I have a complicated relationship with the military.
I remember on the night that war was declared in the Gulf gathering in a huge worship service and belting out Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” with tears in my eyes and fear in my heart. I was ten and terrified that we were going to be at war. But I was also proud of my country and the people who were serving in the military.
As my politics and theology shifted I moved to a stance of non-violence and pacifism. But I still had this tender spot in my heart for the folks that served in the military. I felt like they were in an impossible situation, many of them choosing to join the military in order to have access to education and housing and a steady job and then being put into unnecessary danger by people who were unconcerned about the morality of the wars in which they were engaging.
Then as I transitioned and tried to make sense of my newfound masculinity my position on the military shifted again and I began to wish that I could serve. I wanted to be a part of it for a lot of different and conflicted and complicated reasons: wanting to be a part of something bigger than myself, wanting to test myself, wanting to figure out what it meant. I adopted soldiers as pen pals, writing them letters and sending them care packages. I remember one 18 year old who practically begged for crayons and coloring books because he was so stressed and needed something to make him feel less stressed. I put together a package of coloring pages and markers and any toys I could find, desperate to make him feel better.
I started to think about being a military chaplain. A non-combatant. I thought that the folks who joined the military who were more liberal or progressive needed a chaplain that was there for them. Someone who could minister to queer folks without trying to convert them. Someone who could simply be a presence without pushing a certain viewpoint. I was rejected from even applying because of my transgender history.
Now I sit in this in between space: I generally am opposed to the military industrial complex in all of its forms while also realizing that for many poor people and young people of color it can be the only avenue that they have to escape the places they are living. Not only that, I believe that we, all of us, no matter our views on the military and war have a responsibility to the people who have and continue to serve.
The other night Ashley and I went to see a project called She Went To War. It’s a part of The Telling Project. From their website: The Telling Project is a national performing arts non-profit that employs theater to deepen our understanding of the military and veterans’ experience. Greater understanding fosters receptivity, easing veterans’ transitions back to civil society, and allowing communities to benefit from the skills and experience they bring with them. Through this understanding, a community deepens its connection to its veterans, itself, and its place in the nation and the world.
This particular project was four women who had all served. Three of the women served in Iraq and Afghanistan and one of the women had started her military service in Grenada and served in every conflict between that and Afghanistan.
The evening was designed as a theatrical experience, but honestly the theatre was unnecessary (and honestly a little distracting). The power of the experience was simply these women telling their stories. They talked about men and about combat and about injuries. They talked about coming home and people understanding and not understanding.
And as I listened to their stories, with all of my complicated history with the military, I couldn’t help but be moved to tears. For the pain they went through, for the trouble they had with re-integration, for their courage, for their trauma, for my own complicity.
Because that’s the thing: No matter how I feel about the military, no matter how I feel about any particular military action or war, these women (and men) serve for me. No matter how I feel about the United States, I am a part of it. I benefit from it.
That’s the feeling I had when watching these women tell their stories, “I am complicit in this.” I am complicit in their trauma. I am complicit in their pain. I am complicit in the issues they had with re-integration and in the issues they had with the silence they felt they needed to keep. I am complicit.
It is my responsibility to bear witness. It is the absolute least thing I can do. I need to listen to these stories. I need to listen and not back away. I need to listen and not flinch. I need to listen and be present. I need to feel uncomfortable and guilty and upset. I need to do it without distancing myself from the listening. I don’t get to be separate from this. I don’t get to say “not my military”. I don’t get to say “not my war”. As much as I would like to.
We have a broken society. Sebastian Junger, a journalist and war reporter, has a newish book called Tribes. He talks about the importance of communal living, how psychiatric disorders actually decrease in times of stress, and the importance of re-integration rituals post combat experience. He talks about how the things we usually do: “Hold signs welcoming people home, thanking them for their service, letting them go to the front of the line” actually serve to do the opposite of re-integration. Those actions remind people how separate they are, how special, how in the minority. They are reminded how few people serve. They are reminded how alone they are.
Instead we need places where veterans can tell their truth. All of their truth. They need to be able to talk about what they saw, what they did, what they survived. They need to be able to be angry and hurt and proud. They need to grieve, out loud. They need space. And they need us to bear witness and listen. And not flinch. And not look away.
Because we are complicit. So we must bear witness. It is the least we can do.