Written by Dallas Darling for Truthout
When teachers Marbeth Verani and Adeline Koscher held up their signs questioning the lengthy and ongoing wars in Afghanistan at a school assembly honoring six students who enlisted in the U.S. military, their gesture recalled a choice I made twenty years ago. Verani and Koscher will have to live with their choice, as I must live with mine, and they will more than likely suffer reprimands and severe consequences for their actions.
After the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, in which 5,000 innocent civilians were slaughtered and 60,000 people were left homeless, I filed for Conscientious Objector Status in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer. (My decision was also influenced by my work with veterans from the Vietnam Conflict and my embrace of the major tenets of pacifism and nonviolence. I wanted to seek a path other than militarism and war.)
Instead, I was activated for Gulf War One. When I reported to my designated military base, I refused to carry a weapon and participate in what I considered to be acts of violence and dehumanization of the “other.” I was placed under military surveillance and considered a threat to national security. Since I no longer wanted to kill, I was ordered to seek counsel with Army Chaplains and psychologists, and to obtain legal advice.
Fortunately for me – but not for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that died during and after Gulf War One – it was a very short war. However, the death threats, hate mail, and vandalism continued after I returned home. Unremitting persecution and oppression plagued me, too. It eventually cost me several important relationships and two careers. I finally left the state where I was born and raised.
Now, I teach, but I do so with fear, for I have lived, and continue to live, in the belly of a beast: a corporatist military empire. When I kept quiet, I received Teacher of the Year. But now that I have started to become more vocal about my past and the dangers of U.S. militarism and its conflicts, or when I present both the pros and cons of war and peace and then encourage my students to think critically, talk to their parents, and form their own beliefs, reprimands often follow. Gone are the days of awards and promotions.
This year was the very first time I told several students about my pacifism and conscientious objection in the U.S. Army. In other words, due to fears and persecution, it took me twenty years to finally tell a handful of students my narrative and experiences. (I was once asked to leave a school district because I taught racial equality and had questioned U.S. militarism and the preemptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
I teach in the corner of a fairly large high school. Not far from my classroom is the Junior ROTC classroom, where several hundred students learn about character, honor, duty, leadership, military history, and of course, U.S. militarism. (Several ROTC students are in my history classes. We hold each other’s views, opinions, and discussions in high regard. Several of those students have sought me out for counsel and advice about the possibility of killing someone.)
Not only do students march and train in the hallways, but it is common to see military personnel strolling through the school. Two military instructors oversee the Junior ROTC Program, which receives $350,000 annually. Almost weekly, Army, Marine, Air Force, and Navy recruiters are stationed in the Activity Center with information, giveaway items and games, not to mention military testing materials and complete access to student information.
Recruiting posters adorn the school and the counseling office. In the library, there are life-size cardboard cutouts of military individuals dressed in battle fatigues. As if that weren’t enough, the cutouts are surrounded by more recruiting materials. Students are reminded regularly to sign up for the Selective Service. The history books and curriculum, which corporations have come to realize are a lucrative multi-billion dollar industry, are filled with U.S. wars, most of them uncritical, extremely patriotic, and filled with highly selective information that promotes a corporatist perspective.
The histories of pacifism, pacifists, and anti-war movements are almost totally absent from the curriculum and textbooks. In this pro-military climate, I teach with fear. I also understand that militarism and wars will always be a part of my life, just as they are a part of the lives – directly or indirectly – of most people living in the U.S. And whereas fascist military empires of the past violently purged their pacifists, the U.S. military-corporate-academic complex “softly” purges its pacifists and peace activists by subjecting them to the type of culture I have just described.
Evidently, the two teachers held up signs that read, simply, “End War.” Judging from the comments in the paper and online, it appears that, like me, these women have started a very difficult and arduous pacifist journey. Many have already accused the two teachers of crossing a line, of being unpatriotic, of being traitors, and of treating their own students with disrespect. Some students have leafleted the teachers’ classrooms with signs like “Support Our Troops.”
Demands have already been made for the two teachers to be fired. Some parents claim the teachers’ actions were disrespectful because U.S. troops are defending the nation and fighting for freedom. Marbeth Verani defended her actions by saying she was showing students how to exercise dissent in a democracy. She also welcomed the signs outside her classroom that have ridiculed and condemned her as a way to foster open debate and dialogue.
But, like me, she will come to realize that the U.S. is not the democracy its founders theorized, and that there is little debate in education, or in society, about U.S. militarism and its preemptive wars (let alone any viable form of protest and dissent). Then-President George Bush, Sr. was right when he said the Gulf War “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” It was kicked when U.S. soldiers became identified with every war fought by corporations and their politicians, and when the costs, horrors, and consequences of war were censored until many of us were desensitized to their very existence, or at least their significance.
Obviously, the students who were being honored were stunned. I wish someone would have stunned me before I had sworn allegiance to U.S. militarism and all of its wars fought and maintained by a fascist military empire. I hope those students who believe it will be difficult to view Verani and Koscher as role models will reconsider. It is not very pleasurable being a local, state, or even national target because you oppose war or hold other pacifist beliefs. Nor is it agreeable, or very democratic, to constantly live in and teach with fear.
The two teachers at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School are facing disciplinary action and have been suspended. Verani, who also refused to stand during a standing ovation for the military students being honored at the mandatory assembly, told the Cape Cod Times, “What message have they sent to students in the assembly who also chose not to give a standing ovation for militarism, or for students who were too afraid not to stand?”
I must ask this question too: When will pacifists and pacifism in this nation ever be honored at a high school assembly?