In the May 30, 2021 New York Times, there’s an Op-Ed on military conscientious objectors, or COs. I’m gratified to see it on the brink of Memorial Day. It shows no disrespect for those who agreed to fight in war and died to recognize that a persistent minority has declined to take the sword.
The piece mentions two military COs, but mostly concentrates on the recent case of Michael Rasmussen. He was training to be a Marine combat pilot, but found his conscience turned against taking part in war. The Times:
One morning as he prepared for a supply flight to Hawaii, Mr. Rasmussen kept returning to the story he’d read in bed the night before in “Path of Compassion,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, in which the Buddha was out begging when he was nearly mugged by a notorious criminal. Instead of robbing the Buddha, the mugger confessed to a life of murder and mayhem and asked him for advice: “What good act could I possibly do?”
“Stop traveling the road of hatred and violence,” the Buddha said. “That would be the greatest act of all.”
Mr. Rasmussen got in his car to drive to the hangar, overwhelmed with what he called an “immense feeling of dread.” The story haunted him: “Am I on the road of hatred and violence?” he wondered. He decided then and there to leave the Marines.
He filed a CO application in 2017, and after several months of processing and waiting, it was accepted and Rasmussen was honorably discharged.
While Rasmussen’s struggle with his conscience was an agonizing experience for him, compared to that of the other CO, it went relatively smoothly.
Stephen Funk, the Times only identified as “a Marine Corps reservist, [who] was the first soldier to publicly claim conscientious objector status in the Iraq war.”
Funk says he thought the Marines could give him some discipline, and he hadn’t thought much about actual warfighting and killing. (If this sounds strange, it’s not an uncommon outlook voiced by many young enlistees, 47 years after the military draft ended, and almost that many since the U. S. defeat in Vietnam. )
Funk is also ethnically mixed: between his parents his heritage brings together Irish, Native American, Chinese and Filipino. He’s also gay, but wasn’t out, as that was still illegal in the military.
Soon after he got to Marine boot camp, he encountered racism and homophobia among instructors and many other recruits. More important, the training’s constant emphasis on preparing for lethal hand-to-hand combat, shoved aside his naive thoughts of “discipline,” and replaced them with a growing revulsion against killing, particularly in the new Iraq War.
Funk ultimately went AWOL in early 2003, and lived “underground” for several weeks. During that time he appeared and spoke at some antiwar rallies; he also came out publicly.
By April he turned himself in to the Marines, to face the music. He hoped to deal with discharge proceedings at Camp Pendleton in southern California, not so far from home.
Didn’t happen. They shipped him to New Orleans, and slapped him with a court martial.
During this time, I was still a relatively new Director at Quaker House, in Fayetteville North Carolina, near Fort Bragg. At Quaker House we counseled many servicemembers who had questions about CO status, mostly by phone. I had read about Funk and wished him well. But Fayetteville was a long way from New Orleans, and we were busy getting ready for the Iraq War too.
But then the phone rang. On it was Steve Collier, a San Francisco attorney, who was calling about Stephen Funk. Collier said Funk had filed a CO claim, but they had basically laughed at it. Instead, they had charged him with desertion and sentenced him to six months. And instead of doing his time in southern California, within reach of his family and friends, he was being sent to the Marine brig at Camp Lejeune.
Camp Lejeune is on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, 2940 miles from San Francisco.
Funk’s court-martial was meant to make an example of him, Collier said. The warning to potential resisters was clear: This is what happens if you go public, go AWOL for six weeks and speak at antiwar rallies. You get charged with desertion –which they said could mean execution in wartime–and even if they can’t make it stick, they’ll lock you up a continent away from your family and friends for as long as they can.
Now the Marine Corps thought they had Stephen Funk right where they wanted him: alone in the middle of nowhere, isolated and terrified, a vivid example of the bleak and lonely fate awaiting anyone who would openly defy military authority.
Steve Collier feared that at Lejeune, Funk was at serious risk, especially as an acknowledged homosexual among a crowd of macho Marines.
Could we at Quaker House, he asked, “take him under our care”?
Camp Lejeune was a hundred miles away from us. But the nearest GI counselors other than Quaker House were 400 miles north in Washington DC, and the Bay Area was a whole lot farther. It didn’t take long to say yes.
So we went to work: organizing visits, letter-writing, and other support and advocacy as way opened. Quakers and others were very responsive to the call.
And it didn’t work out quite the way the Marine brass planned. Sure, Funk was locked up. But he wasn’t alone, or isolated. His experience was not one of defeat or failure.
Instead, it was a model of resistance and support: he was visited almost every weekend while in Carolina. Hundreds of letters poured in, from many countries. Even a few books got through the brig’s obstructive procedures to provide some diversion.
Funk’s upbeat personality also proved to be an asset. Because tedium is a near-universal jail experience and prison libraries are usually sparse, new reading matter is precious. Funk was permitted to share his stacks of letters, and many other prisoners read them avidly; so what if they didn’t share his antiwar notions? Further, Funk was a skilled cardplayer: when inmates were permitted to stage a tournament, Funk was a star player on the winning team.
Funk was finally released into the cold predawn darkness on February 4, 2004. There were no taxis or buses from the brig. But I was waiting for him, along with Rubye Braye, a staunch colleague. We shared a hearty breakfast and put him on a plane which connected to San Francisco.
Funk was the first jailed CO/resister I visited for Quaker House. But Lejeune’s brig also serviced Fort Bragg, so he was hardly the last.
He came back in March 2005, to join our peace rally and march in Fayetteville marking the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion. It drew several thousand; not a huge number compared to DC or New York; but it was the biggest ever seen outside Fort Bragg.
As Funk’s experience suggests, military COs walk a tough and lonely road. I’m eight years retired from Quaker House; and the Lejeune brig has been closed and replaced with a new one up near Newport News, Virginia. But the U.S. war machine is still gargantuan, and the work of Quaker House with military COs continues as it has for 51 years. (More information about it here.) That’s also worth remembering this weekend.
Below: Michael Rasmussen, in New York.