Breeding peace 

Teaching kids to object, conscientiously

One recent evening, watching television, Gulf War veteran Colin Holtz found himself “sucked into this Navy recruiting commercial.” It lasted about 30 minutes, and it showed what he believes is a flawed portrait of life in the Navy. Watching the cable commercial, he says, would lead a viewer to believe that being a Navy officer “is the most cake job there ever was.”

The misrepresentations run rampant, says Holtz. Military propaganda, he says, leads teenagers to believe they’ll make good money by joining a branch of the military, or that signing up is necessary to avoid going into debt with student loans. The commercials he’s seen never mention the word “war.” Plus, he says, they would have would-be recruits believe that the skills they learn in the armed services will transfer to civilian life. Most skills, says Holtz, do not.

“There isn’t a big job market out there for hired killers,” he says, dryly.

Through a pilot program at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, Holtz is hoping to give high school students an alternative message about war and the military. The free, eight-week program, which started on July 7, will bring poets, Peace Corps volunteers and veterans to talk with teenagers over the next two months. In the fall, Holtz hopes to expand the program. The Peace Center isn’t recruiting peace activists, says Holtz; rather, it wants to offer alternatives to the propaganda on TV, and the messages he knows high school students hear from military recruiters.

He fell for the recruiting, too. Holtz may have looked like a military man way back when. Now, he’s a little chubby and has unkempt curly brown hair and a silver hoop through one ear. But in 1988 he was vulnerable. He had a new wife, a baby on the way and a minimum-wage job with no benefits. “So I joined the Army,” he says. “I now know that to be the poverty draft.”

At the time, Holtz says he engaged in “mindless cheerleading for every military effort that we had.” When the U.S. set out to bomb Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s house, for instance, he says, “I just got all kinds of excited.”

Now, he’s seen the action first-hand. War, he learned on the banks of the Tigress River, is about civilian populations. “The people who pay most heavily are women and children and the elderly,” he says. He feels lucky that he himself did not have to kill anyone, but he’s still affected.

“I’m a Gulf War veteran and that experience changed my world view profoundly,” he says.

He wants college-bound teens to learn that there are other ways to pay for college, other opportunities for travel and adventure. The workshops will also help the teens to explore their own ideas about war and conscientious objector status. To start with, the Peace Center is providing the participants with giant spiral-bound notebooks in which they can record their thoughts about war. If the group is interested, he says, they can work on collective projects like public service announcements. But journaling, he says, is the main piece of evidence that the military requires of anyone hoping to establish a history of conscientious objection.

While Holtz says there’s little support in Congress to reinstate the draft, he believes that after November’s elections, “all bets are off.” The military is stretched thin; tours are being extended; he’s talked with other veterans who also believe that the draft may be reinstated after November.

Whereas conscientious objector status sounds like a relatively passive activity, Holtz speaks of it as if it is subversive. In the military, he says, it almost is. Many servicemen, he says, are “incensed by that concept.”

“I was one of them at the time,” he says. When the air war started during the first Gulf war, two people in his company declared CO status. “They were universally shunned by everyone in the company,” he says, “including myself.” The conscientious objectors were isolated, and assigned new duties as RTOs (radio tech operators), he says, “the most dangerous position.” RTOs carry the radio equipment; the tall antenna, he says, makes an obvious target.

The first Peace Center workshop, says Holtz, brought 12 teens—7 females and 5 males—between the ages of 15 and 18. It’s an age-group that he hopes to work with in the future. He’s studying to teach high school English.

Holtz is always looking for perspectives on war that aren’t pushed by the mainstream media, he says. He likes Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, wherein one character, afraid of being called a coward, admits that going to war was the cowardly course of action. Holtz is the 2002 recipient of the Father Jim Hogan Peace Award for his own poem, “Forgotten Sorrows.”

He’ll continue educating people on war.

“It feels like an obligation,” he says. “It feels like a compulsion. I’ve started referring to it now as my karmic repayment for participating in the evil of war.”

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