were as diverse as the US Army!

“Join the Navy, go interesting places, meet interesting people . . . and kill them,” we used to joke.  Without minimizing the horrible reality of that statement, it can still be truthfully said that military campaigns have been an important vehicle of cultural contact between peoples since the time of the Roman Empire. War has always resulted in assimilation in both directions: marriages, the movement of populations, the learning of foreign languages.  America is richer for it.

The military also provides an essential place of refuge and transition for many young people.  What do teens do when they’re too old to stay at home anymore, but not quite ready for fully independent adult life?  A common answer is a period of military service.  For some, especially women, enlistment provides a way out of abusive situations.  I met many such young women in the Navy, fleeing abusive family members, boyfriends, or husbands.  It was a way out of the Jim Crow South for others. Sometimes, especially in today’s economy, it’s a much-needed job, a way to finance an education, or a source of health or dental care.   For many young people, the military provides leadership experience and on-the-job training for civilian life.

The military is a place where recruits learn a level of responsibility that they probably won’t encounter again until they become parents.  It doesn’t matter how good the excuse is, if you don’t fulfill your responsibilities in the military, someone can die.

Moreover, the military provides a chance for something even more important – a chance to make the world a better place.  Many young people enlist to to fight for their country, or freedom, or democracy, or to defend the helpless.  They bring courage and idealism to the battle. And they don’t only die for ideals, they die for each other.  Many veterans will attest to this.  The camaraderie is something they never forget.

Reflecting on these realities will lead to a more nuanced view of the people who join the vast killing machine that is the military.

Our Veterans for Peace group decided to construct our own a graphic representation of the costs of the Iraq War in November 2003, as increasing numbers of wounded warriors from the US invasion were brought to San Diego. We had no idea what we were actually creating.  We set up “Arlington West,” rows of grave markers on the beach in Oceanside near Camp Pendleton.  We didn’t know how it would be received in Marine Corps country. We stuck crosses in the sand (and later other symbols as well) with the names, ages, and hometowns of fallen US troops.  We also brought a bunch of anti-war messages, painted on signs.  When we got the crosses lined up and the candles lit, we veterans of every US war since 1941 realized we had created something that took us back to our own wars and our own wounds.  Grief settled in.  We put all the peace signs back in the truck.  As the sunset illumined the ocean behind the crosses, we were joined by passers-by, tourists, Marines and their loved ones.  We shared grief, fear and love with them, outside of any political context.

For several years, as the number of crosses in Arlington West grew from 300 to 3,000, we continued in the same way.  We set up the crosses and candles, and left the peace signs elsewhere.  Each time was like going to another funeral.  The Marines kept coming, first in the uncertainty and fear of inexperienced new recruits.  Many returned again and again, bringing the loss and injury of second, third, and fourth deployments.  They grieved comrades.  Other visitors grieved sons, fathers, husbands, lovers, brothers.  The Marines and sailors were overwhelmingly grateful for the memorial.  Active duty Marines and members of the peace community worked together for hours to set up and take down the memorial. This graphic demonstration of the cost of war caused some people to stop and consider it in a new way.  We stood together as veterans, peace workers, active duty troops, Democrats and Republicans, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, fiancés, wives, children, and friends.  We shared our grief and fear.  We saw a rare thing, people changing their minds and hearts.  No amount of argument could have accomplished this.  We met heroes at Arlington West, both those who wandered among the crosses in uniform, and those who set them up in Birkenstocks.   Not the least among those heroes were those who were brave enough to change their minds.

It is a bold thing to assert, as Friends do, that Love is a realistic and effective answer to the horror of the realities of war.  If Friends are to assert this effectively, it is critical that we remember the roots of our peace testimony – that the Spirit of love unites us all despite our differences.   Veterans and peace workers, speaking openly of our different experiences, can bring this realization into the present.  It may be difficult to speak about, and difficult to hear, but unless we extend our loving care towards our different experiences of the actual realities of war, we have little credibility. We must speak from experience.  

It can be tricky.  Veterans sometimes are reluctant to speak because of the depth of their emotional and spiritual wounds.  They may find it difficult to relive the past.  They may feel that there are some things they will never be able to share, that no one will ever understand unless they were there.  War can make you crazy.  Vets who have come to Friends Meetings, however, have already taken a positive step.  Friends meetings can be places of mutual healing. This process frequently takes courage and patience on both sides.  I have seen this in my monthly meeting and in my own soul, and I am grateful.

One thing I have learned as a veteran and a Friend is how much the warrior and the peace activist have in common.  It may be that the world is not divided between the violent and the peaceful, but between those who confront injustice directly and with courage, and those who sit on the couch and watch TV.  The differences between warriors and peace activists lie in the tools they use. Both require dedication and courage.  

The early Quakers spoke of “the Lamb’s war.”  Their campaign to spread the Truth was quite aggressive.  When they said things like, "We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world," they were not offering to stand down from their struggle.  They were merely being clear about methods.

For those who are tempted to violence, even today, by cultural conditioning or mental habit, George Fox offered a useful clue: “ I told [the Commonwealth Commissioners] I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars and . . . I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.”  Our culture robustly promotes violence in the way we teach history, in movies, in videogames, in our daily language.  We can learn to use new tools, young people and scarred veterans alike, to address the hurts of the world

For those recovering from a violent past, this may be the greatest gift the Quaker community can offer – guidance, support and example in “living in that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”

In the end, if we are going to offer this healing to veterans, and avail ourselves of what they might bring to our community and to our witness, it is important to remember, when we see uniforms, that those who wear them are not our enemies.  They are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, which is something, after all, that we have always known.  ♦

James Summers is a recently retired elementary school teacher and veteran of the US Navy Hospital Corps (1973-77).  He has been a Friend for about 25 years, and is active in La Jolla and Pacific Yearly Meetings.  He is a founding member and currently president of San Diego Veterans for Peace.

Vietnam Civil War Militarism History Reconciliation Veterans

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