Southern peace activists help soldiers become conscientious objectors
The South is arguably the engine of the U.S. war machine. The region is home to Fort Bragg, the largest U.S. military base in the world. Southern states supply more soldiers than others; the region is home to three of the five states with the highest military recruitment numbers in 2016 – Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Its congressional delegations have historically been some of the most militaristic, and military contractors have long put many of their production facilities in Southern communities, where right-to-work laws are a barrier to unionization.
But that also means that the South has long been a center for anti-war activism. Communities with military bases and weapons manufacturing facilities are home to war resisters, too. During the Vietnam War, anti-war organizers founded GI coffeehouses at bases around the South, including North Carolina's Fort Bragg and Fort Polk in Louisiana, where they worked under the radar to organize soldiers and the community against both war and racism.
And in Fayetteville, North Carolina, just outside Fort Bragg, Quaker House has been a hub for peace activists and service members seeking support since 1969, when a soldier who wanted to leave the military hitchhiked to a Quaker meeting in Chapel Hill and asked for help. The Quaker church is formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, one of the traditional peace churches, which also include the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, Moravians, and the Amish.
Quaker House, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, offers trainings for would-be conscientious objectors as well as counseling for victims of domestic abuse on the base. It's also a hub of the GI Rights Hotline, a collectively-run international hotline for U.S. service members trying to figure out their options for leaving the military, for obtaining adequate medical and mental health care, or who may be dealing with sexual harassment or assault.
After the U.S. killed 10 Iranian military leaders with a drone strike on Jan. 3, sparking fears of a new front in the Middle Eastern wars, the hotline experienced an uptick in calls from people interested in learning more about getting conscientious objector status — an onerous process that often doesn't succeed. In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002, for example, 405 service members applied for conscientious objector status, and 179 of those requests were granted. In that same period, about 20,000 service members went absent without official leave and were classified as deserters.
Helping the questioning
A conscientious objector, as defined by the U.S. government, is "one who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles." The status does not apply to those who oppose wars selectively.
There have been conscientious objectors for as long as America has engaged in war. During the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania fined conscientious objectors and confiscated the property of Quakers who refused to pay the extra tax. Conscription in the U.S. began with the Civil War, when the government initially allowed war resisters to provide a substitute or pay a commutation fee; it later amended the draft law to exempt only those who were "conscientiously opposed to the bearing of arms." Though the Confederacy initially didn't make allowances for conscientious objectors, it eventually allowed those who were members of peace churches to avoid the draft by paying a fee, which many poor men could not afford.
During World War I, the government sent some conscientious objectors to camps and arrested others; some were court-martialed and imprisoned for several years. But before World War II, leaders in the peace churches came up with a plan for the Civilian Public Service program, creating an alternative way to serve for people conscientiously opposed to war. When the draft was reinstituted again during the Vietnam War, the government initially did not allow non-religious conscientious objectors to claim exemption from the draft. This was changed with a Supreme Court decision in 1971; now, conscientious objectors can include anyone with "deeply felt" ethical or moral objections to military service.
The draft is not currently in effect, so conscientious objectors aren't being conscripted into the military against their will. But some enlistees still come to realize they have fundamental objections to war. The process for getting conscientious objector status requires them to show that they're opposed to war in any form, not just the current war or the current administration; submit a lengthy written application; and undergo interviews with military chaplains, psychiatrists, and officers.
Guiding service members through the process is where Steve Woolford and Lenore Yarger come in. The couple has been answering phones for the GI Rights Hotline from their Catholic Worker farm in Siler City, North Carolina, for nearly 20 years. Woolford and Yarger moved to North Carolina in the 1990s, and soon got involved with Quaker House's work, including counseling potential conscientious objectors through the application process and helping form the GI Rights Hotline. It's a different kind of anti-war activism than organizing marches or engaging in civil disobedience, but it's just as important, they believe.
"For a lot of people [in the peace movement], soldier equals bad," Woolford told Facing South. "When we started, I might have thought a lot of people serving in the military are just innocent pawns in somebody else's chess game. And I think there's some truth to that. But the more I do this work, the more I would say the people who wind up serving the military aren't just pawns, but a lot of them are victims of warmaking themselves."
