Using Words, Not Weapons: Students Weigh in on the Draft

By Susan Van Haitsma

If politicians and pundits are discussing, in retrospect, a universal draft as a war deterrent, it would behoove them to check in with today’s prospective draftees to ask what they think about it. In the process, the draft debate might be replaced with a larger question. Instead of older adults arguing about how and which young persons should be used for national defense purposes, the question would be whether adults can figure out how to get along in the world without making the unnatural sacrifice of their young.

The volunteer organization with which I work, Nonmilitary Options for Youth, does regular literature tabling in Austin’s public high schools. While we are there, we ask students what they think about the draft issue, the Iraq war and military recruitment on campus. Last year, we conducted an informal, anonymous written survey on these issues, with approximately 600 students participating across 12 schools. Responses indicated a variety of strong, reasoned opinions, and students seemed to appreciate being asked.

Overwhelmingly, students expressed firm opposition to reinstatement of a military draft. Young people on all sides of the war question stressed the importance of individual freedom of choice. “Someone shouldn’t be forced to die or kill for something they don’t think is right or something they don’t believe in,” was a response that echoed the common sentiment.

Wrote another, “Why reinstate the draft? Because young adults are beginning to realize that they’re not willing to fight for our country anymore. We are sick of hopeless, doomed crusades into all corners of the world.” One student drew a logical conclusion shared by others. “If you must force thousands of people to leave their families and kill for a reason they do not agree with or even understand, that is wrong and a war obviously not worth fighting.”

Whether most high school students know that there are soldiers who likewise are resisting a war they do not agree with or understand, they tend to understand that there are different ways to be drafted. Many students realize that recruiters are targeting them, or they mention a brother, a cousin or an uncle who was recruited. “A poor school is always an opportunity for the military,” wrote one student. Stated another, “I think it’s unfair that they ‘prey’ on minority students like myself because they know we don’t have the money to pay for college.”

Students also notice contradictions in allowing the military onto school campuses. “People complain about violence in school and they let people come in and encourage it. I just don’t get it,” wrote one. Another student added, “I think it’s wrong to try and impress kids with BIG GUNS and SHINY BADGES. Why would anyone want to get respect for murder?”

If most young people are adamantly opposed to universal military conscription, and if some understand the unfairness of the de facto draft we have now, what is the solution?

Students suggest that answers may be found in what schools have taught all along: “I think we should handle things in a nonviolent grown-up way.” “We should be big enough to reach an agreement with our enemies and settle it like civilized human beings.” “I think that people who think war is the best option are completely lazy; there are so many more options!” One student concluded simply, “I believe that the best way to make peace is with peace.”

We older adults could match our fierce devotion to our young with an equally fierce commitment to resolving conflict without using young lives. Creating peace with peace does not include training any young adults to kill. Instead, effective and respectful methods of communication remain key to peacemaking. Students are taught to “use words, not weapons,” and they do so with straightforward eloquence. It wouldn’t be difficult for grown-ups in government to learn to do the same.

Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth in Austin, Texas and can be reached at jeffjweb@sbcglobal.net

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Up from Chiapas: Giving Thanks to Voices of Women's Revolution

By Greg Moses


IndyMedia Austin
/ CounterPunch

With the storefront door opened to crisp air and curious people, Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo is for now seated near friends who ask for an autograph of her 2001 book, ‘Histories and Stories from Chiapas.’ Turning back the cover, she points to a full-page photo of a white stelae, explaining how borders are marked the traditional way, not with walls.

“It’s a symbolic border,” she smiles, showing how the marker sits upon an island in the middle of a lake. From her position not quite in the center of a gathering crowd at MonkeyWrench Books in Austin, Texas, the legendary anthropologist is glowing with words, ideas, projects, and stories. It is time, says an organizer, to get the program started.

In her latest collaboration, ‘Dissident Women,’ published the week before Thanksgiving, Hernández is one of several editors and writers who offer fresh studies about the ongoing indigenous women’s revolutions of Southern Mexico, including a first-time-in-English publication of the 1994 Mayan document, ‘Women’s Rights in our Traditions and Customs.’

As co-editor Shannon Speed explains to Monday night’s tightly-packed audience, the women of Southern Mexico are working out terms of struggle that allow them to organize within “cultural spaces” connected to indigenous traditions, even as they assert their rights to reform those traditions.

“It is better that we women put down on paper that there are some customs that do not respect us and we want them changed,” reads the Mayan document of 1994. “Violence—battering and rape—is not right. We don’t want to be traded for money.”

Yet, as Mayan women make frank complaints against patriarchy at home, they insist equally that “we don’t want a paternalistic state coming in to handle this for us,” says Speed. The words provoke memories of rapes and beatings committed by police this past May, in an assault upon indigenous flower merchants; an attack that Hernández has described as “some of the saddest and most violent days in the modern history of San Salvador Atenco, on the outskirts of the Mexico City megalopolis.”

Hearing these words from the Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, or Tlaxcala, my mind leaps to Afghanistan and Iraq, where steel-tipped outbursts of masculine temper have been propagandized as women’s liberation. Compared to the knowledge that Hernández and Speed bring from Southern Mexico, what do we yet know about all those women who now live under our bombs?

Against the deafening violence of gluttonous states, indigenous women of the Americas continue their 500-year struggle for cultural sovereignty. The gathering of Mayan women who produced ‘Women’s Rights in our Traditions and Customs’ was prompted in part by a government official who one day informed Hernández that indigenous women are not interested in politics. Likewise, among academic officials, prevailing attitudes assume that indigenous women don’t really think.

“We are tired of seeing indigenous women reserved for the appendix of scholarly books,” explains Hernández, to an audience that sits at the margins of the University of Texas community. “Indigenous women also struggle with theoretical issues.” Although scholars will use narratives of ‘native peoples’ for source materials, any ‘theory’ to be heard from those voices will likely be dis-credited. And to tell the truth about it, attitudes about ‘women’s knowledge’ can infect the women themselves.

Doctoral candidate Melissa M Forbis, tonight’s third and last speaker, has been working for a decade in Southern Mexico, “because what I was reading about Chiapas didn’t match what I was experiencing.” She helps us to remember that health care was one issue that provoked the Zapatista uprising. The indigenous peoples of Chiapas were dying in high numbers from curable diseases, and women were dying at high rates from childbirth. So one of the first tasks facing the indigenous movement was recovery of their own health. That recovery required theory and knowledge.

On the road to their own definition of health, the women of Chiapas worked collectively to recover their knowledge of indigenous herbs, and to remember themselves as the healers who had given care to their communities for tens of thousands of years. To do this, they shook off 500 years of persecution as ‘brujos’ or witches. And against proximate threats of violence, they traveled in pairs. Yet again, they re-became ‘promotoras de salud’–promoters of health.

“Health is the well-being of the people and the individual, who have the capacity and motivation for all types of activities whether social or political,” declared the Zapatista community Moisés Gandhi in 1997. “Health is living without humiliation; being able to develop ourselves as women and men; it is being able to struggle for a new country where the poor and particularly the indigenous peoples can make decisions autonomously. Poverty, militarization and war destroy health.”

Surely on Thanksgiving Day, these are words any true pilgrim would be thankful to digest.

Note: Dissident Women: Gender and Cultural Politics in Chiapas. Edited by Shannon Speed, R. Aída Hernández Castillo, and Lynn M. Stephen. Book Fourteen in the Louann Atkins Temple Women & Culture Series: Books about women and families, and their changing role in society. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.