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2013-08-01 issue:

Why military veterans become pacifists

Julie Putnam Hart draws conclusions after interviewing 115 former soldiers.

by Julie Putnam Hart

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When I joined the peace community in the 1980s and the Mennonite Church in the 1990s, I was exposed to miraculous stories of transformation from prowar soldiers to antiwar veterans. As a professor and social-psychologist who studies human behavior in groups, I sought to understand the dynamics of this dramatic transformation.

Dick Davis and Lee Lever (below) were among the military veterans interviewed for this project.

From 2005 to 2009, I interviewed 115 former military personnel about their childhoods, their military experiences, the period of change in their thinking and where they stand today politically, religiously and socially. What I discovered was that this transformation was not just a simple attitude change about issues of peace and war but a more holistic change of one's core identity. Christians may call this a rebirth, a conversion experience or metanoia—a Greek word meaning a change of heart and mind much like the Apostle Paul experienced on the road to Damascus.

Among the veterans interviewed, I found four primary catalysts or life experiences that challenged the veterans' conceptions of war, the enemy, the United States or the military. These conceptions undergirded their identities as patriotic prowar Americans or as good Christians fighting evil around the world. The four dominant experiences or catalysts are combat, betrayal, religious conviction and education. In this article, I will describe these catalysts, share examples of veterans' stories from each catalyst group and then draw some conclusions important to the antiwar and pacifist Christian communities.

My 115 interviewees were solicited from an announcement on the following organizations' websites: Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Iraq Veterans against the War. In addition, I contacted a list of veterans who were members of a Mennonite church. Subjects were selected based on their accounts of changing perspectives on war over the life course. Each phone interview lasted from one to three hours and included a set of 17 questions. Those I interviewed ranged in age from 22 to 82 and had served in wars from World War II to Iraq II. The majority are male Vietnam War veterans.

The actual attitude of the subject on war was first determined with an open-ended question about what they believed at age 18 about the appropriate use of war. This was followed by what they believe today. I then read an eight-point scale from militaristic to pacifistic, and the subject identified the points on the scale that they were closest to at age 18 and currently. This information informed the initial attitude or identity for each subject and the current attitude or identity related to war. It also determined the degree of attitude change for each subject. For example, a subject may have identified #1, "It is appropriate for the nation/state to respond to offense or injustice anywhere in the world in any way it sees fit," as his or her belief about the appropriate use of war at age 18. If his or her belief about war today was identified as #7, "Neither the Christian nor the person of conscience nor the nation/state should engage in war because all human life is sacred," or #8, "I believe that there are nonviolent means to resolve conflict peacefully without recourse to war," their attitude change would be scored as significant on the scale.

I found that all participants in the study verbalized some change in their attitude regarding peace and war over time; no one remained stagnant. For the vast majority, the change was dramatic from a militaristic perspective with few limits on the use of war to a belief either in strict restrictions on the use of war (just war theory) or some level of pacifism based either on humanitarian or religious grounds. The majority of participants shared a number of additional characteristics suggesting that this was a more holistic change of identity.

First, they primarily moved to the left politically. The participants with the broadest change in thinking also changed jobs or  careers, choosing an area that demonstrated their new commitments and worldview. For some this meant going to seminary or law school. For others, this was demonstrated by entering the helping professions or teaching. Others spent their spare time in social activism or healing work. These changes led to a sense of peace, doing the right thing or feeling whole and healthy in a way they had not previously. Many of the participants, when asked if there were other changes in their lives as a result of their peace/war shift, mentioned increased political awareness and a decline in prejudice against homosexuals and other disenfranchised groups. Many said their faith changed when they experienced the horror of combat.

