I had the pleasure of interviewing Colonel Smith to learn about his journey from a member of the armed forces to a proponent for peace. According to Colonel Smith, it is not so much what he did in the service as what did not happen after the Cold War that impacted his current work as a proponent for peace. Colonel Smith explained, “I had expected that the large military establishment that we had throughout World War II would be cut back because there was no enemy—no particular country whose foreign policy was specifically directed at destroying the U.S. as we know it.” However, there was no decrease in the size of the military after the Cold War. At this point, Colonel Smith was “converted” to a proponent for peace. He simply could not support such a large military in United States society. In this way, Colonel Smith considers himself a “back-door converter.”
When questioned on his current views of the military and his thoughts on what the role of the U.S. Armed Services should be, Colonel Smith based his argument in military history. He recalled that right after the American Revolution, the Navy was cut back drastically. The Army was given the mission of protecting the remaining stores of power. This led to the establishment of West Point. At this point in our history, however, the entire federal army consisted of 70 officers and men. This was in accordance with the Founding Fathers’ feeling of distrust in a standing army, and their favor of a free navigation of the seas. The United States soon encountered a problem with pirate ships due to their lack of naval protection. Under Washington’s New Federal Constitution, the United States began to build up its navy.
Colonel Smith continued that our outstanding army is currently composed of ten divisions, including one combat brigade that is under North Command. North Command’s chief mission is to support other departments of the federal government in case of another terrorist attack or natural disaster. Colonel Smith remarked that we have never had a North Command before, and that since Reconstruction after the Civil War, there has not been an active duty combat unit specifically designated to be able to maintain long order (12 months or more). This responsibility has always been left to governors, who were responsible for managing their state’s national guard. Colonel Smith is weary of the North Command situation.
Colonel Smith could see eliminating three army divisions (each division is made up of 3 brigades). Colonel Smith believes that the U.S. should expand the Navy, because it is capable not only of fighting if necessary, but also of delivering supplies and humanitarian aid and evacuating people from war zones. He also believes that we should retain a strong Air Force. Overall, however, he believes that there are currently too many people in the services. Colonel Smith concluded, “We need to look after national interests; not only our interests, but how we, with our allies and friends, can look after everyone’s interests.”
When asked about the foreign policy platforms of presidential candidates Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, Colonel Smith candidly stated, “I don’t see much difference. I don’t see either candidate putting forth a foreign policy or national security program as opposed to military security program.” According to Colonel Smith, we are going to be in Iraq, Afghanistan, and maybe Pakistan, and we are already in Iran, just not in formations. With respect to qualities he looks for in a presidential candidate, Colonel Smith stated, “I’m always looking for someone who can cut back and see beyond the American horizon.” He observed that this is, for some reason, very hard to do when it comes to politics. He noted that since World War II, the United States has been in the habit of thinking that it is the only country that should be allowed to run a military and use the military for its national advantage, rather than multilaterally or internationally.
Colonel Smith, though he considers himself a proponent of peace, when asked what influences shaped his identity as a nonviolent activist responded, “Nonviolence is not the right term. I don’t believe in violence per se, but I do believe that you need a military.” He recognizes the many connotations of the word violence, and notes that he is not against using nonviolent forceful means, a form of benign violence, to bring about a necessary change. He noted that this is a very hard balance, and seems to be impossible for many senators in Washington, DC. When asked what experiences or persons influenced his current outlook on war and peace, Colonel Smith highlighted an experience he had at a Jesuit university he attended before attending West Point. A political science professor at this Jesuit university always emphasized the need to accept personal responsibility and think for yourself. He often looks back on this experience and wonders if that message took in his case, causing him to question the military of which he was once a part.
Interviewing Colonel Smith gave me insight not only into nonviolent work internationally and in Washington, D.C., but also into the history and current state of our military. It is not often that such a decorated military officer retires and begins work to minimize military violence; therefore the opportunity to talk with Colonel Smith was very unique. My conversation with Colonel Smith impacted how I think about nonviolence in practice. I now realize that nonviolence is not entirely black and white, but rather shades of gray. One can support the existence of a military (for national security, humanitarian assistance, etc.) and yet, in most cases, oppose the exercise of armed forces. With this new understanding of nonviolence, I can continue in my own journey as a proponent for peace, armed with a better conception of war and peace in our world.