How Quakers Can Support the Troops?

Shortly after submitting this article to Friends Journal, about soldiers resisting deployment, I was stunned by the news from Ft. Hood, Texas. An Army psychiatrist named Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opened fire on fellow soldiers about to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, killing 13 people and wounding scores of others before he himself was shot.

Facts about Hasan’s background emerged. He had been resisting deployment himself, and at one point had engaged a lawyer to fight it. He complained of harassment as a Muslim in the Army, following 9/11. He voiced extreme discomfort with both wars against Muslim combatants. He reportedly expressed sympathy for suicide bombers.

For me, the tragedy brought home the pain and anger and frustration I’d been hearing about from many quarters, and the mostly silent resistance within the military on the part of those being deployed in an unpopular war, often for extended tours and at a high cost in mental health.

The simple truth— that our own government had created the circumstances that led up to Hasan’s violent rampage, and that many soldiers are experiencing comparable stress—was buried during the days that followed in an avalanche of demonization, finger-pointing, and hackneyed questions. U.S. Senators portrayed the shootings as a “terrorist attack by a homegrown extremist.” Investigations were launched. Did the Army miss warning signs in Hasan’s behavior? What steps can be taken to prevent such a massacre in the future?

Ignored were profound questions: Why are we training people to kill? Why, having trained them to kill, do we abuse them? Why is our government waging continual war?

The question I wish to raise now seems more timely than ever: In what sense, and in what ways, should Friends “support the troops,” even while opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Not an easy question! For me, it grows out of my long-ago opposition to the war in Vietnam, the extent to which I distanced myself from the GIs doing the fighting, and my determination that I not allow that distancing to happen again.

In the October issue of Friends Journal, Jeanine M. Dell’Olio, in her article “Irony in Grade Four,” describes her ambivalence as a Quaker parent when asked to help her nine-year-old daughter prepare a gift package for a U.S. soldier whom her class had “adopted.” Mother and daughter comply, with a sense of irony. The account ends on a prayerful note. The parenting struck me as sensitive.

The situation embraces all of us, of course, to the extent that we comply with our government’s push into seemingly endless wars, over our objections— wars most of us nevertheless tacitly support with our taxes and varying degrees of acquiescence.

For adult Quakers, the ironies are of course immense, as is the ubiquitous pressure to “support our troops”—troops that our government is abusing more horrendously than perhaps any soldiery in this nation’s history. The punishment began under George W. Bush’s Pentagon and continues under Barack Obama. The occupation of Iraq has lasted longer than World War II and is now the longest war fought by an all-volunteer force since the War for Independence.

Efforts to sustain enlistment and retain troops are outlandish and costly. To call it a “volunteer” army is something of a misnomer. With national unemployment at about 10 percent, and with unemployment among minorities substantially higher, especially in certain pockets such as inner-city Detroit or the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, it amounts to almost compulsory military service for minorities and the poor.

Through the supposedly discontinued stop-loss policy, officers and reservists are forced into second and third tours of duty. This imposes a crushing burden on individuals, on families, and on the very fabric of our civil society. In January 2008 and January 2009, more U.S. soldiers took their own lives than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some GIs are refusing orders to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq in the belief that both wars are illegal because they are arguably in violation of international law. This is not the pure pacifism that Friends prefer, and it doesn’t pass the government’s litmus test for conscientious objector status, which insists that the CO must oppose all war, not just particular conflicts. But it is resistance nevertheless.

I confess I am no purist. In my opinion, the Friends Peace Testimony must be constantly reinterpreted in the context of real-world conflicts. Otherwise it becomes fossilized. I applaud the resistance to these particular wars, and relish the idea that the resistance movement may be growing—as argued in a new book by journalist Dahr Jamail, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This book follows an earlier one by Jamail, Beyond the Green Zone, which was written from the fresh perspective of an “unembedded” journalist—one who ventured alone into occupied Iraq over the course of six years without depending on Pentagon largesse for information and protection.

The Will to Resist brings the same reportorial independence to the resistance among GIs. It describes the censorship, the racism and sexism, and the coercion experienced by troops. It highlights the increasing number of felons that are being admitted into the armed services, the high percentage of female soldiers who are raped, the suicides, the post-traumatic stress that goes untreated, and the systematic brutalization.

Troops who refuse to deploy for extended duty are threatened with loss of their honorable discharge status, which jeopardizes their access to VA medical care and other benefits. The intimidation is tremendous, and it overrides traditional rights soldiers retain while “serving their country.”

Of the resisting soldiers Jamail interviewed for his book, some are highly articulate. They include a West Point graduate who refuses to follow orders because he believes these wars are illegal according to international law, and because the “supremacy clause” in the U.S. Constitution includes international treaties as part of the supreme law of the land, he sees his deployment as illegal under the very Constitution he has sworn to uphold. Others, less articulate or consciously principled, nurse an inchoate feeling of outrage. “Our first platoon was minorities, Mexicans and blacks, with white squad leaders and a white platoon sergeant in charge of them,” said one. Another ground his teeth at night so fiercely that his jaw became dislocated.