A 30-year-old Navy veteran saw significant changes: My friends all changed. I lost my conservative evangelical friends. Politically, I identify as a Democrat now. My idea of good public policy is different. … I have more compassion and faith. I am an environmentalist. My faith has moved to be more liberal and peace and justice oriented. I am more into process-oriented dialogue. I don't disrespect the military today, but I don't consider it an asset. #115

Combat as a catalyst for identity change: The first catalyst, "combat," represents veterans that frame the experience of combat and war as the most pivotal component of their changing stance on war. This is the largest group of veterans (37 percent). When placed in war, the reality of combat, of the enemy or of their comrades was so different from their expectation that upon reflection they felt wrong, confused, ashamed or unable to live with themselves and their actions during combat. Participants in this category often described the horror of war as being beyond description. One veteran was shocked by the valor of the enemy and the contrast in firepower between the United States and the North Vietnamese in 1967. He experienced shame due to the behavior of his comrades in the fight. He clearly expected the United States was in Vietnam to protect women and children and discovered that his fellow soldiers were not: The most important event was just seeing real war. We walked endlessly and waited for someone to shoot us. Our unit started out with 160 men and got down to 60. … There is no morality in war. We didn’t even help orphans. … The first event was when we got hit by our own artillery, and two guys were killed. The medics would pop morphine pills in the mouths of the wounded. I tried to carry one guy back for help, and he died. It’s so bad (combat), you can't imagine how bad it really is. I can’t even explain it. … #135

Betrayal as a catalyst for change: The second largest group (23 percent) is termed "betrayal." The source of identity conflict for this group began with a profound sense of betrayal by the U.S. government, U.S. military or a particular U.S. leader. In many cases, the foundation of the existing belief system was based on the moral superiority of the U.S. government, U.S. leaders' high ethical standards and the honesty of the U.S. military and necessity of U.S. intervention around the world. When these views were challenged by experience or trusted new information, the veteran sought a different way to understand historical events, the United States and issues of peace and war. This group differed from the other catalyst groups as they expressed their sense of betrayal emotionally and viscerally—as if the betrayal had caused a physical assault on their body, mind or spirit. It seemed to shake their belief in U.S. morality. As their belief system was challenged, their identity as a “patriotic American” or “proud veteran” also had to shift.

This Army veteran served in the United States but felt shocked after learning through Army friends and texts about U.S. military involvement around the world:
I enlisted in the Army from 1963-66 and served in the U.S. I was a damn good soldier but wanted out after three years. I worked and then went to college. Letters from my buddies who stayed in after 1966 and went to Vietnam began to change my mind. … They said everyone in Vietnam hates the U.S. … I began to study the historical situation of the region, and I trusted the literature as it jived with what my buddies said from Vietnam. I was shocked, angry and confused to learn about the U.S. oppression. … I felt like I was psychologically raped (to learn the truth). This shook me to my bones. #71

Religious conviction as a catalyst for change: A third largest catalyst group is termed "Religious Conviction" (21 percent). Members of this group understand their change as occurring only after being introduced to religious ideas or spiritual experiences that caused them to question previous conceptions of killing in war and the possibilities of nonviolent social change and/or responses to injustice. In contrast to the combat and betrayal groups, religious conviction veterans identify religious intellectual enlightenment as a source of identity conflict. These experiences from seminary to college to church, exposed them to alternative conceptions of God, war, Christianity and/or ethics of human dignity that led them to question the soldier identity.

One soldier notes: In 1979, after graduating from seminary, I joined the Army and was put in chaplaincy training. In 1982, my Home Mission Board called me for active duty in the Army as a Chaplain. I was assigned to a battalion with 1,000-1,500 soldiers. … It was here that I learned how violent the Army could be. … later I was selected to go to study more to be a staff officer. We studied kill ratios and a cold calculated approach to war. I decided afterward that I wasn’t going to study war anymore. Then I was selected to be an instructor at the chaplain’s school … while studying pastoral psychology. I took a course on Catholic moral theology, and Professor Stanley Hauerwas encouraged me to study just war theory and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. At the end of my major paper for the course, I was a pacifist. I decided it was crazy for Christians to be in the Army, but as a chaplain, I could do it. … One of my co-workers said to me one day, … you are a conscientious objector, and you don’t even know it. I took the C.O. regulations home with me that weekend, filled out the papers and turned them in Monday. Rather than grant me the C.O. discharge, they honorably discharged me after 10 years of active duty. #12

Education as a catalyst for change:
The fourth and final catalyst group is termed "Education." These veterans share the experience of becoming more critical in their thinking about their military experience and the world. Through higher education or readings critical of a war or the United States, this group adopts a new personal identity of "critical thinker" and in this identity begins to question previous assumptions about the United States and the world.

