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Exit Free

By       Message William T. Hathaway     Permalink
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From the Book

RADICAL PEACE: People Refusing War

The following report was contributed by Naomi Golner, one of the founders of Exit Free, a collective that helps women leave the military by discharge or desertion.

I've become a criminal for peace. How I got there is a complicated story, beginning when the community college where I teach reduced most of its humanities faculty to adjunct status. It saved them a bundle on salaries. We now teach a maximum of three courses per semester, for a really miserable hourly wage with no benefits. They brought in other part-timers to fill the gaps. So the faculty are now mostly freelancers. I ended up with a lot less money but a lot more time.

Several other women I knew were also broke -- laid off or dropped out of the McJob economy. We decided to share the misery and formed a collective to make ends meet. One of us had a big empty-nester house from her divorce settlement, so we all moved in. We buy food in bulk, share two cars, planted a big garden, help each other with the things each of us is good at, sometimes quarrel and cry, but mostly we like being together. We feel stronger now than before when it was each of us alone against the neo-con world.

We decided to do something useful with all our free time: make trouble. There's a military base nearby, and several of us knew soldiers there. The stories they told us about how they were treated made us mad. The things they were being sent overseas to do made us even madder. A lot of them told us they wanted very much to get out of the military, so we decided to help.

We chose the name Exit Free because it applies to our military work and also to our escaping from our own job prisons as much as possible. Exit Free has been around for three years now. We've got four women out of the war as COs, one as a refuser (but she's still in prison), and nine as deserters. None of the deserters has been caught. We're trying to get more staff so we can open it up to men.

The program starts with encouraging the soldiers to tell what they've been through, to get it off their chests. A lot of women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are traumatized by their experiences there. The brutality they were a part of is a continuing pain on their hearts. Some of them are filled with self-loathing even if they didn't personally do anything horrible. They know they were part of a death factory. And they know how much they were hated by the people there. Plus a lot of them were abused by the male GIs. Those guys do things over there they'd never do at home. It's like they got a license to act out their monster fantasies.

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Our psychologist runs a therapy group for these women that helps them come to terms with what they've gone through. It's not that they leave it behind. This stuff goes too deep for that. But they can understand the whole thing better, get some perspective, some psychological distance from it.

A lot of other women are terrified of being sent over there. They've heard the stories, they've seen comrades come back wounded mentally and physically. They don't want to hurt other people, and they don't want to be hurt themselves.

Exit Free's program begins with our psychologist helping them understand why they joined in the first place. There are the surface reasons, like job training or getting away from a bad situation at home. But usually there are also deeper psychological motives, and the women need to confront those before they can really be free of it.

As they dig into this stuff, most of them discover that by joining the military they were unconsciously trying to become what their father wanted them to be: a son rather than a daughter. Becoming a soldier is usually one of a long series of attempts to win the old man's acceptance. Some of them have been so busy doing that for years that they don't know who they really are. Their selves have got lost in trying to conform to another person's expectations. Wending their way out of this and recovering their real identity is very difficult.

Rejecting the military can be the first assertion of their authentic personality. It's therapeutic -- but painful.

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Our patriarchal culture has really mangled us all. But once we've taken a stand against patriarchy and are willing to pay the price of opposing it, in other words, once we've given up on pleasing daddy and put that part of us to rest, then we come into a new sense of personal power. All sorts of possibilities open for us. We can become an Amazon warrior ... an earth mother ... a philosopher ... an artist. We can encompass all of that. But it starts by breaking free, and that's what we're helping the soldiers to do. And ourselves too.

Most of the women have learned first hand the futility of violence. They've seen how it just produces more violence, more broken bodies, broken families, more hatred and revenge. They don't want anything to do with war. Since they've become true conscientious objectors, they have a legal right to be discharged as that, but the military makes it very difficult.

CO applications for religious reasons have the best chance. Fortunately the local Episcopal priest is a pacifist. She works with soldiers to deepen their spiritual understanding of nonviolence, helps them prepare their applications, writes attesting documents for them, and role-plays interviews with them with the sort of questions the board will ask.

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William T. Hathaway's new book, Lila, the Revolutionary, is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old Indian girl who sparks a world revolution for social justice. Chapters are posted at A selection of his writing (more...)

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