Conscientious objection, race and class

Ertell Whigham is a former Marine recruiter and currently serves as Executive Minister of Franconia Mennonite Conference in eastern Pennsylvania. The following is an interview with Whigham about how race and class factor into military recruitment and conscientious objection in the United States.

What are young people who grow up in settings of poverty looking for after high school?

I did military recruiting in both rural and urban settings of poverty. I found that youth were looking for opportunities that would help them advance beyond the low-income status of their parents. With few family resources, many of them could not anticipate going to college. But they wanted to “belong” and to have a position of respect in their community. In some cases they simply wanted to leave a bad situation at home and were looking for a way out.

How do young people in settings of poverty tend to view the option of military enlistment?

As recruiters, we found that it was fairly easy to take advantage of the needs expressed by these young people. In many ways, our pitch to the young people was predatory in nature. For youth who felt like they were on the edges of society due to poverty or racism, we could offer stability. We could provide a job, food, clothing and a roof. We could offer travel, training, sharp uniforms, money for college and status. Compared to the minimum wage jobs with little option for advancement that likely awaited many of them, the military offers looked pretty good.

When you later became a pastor of a Mennonite church in a setting where many families struggled with poverty, how did you work with youth who were looking for post-high school options?

It was a very labor-intensive effort. We set up mentorships for young people as early as middle school. We helped them visit a college campus. We provided modest scholarship money and helped them investigate grants. We helped them make a connection with a business person in the area of their career interest. We created employment opportunities in our child care center that would at least help them earn some money while they were thinking about future options. Several members of our congregation offered a room in their homes for young people who just needed to get out of a difficult home situation. We made sure they knew that they had a church family that they could depend on.

We did all this in addition to helping young people understand that Jesus’ way of peace does not fit with the military mission. For if we wished to persuade our youth that they should not enlist, we had to be able to offer another meaningful option for their lives.

One of the biggest challenges is with immigrant families. Many of them feel a deep debt of gratitude for the opportunity to live in this country, and see military service as a way to repay this debt.

So, how does conscientious objection to war look to youth who don’t have good options for job, school or career?

For someone who doesn’t have good non-military options, conscientious objection exacts a high cost. It may mean being stuck in a difficult environment with little opportunity for financial stability. Military enlistment may also be costly, but this is usually not on the young person’s mind or in the pitch the recruiter normally makes. This is in sharp contrast to youth who have resources for college, travel or skills training. Conscientious objection to war does not exact the same cost from these youth.

Many young people grow up in a context where nonresistance or nonviolence as a way of life is simply not a part of the culture. In many settings, a young person who responds peacefully to aggression is viewed as weak and can become easy prey to bullying and harassment. The church can offer strong, peaceful role models and become a place of sanctuary, but if peace and nonviolence are not reinforced elsewhere in a young person’s life, including the home, the teaching may seem irrelevant. If peace does not seem relevant when a young person is on the street, it may well seem irrelevant when listening to the well-spoken pitch of a military recruiter.

In my recent experience with veterans’ groups, I’ve learned that veterans can be some of the most effective communicators in support of peace and nonviolence when talking with youth.

The challenge to our churches is this: make peace relevant to all of our youth and offer meaningful alternatives to military enlistment.

Ertell Whigham is the Executive Minister of Franconia Mennonite Conference in eastern Pennsylvania. He was interviewed by Titus Peachey, MCC U.S. Peace Education Coordinator.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

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