Counter-Recruitment in Cookeville, Tennessee

Hector, isn’t it a Quaker thing to be concerned with the influence of the military on our children?" With such an innocent question from a friend with two sons in high school, our small preparative meeting was launched into a most interesting learning experience. A few Sundays ago we had four high school students at meeting for worship, none of whom had relatives or friends among Quakers.

Cookeville High School, with a student body of somewhat over 2,000 students, is located in a fairly conservative community in central Tennessee. Little blue-and-white Ten Commandment signs decorate lawns; patriotism and volunteering for the military are common. My wife, Susie, and I have spoken a couple of times at the high school about our experience of forgiveness, which was given us after the murder of our daughter. [This experience of forgiveness is described in an article, "What Can Love Do?" by Amanda Hoffman in the June 2002 issue of Friends Journal. —Eds.]

When the above question was raised, I expressed a concern in meeting for worship with concern for business, and all felt led to explore this further. Our request to present alternatives to military enlistment in the school was accepted by the principal, Wayne Shanks, through his secretary, and a date was set for September 2004 for us to set up a table. I contacted some friends in Veterans for Peace (of which I am also a member), and we prepared a joint presentation of materials from Veterans for Peace and American Friends Service Committee’s National Youth and Militarism Program. We arrived a little before 11 am and were told that students would be passing through the commons, going to and from lunch, in three waves, the last of which would finish around 1:15 pm. All went well, we thought, with students stopping by to pick up literature and chat with us. Some were very interested, some were already committed to joining the military, but it was all very friendly.

I reached home around 2:30 pm and was resting when an upset principal called. "Did the person who helped you set up your table read your material?" "No, I don’t think so." "Well, this was not what I thought your presentation was about; this is very controversial material, unsuitable for our students. You will not be asked to return. Several parents have called me to complain."

Somewhat deflated by this turn of events, I reported to meeting, where it was suggested that I try to meet with the principal to find out what was so offensive. A few weeks later a meeting was arranged, and we spoke for about 40 minutes. He handed me a piece of paper with two quotations, which apparently were the basis for his objection. One quotation was from General George Marshall, architect of the Marshall Plan that helped to rebuild Europe, "Our enemies are not people. . . . They are desperation, poverty, and humiliation."

The second quotation was from an unknown author: "The army that can defeat terrorism doesn’t wear uniforms, or drive Humvees, or call in air strikes. It doesn’t have a high command, or high security, or a high budget. The army that can defeat terrorism does battle quietly, clearing minefields and vaccinating children. It undermines military dictatorships and military lobbyists. It subverts sweatshops and special interests. Where people feel powerless, it helps them organize for change, and where people are powerful, it reminds them of their responsibility." The quotations were mild—it is hard to imagine that they were the cause. The principal was adamant about our not being asked to return but offered us the opportunity to take one side in a debate about the military in one of the classes.

When I reported this outcome, meeting suggested I contact Harold Martin, the superintendent of schools, which I did. This time, Jack Queen from Veterans for Peace joined me. Jack is quite an impressive fellow; a former Army major who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, he was a career soldier, joining up when he finished high school. After Vietnam he went to work at the Pentagon; and during those years he finally realized that the purpose, the waste, and the corruption were impossible for him to carry any longer.

News of our problem went out by e-mail to VFP members. In return, many letters came sharing experiences in high schools around the country. Because the American Civil Liberties Union was cited in several cases, we also contacted them to let them know what had happened. We were also in e-mail correspondence with Oskar Castro, coordinator of the National Youth and Militarism Program of AFSC.

After Harold Martin had heard us both, he said, "I was going to just say no to your request, but now that I’ve heard you I would like to take some time to think about this and will consult the lawyer for the school board." It was quite a cordial meeting during which it seemed he respected our beliefs even though he did not share them. We were hopeful that he would eventually agree that we had the right to be present at the high school, since the military recruiters were there.

After another few weeks, Harold Martin called to set up a meeting with Jack and me. Again it was a very cordial meeting, with the high school principal present, but the answer was still no: we would not be allowed to return to the high school. But the suggestion was made that we might want to set up a debate in a classroom: "our" group and some people from the military or recruitment office.

We weren’t sure where to turn next, and after some consideration and advising the ACLU of our situation, holding our situation in the Light in meeting, we decided that we should talk with the school board—the people who hire the superintendent of schools.

