by Gabriella DePinho & Jilleen Barrett, News Editor & Staff Writer
Manhattan College has had a long history with Pax Christi. Joseph Fahey, Ph.D., a long-time religious studies professor at the college was one of the co-founders Pax Christi USA in the early 1970s. Regional chapter Pax Christi Metro New York was founded in 1983. Now in 2019, the college still has a standing relationship with Pax Christi.
Manhattan is running a Religion Matters series and as one of the events, a lecture titled “Deadly Silence: Finding Our Voice in the Midst of War,” hosted by Pax Christi and sponsored by Manhattan College’s Religious Studies and Peace and Justice Studies departments, took place on Saturday, November 2nd.
Robert Keeler, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, United States Veteran and Pax Christi member, spoke to about 40 attendees, a mix of Pax Christi members and Manhattan College students, about the silence around military culture and action, and just how deadly that silence can be.
Keeler was drafted in 1965, which was the most intense year of the Vietnam War. After returning home and witnessing the effects that a chemical, Agent Orange, had on his brother, he began to realize “how messed up the army is.”
Agent Orange, as Keeler described it, was used to “mow down trees so we could mow down people.” The defoliant caused his brother, Richie, to become very ill and eventually, he passed away in his apartment, where Keeler had to identify him.
Years later, when he was working for Newsday, Keeler was assigned to an article writing about the peace movement protesting the first Gulf War. Through this, he met members of Pax Christi.
In addition to allowing him to become an activist for what he believes in, Pax Christi, Keeler jokes, has directly resulted in “40 percent of [his] grandkids.”
As a result of his experience with the military, Keeler has become very passionate about educating others about the things that are wrong within the military, most notably issues of sexual assault, lies, recruiters preying on uneducated or vulnerable young people and the way America “honors” veterans.
To call attention to the lies within the United States government and the military, Keeler focused on two examples. He drew the audience’s attention to a film, “Official Secrets,” based on the true story of a British intelligence agent who brought to light the fact that the United States was trying to find information about other members of the security council to blackmail them into agreeing to a war. Keeler also shared the story of Daniel Ellsberg, who knew “all the lies that went into” the Vietnam War, and leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
“Raising your voice is very important. Not being silent is very important,” said Keeler.
Keeler then delved into two issues, recruitment and training processes and honoring veterans, first focusing on language around veterans.
“I want to call your attention to something that is very important to raise your voice against and that is the glorification of the military. One of the things about glorification of the military is that presidents make honoring the military an excuse for war,” said Keeler.
In addition, Keeler blames the myth that Vietnam veterans were mistreated upon arrival home that was perpetrated by Bush in the 1990s for today’s glorification of the military and praise of veterans as a way to “make up for Vietnam.”
Recruitment into the military often starts in high school, with recruiters getting students’ information from schools, JROTC programming, and being present at events like beach air shows. Students who cannot afford to pay for college often join the military for the pay and benefits because it appears to be the only option for them.
Keeler also drew attention to the way these issues are intertwined, telling the story of a woman who joined the military for the pay who was then raped by another officer three days before returning home from her deployment. This young woman, like many others, could not get justice but Keeler spoke of Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s efforts to change that.
“She picked up this cause, trying to change the way the military prosecutes sexual abuse. She hasn’t succeeded so far because the military has powerful lobbyists who don’t want that law changed,” he said, noting that abusers within the military are often friends with higher-ranking officials or are higher-ranking officials than the victim.
The culture of violence and abuse in the military starts with training, even sharing a chant about “raping the town” that trainees would yell while running.
“They don’t want you thinking. They don’t want you at all to be different than the people around you. They teach you to be brutal to one another,” he said.
In regards to military errors or failures, Keeler noted that the United States military is never held accountable by the public.
“These stories show up in the newspapers but it doesn’t ultimately change our perception of the military,” he said.
After highlighting several issues within the military, Keeler returned to the subject of “honoring” veterans, talking about sports-military relationships, films, the lack of support for veterans with mental health needs and the popular phrase, “Thank you for your service.”
“The next time you’re tempted to say to some veteran, “Thank you for your service,” don’t. Instead, think about saying something a little more meaningful like How are you doing?,” said Keeler.
“Instead of thanking the veteran for their service, ask them how they’re doing. Is the Veterans Administration giving you the kind of service you need? Is there anything I can do to help? That’s what would be more meaningful to them instead of thanking them for their service because that’s just sort of a conscious savvy thing people say to make themselves feel better that they weren’t in the military but this person in front of them was. If I say those five words, that’s it, I’m done for the day or the month or the year,” he said.
Keeler even takes issue with the fact that time in the military is referred to as military service.
“Jesus our great brother said, “I did not come to be served but to serve” so in my head, that’s what I equate to the word service, what Jesus said. So to see it used to describe whose occupation’s basic job is killing people in large numbers sickens me,” said Keeler.
Keeler’s key message was to hopefully educate attendees about the wrongs he finds within the military and to encourage attendees to raise their voices about the issues and corruption, as well as to generally speak up about issues they believe in. For Keeler, the issue he will always raise his voice about is the military and what he believes is the deadly silence around it.
“We need to warn our young people on the way in, we need to keep them from multiple deployments in forever wars while they’re in, and we need to take care of their medical needs when they’re out,” said Keeler.