Three weeks ago on Veterans Day, I was walking by Harkness Hall on my way to Sterling Library before English class and found sprawling before me rows of American flags planted in the courtyard. That moment, the flags, the chill, the sun on the clouds behind Sterling, was absolutely beautiful in its simplicity. I took a photo; it is now my screen saver. When I read in the News a week later about the bloodied gloves that had been left among the flags as an act of protest, I was, to put it lightly, disheartened.
To those who know me well, this may seem contradictory, as I was raised and continue to identify as a Quaker. Quakerism arose as an offshoot of the Protestant Reformation in the 17th century, a religion that revolved around pacifism and social justice. Quakers helped to shape movements for abolition, suffrage and prison reform. They were often persecuted.
I have never been overtly religious, but Quakerism has undeniably shaped my worldview, including my attitude towards war. I believe that although war may at times be the only available option, it is never moral. Three of my uncles and both of my grandfathers served in the military, and when I was younger, I had difficulty reconciling my core beliefs with the family I was born into. But, as I grew older, my views became more nuanced and I came to understand that living in a world of moral absolutes is often untenable.
Wars are not made up of the people who fight them. My grandfathers and uncles are proud of their service, and I am proud of them. When I saw those flags on Cross Campus, I remembered my grandfather, who served in the Navy during World War II. One night, his patrol torpedo boat was hit in the Mediterranean. A crewmate died and my grandfather was in the hospital for many months with wounds to his abdomen. He had a piece of shrapnel in his leg for the rest of his life. I then thought of my father’s brother who died a few years ago from pancreatic cancer, likely caused by his contact with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
All soldiers are to an extent victims of the wars they fight, whether their wounds are physical or psychological. They serve at great personal sacrifice, and I will always recognize and honor them for it.
Quakerism has at once made me opposed to war and enabled me to sympathize with those who carry it out on the ground. One of the central ideas of Quakerism is that every person has inherent value and goodness — theologically speaking, that everyone has a piece of God within them. This means that although violence is reprehensible, those who carry it out remain human and deserving of respect and dignity.
Although Quakers almost always object to war, they have long been involved on the battlefield, especially as medics treating all, regardless of national origin or allegiance. This is, needless to say, controversial. However, it ties back to the idea that a person’s worth is not directly tied to their actions. Even if we oppose the act of war, we can and must leave room to recognize and support those who feel the duty to enlist. There are times when, however strongly we believe something, no matter how much we are engaged or affected, we can still take a step back and recognize the people we may be influencing, directly or indirectly.
Part of this conversation relies on our definition of Veterans Day. To me, and I believe to many Americans, it is a celebration of those who serve, not of the wars they serve in. I do not celebrate war. Although it may at times be necessary, it is always horrific. But those who are involved deserve our respect.
I recognize that this piece will be published almost a month after Veterans Day. Although it is to an extent a response to what happened on Cross Campus, it is also an appeal to continue a larger conversation. Our actions matter. As proven by the recent divestment protests, as Yalies we will be scrutinized more than most college students. Criticism and questioning, including of ourselves, are essential to the Socratic process and to our growth, as individuals and as a community. And as we grow more polarized politically and enter a year that’s bound to bring new conflicts and ongoing debates, recognizing our shared humanity might just be our saving grace.
JACK TRIPP is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .