Commentary

Lutheran conscience and military service

My son, Nick, is a baptized and confirmed Lutheran of good moral character. He does not smoke or drink and was a straight A student in both high school and college. He recently graduated from college as a computer programmer.
In early October, 2004, Nick bought an AK-47 machine gun. As I write, he is on a rifle range, hoping to improve his “kill score” in case he might want to join the Rangers Division of the Marines.

As a child, Nick enjoyed music, science and computers. He attended Sunday school regularly and sang in the church choir. He lists as one of the highlights of his youth a trip to Florida, with a group from Mount Olive Lutheran Church, to help tear down a building that had been a crack house and replace it with a Habitat for Humanity home. In his spare time, Nick volunteered as a companion to mentally and physically handicapped children.

How, then, did Nick suddenly become obsessed with becoming an efficient killing machine? The change was not a sudden one. When Nick was a high school sophomore, he began to receive military recruitment material from the Army and the National Guard. After he got top scores on his SAT tests, he received more literature from the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines, along with literature from about a hundred colleges and universities. As parents, my husband and I were pleased that our son was so sought after. Although we knew we could have our son’s name removed from the military recruiters’ mailing lists, we both felt strongly that all our children were well equipped to make good choices for themselves and that Nick must be allowed the freedom to make informed decisions.

Even after choosing the college he would attend, Nick continued to be barraged with mail from military recruiters. As high school graduation approached, Nick received CDs, videos and DVDs from recruiters, as well as free T-shirts. Recruiters began to call him at home. My husband became a little concerned. Even though the high school gave military recruiters the same recruitment status as colleges and universities, it rapidly became apparent that we were dealing with something different here. No college had been so openly aggressive in their recruitment methods, nor do they have as much money to spend on their efforts.

The average young person who falls into the “most-desired” category for recruiters can expect to receive some 437 pieces of mail, each one giving little, if any, regard to an accurate depiction of what the young person could realistically expect to encounter upon joining the military. In fact, even though about 80% of the military’s new recruits are destined for combat duty, most of the literature sent to my son made little mention of the rigors of basic training, the responsibilities that a recruit faces, or the moral and ethical choices that must be made in combat. The literature was at best misleading, focusing mostly on the golden career and educational opportunities awaiting him.

My husband had enlisted the day after he graduated from high school. He spent three years in the Army, followed by nine years in the Wisconsin National Guard, but he did not recognize the military so rosily depicted in the recruitment brochures. We began to have serious talks with our son about the difference between making informed decisions and being misled by propaganda. It became obvious that choosing to enlist in the military would be a very different decision from choosing among colleges, even though both institutions had the same access to students. Faced with so much misleading literature, we began to wonder if our son had the skills necessary to make good decisions for his future.
Concerned over what we perceived to be the immorality in our nation’s shift to a national policy of pre-emptive military strike, we joined Every Church a Peace Church and the local chapter of Veterans for Peace. In both of these organizations, we found an increasing number of veterans and people of faith who are concerned over the growing militarization of our nation’s youth.

Our son Nick did choose to go to college, but now that he has a degree in computer programming, he has become even more attractive to military recruiters. So he bought a gun. I am not a pacifist, and I am proud of the role my family has played in defending this nation for three generations, but I am urging you to be aware of the problems facing Nick and other American youth.

A decision to join the military has long and lasting effects on a person’s education and career. More important, it affects one’s physical, emotional and spiritual well-being forever. As responsible people of faith, we must do all that we can to ensure that our nation’s youth receive an honest and accurate portrayal of the duties and challenges of warfare and a deeper understanding of the nonviolent, faithful alternatives available to them.

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Kim Doss-Smith is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was instrumental in helping to organize “Refusing to Fight,” a training workshop for conscientious objector counseling. The sessions will be held at her church, Holy Trinity Lutheran, on February 12, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. For information, call 612/721-6908.