To a High School Senior Contemplating Enlisting in the Armed Services
It is more than 70 years since I sat as you do now preparing to finish high school. The world never looked bigger or brighter—even with a world war going on. It seemed so right to join the armed forces and be part of that exciting world out there, to find my manhood in that thing called war.
By the winter of 1944, I was 19 and had already been on 17 bombing missions over Germany. Each mission I found, as part of a crew, became more dangerous and scary. Then one Sunday on a bombing mission over Munich, we were shot down and crash-landed outside of the small German town of Sonthofen. We had not been able to make it to Switzerland. We were captured by the very young German Hitler Youth corps, who tied up our pilot and the other officers and were ready to execute them when a German officer stopped the execution. We were led back into the town, only to be very badly beaten with sticks and brooms by the townspeople and thrown into the local jail. This was the beginning of an odyssey, of traveling from city to city and from one Stalag Luft (prisoner-of-war camp) to another. Most of the time we were without food or water, depending on Red Cross parcels or bartering with local farmers for an egg or cabbage. This is only a small part of a longer story of my experiences as a warrior. I eventually came home wounded, both mentally and physically.
I know that diploma you worked so hard for will soon be in your hand. You have listened to all the speeches and cheered for your classmates as their names were called. The day will end with a party. But through the celebration, do you hear a whisper? In the hearing of your conscience, do you hear a voice? You close your eyes. It might be your voice with questions about the future: What have I learned to prepare me for the world out there? What do I know now that I didn’t know before? What can and will I do now? What will happen to me?
From my own experience and the perspective of the warrior, let me try to answer some of your questions. First, what have you learned? You’ve learned that this time in school is only a beginning. Between the lectures and the reports you typed and footnoted, between the tests and sports, you were part of a community. Try to think for a moment of your special memories at school. They are both personal and precious. They may have made you laugh or cry. These all added to your growing-up experiences. George Fox told us, “Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” This means to develop and stimulate that of God in the other person, whether that person be a friend or adversary, regardless of race, gender, or religion. I know at school you learned that each of us is unique and irreplaceable. You learned that your school campus, your classes, and your classmates are a Blessed Community.
Secondly I hear you are asking, “What do I know now?” First, you will take away from school all that you learned and experienced. You take with you not only your diploma, test scores, job résumés, and college applications but also the preciousness of human life and the vitality of the human spirit.
As you begin to think seriously about enlisting in the armed services, believe me when I say, and know: you will not find your adulthood there. Leo Tolstoy said it passionately in an 1898 essay, which even now speaks to both men and women:
Here is a young man. In whatever surroundings, family, creed, he has been brought up . . . he has been taught that a man must value his uprightness, which uprightness consists in acting according to conscience. . . . Suddenly, after being taught all this, he enters the military service, where he is required to do the precise opposite of what he has been taught. He is told to to fit himself for wounding and killing, not animals, but men; he is told to renounce his independence as a man, and obey, in the business of murder, men whom he does not know, utter strangers to him.
I would like you to consider this appeal to be a warrior. I still vividly remember the thrill of combat, the possibility of being heroic. It was our teacher at the Air Force Cadet College who told us that when you put on your uniform, you think you are are wearing the “lion’s cloak,” a cloak of total immortality. But I know now this is a lie, and I feel it is important for we who fought to never forget what making war is like. If I do not remember, how can I help you avoid what I experienced?
Here we are, you and I, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century with a world that is violent, cynical, and apathetic. But I ask you to try to be in tune with the natural world and with the human community. I know beyond a doubt that you will continue to need other people—to love, to work with, to depend on.
I continue to hope, as you reflect on my wartime experiences, that you and others will break with the military past and declare that you can no longer endure hatred and fear, that you will become a happier person and your deeds will be an expression of this happiness, and that you will extend your experiences to others who are ready to take this risk with a larger faith than my generation had.
