I was drafted into the U.S. Army when I was 20 years old in 1969. I had been living the lifestyle of a hippie rock musician and artist in L.A. I knew that I would be ridiculed for my long hair when I was processed in at Fort Ord, California, so I got a buzz hair cut before I went in. My hair was the shortest on the bus that transported us young draftees to Fort Ord.
The moment I got off the bus I knew I was in an alien environment. A drill sergeant was yelling at us to get off the bus, calling us “maggots” (a derogatory name for a new recruit), and demanding that we stand at attention in formation. We went to get our olive drab fatigues (uniforms), haircuts (They shaved off what little fuzz I had left), and bunk (bed) assignments. I was in a strange place with people I didn’t know at a place I didn’t choose and didn’t want to be. My first night away from friends and family was depressing.
Since I was a conscientious objector I was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to be trained as a medic. My basic training was two weeks shorter (6 weeks) than regular basic (8 weeks), since our company of medics didn’t have rifle training. My company was made up of Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, religious groups with pacifism in their history, as well as others who were simply assigned to become medics.
Each morning began with running to and from breakfast. For some reason all our Army food seemed to make a “plop” sound as it was scooped into our trays. Running after breakfast nauseated me. We ran everywhere we went. I guess it was part of our physical training. But, we had to make sure that we stopped running to salute a superior officer or we would end up on the ground doing any number of push ups for our infraction of the rules of Army hierarchy. This was part of our indoctrination into the chain of command and setting us up to obey the rules of the system.
Physical training was daily, prolonged, and grueling. It involved running, various squats, push ups, and the worst of all, holding our legs off the ground until some of us were crying like babies. I particularly felt sorry for those who were overweight and couldn’t hold their legs up for very long. While we were moaning and groaning, the drill sergeant would yell, “This soldier here is making you keep your legs up longer!” This caused the group to begin to turn on the poor guy who was out of shape and yell at him. It was group psychological tactic to get us to come together as one body and not allow anyone to deviate from the norm.
Although I went into the Army as a conscientious objector, I could see how the training techniques were designed to form us a group and to get us to act without conscience or thought, but upon sheer command. We, young 18, 19, 20 year olds, were being shaped to become fodder in the U.S. war in Southeast Asia, a case of failed U.S. foreign policy, American exceptionalism, and imperial muscle flexing.
I have seen similar group psychological techniques, whether intentional or not, being used on the general public with the war in Iraq. The media has been used as a tool to support the war through its avoidance of showing the realities of war and “embedding” reporters with the U.S. Army. Those who deviate from the “norm” of support for the war were not that long ago called “unpatriotic” and “supporters of the terrorists.” The idea is to get the public to conform, to “fall in line” and simply obey the “authorities” and support U.S. foreign policy.
How do people, especially those who might consider becoming peacemakers, find their way in such a strange environment? We live in an social environment where the pressure to conform is intense. How does anyone follow the peaceful way of Christ, when others might call you “coward,” or pressure you to conform to the “rules” of vengeance and “pay back”? How do you avoid using the violence of words against those who do not seem to fit in with the dominant ethos of violence in our society?
It’s not easy, but there are paths of peace amid the crooked roads of violence. There are alternatives to using the violence of words and weapons. There are companions in the church, like those I found even in the Army, who can help you navigate the rough waters and alien environments. There is a God, who guides us in the paths of peace, even when we find ourselves walking (or running?) through strange places.