At this point we turned to the media. Our local newspaper was informed of the situation and our intention to speak to the school board. Our letter to the school board was also released to the media. Our local paper published our letter in its entirety and evenhandedly—with mostly factual comments and no editorializing. Local television and talk shows wanted interviews. Thinking back on this time, I can see why the media loves controversy: it sells newspapers. The downside of this was that the principal felt he had to defend his position, which is natural enough. Very quickly we were no longer talking to one another, but talking through the media.

We worked on the following letter for some time, nicknaming it "the mother of all letters":

Cookeville, Tennessee,
January 2005

Dear members of the School Board:

With deep appreciation for your responsibilities to the young people of our area, we request that we be permitted to distribute literature at the high schools in Putnam County. We would also appreciate the opportunity to speak with individual students and answer their questions. We are members of a small Quaker meeting (an historic peace church) and some of us are members of Veterans for Peace, a group of men and women in every state of our nation who have served honorably, and often with distinction, in our armed forces, and who believe that war is no longer an option in solving the differences between nations. Quakers are not so much against war as for peace. We believe that it is more consistent with the teachings of Jesus to live a life that takes away the occasion for war and violence, thus sowing seeds of peace instead of fighting wars.

The education of our young people is a heavy responsibility that we realize is not limited to the school system. We know you realize the importance of a young person understanding all sides of a question before making a decision. It is crucial, especially in a decision of such importance as joining the armed services, that the person making the choice be fully informed of all possible consequences of such a decision. Information, even if it represents a stand with which we do not agree, is a vital component of education in a democratic nation. Freedom to express and exchange ideas is a guaranteed right in this country. We believe young people need to know that there are alternatives to the military and that there are other ways in which they can finance their education and serve their country.

In the past, we have been allowed to bring literature about Americorps and the alternatives offered by various religious groups. What we propose to distribute now is similar to that information. We would like to emphasize the full scope of what it means to enlist in the military. This information is secular in nature and has been reviewed by Dr. Martin and Mr. Shanks. It does not promote any particular religious belief.

We have no problem with a well-informed young person making the choice to join the military. Our plea to you is to allow us to enable the young people in your care to be well informed in making a decision that could cost them their lives, trouble their consciences, or be in violation of their religious beliefs. Military recruiters are allowed to enter our high schools regularly and pass out recruitment information. Due to a massive advertising budget, young people are well informed about the positive aspects of military service. We ask that we be given an opportunity to present another point of view. We have no intention of causing a disruption of the usual course of the school day. It would be inconsistent with our beliefs to be less than peaceful in our dealings with the students.

We await your suggestions of how we can work together with you in this matter and hope to hear from you in February.

Hector Black, Cookeville Preparative Meeting (Quaker)

Jack Queen, Veterans for Peace

The February 3, 2005, meeting with the school board opened with a completely filled meeting room, no standing room left. I had thought of coming prepared, with a written statement, and then decided to let Spirit lead in what I said. A new policy of the board had recently been adopted whereby six people were each given five minutes during which to speak to a topic that the board would be considering. It was first come, first serve; so we arrived very early, and five of us signed up.

I can’t remember my statement to the school board word for word, but it went something like this: "We don’t have a problem with young people deciding to join the military—if they are fully informed. My experience of two and a half years of military service during World War II left me convinced that war is no longer a way with which we should resolve differences. Speaking personally, I’ve given a lot of thought to what Jesus said about loving our enemies. And I think he meant exactly what he said. I think that if we always strike back in revenge, there’s an endless cycle of violence and revenge. The only way to stop that cycle of violence is the way that Martin Luther King Jr. did, the way that Jesus did. We must say ‘The violence stops here.’"

I want to share the statements to the school board of two others of our group, who spoke out of their experiences in the military. Charlie Osburn said:

I served two years in the Marine Corps. Our children need all the information they can get to make an informed decision about their future. Our children are capable of making good decisions regarding their futures as long as they have balanced information. The military spends over $2 billion on recruiting. We need to balance the impact of that kind of spending with information about alternative ways of serving our country.

And Jack Queen said:

I was an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam. I have dragged many men off the battlefield during my two tours of duty, often in heavy fighting. I was wounded myself along with 14 of my men by a napalm air strike (friendly fire inflicted by our air force). That war was an obscenely dirty war, and loading the blood-slick floors of the helicopters with the tattered remains of dead, dying, and maimed young boys was the terrible reality of war. Our young people deserve to be faced with that reality before they sign up for military service.

Jack was treated very brusquely by one member of the school board; he had turned to speak to the people behind him in the audience, and this board member asked him sharply to address his remarks to the school board, which sat on a raised podium at the front of the meeting hall.

