Recent news, including the Oscar nomination of The Invisible War and the looming sequester, which threatens drastic cuts in defense spending, doesn’t sound good for military recruiters. But recruiters are still active at my local high school, offering freebies and making promises. For six years I’ve been visiting the high school to encourage students to stop and think about their choices.
I’m not a biblical literalist, but I take the commandments to love your enemies, not to kill and not to overcome evil with evil seriously. I don’t make this argument at the school; it would violate their rules about religious expression, and I think it might alienate our neighbors who believe simultaneously in Jesus, the right to bear arms, and the need to fight ‘terrorists.'
I also have a concern for the truth. Many young people enlist in the armed forces without understanding what they’re getting into. My county is rural and poor; jobs are scarce. Many students who lack money or grades to make college a viable option are attracted by the promise of steady work, sign-up bonuses, travel opportunities, money for education — and sometimes, it seems, by clearly false promises. One student told me she was enlisting in the National Guard because her recruiter told her Guardsmen were never deployed overseas. Many students aren’t aware of the strings attached to the sign-up bonuses and education grants, or of the higher rate of mental illness, domestic violence, sexual assault, and suicide among service members and veterans. Our local principal understood these concerns and gave me permission to share them with his students.
So once a month I set up a table in the high school lobby. My sign says STOP AND THINK. I offer information from Project YANO and the Quaker House Truth In Recruiting Project, and brochures about post-high-school paid apprenticeship /training/travel/service opportunities from organizations like Americorps. Most students ignore me. A few stop. We talk about the sales pitches they hear, about what they want, and what they fear and what they think their choices are. Too many of them feel insignificant and trapped. A small wary student slid down the hall with his back to the wall and told me he wanted to enlist so he could have a gun and shoot people. Another student said he was already in trouble and folks said he was headed for jail or the military and the military looked better. Another said “I don’t like killing and all that stuff, but maybe I wouldn’t really have to do that, and I probably wouldn’t get shot, and where else am I going to get, like, $250, 000?”
I can offer them little truths, information about the downsides of enlistment, and about alternatives. I also want to remind them of some big truths: Their lives are precious. They have real choices to make about how they spend those lives. Their choices matter. If they understood that, I’d be content with whatever they chose.
Those big truths are hard to convey adequately. I sometimes mention them explicitly. I always try to show them by the way I listen. I pray for the students around me (silently). My time with them reminds me that I need to live in a way that clearly values people’s lives and makes it easier for them to remember the truth that can set them free.
Joanna Hoyt is a homeschooled Quaker who has spent the last 12 years tending goats, gardens, and guests at St. Francis Farm, a Catholic Worker community in upstate New York.