Whether it was by God's grace or sheer luck, I ended up playing drums in the U.S. Army Soldier Show based at Fort McPherson, Atlanta, Georgia. It was an interesting place to be as a conscientious objector, but also to be touring our musical shows in the South (Georgia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky) in the early '70s, when racial segregation was still a very tense issue. The Civil Rights or Southern Freedom movement had not yet transformed the Old South.
Having grown up in California racism was not as overt as it was in the South. I never thought race was an issue where I lived. I went to school in the 50's and 60's and had friends who were Mexican, Japanese, and African-American. My mother worked with Mexicans and African-Americans at a laundromat. But, only much later, as I began to understand the how racism operates did I remember my father telling racial jokes when I was young and hearing them at school, the segregation of blacks and Mexicans in the "Colonia" of my home town, remembering the predominantly black high school, and other effects of racism. Still, I don't think most whites in my home town viewed themselves as "racist."
After I was drafted into the Army as a conscientious objector at the age of 20 I was stationed at the beginning of 1970 in Augusta, Georgia. One of my first experiences with overt racism was in a conversation, or should I say an argument, I had with two other pharmacy assistants, from the South, with whom I worked. They told me that "blacks were naturally inferior to whites." It was not a matter of prejudice, but of biology. They just didn't have in their genetic make up the mental capacity of white people! I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I had never encountered this kind of overt racism.
When most whites think of racism, they are usually thinking of overt racism, rather than the more subtle form of racism that I didn't even notice as a young person growing up in California. Among young people today racism is even harder to spot, since they are growing up in multicultural and multiracial settings. They think of themselves as being color-blind. But, this is not the case at all. Racism exists systemically in the culture, structures, and institutions of our society, even within youth culture.
As strange as it might sound at first, it was in the Army in the South as a young person that I saw some radical transgressions of racial boundaries. It was decided that we were going to do a first, the first military production of David Merrick's Broadway production "Hello Dolly." That was not the biggest "first." It would also be the first fully racially integrated cast ensemble. The leading couples in the production were racially mixed. And this was going to be toured through all the Army bases in the South in 1970! It was a daring challenge to racism in the South, particularly within the military, that, surprisingly, went over very well.
We have only scratched the surface of dismantling racism since the years of my youth in the 50's, 60's, and 70's. We still have a long way yet to go. I would encourage all young people to take the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Damascus Road racism analysis training to get a better understanding of the nature of racism (http://mcc.org/damascusroad/) and as a way to become a better peacemaker. Then, maybe some young people today could take some of their own daring moves to dismantle racism.
I often wonder about what we call "God's grace." Was it grace that allowed me to get a conscientious objector status when I was drafted into the Army in 1969? Was it grace that kept me for going to Vietnam when I graduated from Advanced Individual Training as a medic? Was it grace that was behind the lack of pharmacy assistants at Fort Gordon that kept me from having to ever see a drop of blood as a medic? Was it grace that brought Terry Moretti to the back of the pharmacy one spring day in Augusta, Georgia? I'm not sure.
I was going about my daily work in the back of the pharmacy when I heard a talkative, Italian-American soldier coming back where I worked. It was not a place where most soldiers or their relatives came. Terry needed some strong cough syrup. He was going to be playing his trumpet in a soldier show on the base that evening. My ears perked up. A musical show in the army? Since I had played drums since I was 10 years old, I thought this would be the ideal job in the army.
I asked Terry about the show. He told me it was a touring show that played popular music and show tunes. Soldiers were "recruited" for a four month temporary assignment to play in the band, sing with an ensemble, construct a stage, and do sound and technical work for the show. He said that there would be auditions for the show after the performance that evening. I decided to attend and to audition.
I thought the show was great! Lights, stage, big band music, dancing, singing, costumes. It was a big production. I was a bit nervous playing drums for my audition for the band. The producer, a civilian, said they would get back to me if I made it. I went back to my work in the pharmacy with hopes of being in the soldier show. I wasn't sure I would make it, since there were probably many drummers who auditioned from the army bases in the South. One day I got a call from the Third Army Soldier Show telling me I was accepted as their new drummer! I was ecstatic! Was this God's grace? It sure felt like it.
By God's grace, or sheer luck, my four month temporary assignment to the Third Army Soldier Show turned into a permanent assignment as a drummer with the band. I was re-stationed to Fort McPherson, Augusta, Georgia. While I was away orders for Vietnam came in for me back at Fort Gordon, but they were sent back since I was re-assigned to a new base and company. Was it God's grace that kept me from going to Vietnam as a medic and seeing the horrors of war and possibly dying in the jungle, since the red cross on my helmet would have been a key target of the Vietcong? I'm not sure.
I'm not sure because many years later as a minister of peace and justice I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I was emotionally overwhelmed as I walked alongside the names of soldiers who were killed in the Vietnam War carved in black marble. Pretty soon the names engulfed me with their presence. There must have been names of soldiers I had met while I was being trained as a medic, working in the pharmacy, or playing at army bases across the South. Why did they have to die? Why was I spared? The sadness of so many lives lost to war poured from my eyes. And my name was not up there alongside those thousands upon thousands of names. Was it because of God's grace? I'm not sure.
