I became a pacifist at the weapons range.
It was the summer of my 21st year and I was swatting mosquitoes off my neck in the middle of Fort Lewis Army Base in Washington. As a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), I was participating in a month-long process of testing and evaluations, the culmination of my training to become an Army officer upon graduating college. On this particular day we were participating in exercises on the firing range.
It was not the first time I had been around weapons, nor the first time I’d done any sort of targeting practice, but as I donned a flak-vest and positioned myself behind a mounted machine gun, something inside of me clicked with the trigger. The notion suddenly pervaded my thoughts that this training, this skill I was learning, was for the sole and singular purpose of learning how to wound or kill another human being.
It was then that a slew of conversations and readings I’d collected in corners of my thoughts began to unravel. I had spent the previous months debating and engaging with the topics of Just War and Christian non-violence. I had read articles by famous pacifists and non-pacifists alike, talked with professors and fellow soldiers. But it wasn’t until that moment at the weapons range, with a squeeze of the trigger, that I began to deeply question more aspects of who I was becoming as a solider and what that meant in my relationship to Christ.
On that day, I became a pacifist.
Some of my earliest childhood memories occur in a small house my grandparents owned just outside Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. My father moved our young family to live with them after he retired from an abbreviated career as an Air Force fighter pilot. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap, admiring his model planes, and examining pictures in American history books. In passing I heard my grandfather talk about “the war” and “missions,” but I was too young to really take it all in. Only later in life would I come to know that he was a decorated veteran, let alone comprehend what that meant.
When I started to look at colleges, it was no surprise that the first place I looked was the military. ROTC programs offered full-ride scholarships to students who qualified, plus extraordinary training and the lure for adventure and challenge I had sought since a young age. There was the added bonus that I would be a third generation military officer. Few things compared to the idea of making my father proud. Even more so, upon my acceptance into the corps my father solemnly told me: “your grandfather would be proud, very proud”.
But as my time in college rolled on, I became aware of a running debate on my campus concerning the topic of pacifism. I was intrigued. Till then, I’d operated under the misguided perception that pacifism was a drug-induced belief of hippies in the seventies, or perhaps a practice of remote sects of people who also didn’t like to drive cars.
What’s more, in the limited interactions I had with some of the pacifists on campus, I encountered demeaning attitudes and less-than subtle condemnation. I heard students joke that the Army only trained people “to kill” followed by the serious proposition that a career in such an institution was sinful, even damning. When attacked with notions of being “trained to kill” or “ignoring Christ’s command”, the very integrity of my faith was being called into question. Even worse, the identity and character of two of the people I admired the most was also on the line. I had few options.
And so I defended my position adamantly, writing articles for the school paper and voicing my pro-military sentiments in class. Meanwhile, I excelled in my officer training courses and, for all intents and purposes, looked as though I had a promising military career ahead of me.
But the following year, I had a conversation with a friend that eventually altered my thinking. It began with them telling me how much they respected my decisions and my faith. They pointed out that, while they disagreed, they had no desire to convict or convince me, but simply engage in discussion. And that was all it took. My defense came down; I didn’t feel attacked, I felt trusted, respected, and, most importantly, this trust and respect was extended to those I also associated with the military.
One discussion turned into an on-going series of conversations and, as my defenses came down, I found myself in more and more conversations on this topic. And questions emerged: How can I follow someone who commanded “love your enemies” and yet serve an institution that acts in violence towards actual and perceived threats? Are enemies of America also enemies of God? If not, then is there justification for violence against them? Is there ever justification for violence? What of innocent civilians in the crossfire? What of Jesus’ complete disregard for self-defense? Is my military involvement service to my country or to God? Can it be both?
For quite sometime, my head was like a snow globe of questions, waiting to settle.When it finally did, I found myself on a weapons range in Fort Lewis, Washington squeezing the trigger on every belief I’d previously held so tightly.
Following my experience at the weapons range, I returned to campus the following autumn in a whirlwind of confusion as to what my next step with the military would be. On the one hand, I had made a commitment to serve my country and, in return, I received a scholarship for my education. To back out of that commitment as a senior would not only equate devastating financial debt but, more importantly, would reflect poorly upon my self-proclamation as a covenant-keeping Christ-follower. At the same time, I was conflicted over whether or not my involvement in the military was even Biblical, and if I was violating the ideals of my Savior by serving in the Army. I felt as though I was caught between two worlds in a vast no-man’s land, and either side of the argument didn’t really feel like home.
Four years later, I look back on those days as some of the more formative in my college career. Eventually I committed to serving my contracted service in the Army Reserves as an officer in the Medical Service Corps. My involvement with the military would be limited and any missions entirely non-combative. Many close to me viewed this decision as a wasted opportunity when compared to other available options. But it satisfied my conscience and abided by my newfound convictions.
I say none of this in any way promoting myself as a hero or even as a role model, either theologically or militarily. True heroes bear a cross much larger and more prominent than mine. And they certainly don’t promote it as such.
But I find that this topic is one that is either ignored, brushed under the rug of more pressing issues like the discussion of homosexuality and abortion, or it is completely divisive, with pacifists on one end and supporters of the military on the other. Yet I have also found that it is possible to stand in the middle, a convinced pacifist serving in the United States Army. It’s a confusing dilemma but I’ve learned so much on this journey that I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I hope my story can open up conversation into a very necessary and prevalent topic for Christians across the country and world.
In the meantime, I am blessed to live in a country such as America; despite all its flaws it is still a country where I can discuss topics like this in freedom. For that I am thankful. And I am willing to give back in what little way I can.
But my true and ultimate desire is to walk in the grace and love of Jesus Christ in every moment of my life. Under His banner of mercy and grace I seek to love not only my enemies but also those who disagree with me and I hope to live out my devotion to Him above family, personal and nationalistic ties.
So help me God.