Some of the literature we had passed out at the school was handed out to the school board members. I remember hearing "Conscientious objectors!" and "Anti-American!" from shocked board members as they read the material. The principal spoke after we did, and said he thought that I had been underhanded when I first came with the suggestion of presenting alternatives to the military. His secretary had asked me, "Such as?" and I mentioned AmeriCorps, and didn’t tell them what the Vets for Peace or AFSC literature was about. This was true in that I hadn’t mentioned over the phone all the literature we were presenting. To me, forgiveness and nonviolence are all of one piece. I never spoke directly with the principal about this, but realize in retrospect that I should have been more forthcoming, knowing that there might be objections.

Some literature from others who have worked in persuading principals to allow distribution of literature stresses that this is an issue of education, not politics. Young people faced with recruiters making many promises need to know that there are other ways in which they can finance their educations, or serve their country, as well as the questions they ought to ask in order to be fully informed before making a decision that can affect the rest of their lives. They also need to know that military service could easily involve killing other human beings and destruction of their homes and property, considerations that do not appear in the recruitment material.

Another incident, when one of our group gave the media incorrect information about quotes to which the principal objected, made it clear to us how important it is to check carefully before speaking on record. It is so easy to take an incorrect quote and connect it to other information given with the question—they were wrong in this, how do we know we can trust what they say to be the truth?

Because of the publicity of our dismissal from the high school, we found that we needed to communicate directly with the principal. During the preceding weeks, the song "Building bridges between our divisions, I reach out to you, will you reach out to me?" had been running through my mind constantly. We had considered this question many times in meeting and our discussion periods: How do we reach out to those who think differently, who have a completely different take on the war from ours? And how can we express our love for our political adversaries and not water down our witness?

It became clear that I needed to talk one-on-one with the principal, and I phoned him. We set up a time, and we met for well over an hour. We had agreed that nothing we discussed should leave the room, but by the end we both felt that nothing had been said that could not be stated publicly. It was not a question of our coming to agreement, it was a matter of reaching out to one another, to try to understand that none of us has the whole truth, that we can all learn from one another.

The ACLU had written to the school board’s attorney about the government not having the right to suppress a point of view, citing an Eleventh Circuit Court decision in 1989, which allowed a peace group back into high schools when military recruiters were allowed access. The only restriction: they were not permitted to denigrate the military as a career.

At about this time, the whole situation took a most amazing turn. The superintendent of schools phoned me and asked if I could come to see him. He thought we could work this out and that our group could return to the school. I said I couldn’t come alone, that Jack should be with me. We put it off for a few days, and on February 25, Jack and I went. It was again a cordial meeting—we would be allowed back into the school, the only restrictions placed on our return were those mentioned in the court case in Atlanta, no denigrating of the military as a career.

We returned to the high school on March 10, and one Thursday a month for the rest of the school year. We were received very well; everyone was helpful in finding us tables and chairs. We did not sense any hostility. The man who heads up the Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps came by and picked up one of each leaflet. I think this lack of hostility was the result of our efforts not to antagonize, but to build bridges. We found the students again very receptive. We had good discussions with several who had already signed up for the military. Last spring our witness was joined by some members of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Cookeville, and now we have some people who are neither Quakers, Veterans For Peace, nor Unitarian, but just want to help us in presenting another view.

Our literature comes from AFSC, Veterans For Peace, Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and others; and we have been joined by people who represent the Peace Corps as an alterative way of serving our country without resorting to violence. Articles from journals and magazines presenting an alternative to the glorified accounts of war have also been distributed, as well as interviews with veterans of the Iraq War and accounts describing what happens to these veterans. We have been careful not to bring in materials of a partisan nature, or accounts that are critical of the current administration.

The influence of our Quaker preparative meeting upon our decisions was one of the most important aspects of this whole experience. Several times we had thought of reacting by attacking those opposed to our view, and were led in another direction by the meeting. At one point we wanted to issue a press release telling everyone about our victory, but through our meeting we realized that this would alienate people. I think this was especially hard for non-Friends in our group, and we deeply appreciated their willingness to go along with us in these leadings. The things that come out of Silence still amaze me.

What a purpose-filled and hopeful experience this has been! I would certainly urge other meetings to work in this area. These young people are the future of our country. Whatever one’s concerns might be—peace, environment, human rights, social justice, poverty—this is a unique opportunity to join seekers after truth of all ages in a search for alternatives to current thinking on how the extraordinarily serious issues of our times can be dealt with creatively.

Hector Black

Hector Black is a member of Crossville (Tenn.) Meeting and now attends Cookeville Preparative Meeting. He is a fruit grower with interests in organic farming, peace, and classical music. He works against the death penalty.