Some comply with orders to deploy, but then subvert their orders once they arrive in the theater of war. Troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan told Jamail they go out on what they like to call “search and avoid” missions, in which they park their Humvees and goof off. “They figured out how to hack into the Humvees’ onboard GPS computers and simulate journeys by moving the little dot around,” Dahr Jamail told a Connecticut audience on a recent book tour.

A few GI coffeehouses have sprung up in the shadow of military bases: Under the Hood, outside Ft. Hood, Texas; Coffee Strong, near Ft. Lewis, Washington; and Off-Base, in Norfolk, Virginia. They offer a sympathetic and supportive environment where dissident military personnel can hang out and receive informal counseling. This trend could widen, as it did during the Vietnam War.

Quaker House, near Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, goes back to the Vietnam era. Founded in 1969, it is not a coffee house, but nevertheless offers a physical place where active duty personnel can seek counsel. It runs its own hotline, and the vast majority of its inquiries are by phone.

These physical places where soldiers can go for informal counseling and emotional support are invaluable. GIs are sometimes AWOL, desperate, and ignorant of their rights and obligations under military law. The coffee houses provide something unique: camaraderie for dissident troops, who are often lonely— as Specialist Victor Agosto testifies on the Under the Hood website:

I lived a miserable existence since I turned against the war in Iraq in 2007. . . . The café has become my refuge from a closedminded and dehumanizing military culture. . . . The support I have received from my family at Under the Hood has helped me take the liberating leap from obedient soldier to war resister. I cannot remember the last time I was this happy. Under the Hood has changed my life forever.

Again, this is a place, not a website. Real people. Real coffee. Real connections.

But beyond this handful of regional resources, a national effort is needed. Resisters need support in their own hometowns. It should also be recognized that resistance within the military comprises one of the front lines of resistance to these particular wars. Local support for resisters is one way of expressing local resistance to these wars.

Dahl Jamail entertains hopes that the refusal of troops to fight the generals’ wars could force the Pentagon to rethink its assumptions—much as Vietnam- era refusals hastened the end of that war. He encourages churches or groups of individuals to “adopt” local resisters and come up with the money required to maintain the health insurance and family needs of soldiers threatened with incarceration or loss of benefits.

Among those Friends I queried who serve as volunteers for hotlines, few shared Dahl’s optimism that the resistance movement is growing. Steve Woolford, who staffs Quaker House’s hotline, told me that the bulk of his callers “want to get out, while minimizing the consequences. As long as they don’t go public, they have a chance of breaking or bending rules without doing jail time. Once they go public, the Army goes after them. My role is to help them make an informed decision.”

The difference in interpretation may arise in part because as a journalist, Dahl was actively seeking out dissidents, whereas Quakers staffing hotlines are in a more passive position, responding to a wide range of callers, including purely self-interested queries. In any case, Quaker monthly meetings and other groups, as well as individuals, can make a difference in one person’s struggle for authenticity and truth within the military.

Several existing tried-and-true forms of support are particularly Quaker-friendly, in addition to volunteering to field calls on regional GI Rights Hotlines. These include counter-recruiting and volunteering to work with veterans, especially in VA hospitals—a venue that Chuck Fager, director of Quaker House, calls “definitely related to ‘supporting the troops,’ but free of connection to the actual war-making.” He cites Walt Whitman’s tending of the wounded in Civil War hospitals. “For that matter, there are career opportunities working with vets that would be quite consistent even with a firmly pacifist Quaker outlook: it’s helping clean up the human mess of war, and there will be plenty of work in that area for as far ahead as the eye can see.”

In addition, an attempt is underway in Connecticut, where I live, to draft national legislation designed to address some of the problems. My radio journalist colleague Dori Smith, producer of Talk Nation Radio, which is syndicated with Pacifica Network, is spearheading an effort to shape legislation that would restore rights that have been stripped from GIs by executive fiat. Several New England attorneys have volunteered to review the legislation, now in draft, to be called “the U.S. Servicemen and Servicewomen’s benefits and pay assurance act of 2009,” and get it to the desks of sympathetic members of Congress.

Perhaps Friends Committee on National Legislation, which does such a good job of keeping us informed of legislation as it moves through the halls of Congress, could be asked to play a role in advancing such a bill. The request should come from Friends through their monthly meetings, as FCNL reviews its legislative priorities every two years.

Monthly meetings can also do something as simple as inviting speakers from Iraq Veterans Against the War and other dissident soldiers to describe their experiences, their goals, and needs.

In short, there exists a broad spectrum of ways for Quakers to “support the troops,” with no need for irony, in adherence to our belief in meeting that of the Divine in others, including soldiers, and in pursuit of our historic opposition to war.


David Morse is a member of Storrs (Conn.) Meeting. He divides his time between writing and activism; see