Posted Under Paganism & Witchcraft

An It Harm None: Pagans, the Military, and the C.O. Question

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Modern Paganism has deep roots in the anti-war movement. Most Wiccans are familiar with the old (perhaps apocryphal) story of the British Coven whose spellwork is said to have turned back the Nazi Luftwaffe during World War Two. During the Vietnam era, the counter-culture movement in both the United States and Britain brought Witchcraft into the mainstream and infused Paganism with a subversive quality that might've shocked our distant ancestors. These distant ancestors considered their religious practice to be not a rebellion against convention, but rather an ultra-traditional (one might even say Orthodox) way of life that was threatened by young, "upstart" religions like Christianity. It is a clear fact that our current religious practice, across most Pagan Traditions today, has been most influenced not by Traditionalists of ages past, but by the rabble-rousers of more recent decades.

It should come as no surprise then, that within the Pagan community there has been a great deal of conflict regarding how best to handle the current, more conservative (and certainly more militant) cultural zeitgeist. One of the ways in which this conflict has manifested is through our response to those who serve in the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their families. In recent months there has emerged within various Pagan groups a lively dialogue about our response to war and those called to serve in it, as well as our desire for peace and affinity with those who struggle against the militarism of the Bush Doctrine. More and more groups are asking themselves the question, "what do we do to honor those who swear to uphold and defend the Constitution, while also offering our support to those who refuse to support the actions in Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Afghanistan?" Is there a way for the Pagan community to extend its love, support, and in many cases legal protections, to both service personnel and conscientious objectors who follow a Pagan path? Can we effectively accomplish both, or must we, at some point, choose a side?

There are already Traditions that take a firm stance, one way or the other. I have never met a pacifist Asatruar, nor have I encountered a Quaker in the military. For most of us though, the issue isn't always black and white. Many Pagans may abhor violence yet still have experienced a visceral reaction to the images of 9/11. Others, like my own husband, are proud to carry on the Warrior tradition, yet remain deeply troubled by the circumstances and rationale surrounding our current conflicts. For many in the military, these concerns have given rise to a new generation who claim the title of Conscientious Objector (CO). Traditionally a status granted during periods of a draft, CO status is most often associated with religious groups like the Quakers, Mennonites, and Seventh Day Adventists who reject war under any circumstances and claim legal protection from conscription on First Amendment grounds. When the draft ended, it seemed that the time of the CO had passed. After all, what need was there to declare oneself opposed to all war, when the only people sent to fight were those who chose to volunteer?

I believe it's safe to say that for all but the most diligent pacifists, our engagement with Afghanistan fell under what has been traditionally termed the "Just War" philosophy. After all, we gave them an opportunity to turn Osama bin Laden over to us and they refused—opting instead to provide shelter and support to the figure that orchestrated a brutal attack unlike anything we had previously seen on American soil. Iraq, though, was harder to explain. For many within the liberal religious community (wherein Paganism is an important—but certainly not the sole—voice) the shifting explanations for the invasion, revelations of intelligence either flawed or falsified, scenes from Abu Ghraib and Haditha, over 4,000 dead American service personnel and countless Iraqi civilians proved too much, and many within the military community itself began to rebel.

When Lieutenant Ehren Watada became the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, his cause was met with international support—and a Court Marshall. His case ended in a mistrial and at the last update, the Department of Defense was preparing to re-try him on charges of missing troop's movement and conduct unbecoming of an officer. If the D.o.D. decides to pursue a retrial, Lt. Watada faces up to six years in prison for speaking out against a war that he believes violates the oath he took upon receiving his commission. While Lt. Watada is not Pagan, his case, along with those such as Agustin Aguayo and Camillo Meija—both of whom chose to face prosecution and serve jail time rather than participate in a war they opposed—have inspired some Pagan service personnel to follow suit, and spurred the larger Pagan community to question what role we should play when it comes to the Conscientious Objector.

It is important that we recognize that our military is an all-volunteer force. We do not have a formal draft process, which means that those who are either seeking CO status or who are currently facing prosecution for refusing to deploy to Iraq are those who already answered the call to serve their country. This is not a debate about supporting military personnel. It is a question of how the Pagan community can best support those already in uniform who decide that their orders contradict their conscious. A primary concern, for myself as the wife of a veteran, is that the Pagan community does not confuse the call to support those seeking CO status with a condemnation of others who continue to fight. We who seek to walk between worlds and recognize the need for balance between light and dark must also recognize that those who choose to stay within the military do so for a myriad of reasons that are often wholly unrelated to the cause they are asked to kill and often die for. We must not fall into dualistic thinking, assuming that those who refuse deployment are braver, nobler, "more Pagan" than their comrades in arms. We must recognize, as we do with so many aspects of life, that there are many paths and many reasons for the choices people make in regards to their military service (or lack thereof) and that each individual deserves be supported as they seek to live in accordance with their own highest ideals—in whatever way that action might manifest. Just as more and more soldiers are saying, "I will fight again no more, forever," so too are the brothers and sisters in arms they leave behind saying "I will bear witness. I will temper the actions of my comrades. I will be a voice for humanity and peace in the midst of the chaos of war."

