John Buttrick: A new era of nonviolent courage is upon us

  • The boots and berets of three soldiers are displayed at a memorial service at Fort Campbell, Ky., on Monday, Dec. 10, 2001. AP

For the Monitor
Sunday, June 10, 2018

At a family gathering recently, I had a conversation with Sam (not his real name). He told me he had retired from the military after 20 years. He had then returned as a civilian in special operations for a private military contractor for three years. This and his military time included six deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that during his last deployment, “I was almost killed three times in three weeks. I decided that was enough and resigned.”

He explained that since his return he has suffered severe PTSD. It has been a major factor in his recent divorce and shared custody of their 4-year-old child. Over the last 18 months, his pain and distress led him to treatment. Part of his attempt to seek peace has led him to start a new life in a rural setting. He said several times in the course of our conversation, “I’m finally finding some peace.” It was difficult to know whether he was trying to convince us of his newfound peace or hoping peace of mind would truly continue into his future.

This conversation brought back memories of my time as an Army medic at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. For more than two years, I participated in the treatment of soldiers whose lives were forever impacted by physical and psychological injuries. Many of the psychiatric patients were pressured to accept a less than honorable discharge that would leave them without any veteran medical benefits. At the time, PTSD was not recognized as an illness.

I also had a conversation with a Vietnam veteran after the Poor Peoples March against the war economy held on May 29 in front of the State House. This veteran reported being very uncomfortable with people thanking him for his service. He wasn’t sure that all that he had done during his deployment deserved their thanks.

This is the country we live in today. It is a country where young people are told that enlisting in the military is a career path. It is a country where we teach young people care and respect and then send them into violent aggressive situations where their values are shredded and their spirits broken.

We live in a country that is now in a constant war mode. The current administration values military superiority as fundamental to our relationship with other nations of the world. Military threat and action take precedence over diplomacy. The U.S. military is deployed in 160 countries. To accomplish this, the U.S. has developed a professionalized military cadre. This all-voluntary force personally impacts the families of only a small percentage of the total population. For the rest, “We support our troops” has become a mantra and a test of patriotism. It can be said without risk or cost and with little or no awareness of the horrors of combat and the effect on young people like Sam.

Security has become the watchword for militarism. The U.S. enhances its international relationships with military aid: money, weapons and advisers. For example, the U.S. gives more than $38 billion aid to Israel over 10 years. Among other things, this money contributes to the ability of the Israeli military to create a prison out of Gaza and to restrict the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In return, the Israeli Defense Force uses what it learns from its oppressive administration of the occupied Palestinian territory to train local police forces in the United States. These police are being instructed in IDF tactics and equipped with riot gear, military weapons and armored vehicles.

This is all possible because of the bluster of the Trump administration and the extensive U.S. industrial military complex that has a stranglehold on our economy and the jobs it creates. In just this past year there have been more than 761,000 defense contracts distributed among all of the states worth more than $320 billion. In New Hampshire in the last seven years there have been 54,000 defense contracts to nearly 1,700 defense contractors for a total value of nearly $21 billion.

It seems that since the beginning of time, coercive force and military power have reigned supreme. Many would argue that aggression, tribalism and a grasping for territory are in human nature: survival of the fittest. Some believe that our nation is superior to all others and therefore has the moral right to maintain the strongest military and exclusive rights to nuclear weapons. They believe our nation has the right to first access to natural resources. They believe in the superiority of their particular culture, language and way of life.

However, the times are changing. Human beings may have ingrained aggression and a fight-flight fear instinct, but President Trump and his administration have misjudged the uniqueness of human imagination. President Trump’s tactics of fear and division have awakened a new human proclivity to imagine a reality where nonviolent courage is celebrated and where fear is overcome with empathy and love of all people.

Human imagination is activating a reality of compassion, empathy, love of neighbor and welcome to all.

These people of imagination are all around us: Doctors Without Borders; Red Cross and Red Crescent workers; B’tselem and Machsum Watch, Israeli human rights workers; Peace Corps volunteers; UNICEF and UNRWA workers; diplomats and mediators; volunteers working with refugees; volunteers after floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes; Border Links volunteers providing food and water for migrants at risk in the Arizona desert; people participating in the Poor Peoples Marches; and so many others. Imagine: people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light and every boot of the tramping warrior is burned as fuel for that light (Isaiah 9:2,5, adapted).

My relative, Sam, wore his warrior boots at a great personal cost. His peace will begin as a person with imagination walks across the street, not with a weapon, but with the greeting, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you are our neighbor.”

To people everywhere whose imagination empowers the movement of love, respect and dignity for all human beings, “thank you for your service.”

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord.)