After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a 13-year-old kid named Josh Stieber vowed that as soon as he was old enough, he would join the military. His goal: to help protect his country and spread its values of freedom and democracy around the world. With the war still on when he graduated from high school, Stieber enlisted in 2006 and was deployed to Baghdad in 2007. A devout Christian and a staunch political conservative, Stieber became troubled by the gap between the values he was told the military embodied and those he experienced on the ground. Partway through his deployment, he realized that his perspective had changed so drastically that he would rather go to prison than remain in the military. Instead, he learned about, applied for, and obtained Conscientious Objector status. (For more on conscientious objectors, see my interview with J.E. McNeil , head of the Center on Conscience and War .)
In the interview below, Stieber, who is now 22, spoke with me about how his expectations and his experiences of military life collided, what it feels when “everything you’ve defined yourself by has fallen apart,” and how George W. Bush and Gandhi each played a pivotal role in shaping his military career.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I grew up in suburban D.C. in a pretty religious family and went to an evangelical Christian school. My family was very much involved in the church, and my father’s pretty political; when I was in high school I worked with him on the Bush campaign.
How did you think about war as you were growing up?
The high school I went to was supervised by the church that my family attended, and one of the books we read in government class was called The Faith of George W. Bush . Bush was presented as an example of what a strong Christian man should look like, and the global war on terror was presented as an opportunity to rescue an oppressed people and spread democracy through the Middle East, along with Christian and Western values.
What was it about Bush that exemplified the ideal Christian man?
A lot of it had to do with his assertiveness: the idea of moral certainty, the way he spoke in absolute values of good and evil, and the idea that you don’t negotiate with terrorists, you don’t talk to people on the other side. You’re right, and you have morals on your side, and you’re willing to be outspoken about them and willing to criticize others for not living your way of life.
What made you decide to enlist? Do you come from a military family?
Both my grandfathers served, but my dad didn’t. I would say that Bush book influenced me a lot. By about midway through high school, I was pretty certain that that’s what I was going to do.
What about your classmates? Were many of them enlisting as well?
No, that was one of the interesting things. Everybody in my class agreed with me religiously and politically, and it kind of frustrated me that no one else was putting it into practice. Toward the very end of high school, I started asking a lot more questions and becoming more critical of the system, because I saw a lot of people talking a good game but wondered why I was only the only one really doing anything about it.
Why do you think you were the one putting your beliefs into practice?
My parents are both people who act on their beliefs. I don’t always agree with how they act, but they definitely demonstrated for me a correspondence: If you believe something, you need to act on it.
What was your experience like after you enlisted?
Pretty quickly after I got in, I started to see inconsistencies between how the military was talked about in such glorified ways [when I was] growing up, and then how it was acted out in training. Training was very desensitizing. We screamed slogans like, “Kill them all, let God sort them out.” We watched videos with bombs being dropped on Middle Eastern villages with rock and roll music in the background. People really started to celebrate death and destruction, and that definitely didn’t match up to what I’d expected. I’d told myself that I was willing to kill if necessary, but that wasn’t the same as celebrating it.
Were other people around you noticing these inconsistencies as well?
To varying degrees. I think a lot of people didn’t really feel it, though. Honestly, at the time I didn’t realize how psychologically influential that kind of thing is, either. You know, they do it in kind of a discreet way; we would march and sing one song and it would be perfectly harmless, and then the next song would be about killing women and children. So you mix it up back and forth and I guess you don’t really realize the implications. But later on when you’re in action, I think it does play a role.
How did you handle it at the time? Were you feeling uncomfortable and actively wrestling with these issues, or was it more of a background concern?
At the time, I kept telling myself that the ends justified whatever questionable means we were taught. I had kind of a moral back-and-forth around that. And then I went back and forth politically between whether or not we were keeping the higher ideal of spreading truth and democracy or just cleaning up the mess we had made. But I still just went along with things and said to myself, “Even if I disagree with a lot of different aspects of training, it’s OK so long as I don’t let it influence me.
Did you tell anyone about your concerns?
I did write back home to family members and different leaders in my church to say, “This kind of thing doesn’t seem to match up with all these things I was taught.” The answer usually was that same thinking — that the ends justify the means.
Part of me felt that they couldn’t understand, that they didn’t know what I was going through and couldn’t relate. But at the same time, I didn’t know what else I could do. They didn’t have a great answer and neither did I.
When did your willingness to go along start to shift toward a sense that you couldn’t remain in the military?
That didn’t take place until I actually deployed and was confronted with making crucial decisions. One of the values I’d been taught and that you hear all the time in the rhetoric of political and military leaders was that democracy is a good thing and it thrives on the will of the people.