In order to tolerate or even enjoy the military experience, it is easier to set aside other important identities, as they are not verified by those in the military. For example, the student identity often includes thinking critically and creatively, questioning theory and research, basing one’s truth on scientific or carefully researched data, taking initiative and participating in respectful dialogue with authority figures. These are different standards from the military. In order to excel in the university setting, new norms and identities become important and the commitments of the individual to the soldier identity may change. This experience of higher education was the catalyst for 19 percent of the subjects in the study. One veteran explains:

My first three years in the Air Force (1963-66), I didn't consider the antiwar arguments (Vietnam) and went along with the President. I liked the macho culture and the espri de corps and thought that I should go to Vietnam to prove my manhood.  When I left Vietnam, I immediately entered an MBA program and got married and started college coaching. It wasn’t wise because I didn’t take time to think about the war for 15-20 years. … In 1980, I met and married my current wife, and we moved and became involved in our local community. In 1985, I began to read Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and this led to others. I also began involvement with Veterans for Peace. #112

There are three main conclusions that can be drawn from this research. First, complex identity change is a holistic process that tends to affect many levels of identity, creates changes in group affiliations and affects the day-to-day activities of individuals. Second, once an individual experiences distress, they attempt to reduce that stress. Access to individuals, texts, websites, groups and belief systems that provide alternative perspectives are important to constructing new identities. Third, these changes in role and identity, once stabilized, lead to feelings of wholeness, peace and  confidence.

The church, and specifically the peace church tradition, has an important role to play with veterans who are experiencing identity conflict or strain, especially combat vets with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). First, the church has and should continue to study and offer support to veterans who are in distress regarding their previous prowar identity. This support may be through easily accessible websites geared to veterans, veterans support groups near military bases, films interviewing antiwar veterans, texts that offer a coherent antiwar perspective without demonizing veterans and new scriptural interpretations on violence and war.

Second, the church must witness to the alternatives to war and violence that involve positive actions for peace and social justice. This is demonstrated in the church’s practice and involvement in trainings for restorative justice, conflict transformation, community organizing, nonviolent social change, human rights advocacy, anti-oppression, peace education in schools and churches as well as groups such as Christian Peacemaker Teams. The work of counter-recruiting, talking with young men and women about alternatives to the military is very important.

Third, the church must provide a nonjudgmental and compassionate outreach to veterans, their families and friends. Many are in turmoil. Suicide among veterans has reached epidemic proportions due to PTSD. Pacifists have much in common with many veterans. We share a love of country and an appreciation for our many freedoms and rights. We also share a desire to make the world a better place, where justice and peace prevail. We simply believe in different means of accomplishing these goals. We can reach out to these veterans as our neighbors, fellow college students and co-workers. We can walk with them, listen to their stories and provide support. One Christian group providing financial support to veterans who have fallen through the cracks is Centurions Guild ( It provides funding for medical and emotional support when the Veterans Administration is not able to help.

This outreach will be most effective through our commitment to spiritual practices of prayer, study, fasting and surrender to God. These practices open us to God so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world. This increases the chance that our outreach is peaceful, nondefensive, compassionate and well-informed.

Finally, we must partner with groups like Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. These groups hold tremendous legitimacy with the public that Christian pacifists lack in opposing war and promoting peaceful alternatives to war. They sponsor public events, advocate for legislative change and hold veteran support groups and educational conferences. We can learn much from these veterans, support their projects financially and share our faith—a faith that many veterans abandoned in their experience of war.

Julie Putnam Hart is an associate professor of sociology and peace and justice at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio. Hart volunteers with Christian Peacemaker Teams each summer, doing human rights work in Israel/Palestine and currently Colombia

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