Service members from around the country call the hotline with all sorts of questions: how to get health care to treat traumas incurred during deployment, what their options are after enlisting as a reservist, how to leave after realizing their religious or moral beliefs are incompatible with waging war. The counselors don't tell them what to do but rather offer options and expertise. Different military branches have different processes and quirks that counselors like Woolford and Yarger have come to know well over their 20 years of working with service members. Between the two of them, they take around 200 to 300 calls and emails per month.
Woolford and Yarger said that they see spikes in certain types of calls at certain times. Starting around 2010, when combat veterans who had done multiple tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan were coming home, there were more calls from veterans trying to figure out how to get the disability and medical services they had been promised. After the U.S. drone strike killed Iranian military leaders earlier this month, Yarger said the hotline saw a jump in calls about conscientious objection.
Working directly with service members has exposed Yarger, Woolford, and their fellow peace activists to other casualties of war: families, communities, and people used up and tossed out by the military system.
"One mother I work with was talking about her son and she goes, 'We feel like they treat these guys like tires. They put them on, they wear them out, and then they throw them away," said Woolford. Added Yarger, "The U.S. wants to fight war without paying the bill. The human cost is so much greater than what is ever acknowledged by the military. And I think if we actually did have to pay that cost, people would really start to think about whether we should be doing this."
'This isn't who I want to be'
Among those Yarger has worked with is Kristofer Miller. When he first arrived at Army basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, as a teen in 2013, he knew something didn't feel right.
He'd joined because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Green Beret medic who served for over 20 years. As a kid, he remembered playing with the med bag his dad brought home every day, and learning from him some of the basics of the work — humanitarian work, he then believed, even in a military context.
"I equated it to a knighthood," Miller said. "That [soldiers] are modern-day knights, people who take on the burden of killing so other people don't have to, because it's necessary."
During basic training, though, he heard darker motivations from some of his fellow trainees. "A lot of people there were saying really crude things that I didn't agree with, just talking about wanting to kill people," he told Facing South. Like his father, Miller was eventually selected to train as a medical sergeant in the Special Forces, where he thought his fellow troops might not be so bloodthirsty. But there were still a few fellow trainees — never a large percentage, but enough to stick in his head — who weren't there to heal others.
"Medicine is just what they have to do to be here, it's not what they want to do," he said. "It's just that they have to do it to go shoot people."
And then there was the work itself. "I thought I was going down to these places to help people, and that humanitarian aid was the first intention. And I found out over time, over far too long, that it wasn't the first intention," Miller said. "They're teaching us the best preventative medicine is bullets downrange. That's just not true. Bullets hurt people. You're just hurting other people so they don't hurt you. That doesn't make any sense. That's not preventative, that's violence."
Over the next few years, Miller wrapped up his medical training in Tampa and was eventually transferred to Fort Bragg. But his doubts over what he was being asked to do haunted him. So he started reading books on just-war theory, listening to podcasts on Stoicism and Buddhism, looking for some way that he could reconcile his beliefs with his chosen career.
"I never set out to be like, 'Hey, war's not OK," he said. "My intention was not to become a conscientious objector by reading those; my intention was to be OK with being a Green Beret and to be able to do my job." But instead, he came to realize that he would never be OK with war. "War is not justified and can't be," he said. "Violence begets violence."
"I was sitting up in the parking lot, and I just started crying. I was just like, wow. I can't be in the military anymore," he said. "And that's when it really hit me — I need to get out. I can't do this. This isn't who I want to be, this isn't what I want to do, it's not what I believe in."
Miller applied for conscientious objector status six months ago but still has not received a final decision. If his application is approved, he plans to go to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he's already been accepted, and study to become a doctor.
"I want to do humanitarian aid missions, similar to Doctors Without Borders," Miller said. "Exactly what I wanted to do [in the military], just without all the other nonsense that I wasn't OK with."
Olivia Paschal is the archives editor with Facing South and a doctoral student in history at the University of Virginia. She was a staff reporter with Facing South for two years and spearheaded Poultry and Pandemic, Facing South's year-long investigation into conditions for Southern poultry workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, Southerly, Scalawag, the Arkansas Times, and Civil Eats, among other publications.