Book review: Warriors who renounced war

Oct 22, 2018 by

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Three decades ago, Julie Putnam Hart sat in a peace lecture opposing the Stra­tegic Defense Initiative, commonly known as Star Wars. Intrigued by the presenter’s journey, she wanted to understand how a 22-year Air Force veteran had come to speak publicly against this military initiative.

Ultimately, Hart, now a sociology professor at Ohio Dominican University and previously at Bethel College in Kansas, initiated a decades-long research project to understand the transformation of veterans from enthusiastic military participants to anti­war activists.

pathways to pacifism cover rShe and co-author Anjel Stough-Hunter share their research in Pathways to Pacifism and Antiwar Activism Among U.S. Veterans. An academic text, the book shares important perspectives for Anabaptists about war and its lifelong impact on veterans.

Hart interviewed 114 veterans with experiences that span from World War II to Afghanistan. She tracked veterans’ journeys from childhood through their military experience to the present. The research sample was drawn from three antiwar veterans groups and included 15 veterans from Mennonite faith communities.

Hart documented transformations that included chang­es in spirituality, political views, vocations, tolerance of minorities, interest in caring for the environment and even new understandings of masculinity. Many times the transformations occurred only after years of struggle with shame and guilt, addictions, divorce and post-traumatic stress.

There were costs to choosing antiwar paths. They experienced loss of military identities and friends. They had to start over in careers, felt family discord and were disowned by their churches. Yet many described life now in terms of feeling at peace, having a clear conscience, being in good relationships and being healed.

The warrior-to-antiwar transformation is best understood through identity theory, which stipulates that our highest moral identities guide our emotional well-being and behavior. The authors propose that the veterans’ military experience so disrupted their self-identity that transformative change occurred far beyond their understandings of war.

Hart and Stough-Hunter cite four catalysts that disrupted veterans’ moral identity: combat experience, betrayal by deceptive U.S. leaders, new understandings of U.S. history or policy, and transformed religious convictions.

The combat catalyst group was the largest. A veteran named Bob shared his Vietnam experience: “The most important event was just seeing real war. . . . We walked endlessly and waited for someone to shoot us. . . . You can’t imagine how bad it really is. I can’t even explain it. The U.S. destroyed a village. Earlier in the day, 20 to 30 women and children came running out of the village, and our soldiers were shooting, and I yelled to stop shooting, they are women and children, but they kept on shooting.”

Returning to the U.S. in 1968, Bob found support with a friend who was antiwar and later worked against U.S. involvement in the Central American wars of the 1980s, including with Witness for Peace. Antiwar groups were crucial to his healing. He is now married, has a daughter and continues his antiwar efforts.

A second catalyst group was the religious convictions group, which will be of special interest to Mennonite readers. Rather than protest wars publicly, this group tended to practice what the authors labeled lifestyle activism — living simply, practicing conflict resolution in relationships, living with environmentally sustainable practices and supporting social justice and human rights efforts. Ten Mennonites were in this group.

A veteran named Richard tells his story: He was a Southern Baptist; the Army sent him to study pastoral psychology at Duke University, where professor Stanley Hauerwas pointed him toward Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. Being introduced to the Mennonite world led him to think about religion in a different way. He left the military, giving up significant retirement benefits, earned a peace studies degree and became a Mennonite pastor.

One intriguing chapter focuses on the version of masculinity demanded by the military and the renegotiation of that identity as part of a transformation to an antiwar position. Participants’ self-image as a physically assertive, stereotypically heterosexual alpha male shifted to self-descriptors such as integrity, honesty, blessed, nurturing and empowering. One renegotiated category proposed is “feminist masculinity.”

A high percentage of Mennonite study participants, including numbers of Mennonite pastors, ended up in this category. This raises interesting questions as to whether Jesus himself might have fit into this “feminist masculinity” typology and whether men who join Anabaptist faith communities must do unrecognized renegotiating of their identity as they commit to the church.

The authors make 10 recommendations, six to the military and four to faith communities. For the military, they recommend a national alternative ser­vice program for those who want to serve their country but are not comfortable with using lethal force. This could provide valuable opportunities to people with limited economic options. A thought-provoking recommendation, particularly to Anabaptist readers, is to reinstate the draft. This would engage the broad citizenry in decisions about entering and waging war, because many more people would have “skin in the game” since their sons and daughters might be drafted.

They recommend faith communities expose members to multiple perspectives of war and teach youth about pacifism and just-war theory. Currently, Mennonite curricula to do that are limited, principally because of low demand. With a volunteer military, youth do not face decisions about claiming conscientious objector status. Most men are registered for the draft without their knowledge when they get a driver’s license.

From World War II to Vietnam, the draft demanded we do this education. We had skin in the game. Can we maintain our peace-church identity without this focused education?

Finally, the authors propose that our congregations provide nonjudgmental, compassionate outreach to veterans and their families and friends. These are not our traditional communities. Yet, is this one of our callings as a historic peace church?

This book makes an important contribution to understanding war’s moral injury to humankind and how healing can happen. It highlights the necessity of nurturing the God-created identity of young and old alike so that all will have the courage to live faithfully in the Jesus way.

Steve Goering is a retired Mennonite pastor in Fort Collins, Colo., where he continues to work for justice and peace, especially as related to immigration issues.

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