Minister of Peace and Justice
Mennonite Mission Network
Being in the U.S. Army was a strange place for me to be as a young person from 1969-1971. I completed 6 weeks of basic training at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas and continued there in AIT (Advanced Individual Training). For 12 weeks I was trained as a medic, one of the options for a conscientious objector who enters the military.
The advanced training involved learning to give each other shots (ouch! with first timers even!), and yourself a morphine shot (for personal wounds), take a person's temperature (by mouth and yuuuuck, rectal!) move someone into and out of a bed, bandage a wounded vet (how to pile their guts on top of them and cover them), watch films of wounded soldiers (worse than slasher movies!), find your way back to base in the mountains with a map and compass, and other skills to keep yourself alive in Vietnam.
As the days and months of training passed I got more and more nervous about finishing and being sent over to Southeast Asia with no weapon and a red cross on my helmet for a target. I remember the early morning after AIT was over and all the men in my company stood in formation ready to hear their orders of transfer, where they were going to be sent. You could almost feel the grimacing as each soldier's name was being read alphabetically. Hampton…Fort Benning, Georgia…Hansen…Fort Bragg, South Carolina…Hartshorn…I was ready to hear my death sentence of "Vietnam"… Hartshorn…Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Surprisingly, not one person in my company was sent to Vietnam, at least at that time. They had their quotas of medics for the year. But, I suspect the some of those names called out that morning can now be found etched in stone on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC.
After being trained as a medic I never saw a drop of blood in my two years in the U.S. Army. I was stationed in Augusta, Georgia and ended up working in the army pharmacy, because they didn't have enough trained pharmacy assistants. I filled bottles with cough syrup and helped dispense medication to soldiers and their families. I do remember having to face the ridicule of some of the other army pharmacists for being a conscientious objector. I tried to defend what I believed. Sometimes I just let what they said roll off my back. What an odd place for a conscientious objector to be!
Sometimes young people, particularly those who believe in peace and nonviolence, may find themselves in places they would rather not be, like being approached by an army recruiter at your high school, considering going into the military to get an education or to travel, or having to defend your pacifist beliefs to another Christian. Believing in a nonviolent Jesus in a world where adults justify and wage war and young people are saturated with the myth of redemptive violence (in videos, movies, attitudes) is a strange place to be as a peacemaker.
Maybe it's God's grace that sometimes gets you through the pressure to conform or give in to violence. Other times you just have to let what others say about what you believe roll off your back. Then, at other times you have to stand up for what you believe, even when your whole environment is out of sync with the Jesus who called us to love our enemies.
Minister of Peace and Justice
Mennonite Mission Network
I was drafted into the U.S. Army when I was 20 years old in 1969. I had been living the lifestyle of a hippie rock musician and artist in L.A. I knew that I would be ridiculed for my long hair when I was processed in at Fort Ord, California, so I got a buzz haircut before I went in. My hair was the shortest on the bus that transported us young draftees to Fort Ord.
The moment I got off the bus I knew I was in an alien environment. A drill sergeant was yelling at us to get off the bus, calling us "maggots" (a derogatory name for a new recruit), and demanding that we stand at attention in formation. We went to get our olive drab fatigues (uniforms), haircuts (they shaved off what little fuzz I had left), and bunk (bed) assignments. I was in a strange place with people I didn't know at a place I didn't choose and didn't want to be. My first night away from friends and family was depressing.
Since I was a conscientious objector I was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to be trained as a medic. My basic training was two weeks shorter (6 weeks) than regular basic (8 weeks), since our company of medics didn't have rifle training. My company was made up of Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, religious groups with pacifism in their history, as well as others who were simply assigned to become medics.
Each morning began with running to and from breakfast. For some reason all our Army food seemed to make a "plop" sound as it was scooped into our trays. Running after breakfast nauseated me. We ran everywhere we went. I guess it was part of our physical training. But we had to make sure that we stopped running to salute a superior officer or we would end up on the ground doing any number of push ups for our infraction of the rules of Army hierarchy. This was part of our indoctrination into the chain of command and setting us up to obey the rules of the system.
Physical training was daily, prolonged, and grueling. It involved running, various squats, push ups, and the worst of all, holding our legs off the ground until some of us were crying like babies. I particularly felt sorry for those who were overweight and couldn't hold their legs up for very long. While we were moaning and groaning, the drill sergeant would yell, "This soldier here is making you keep your legs up longer!" This caused the group to begin to turn on the poor guy who was out of shape and yell at him. It was a group psychological tactic to get us to come together as one body and not allow anyone to deviate from the norm.
Although I went into the Army as a conscientious objector, I could see how the training techniques were designed to form us a group and to get us to act without conscience or thought, but upon sheer command. We, young 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds, were being shaped to become fodder in the U.S. war in Southeast Asia, a case of failed U.S. foreign policy.