That came into question a couple of months after we got to Baghdad. We were moving off the main base and going to live in an old factory in the poor industrial part of town. As we were moving in, the local population came out and held a large peaceful protest and told us very straightforwardly that they didn’t want us in their part of town. We ignored that and pushed them out of our way and established ourselves in the factory. Within a couple of days, we had built a large barrier around the full city block that we were living in and continued to displace people who lived and worked there. So this idea that we were there to liberate the common people and help their will flourish — the way we handled that situation seemed to be the complete opposite of it.
What kind of reaction to that did you see on the ground? If you perceived the discrepancy between American rhetoric and American actions, I assume many Iraqis did, too.
Yes, absolutely. They had tried telling us nonviolently that they didn’t want us in their neighborhood, and when that didn’t work, they tried telling us violently, by using snipers and roadside bombs and that kind of thing. And once they started to get violent, we started to get violent, too. It went back and forth and each attack seemed to be more severe than the last one. Eventually the escalation led to a kind of desperation on the part of a lot of soldiers. There’s really no way to defend yourself against a sniper shot or a roadside bomb, so some of our leaders felt that the only way we could defend ourselves was to intimidate the local population into preventing the violence in the first place. So our battalion commanders gave the order that every time a bomb went off, we were entitled to open fire on whoever was standing around.
The way I interpreted that was that we were told to out-terrorize the terrorists. That was really troubling for me; I found it wrong both morally and strategically. If that happened to me, that wouldn’t make me more likely to help out whatever army was doing that; it would make me more likely to oppose them. I was in a couple of situations where I was ordered to do that and I refused that order. So that was when I was really forced to make a decision about what I stood for.
So much of military life is about discipline and hierarchy — the willingness to follow orders and uphold a command structure and community cohesion. Given that, how did you decide to refuse the order, and what were the consequences?
It was a split-second decision. When I heard the initial instruction of what to do if that scenario happened, I had just kind of hoped it wouldn’t happen. But in the moment when it did happen, I couldn’t justify shooting an unarmed civilian. I said I wasn’t going to do it, and got criticized by a number of my leaders. But it was something I just felt I couldn’t do. In terms of the consequences, I eventually got fired as a gunner and got placed as a radio operator instead.
Were you talking with others about your misgivings?
Yeah, I was trying to talk to as many people as I could and tell them why I thought it was wrong and pretty much a recipe to turn the entire population against us. Some people were willing to discuss it and others were not. When it came down to it, most people said they were going to do whatever it took to make it home alive.
That’s easy to understand. Fear is a great corrosive to ethics. Did you worry about your own safety, and did it affect the decisions you made?
Yeah, I thought about it a lot. And there were things I did that I didn’t feel comfortable with. Standing by when a prisoner got beaten — that kind of thing was a decision not to speak out, and I made decisions like that. So even if I wasn’t actively doing something that I thought was wrong, I was definitely passive in cases where I shouldn’t have been.
Eventually I just got to the point where I was so torn up about what I was taking part in that I really stopped caring about my own physical safety. You know, when everything you’ve defined yourself by has fallen apart, you don’t care that much what happens to you. And I definitely went through a time like that.
That sounds like a pretty good description of depression.
Yeah, I went though a phase where I had a lot of the symptoms. I didn’t really sleep, I didn’t feel like eating much, when we were on patrols I didn’t care about protecting myself. To a large extent, life really lost its meaning for a while.
Was there a tipping point when you realized you had to get out?
One night, I was guarding a prisoner with a friend of mine, a guy I had gone to church with before we had deployed. So we’re sitting there and my friend starts making threatening statements about what he wants to do to the prisoner. It wasn’t too uncommon to abuse prisoners, but I didn’t feel like it was right, so I asked my friend about the American ideals that we grew up hearing about. I said, “Why would you do that to this guy? Isn’t one of the values that we were raised with is that somebody’s innocent until proven guilty?” My friend said, “No, this guy is Iraqi, he’s part of the problem, he’s guilty, and here’s what I want to do to him.” That wasn’t unusual. It had gotten to the point where most people blamed the entire Iraqi population and said that if they would just fix their own country, we could go home.
I thought back to all the stuff I’d heard sitting next to this guy in church, and I asked him, “Well, even if he is guilty, what about the idea of loving our enemies and returning evil with good and turning the other cheek? How do you reconcile all those teachings?” My friend said, “I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.” Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love. From then on, I really had to face the fact that I couldn’t have it both ways. Either I was going to try to find this inward reality where sacrificial love was possible for a higher goal, or I was going to let self-defense be my ultimate value.
How did you make that choice?
