He sits at a booth draped in colorful anti-war posters, usually talking to curious students taken aback by his boldly pacifist stance. On his table lies a variety of cartoons highlighting the moral, financial and political setbacks of enlisting.
Where some activists get their points across with shouts, this man makes his mark in softly-spoken persuasion and compassion. Dressed in a simple shirt and a kind smile, community organizer and activist Jeff Stack comes to Rock Bridge, a school where men in uniform are a common sight, to encourage anyone willing to listen to reconsider their unwavering support of the military.
“The reality is, with the way it is with the military now, they tell us who our enemies are,” Stack said. “It’s not natural for us, as human beings, to fight against strangers. People we have nothing against.”
For 25 years, Stack, coordinator of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship Of Reconciliation, has come here to offer a second opinion in what he describes as a “heavily militarized zone.” The FOR is, according to Stack, a “pacifist group supporting non-violent alternatives to war, to the death penalty,” as well as “trying to be a good force, a good presence.”
In Stack’s experience, providing lesser-known facts of unjust situations involving the U.S. Armed Forces allow him to be the presence of reason in an environment where the military receives strong praise. He doesn’t see serving in the military as an actual service to those in war-torn countries, though he sympathizes with Americans wanting to serve those around them.
“There are so many amazing volunteer opportunities out there. We have this idea in our country about service. The service equaling the military,” he said. “Nothing against our military brothers and sisters, I don’t mean it against individuals: they are part of our human family too. But it’s bogus that we present that as human service. It’s not service to humanity, generally.”
One example of military service not being beneficial, of many he brings is the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. He uses it as an example of not only unnecessary violence, but the harm of blindly following orders, something he believes the military requires.
“[March 16] is the anniversary of the My Lai massacre. More than 500 Vietnamese people, well over a hundred women, children, elderly [people], they were slaughtered,” he says. “Slaughtered because U.S. military personnel were upset that some of their comrades had been killed by snipers in the days before. And in the heat of a battle, most people will just follow orders blindly. And that’s what most of these folks did, and they slaughtered all of these people.”
Furthermore, he says blindly following orders may deter some from making the right decision for fear of retribution.
“There were only a couple of people who were courageous enough to listen to their conscience. One man was Hugh Thompson, who flew a helicopter into the My Lai area [and] ordered his men on his helicopter to train guns at US soldiers who were about to slaughter another couple dozen kids who were in a trench,” Stack said. “He was an enemy for a long time. He was seen as a traitor to the US until there was further investigation and you see that he was actually a hero.”
Stack doesn’t think average Americans are to blame for the push to enlist, rather that those in power have contributed to a culture that ignores the atrocities of war.
“I think in our country there’s been constructed a strong military-industrial complex; some people have profited off of war and so they want to continue to push that,” Stack said. “Congress people are disinclined to speak out about an increase in the military budget. There’s this structure in place to make sure we continue to have this spending on the military. It’s an obscene amount.”
He thinks that, beyond economics, a military-industrial complex has a detrimental effect on youth and their futures.
“Kids have to think about going into the National Guard or other things to pay for college. It should be completely [different],” Stack said.. “It should be okay if we want to have a military in place for purely defensive purposes. I can live with that. A Coast Guard? Sure. Other stuff to try and prevent an invasion, I can accept all that. But to have an aggressive military force where we have bases in over 120 countries around the world? That’s absurd. How would we feel about China having a naval base on the New York coast? Maybe instead of Whiteman Air Force Base it’s Russian instead?”
Stack’s frustration with the U.S. military being globalized, though deep, is strictly with the orders imposed on the Armed Forces rather than the individuals who carry them out.
“[FOR isn’t] anti-military personnel. We’re not against the troops in any way,” he said. “We are offended, though, about the missions that our troops get sent upon. Because all too often, what it’s not about is protecting our country per se but about protecting corporate interests or economic interests or geographical interests.”
In Stack’s opinion, we should defend ourselves from those who advocate against our best interest, not who the government says we need to be saved from. Troops are not the problem, he says, they’re just as affected by the military-industrial complex as the rest of us.
“What would you do if I gave you the address of these people here and said ‘okay, these are bad guys, I want you to go and kill them?’” he said. “I feel that US corporations and some of the oligarchs who are controlling the power of our government are much more the enemy than, say, a poor person living in Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan, or any place where the US is actively engaged now.”
His solution to what he thinks is an issue at the top begins at the bottom. When people educate themselves, he says, he believes they will reconsider what service is and how they should carry it out.
“What U.S. courts have decided is that any school that gets public funding, if they allow military recruiters in, they’re obliged to allow in contrary opinions,” he said. “We want young people, if they’re gonna go into the military, to at least go in with eyes wide open. [To be] asking basic questions like, ‘are you willing to kill if you’re ordered to do so?’ or ‘are you willing to be involved in home invasions?’”
For 25 years, FOR has come to Rock Bridge and done just that. Though he’s passionate, his goal isn’t to preach. To him, education doesn’t stop with high schoolers. At 57, Stack tells a student even he can be blown away by the new things he learns.
“I’m learning all the time. I’m a student of life, you know?” he said. “Something’s wrong if I’m not picking up a little something every day.”