Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quakers and the War Disconnect

On July 4, our family went to an Independence Day party at a lovely home on a lake. Part of the evening entertainment was a fireworks display.

My almost 16-year-old twins helped unwrap the hundreds of fireworks, but when they were asked to light them with a blowtorch, I thought this was much too dangerous, as did the one twin who shook his head at me vigorously to say no. Luckily, the boys were able to back out graciously.

My twins likely would have come to no harm, but my mother's heart was nevertheless still having palpitations when another, older male began lighting firework wicks with the blowtorch. Much of my thinking involved comparisons between the laws in freewheeling Ohio and safety-obsessed Maryland. You can't have these kinds of fireworks in Maryland! What are they thinking in Ohio? And people in Maryland have to wear helmets on their motorcycles! In Ohio, you see people all the time on motorcycles with nothing protecting their heads but bandanas! It's harder for a teenager to get a driver's license in Maryland than in Ohio! And what about car seat laws! (I actually know nothing about them in Ohio, but in my mind's eye they're much more stringent in Maryland.)

Ohio is a wonderful state, but I was filled with the jitters just thinking about my almost 16 year-olds in conjunction with a blowtorch.

The realization struck me that in two years, when they turn 18, they could legally enlist in the army and be put in danger so acute that lighting fireworks with a blowtorch would seem like the child's play it isn't to me. I felt overcome with fear. I had to sit down on the lovely lawn sloping to the lake, where the fireworks were bursting overhead in arrays of stars and colors.

I think I was seeing stars. How can we live with this cultural disconnect, I wondered? How can we have so many laws to protect our children in minute ways and then, the minute they turn 18, be "OK" with sending them into horribly dangerous war zones halfway around the world? My sons, because they aren't quite 16, can't use a lawnmower in their summer jobs with the state, because it's not safe, but in two years and two months could be sent to Iraq (of course, we are supposed to be out of Iraq in a month) or Afghanistan, where they could be blown up at any moment? Could be allowed to wield machine guns and rocket launchers? Not to mention the fact that they would be killing other humans. How do we tolerate this?

In Maryland, new public playground swings have to be suspended from T's, so the children can't trip over the inverted V's that used to form swingset supports. Children are in booster seats in cars until age 8 now, I believe. Let your seven and ten month old child come home from school unattended for 10 minutes and you can be arrested for child neglect. A 17-year-old in Maryland can't drive a car past a curfew. I support these laws but how do we square this almost choking, compulsive concern with safeguarding our children with our total willingness, after age 18, to throw them into the worst kinds of danger?

How, as Quakers, are we not protesting the wars more than we are?

When I lived in Maryland, and we went to Baltimore or Washington and we had occasion to drive through the poorer parts of those cities, I would often notice children playing on playing on basketball courts amid broken glass or young children squatting in trash-filled gutters by the sidewalks in front of their houses. There was nowhere else to play. On hot summer days, when the doors to the old Baltimore rowhouses in the slum neighborhoods were opened (I know we don't use the word slum anymore, but I'm using it deliberately) I would see into houses with holes punched through the walls, rat-gnawed doors, missing railings up the stairs, dangling cords, sofas losing their stuffings ... taking a gander, I would imagine these "homes" would not pass standard safety inspections. I would also imagine that the children I saw milling around the streets lived in these houses ... and we middle-class people, who are so worried about every hair on the head of our own darlings, seem to tolerate this. I understand too that the military recruiters come to the poorer neighborhoods.

I struggle with the draft. The last thing I want is a draft, not with children of 19 and almost 16. Yet were there a draft, would we be in these wars? Would we allow our middle-class darlings to go? I think not. I know that were a draft to begin, ending the wars would be a front and center concern in my life. Now .. oh well, it's not really my problem because "my" children--at least in my illusions--are "safe." Of course, I'm "against" the wars in theory, though let me hasten to say, like everyone else, I support our troops. But do I do anything to support them, by say, working to end the wars in any urgent way? No.

To have two classes of children: those whose every hair is micro-protected with compulsive care and those who, from earliest youth, must take their chances, violates my understanding of Christianity. Didn't Jesus say that everyone who followed him was his brother, sister, mother, father, child? Aren't "those" children "my" children? Quakerism is a second layer, reinforcing the radical overthrow of hierarchy inherent in ancient Christianity. Where, I wonder, is our equality testimony? How do we live with these contradictions? And I ask that question of myself more than anyone else because I am first in line for apathy.

What should we do?


Jeremy Mott said...

If you gave your permission, I believe, your male children could
enlist in the Army at age 17. However, the Army itself does not
encourage this; it wants high-school graduates to fight its wars.
There are not many other countries where children under 18
can legally enlist. I believe that Britain is such a country, and
British Friends are trying to put a stop to this. The expert on
child soldiers worldwide is Friend
Rachel Brett at QUNO in Geneva.
Tnere is a listing of her papers
on this and related subjects on
the QUNO website.
Of course, no legal barriers
stop the kidnaping and forced enlistment into many African armies
of both boys and girls as young as
12 or 13. You can find some information about this on such
websites as Quaker Congo Partnership and African Great Lakes Initiative. The world is
full of military horrors, and child military service is just one of them.
Jeremy Mott

Diane said...

Hi Jeremy,

Of course, putting children in the army anywhere in the world is alarming, but in terms of our own country, I simply marvel, if that's the correct word, that on one hand we seem to go completely overboard about safety and on the other hand seem to be willing to throw very young adults (and older adults) into the extremes of harm's way without much reason.

Jeremy Mott said...

Hello Diane, Yes, American rules and customs on miliary service seem impossible to explain. At the
beginning of World War II, I believe, the minimum draft age was
still 20 or 21. Questions like this---at least the facts, not the
reasons whatever they may be---can
probably best be answered by J.E.
McNeil, exec. dir. of Center on
Conscience on War in your yearly
During the period between World War II and the Vietnam war, conscientious objectors in the U.S.A. were still very unusual, mostly to be found among Mennonites, among Brethren, and (a very few indeed) among Friends and
friends of Friends, including
civil right activists. Bob Moses,
the outstanding civil rights activist, was a CO but was not
recognized; I have a copy here at
home of his lengthy biography compiled by the Justice Dept.and
the FBI. He and his wife went to
Canada rather than be prosecuted.
He's back in the U.S. now; he lives in Cambridge, I believe; his head was beat in so badly in the
civil rights days that he can't work as a math teacher any more.
I can think of only a single African-American CO who was recognized as a CO during the period from 1945 to 1968 or 1970----- the very height of nonviolent
civil rights activism in the U.S.A.
Pendle Hill held a conference
of and for WW2 CO's in 1996; of
course there cannot be another one.
I was lucky enough to attned (al-
though I am a Vietnam-era CO),
Not a single African American, CO or otherwise, was present, as I
remember. Then Pendle Hill held
a similar conference for Vietnam-era CO's in 1998, which I attended as well (and there I presented a paper; it's available on the web; both conference proceedings are
still in print). Again, despite
the fact that there were many
African-American CO's and draft
resisters during the Vietnam war,
none was present for the conference, if I remember right.
During the late 1950's and
early 1960;s, many young pscifist
men protested the launchings of
Polaris submarines by swimming out to them and handcuffing themselves to them; they were generally sentenced to six months or so in prison. After the Vietnam war was
wound down, many (mostly Catholic
pacifists) engaged in a prolonged
"Plowshares" civil disobedience
campaign agaist nuclear weapons.
And now there seems to be little
visible conscientious objection
at all, except among military
personnel who decide that they
are CO's after all and seek dis-
charges. This is where you and I
can come in: help organizations
like Center on Conscience & War.
It seems like a whole different world from 1948, when the peacetime
draft act was passed; a large
group of Quakers, mostly from Ohio
Y.M. (Cons.) and elsewhere in the
Midwest, refused toe register.
Some emigrated to Costa Rica, All
this made enormous news in some
places. Now the in-service CO's
don't seem to make news even among Quakers.
Jeremy Mott