At the time, as much as I wanted to live up to my ideals, I didn’t really see any practical ways of doing it. That was a kind of lack of faith on my part. But then I learned a lesson, pretty much by accident. On the base there were a couple of shops that sold bootleg copies of DVDs, and they’d have eight videos on one disc. One time I bought a movie I wanted to watch, and the DVD had the Gandhi movie on it too, so I went ahead and watched it. And I thought: You know, the stuff that we’re doing violently is only making the situation worse, so maybe this guy was onto something. Maybe there are other ways of solving problems.
I understand that before you learned about conscientious objection, you’d decided to go to jail rather than remain in the military.
Yeah. I came to that decision after having read about a lot of the things that Gandhi did and seeing that you could do something about the situation you were in. You weren’t just stuck in it. It really came down to this idea that I wouldn’t want other people to do to me or my family or community what we were doing on a regular basis to other people. This inward reality that I had started to explore and that had started to bring meaning back into my life — preserving that became more important than preserving my external reality.
I had a couple of weeks to spend with my family and friends back home, and I told them about my plan [to go to military prison]. My parents kind of flipped out and did a lot of research and found out about conscientious objection, which I didn’t know about, or didn’t know was still an option in the military.
When you say your parents flipped out, were they mainly concerned about the idea of you going to prison, or were they unhappy about your rejection of military life?
My immediate family was kind of shocked by it all. I think it took a lot for them to really think through it and try to reconcile it with what they already believed. On a personal level, they were supportive of me and said that they’d help with whatever decision I made, but on a philosophical level, they couldn’t really hear me out. That was pretty much true for my friends and community, too. Overall, people were supportive of me personally, but I don’t know how much it changed the way they view things.
Is that still the case — that your family supports you but disagrees with what you did?
For the most part, yeah. We have respect for each other, but we’re pretty far apart in terms of beliefs. Both my parents are still firmly convinced that the war was the right thing. My dad’s pretty involved in the Tea Party movement, so things get kind of dicey whenever we talk about politics or religion, but so long as we stay away from that, we’re able to be pretty respectful. I’ve got a younger brother who I was able to talk to a lot throughout the process and we’ve grown close and see pretty eye-to-eye on a lot of things, so that’s been positive.
Even so, it sounds tough to have most your family not really understand you. Are you lonely?
Yeah, that’s definitely a challenge. One of the things that makes it really hard is that some of the underlying ways that I think, I do attribute to my family in positive ways. The idea of responsibility — I remember when I was a kid and would get in trouble and try to blame someone else for what I’d done, my parents would always tell me to focus on myself first rather than going around criticizing others.
I think a lot of what I’ve done has been a manifestation of those values, and to see the people who taught them to me enact them in such different ways, or at times it seems other things have taken priority over those values — that can be challenging. Of all the people in the world who should see things the same way I do, who should be passionate about the same things I am and offended by the same things I am, it would make sense that it would be the people who taught me to think this way. When that’s not the case, that can be very hard.
What about people you knew in the military? How did they respond to your decision to seek conscientious objector status?
At the beginning there were a couple of leaders who were pretty upset at me. I was ridiculed by some of them. One in particular got really upset at me and called me a terrorist and a traitor and a lot of other names in front of the rest of the company. I tried to practice what I had learned in Iraq — that responding violently often made the situation worse, but that by sitting down and trying to understand people who thought differently than we did, we were able to create progress. So even though he said a lot of hurtful things, I tried to be patient and reach out to him, and slowly he went from being angry at me to being slightly friendly and then actually encouraging. When I finally got approved [for conscientious objector status], this guy who had been about as angry as I had ever seen a person actually gave me a hug and wished me good luck.
One thing that’s tricky about changing your mind about such a huge thing is that it can undermine your faith in other convictions, too. Like: “I no longer believe X thing that I learned growing up, so what about Y and Z?”
Yeah, I definitely underwent that process. I started from a point of assuming that I had all the answers and that people had to live my way of life. I was pretty convinced that I was right on all the moral issues and the traditional political stances. Now I’ve become a lot more open and tried to appreciate other ways of doing things. I’ve realized that I don’t have the final answer on everything.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to school full-time now and debating between becoming a history teacher or going into social work. And I’m also doing some writing on the side; I’m hoping to get out a book about my experiences.
If you could hear anyone else talk about being wrong, who would it be?
I guess for me personally, the most interesting would be to hear from the people who came up with a lot of the justification and rhetoric of the war that I so strongly believed in. Somebody like Colin Powell would be really fascinating, but I know getting something candid from someone that high up is pretty difficult.
This blog features Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with former Watergate felon turned evangelical leader Chuck Colson , sex critic and educator Susie Bright , Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall , Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld , marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .