Podcast: Michael Rasmussen, Meditations of a Conscientious Objector
Michael Rasmussen came to recognize his opposition to war through recommended reading of the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius. He grew from being a kid who loved to “play Army” to become a Marine Corps officer and pilot. He soon found his ambition for a successful flight career competing with his conscience. Over time, asking himself philosophical questions revealed the internal conflict about the decision he would ultimately have to resolve.
“We spend so much time saying this one thing is going to fix everything. It’s not…and it was just this crashing moment of really having to face the doubts that had been lurking inside of me the whole time…I always…It’s clear in hindsight that this little nugget was inside of me all along, and I was just ignoring it. I was like, “No, no, no, no, no”.”
This Courage to Resist podcast was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Production assistance, Stephanie Atkinson. Executive Producer, Jeff Paterson.
“I couldn’t tell you what triggered it that morning, but I do remember the pivotal moment of like, “I can’t do this. Something is going to happen. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but this is just not going to work for the next six or seven years”…It was like knowing that you’re going to work, but not just because you don’t like the job, but you’re doing something really bad every day.”
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Would you be comfortable killing someone, and would you be comfortable dying? Would you be comfortable knowing that your friend or your family member or your parent or whatever died for XYZ cause? And the answer just kept coming up “No”.
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire. This episode features a guest from the 30 years of current U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
Former Marine pilot Michael Rasmussen is our guest today. Like many, Michael saw the military as a way to help him fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot. But as his training progressed, so did his understanding of the military’s policies and purposes. His journey of insight and reflection brought him to a place where he could no longer indiscriminately kill another human. Michael filed to become a conscientious objector in Spring of 2017.
Michael, welcome to the podcast. We are honored to have your story on the podcast today and to hear stories from more current conscientious objectors. All of our guests, we want to get some history on who you are. What were your motivations for joining the military when you did?
So first, I guess I want to say just thanks for having me, and thanks for everything that you all do to bring out the story of conscientious objectors. There’s plenty of people today that don’t even know that conscientious objectors still exist, especially in the modern context, so thanks for bringing all of our stories out there.
As far as joining the military, I always described it as I went through that phase as a kid, playing Army and stuff like that, and I just never really left that phase. I remember playing with Army men and stuff when I was 10, 12, and then it just continued until I was 13, 14, 15. And then the other part of it was when I was a child, we moved around a lot for my dad’s job. He wasn’t in the military, but we moved around a lot.
And so, we flew often. We used to live overseas, and we’d fly back to the U.S. every summer. And this is pre 9/11, and so you could go up to the cockpit. And I used to love going up in the cockpit. I used to love flying, loved going to fly. And so, when I was a kid, I was wanting to say I was going to be a pilot. And so, the intersection was I want to be a pilot. I’m still in this phase of playing Army and all that stuff.
And then I mentioned to a friend, I think it was on a field trip. I still remember actually it was on a field trip for school. And I mentioned that I wanted to join the Air Force at the time. So, another student who was on that trip got me involved in what’s called Civil Air Patrol, which is like a Junior ROTC. It’s called the Air Force Auxiliary, but it’s like Junior ROTC. Boy Scouts, but military-ish for high school students. And then the rest is sort of history. After that, the brainwashing happens at an extreme level and I’d drink in the Kool-Aid for what I wanted to do.
But I did think about it also on sort of a deeper level. So, at the surface level, it was I want to fly. And then I decided to join the Marines because I was always raised in the family of you’re going to do your best at everything you do. And so, if you’re going to join the military, then obviously you’re going to join the Marines because they’re the best. And so, I did feel that story that we’re told about the American dream, and how much America can provide.
And it did in a literal sense take the past generations of my family that lived in poverty, which is true on both sides, to the point where we’re definitely weren’t living in poverty, living very comfortably. There was no question that my siblings and I would go to college and do well and all of these things. And so I wanted to, I guess, protect that or honor that is the, I think, propaganda that we’re sold, especially when you’re a teenager.
There’s a sense of like serving and giving back to your country that gave to you.
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Which we often repeat that. Now I think there’s a big cognitive leap that needs to happen between my family pulling themselves out of poverty and fighting a war in a foreign country. They’re not really actually related when you actually start breaking it down.
Okay. So, you sign up for the Marines. Walk us through some of your early experiences with the Marines.
Yeah. So, first I signed my papers to enlist when I was 17 because I was also sold on the idea of, okay, I’m going to enlist, and then I’m going to do a couple of years enlisted, and then become an officer, and then go do the flying flight school thing. Thankfully, I wish I remembered his name, but I had a recruiter. And this was in Ridgewood, New Jersey at around 2000… I guess I graduated high school in 2008, so it would have been 2007 or so. And he had recruited me, but then he was getting out, so I guess he was done. And he recommended that I apply for a scholarship to go do ROTC instead of going down this enlistment path. And I applied for the scholarship, and then received it during my senior year. I applied to a bunch of colleges and ended up going to Villanova for NROTC.