I have seen similar group psychological techniques, whether intentional or not, being used on the general public with the war in Iraq. The media has been used as a tool to support the war through its avoidance of showing the realities of war and "embedding" reporters with the U.S. Army. Those who deviate from the "norm" of support for the war were not that long ago called "unpatriotic" and "supporters of the terrorists." The idea is to get the public to conform, to "fall in line" and simply obey the "authorities" and support U.S. foreign policy.
How do young people, especially peacemakers, find their way in such a strange environment? Youth live in an environment where the pressure to conform is intense. To be part of the social group is a priority. How do young people follow the peaceful way of Christ, when others might call you "coward," or pressure you to conform to the "rules" of vengeance and "pay back"? How do you avoid using the violence of words against those who do not seem to fit in with the group?
It's not easy, but there are paths of peace amid the crooked roads of violence. There are alternatives to using the violence of words and weapons. There are companions in the church, like those I found even in the Army, who can help you navigate the rough waters and alien environments. There is a God, who guides us in the paths of peace, even when we find ourselves walking (or running?) through strange places.
Leo Hartshorn, Minister of Peace and Justice, Mennonite Mission Network
Yeah, that's me, a long-haired hippie, playing drums in L.A. at 19 years old. It was 1968 (almost 40 years ago! Man, I'm getting' old) and I was groovin' and trippin' out to the music (to hear samples of my group Beauregard Ajax CD Deaf Priscilla (search at http://www.cduniverse.com ). It was a time of the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper, psychedelic music (Jimi Hendrix rules!), pop art, long hair, bell bottom jeans, go-go boots, free love, acid, turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. I hadn't totally dropped out. I was an art student at L.A. City College and playing music around L.A. An older college friend, who had studied for the priesthood (now Father Richard Gant ), was dragging me all over the Los Angeles area to encounter Jesus Freaks in Hollywood, monks in the California desert, cloistered nuns, wild tongue-speaking Pentecostal revivals, Teen Challenge (where I met Andraé Crouch ), and faith healers, like Kathryn Kuhlman , who knocked me to the floor with the power of the Spirit on the stage of the Shrine auditorium in L.A., where I saw Hendrix play! (Far out, man!) I was rediscovering the faith of my childhood in a strange new way.
A world away the Vietnam War was raging and taking the lives of thousands of young men my age. Like most young men, especially in the counter culture, I was against the war, but I wasn't in any protests like some radicals of the day. I had registered for the draft, as was required, at the age of 18. I didn't burn my draft card or head north to Canada. Since I was in college I was able to avoid the draft. The draft meant you didn't have a choice to go to war or not. If they called up your name, you were headed off to boot camp, basic training, and then shipped off to the jungles of Vietnam to kill or be killed for your country and to "save the world from Communism" (Same old rap today, just with new enemies to fight).
Well, I screwed off and got some bad grades, which meant I lost my deferment from the draft. The next thing I know I get a letter in my mailbox, greetings from "Uncle Sam." It was a draft notice to report for duty in the U.S. Army. I knew what that meant. I was going to become a foot soldier, given a gun, sent a world away from my home and music and art and friends and family and school and ordered to shoot and kill someone I didn't even know and who wasn't my enemy. I hardly knew where Southeast Asia was located on a map! Jeeeezz Louise! What a thing to face as a 19 year old. Killing someone for your country! In good conscience, I couldn't do that. Maybe it was all that stuff I had been hearing as a child in Sunday School and around L.A. about that radical, peace loving Jesus.
I scrambled fast to try and get out of going into the army. I sent for a do-it-yourself minister's license from the Universal Life Church (ministers could be exempt from the draft, an odd kind of hold over from a day in the early church when no a Christian went to war). I prayed hard! I also had my pastor and friends write letters to the draft board telling them that as a Christian I felt I could not go to war and kill another human being (WWJD? What Would Jesus Do?). There were few evangelical Christians in that day (and still today) who were saying they could not kill because of their faith in Jesus. I guess I had become a Jesus Freak!
Well, I did get drafted into the army in the fall of 1969 as a "conscientious objector". All it took was some bad grades, the loss of a college draft deferment, and I was faced with a life and death decision. Could I kill someone for my country? As a Jesus Freak, I had to say, "No way, José!"
At present there is no draft and young men and women are not forced to face that kind of life and death question. Although some who go into the military to get an education end up facing the life or death question as they are sent to the war in Iraq. Then, reality sets in. Can I kill someone for my country? What would you do if you were faced with that kind of decision as a young person? All I can do is give you my old school rap about what I did as a Jesus Freak. Or I can tell you what that old, old, old school "freak" (Jesus) said against a world that wanted to suck him into its violence: "Love your enemies, man." That word is still far out!
Tune in for some more old school rap in the next column.
Minister of Peace and Justice
Mennonite Mission Network
Cofounder of Drumming for Peace