Pre-Conference Activities

By Jennifer Beall

On the Thursday afternoon of the conference a group of about 35 conference attendees made a trip to the US State Department and to the Pentagon. I found it interesting to visit these places as a part of a group that opposes the military. My peace position rarely comes up in casual conversation, so many people never find out about it. On this day, though, my very presence in the group declared my beliefs for me.

When entering these buildings, we were subjected to the usual metal-detector checks to make sure we weren't carrying weapons. Standard procedure or not, I found it amusing that a group such as ours should need to be searched. I was tempted to ask the attendants if they really understood what we are about and, if so, why they were still X-raying our belongings and checking us for concealed weapons.

Charles Brown, Director of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (in the Department of Strategic Planning and External Affairs) claimed to be on our side. He explained that he, too, had once been an activist. He pointed out that the State Department works with a very small budget compared to that of the Pentagon and that his particular bureau receives less than 1% of the State Department's budget. He emphasized efforts his organization is making to promote non-violent means of conflict resolution around the world.

As we entered the Pentagon later that afternoon, I felt like Daniel entering the lion's den. There was no way that the Pentagon could even attempt to deny that they were involved in the business of war, assuming that they would want to do so. Someone in our group said that we should sing as we entered, so I sang: “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin' in the Wind” softly to myself as we plunged deeper and deeper into the military complex. Our speaker, Kelly Sharbel, of the Pentagon Legislative Affairs office, appeared friendly and non-adversarial towards us despite our differences of opinion regarding military spending. Towards the end of our session, some tension did betray itself in his voice and in his answers, but, overall, I was surprised by the civility with which he treated us. Incidentally, he suggested that the Pentagon itself has little to do with the percentage of the federal budget allotted to the military by Congress. The way he talked about it, it was as if the staff of the Pentagon just sat back and waited to find out how much money Congress was going to give them! I do not, of course, have any illusions about Congress' willingness to spend billions of dollars on the military, but still...