I know you are asking of me, “Then what is my alternative?” Part of this answer comes from the author Alvin Toffler who wrote in his book The Third Wave (1980) about the post-industrial society:
[T]he third wave is the human adaptation to the crisis of our time: If our assumptions are even partially correct, individuals will vary more tomorrow than they do today. More will grow up sooner, to show responsibility at an earlier age, to be be more adaptable, with greater individuality and more likely to question authority. They will crave balance in their lives between work and play. As a Third Wave civilization arrives, we shall create not a Utopian man or woman who towers over people, nor a superhuman race of Goethe’s and Aristotle’s or Hitler’s, but merely and proudly, one hopes, a race and a civilization that deserves to be called fully and radiantly human.
I know that this sounds radical, but I’m asking, pleading for you to be this new type of human being: one who has raised his or her perceptions of the human condition above the standards set by society. The Quaker poet and economist Kenneth E. Boulding left us with some guidelines (“Toward a Rethinking of the Quaker Message,” FJ October 1, 1979):
A society like the Society of Friends similarly has a genetic structure in the minds of its members, elements of which go back to the very origins of the human race and others which go back to Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, Luther, Cranmer, the English Puritans, George Fox, John Woolman, Rufus Jones, and even John Wesley and Karl Marx. The genetic structure of a social body is essentially its “message,” what it has to say that organizes it, creates its vision to the world and its moral order. . . .
What was the Quaker message? In a sense it was a call to a certain kind of perfection, a New Testament ethic, the love of enemies, rejoicing through suffering, a profound unwillingness to use threat even supposedly for a good purpose, a passion for veracity even in minute particulars of language, a sense of the “Lord’s power” that “rises over all” but still remains profoundly mysterious—an uncertain visitation of grace, not under human control to be turned on and off at will, but also responsive to human need. . . .
Many of us do not see it as necessary. We are content with the old formulas and the old language, and there is very little sense even among young Friends as to the desperate necessity to equip ourselves intellectually as well as spiritually for a very large task, the task of reinterpreting the message of the Society of Friends to those who will need it in the next 100 years.
I ask that you think seriously about these words when you ask me what alternatives you have. The blueprint is there, clearly laid out for you. When you contemplate military service, think also about how you can be that human being who raises your own perception of human life above the standards set by society. Will you step outside of conventional society to experiment, to search? I implore you to be the one to heed the call for a spiritual and social revolution, a human being who sees the need for these concepts.
I know I’m asking a lot, and you want to know what will happen to you in the future. First, I know you will be part of a human community that will continue to grow in knowledge and experience. I truly believe that you will continue to see that high school is only a beginning. You will find that there are Friends and others like you who are also searching and are willing to help you in your search. What will happen to you? This now, my Friend, is your world. You alone will have to make the decision on how to keep humankind alive.
I would like to share with you a poem that I wrote while waiting for my appointment with my psychologist at the VA Mental Health Clinic where I’m being treated for PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). I will tell you that the body may heal, but the mind never does:
The clinic is crowded
Only the sun’s rays slanting through the windows,
Brighten the room.
The men sit and stare,
Some without limbs.
Their faces are lined and scarred.
And behind those eyes.
What battles are they seeing and reliving?
Where they lost their youth:
For it died in the air, on the ground, or in the sea.
At times they shout out to an unseen enemy.
They know they have faced death,
and were the lucky ones to get away.
Yet, after all these years they still face these same fears,
They sit and stare while the sun shines on them.
These are the forgotten heroes that we no longer care about.
All I can do is to pass on to you my hopes and aspirations for the future: that my story will help you as you make your own choice, that serving in the armed services will not secure the world that you and I want to see.
I leave you with the prophecy of Joel. For me it still rings with hope for those who believe in the eternal power of the Spirit over the hearts and minds of men and women. I hope it helps light your way: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” (2:28).
My very best wishes for your future,
Medford (N.J.) Meeting
Combat Veteran of World War II, U.S. Eighth Air Force bomber crew, former prisoner of war in Germany