Here in central Virginia, people take great pride in our local heritage. Virginia was home to ten presidents, most notably Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. But it also has a history of militarization. The late historian and Veteran for Peace, Dr. Howard Zinn, says in his People’s History of the United States that the “Old Dominion” has at times been the most highly-militarized place in the world. The small town where I live, home to Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, is a key part of the military-industrial complex, and many of my neighbors are military intelligence professionals. Whenever I see off-duty military personnel walking the streets of my community, I wonder to myself, “What would the Founding Fathers say if they were around to witness the modern, militarized world that they helped to create?”
Without a doubt, they would be appalled by the size and scope of the American military empire. Jefferson was staunchly against the idea of a standing army. While he believed in the universal responsibility of community service, he also believed that militarism was detrimental to the health of democracy. Jefferson was against the principles of state violence being foisted on peaceable citizenry. He wrote to John Jay in 1788, “The breaking of men to military discipline is the breaking of their spirits to principles of passive obedience.”
I can speak directly to this issue as someone who joined the Army at 17 out of high school. During my enlistment, not only did I hurt innocent people and accomplish nothing in the defense of democracy, but I watched as corrosive military discipline destroyed the souls of my comrades. Not surprisingly, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that half of all veterans returning from war will be homeless for two years or more; only one in five uses the Montgomery GI Bill college money; only one in twenty veterans actually finishes college. Of the veterans that spend four years in college, the American Psychological Association estimates that half have been suicidal, and 20 percent attempt suicide. The VA estimates that 18 veterans kill themselves each day. The military lost more soldiers to suicide in 2011 than it did to combat.
It’s also not surprising, since the military likes to recruit 16- and 17-year-old minors, that the U.S. refuses to sign the United Nations Protocol on child soldiers. I was just 16 when I started the process, 17 when I signed, and 18 when I shipped out. By age 20, I was interrogating Iraqi civilians and making life-or-death decisions. There is no excuse for a country which lets minors kill and torture, but won’t allow them to smoke pot or drink alcohol. Our kids don’t stand a chance against this overwhelming violence.
It follows that one of the best ways to improve our communities is to have an active and effective peace movement. But more than a political movement, what we need is an educational component to inoculate our youth against the soul-crushing violence that is inscribed on young men and women who “signed the dotted line” for one reason or another.
In many cities the peace movement hosts “Alternatives to Military Service” (AMS) programs. In Bellingham, Washington, the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center hosts such a program. Peace advocates, mostly Veterans for Peace members, set up tables in school cafeterias and distribute information which gives a different perspective to students interested in the military. In most places, they have secured agreements with school officials that ensure “limited and equal access”; limited in respect to amount of contact they have with students, and equal in regard to the access that the military has to those students. The success of this agreement lies in limiting the military’s reach into the lives of our children.
Military recruiters are notoriously ruthless. Thousands of congressional complaints are lodged each year about recruiter misconduct, and U.S. army recruiting command has a well-documented problem with suicide. In recent years, Marine Corps recruiters in Orange County, Calif., were caught using teenage prostitutes as an enlistment incentive. Another scandal saw recruiters scavenging group homes for mentally-ill recruits. Despite these well-documented problems with recruiters, they are still given almost total access to high school students and student information.
If every city and county had an AMS program like Bellingham’s, it would ensure ethical adherence by the military regarding our most precious resource, our children. It would plant the seeds of understanding in those children who do enlist so they are better able to cope with the complex moral situations they might encounter. Implementation of AMS programs would indeed be a first step in addressing the problems Jefferson foresaw with the maintenance of a standing military force, namely the moral, intellectual, and emotional problems. On a global level, our nation could become known for producing peacemaker-leaders, rather than for flying drones and shooting missiles at third world villagers. At the very least, some of this heavy militarism needs balancing out.
To overcome the problems that the world faces in the twenty-first century, it is essential that we engage young people in better ways of moral thinking; we must challenge the dominant assumption that war and standing armies are necessary. To set things right in the world, we must teach our youth to see beyond salaries and careers, and to inspire in them a desire for Peace and a yearning for moral rectitude. Alternatives to Military Service programs are just one way that we can begin to build peace on Earth.
Evan Knappenberger is an EMU student, Iraq War veteran and member of VFP Chapter 962 of Charlottesville, Va. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website, www.EvanKnappenberger.net. This piece was originally published in The War Crimes Times.