BAMMENTAL, Germany (Mennonite Mission Network/Military Counseling Network) — The U.S. military calls it “crystallization.”
It’s the moment in the life of a soldier when he realizes that he can no longer serve in the military and remain true to his conscience or faith.
As a counselor with the Military Counseling Network in Germany, Daniel Hershberger, a Mennonite Mission Network representative, helps soldiers articulate that moment, as well as answer myriad other questions that come along with applying for conscientious objector status.
“One of the most rewarding experiences here is working with Christian soldiers who have come to be conscientious objectors because their experiences in war and combat have revealed Jesus to them in a new way,” Hershberger said.
He explained that while not every soldier comes to the counseling network because of Christian faith, he has worked with multiple Christian soldiers who realized during their deployment that military service stood in direct contradiction to their beliefs.
“One guy’s dad was a military chaplain,” Hershberger said. “When he enlisted, this man saw the military as Christian service. There are many guys like that – they thought military service would be a ministry.”
The connection between service to God and service to country can be so strong that it’s hard for soldiers to separate the two. “Since I follow Jesus, now I can’t serve my country or kill,” one conscientious objector said. “And if I can’t serve my country, is it still possible to be a Christian?”
So when does crystallization happen? Hershberger said the experience is different for every CO. For some, it happens in basic training, when they are stabbing a dummy with their bayonet and yelling “Kill! Kill! Kill!” For some, it happens when they see that civilians in the country they thought they were serving aren’t supportive of their presence.
And for others, it can be more intense. One soldier was serving in Iraq when a car pulled up to the checkpoint where he was stationed, Hershberger said. An Iraqi child, a 5-or 6-year-old, was walking beside the car holding something in his hand. When the car refused to slow down at the checkpoint, this soldier was commanded to get the child in his sights for fear he might have a hand grenade. The soldier realized, “My order could be to kill this child.”
For many, though, the realization that they must reject the weapons of war isn’t prompted by circumstances as dramatic as viewing a 6-year-old through a rifle scope. The effects of war—seeing life and death happen in front of you—are enough to cause some Christian soldiers to evaluate their choices.
After months of basic training, where the people they’ll be fighting against are referred to only as “towelheads” or “targets”—anything but humans—soldiers come to the point of having to rehumanize the people they’ve been trained to see solely as enemies.
“These soldiers get to Iraq or Afghanistan and realize this man in front of them isn’t just a target,” said Hershberger. “This is a dad with kids at home. This is a son whose mother is waiting for him.
“They start asking themselves, ‘what does my conscience say?’ versus ‘what does my commander say?’ and finally, ‘What does Jesus say?’”
After a period of activity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Military Counseling Network was reestablished in 2003 as a project of the German Mennonite Peace Committee, with support from Mennonite Central Committee. In 2004 Mission Network became a partner in MCN.