Sooner or later, it had to happen. With women in the military, female conscientious objectors could not be far behind.
Americans have been shocked by the image of women leaving their children to join the forces deployed in the Persian Gulf; how will they judge women who morally oppose war?
Azania Howse and Farcia de Toles are two of the first African-American women to file for discharge as conscientious objectors from the Army Reserve. Howse, 35, is a graduate student at San Francisco State University and the mother of a 12-year-old daughter. De Toles, 21, attends Chabot College in Hayward. They became friends while working as reservists in a transportation brigade at Oakland Army Base.
The two women face tough questions from hostile critics. People have asked: You knew what you were doing when you signed up, didn’t you? They didn’t. Like many men and women in the voluntary army and reserves, they joined in response to recruiters’ hard-sell promises of educational opportunity. De Toles, in fact, was recruited at age 17 while shopping at a mall. Without the Army, an education seemed unimaginable, if not impossible.
Both women found their values and beliefs transformed by the very education they had sought. They tried to obtain inactive status last summer--before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Their attempts were unsuccessful. When war preparations began, they spent countless conversations wondering how they could reconcile their moral opposition to war with their status as active reservists. After much thought and many sleepless nights, their resolve hardened. On Dec. 11, they filed for discharge as conscientious objectors.
Looking back, both women regard themselves as having been extraordinarily naive. They joined during peacetime and never imagined that they would face the prospect of war. “My recruiter,” Howse says, “told me I would never have to go to war, that I would travel and gain skills and an education.” Now, her resolve is firm. “I cannot kill another human being. I cannot even facilitate war. It is more caring to fight against war than to make war.” De Toles, too, now believes that “all wars are immoral and that war must never again be the solution to international disputes.”
Another tough question they often hear: Aren’t you hurting other African-Americans by acting like traitors? Both women quickly point out that minorities suffer “a disproportionate cost of the suffering” of war, both at home and in battle. Seventy-five percent of their unit and 44% of the women deployed in Saudi Arabia are African-American. Why, some African-Americans ask, should they fight for a President who has just vetoed a civil-rights bill?
Other critics ask: Aren’t you hurting women seeking equal treatment in the military? Real equality, they answer, lies in preventing war so that neither men nor women will kill or be killed. Women, they add, bear the same obligation as men to bear moral witness to their opposition to war. It is a position with which many feminists agree.
Howse and De Toles are exceedingly personable, intelligent and articulate women who have attracted an ad hoc coalition of anti-war supporters. They all--clergy and students, veterans and feminists, African-American, white, Latino, along with sectarian-left groups seeking political capital from their case--have managed to work together to offer counsel, moral and financial support.
For now, Howse and De Toles must wait while a chaplain, a psychiatrist and an investigative officer scrutinize the sincerity of their request. Their unit has not been activated, and they intend to fulfill their once-a-month service obligation until the Army responds.
These women have taken a bold and brave step. Some might call them cowards. But it requires immense courage and conviction to stare down the U.S. government and risk life-long social stigma. Some might call them traitors. I call them heroines.