Veterans Day was cold and rainy in my hometown this year. But it wasn't just the weather that dampened parades. It was also the nagging thought that though the holiday honors those who fought in past wars, the ongoing conflict in US-occupied Iraq is currently turning out the largest new wave of combat veterans since Vietnam.
Equally sobering were two articles I read on November 11, a date originally set to commemorate the end of armed hostilities. One carried the headline, "Talk of a Draft Grows Despite Denials by White House." The other reported on the 7,500 U.S. soldiers that have been wounded in action since April--and are now flooding military hospitals like Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
As a counselor I have talked with veterans of every major war in the last century. I have looked into their haunted eyes and listened to their stories. Personally, I am adamantly opposed to armed force and belong to a peace church that has a 450-year history of speaking out against all violence.
Still, I have wondered whether it wouldn't be a blessing for today's youth to be faced with a military draft--provided that they have the alternative of choosing to become a conscientious objector.
My generation (I became a teen during the McCarthy era) came of age when opposition to war cost something. My peers and I had to decide to either join the military or volunteer for alternative service as conscientious objectors. And no matter what we chose, we all saw combat, in a sense: not one of us could evade the battle that takes place inside when one is faced with such a question.
At that time most Americans had no trouble accepting a military draft: they understood the fight against communism as a conflict between good and evil. A recent immigrant and the child of refugees from Nazi Germany, I cherished my adoptive country's freedoms. But having been brought up to follow the teachings of Jesus, I was also convinced that killing people can never be right.
I knew that most Americans did not look kindly on such a view. Though many understood how one's faith might prevent one from signing up, many more saw conscientious objectors as draft dodgers and cowards, and hated them for it. As a young man, I knew what my faith demanded, and I knew that I had to honor its demands. Looking back I feel being forced to make this decision made me stronger.
That's why I believe it could be healthy for today's youth to face a similar choice. Deciding which side to stand on is one of life's most vital skills. It forces you to test your own convictions, to assess your personal integrity and your character as an individual.
Each of us knows right from wrong, but we often lack the courage to act on that knowledge. How many of us are secretly troubled--if not outraged--by the atrocities that are being committed in the name of the "war on terror"? How many of us feel isolated and insecure, but are too afraid to speak out?
If the White House and Congress decide to reinstate mandatory military service, it will sober our minds and especially the minds of young people. For too long we have not appreciated the freedoms and standard of living our country offers us, in contrast to the stark poverty that faces at least two thirds of the world. I hope that the hard times that may lie ahead of us all will help us realize that no one can live without a close relationship to God and to his neighbor. There is a power much greater than the mightiest military arsenal. That is the power of love and forgiveness, which in the end will lead people and nations together instead of apart. It is the only power that will bring healing and peace, especially to those who have been wounded and maimed as a result of war, and to those families who have lost loved ones--men and women who were willing to pay the ultimate price.
A draft would present every young person with a choice between two paths, both of which require courage: either to heed the call of military duty and be rushed off to war, or to say, "No, I will give my life in the service of peace." Let God decide which choice is more patriotic.
-- by Johann Christoph Arnold
[ Johann Christoph Arnold is an author and minister with the Bruderhof Communities (http://www.bruderhof.com).
Read more of his articles and books at: http://www.ChristophArnold.com.]