by Steve Woolford, Quaker House Counselor to the GI Rights Hotline
When the Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent, I was saddened to think about all the people that would be harmed in the conflict. I remembered a conscientious objector from the US Army I worked with several years ago. He was with a unit stationed in Poland, and somehow in his particular job, he met with members of the Russian army. He had been trained to think of them as heartless killers and was surprised when he got to know them. They had no desire to harm anyone or to dominate other nations. They said they only joined the army to pay the bills for their wives and children. He befriended them and could tell they were sincerely uninterested in making war. He tried to talk about these connections with his fellow US soldiers and found they had no understanding whatsoever. They told him they wanted to kill Russians, and he should too. He noticed that he identified more with the humanity of his supposed enemy than he did with what he saw as his own bloodthirsty countrymen. This awareness awakened the conscientious objection in him. He realized that neither he nor his new Russian friends wanted any part in killing each other or anyone else.
So when I saw the pending invasion of Ukraine, I wondered how many other Russian soldiers would also have hesitations. Media reports indicate that many have had such reluctance. Several news stories attributed the slower pace of the Russian advance to this indifference on the part of Russian soldiers. The journalists saw this as a sign of military weakness, as though the Russian military couldn’t move in and quickly overpower and dominate in the “shock and awe” style with which the US went into Iraq. I had a different feeling. The US military is a very aware of the natural aversion to killing another human being. They have carefully studied that aversion and rigorously devised ways to overcome it and train it out of people. They have had clear success. But for me, as someone who believes that war anywhere is a tragic failure of humans to resolve conflicts in healthy ways, I am grateful to see soldiers anywhere still finding that natural aversion to killing to be a controlling force in their lives. Even in the midst of this horrible loss of life in Ukraine, I, like my conscientious objector friend, see that reluctance to kill as a sign of hope that we can someday have a world without wars. Imagine a day where all their soldiers refuse to fight. Imagine a day when our all soldiers refuse as well.