By Doug Hostetter
Forty years ago, as a conscientious objector, I worked for the Mennonite Central Committee in Tam Ky, Vietnam, organizing literacy classes for Vietnamese children whose schools had been destroyed by theU.S. Air Force. As a Mennonite, I had a strong personal commitment to biblical nonviolence, but also a naïve belief in the honorable intentions of my government’s military efforts in Indochina.
My Mennonite faith did not permit me to participate in the U.S. war in Vietnam, but as a U.S. citizen, I felt I could understand why my government stated that we needed to defend our nation against the rising tide of atheistic, godless communism. Communism had started in Russia, spread to China, and was now sweeping through Vietnam. It was like falling dominos, we were told: the first domino strikes the second, which falls against the third, and so on, until the entire world becomes communist.
By Ethan Vesely-Flad
The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience. (Mahatma Gandhi, 1922)
As a first-time father, I am newly attuned to the issues of social, spiritual, and ethical formation that consume the minds of parents across the world. And as our child grows day-by-day, my spouse and I listen attentively to the stories of friends whose children are older, and may already be in school or other social settings. We have begun to wrestle with the questions of how our son will find his moral foundation, and what will shape his life choices. How is a conscience developed?
I turned 18 in 1970, and was registered for the draft for the Vietnam war. To the dismay of my father, a career Army officer, I requested conscientious objector status. My Methodist youth pastor helped me walk through the C.O. process with the help of members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
That was my first encounter with FOR.
My mother and sister were my lone family support. Through it all, my church stood with me — even in the military-centric city of San Antonio, Texas. With help from FOR, I wrote about and then defended my pacifist stance. I received a 1-0 C.O.status. It was one of the only full 1-0’s granted in Texas during the draft years.
The simple days are gone where I could recall with fondness the words of a once-beloved leader and feel the inspiring chills toward a noble cause. “America is a friend to the people of Iraq,” the commander-in-chief had said, stirring a desire for justice and compassion. “Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us. When these demands are met, the first and greatest benefit will come to Iraqi men, women and children.”
Freedom and Democracy would be delivered to the people of Iraq by the world’s most sophisticated fighting force as part of a larger “global war on terror.” It was a tune that was easy to sing along to, with 79% of U.S. citizens polled in May of 2003 saying that the war in Iraq was justified. Actually it was two tunes: one song was fierce and militaristic; we would “shock and awe” the forces of evil. The other was reverent and chivalrous; we would defend the defenseless and introduce a reign of freedom to some of the most oppressed peoples in the world.
By Mark C. Johnson
Louisa Thomas never uses the word quixotic to describe the lives and passion of her great-grandfather, Norman Thomas, his pacifist brother Evan, or their soldier siblings Ralph and Arthur. But the nostalgic, ambivalent echo of lives largely unrewarded, when spent in loyalty to conscience, gives a certain reverence to this family biography, and you can almost see them tilting at the windmills of idealism.