There are several Pagan organizations that have created programs designed to serve as an outreach ministry to Pagan military personnel. Selena Fox and the Lady Liberty League of Circle Sanctuary were instrumental in supporting Roberta Stewart, who successfully sued the Veterans Administration after it refused to allow her husband, killed in Afghanistan, to have a pentacle on his tombstone. Sacred Well Congregation, under the leadership of David and Tamara Orringdorffer, has created a network of open circles and study groups on military bases around the world. The Covenant of the Goddess and the Military Pagan Network both engage in outreach to military personnel as well. This list does not begin to touch the hundreds of small, independent covens, circles, and groves around the world. But what do we do for those who decide they can no longer serve? Because Paganism is a decentralized religion, one without a common doctrinal philosophy or designated leadership structure, there can be legal difficulties for military Pagans attempting to claim CO status on religious grounds. Many groups have been encouraging dialogue about this issue and seek to find ways to protect and affirm the choice of Conscientious Objection without isolating military Pagans who either cannot or do not choose pursue CO status for themselves.

Both the Reclaiming Traditions and the Unitarian Universalist Church (not Pagan itself in the strictest sense, but certainly a Pagan ally) have been discussing the merits of issuing a formal statement of nonviolence. These proposals have been met with no small degree of resistance from within their members—not so much because there is opposition to the idea of promoting an affirmative peace policy, but because there are legitimate concerns that such a stance would (perhaps unintentionally) disenfranchise members of those groups who serve in uniform, or have loved ones that do. Thankfully, a recent legal decision enables Pagan military personnel to claim CO status without necessarily having to prove that their organized (however loosely that term applies to Paganism) religious community agrees with their position, or even proving that they belong to an organized religion at all. In Hanna v. Secretary of the Army, (1st Cir., Jan 9, 2008) the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Army's Conscientious Objector Review Board had no basis for denying CO status to an Army doctor (Capt. Mary Hanna) on the grounds that her beliefs were not gained through "rigorous training, study, or contemplation." Because this ruling seems to exclude the need for formal religious instruction such as would typically be obtained through religious classes or from a spiritual authority such as a rabbi or minister, and instead allows individual spiritual and moral authority to influence the decision to seek CO status, Hanna V. Secretary of the Army should be extremely useful in dealing with the confusion that the diversity of Pagan philosophies can often present to organized institutions such as the military.

It seems that the conversation within the broader anti-war movement has been mirroring that within the Pagan community. For the vast majority of concerned citizens, the lessons of the Vietnam Era were well learned. Except for the most radical fringe elements, there is nearly universal agreement that it is possible to both honor the warrior and oppose the war. For many of those who practice minority faiths like Paganism, there is a heartfelt respect and appreciation for those who choose to voluntarily don a military uniform and abdicate many of their own individual freedoms in order to ensure that others do not have their rights denied. I believe that Roberta Stewart's struggle was instrumental in reminding the Pagan community that, as the bumper sticker says, "[w]e are indeed everywhere—including Baghdad and Balad, Kandahar and Kabul." As a military wife, even one who has been an active part of the Anti-War movement, I can't help but believe that there is a time and place for the just war: one waged after deliberation and after other options have been exhausted. I do not believe that the current action in Iraq meets this standard and I have argued publicly that it is wrong—politically, morally, and spiritually. However that is an issue that we as engaged citizens have an obligation to take up with our elected officials and leaders…NOT with those who are required to put "boots on the ground" and go where they are sent. When it comes to walking between worlds, claiming the middle way and embracing paradox, the Pagan community is in a unique position. It is possible to support both the service person and the CO—to honor the sacrifices that either choice demands and to embrace the paradox that comes with loving both. Let us demonstrate to the world that it is possible to be both anti-war and pro-soldier. Let us struggle together for peace, even as we recognize and support those who are sent to war. Let us cherish the wisdom that comes from speaking truth to power, as well as the insight that is gained through willingly enduring fear and pain, sacrifice and strife. Let us hear and share the truths of both soldier and CO. And in doing so, let us remember the words of Kurt Vonnegut—counter-culture hero, World War 2 Veteran, Prisoner of War and outspoken pacifist—when he said "the more truth we have to work with, the richer we become."

About Stefani E. Barner

Stefani E. Barner (Michigan), also known as Spiral, is the wife of a two-tour Iraq War veteran and a member of a Gold Star family. She is an active member of Military Families Speak Out and is a professional mediator ...

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