In this short post, I’d like to provide some (hopefully) fruitful snapshots of my own non-linear path from military service to pacifism. I initially prepared these remarks for a book release of Pathways to Pacifism and Antiwar Activism among U.S. Veterans: The Role of Moral Identity in Personal Transformation co-authored by Dr. Julie Hart at Ohio Dominican University.
I did not join the military out of a duty to America (whatever that means), or because military service ran in the family. I joined because I wanted out of Ohio, I wanted college money, and I wanted to challenge myself as much as I could. However, it is important to say that there was nothing in my social and religious world at the time that would have challenged my decision to enlist. In fact, enlisting is an easy way for working class people to earn instant social capital in the form of respect, admiration, and deference. This is particularly true in conservative churches where the contradiction between alleged Jesus-centered spirituality and uncritical support of the American nation-state and military violence does not even seem to be a theological concern, much less an obvious source of embarrassment. So, when I left for boot camp two and a half months before my 18th birthday, I did so with the blessing of those around me.
I graduated from boot camp in Chicago, Illinois, received orders to training in San Diego, and eventually got accepted to Navy SEAL training, which was an accomplishment in itself. The application process requires a difficult physical fitness test, a battery of medical and psychological evaluations, and letters of support from supervisors and officers. When I arrived at SEAL training, or what is called BUDS, in Coronado in January 2000, I performed satisfactorily and with determination to push myself to my limits, but I was definitely in over my head. Years later, when I was finishing my PhD at Ohio State University, I began to embrace the connections between the challenges of a rigorous academic program with a rigorous military training, although the differences in my identity and the social values of my university department could not have been more different. But back then, long before I could have imagined identifying as a feminist, my desire to construct a kind of respectable masculinity became a comedy, or a tragedy, of imitation and creativity.
I did not finish SEAL training, for which I am forever grateful. I quit, and was shortly thereafter sent to Puerto Rico, where I worked as a Law Enforcement Specialist at a time when the anti-globalization movement was at its height, and the base, Roosevelt Roads, faced sustained anti-military protest. The protests were sparked by the accidental death of a civilian employee, who was killed by a misplaced bomb on Vieques Island, which used to serve as a training ground for Navy ships and pilots. But the protests were really about the longstanding colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, the growth of income inequality on the island, and the violent role of the United States in global affairs. These concerns were only exacerbated after 9/11 as the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.
The US’ violent, Islamophobic response to 9/11 and, later, my personal relationships with gay, Deaf, and immigrant friends, sparked critical exploration for me. I began to question the evangelical faith I grew up with, particularly its nationalistic, and prejudicial aspects. I also began to question military services as ‘service’ to anything other than the expression of US power in the world. It was useful for me to read third world writers who talked about their Christian faith in terms that I grew up with, but who nonetheless were critical of US foreign policy. Or to learn about how some south Asian Christians, who were some of the earliest Christian communities in the world, read the New Testament in light of its Mediterranean-centric and Eurocentric focus.
One significant and somewhat reconciling event occured after joining Columbus Mennonite Church in 2007. The following year, the national Mennonite Conference was held in Columbus, Ohio. Phil and Julie Hart, who have been involved in Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), helped set up a meeting with several CPTers who were activated for anti-military protests in Puerto Rico during the same time that I was stationed there. The conversation was a unique opportunity for me to, in a sense reconcile my memories of that time (which I often avoided sharing publically) with the incredibly important work that Mennonite Christians do in the spirit of peace and non-violence.
There is a darker side to all of this. Major life changes, necessarily involve loss, and that loss adds up over time. The changes that I have made (I’m sure other veterans, too) have entailed losses of friendships and changes in career that can leave one unsettled. A commitment to pacifism as part of one’s identity, in other words, does not necessarily involve an immediate subjective feeling of peace.
I try now to embrace the totality of life, and to embrace the inherent instability of life as one of the most essential, most terrifying, and also most exciting features of what it means to be alive. In the past year or two, I have tried to spend less energy regulating other people’s perceptions of who I am by not suppressing the contradictions that define me. I have tried to learn – and I am still learning – to simply observe my life as a series of decisions and choices that made complete sense at each moment, while also analyzing and refining my interpretation of those stages of life. After all, none of us are one; we are all multiple people and multiple lives, and every representation of ourselves as a singular, constant being is more deception than truth. My commitment to pacifism is one part of a larger critique of inequality, racism, power, heteronormativity, sexism, and ableism that I try to live out through my relationships and my work as both a scholar and as an immigrant rights activist. In my experience, embracing the differences that make up the person I am has helped me to embrace the contradictions that make up others around me.
I am indebted to the work of the Columbus Mennonite Church for providing a welcoming space to develop an appreciation of pacifism as a personal, spiritual, and political way of life. The threat of violence is ever-present and people of faith must not cease to provide an alternative to violence of all kinds.
Austin Kocher is a recent PhD graduate from the Department of Geography at the Ohio State University, the Board President of the Central Ohio Worker Center, and a member at Columbus Mennonite Church. His research and public engagement focuses on immigrant rights, legal geography, and alternatives to police and military violence.
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