And my early experiences there were very positive. You’re surrounded a group of like-minded people. They were motivated in the same ways, going after the same thing. And you’re going through NROTC together as a group. You’re getting up three or four days a week. I remember multiple times where we’d be getting up to go to PT first thing in the morning, and there’ll be other students just getting home from a night out of partying. And so that builds a certain amount of camaraderie. And these people are still some of my best friends. And so my experiences were mostly positive. There were I think little twinges or insights of, I don’t even want to use the word “doubt”, but there was some stuff that I had trouble explaining to others and to myself, and so I just ignored it.
So, you were able to set aside this cognitive dissonance and pursue your military career even though you’re having these moments where you’re understanding that not everything that the military does is positive for our country or for humanity in general.
Yeah. Yeah. And I think most people in the military, even not being conscientious objectors, would probably agree with that. I think it’s naive to think that anything in life is really ideologically pure. And so, there’s always going to be mistakes made or things that go wrong. The question, I guess, in terms of joining the military or joining the military and then choosing to leave is where that line is. But yeah, I was able to just sort of just put those aside and keep going forward.
Well, you go to officer candidate school during the summer between your junior and senior year, and then you go after graduation to the basic school. And then after the basic school, most Marines are assigned to their MOS for whatever job they’ll do. But you can also get a flight contract, which is what I got and what most people try to get during… So, I got that during my sophomore year of college.
And so, the good part is during TBS, you’re not competing for different slots in different jobs. You’re not competing for your spot to go to flight school. So, it guarantees you that you’ll go to flight school, but it also is your contract. So, then I had an eight-year contract from when I got winged, which is several years after graduation. And so, I say that only to emphasize the number of contracts that it was acceptable for me to sign at such a young age. Right? So, at 19, I was a sophomore in college. At 19, I had signed a contract that would, in theory, if I hadn’t left the military, take me all the way through to when I was 32 or 33 years old.
And how many young men and women at age 19 have the capacity to understand a contract of that magnitude?
Yeah. Yeah. You used to argue and you don’t. And all you see is, “I want to fly, and I’m going to be a Marine. So, this is what I have to do, and I’m going to go do it”, and that’s sort of it.
So, as you’re in officer candidate school, you have a commander that suggests a book that you guys should start reading, quite fortuitously for you. Tell us a little bit about that.
Yeah, so this is at the basic school, so after graduation. So, now I’m commissioned, I’ve left Villanova, and I am down in Quantico, Virginia. Yeah, the commander there is, I guess, a big reader of a philosophy, and I think Stoics philosophy in particular. And so, he recommend “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. So yes, he recommends that. And I had done some philosophical-ish reading at the time, but I think that was an area of my lifestyle was just starting to blossom, if you will.
And it’s this great read because it was so many thoughts that I had had myself. There was a lot that I think that I connected with and that I read about. And it made me, I think, really start to read other similar books and to reflect on my own impact on myself, but then also on the people around me. He writes a lot about interactions and stuff like that.
So, this is really a jumping off point for you to start questioning and thinking deeper about your experiences in the military and what that meant and what obligations you had.
I think I was already having those thoughts, and it was just giving me a structural framework to address them. It’s one thing to feel a vague sense of unease, and it’s another thing to be able to put words to it and describe it and understand, or at least try to understand, why you’re feeling it.
Well, at this point, you’ve started to be given a framework in some language to describe what you’re feeling internally. What were the next steps for you in this process of really being opposed to what you’re being asked to do?
So, I think the main one was to really read more and to think more, which maybe it just sounds like a cop-out answer, but I think that is how I’ve approached other areas in my life as well, especially when I’m at a sort of crux. But I became much more interested in more philosophical type readings, reading about how we live our lives or why we live our lives a certain way. And so while this is happening, I’m going through flight school, which is a very individual process. Right? While TBS and everything before is very team-oriented, flight school, you’re doing flights by yourself, you’re evaluated on an individual level. TBS, you’re living on base. Now I’m out in town in Pensacola, Florida, going to the beach, enjoying the good flight school life.
I don’t think at that point I had seriously thought of leaving the military, because at that point my flight contract hadn’t started. So, in theory, I still could have dropped out of flight school and just finished my much shorter contract. But yeah, that dream of flying was still, I think, pulling me on. And that’s not even the sort of patriotic part of it. That’s just the, I’m so close to my childhood dream. In fact, I’m in the midst of achieving it. I’m flying every day. I’m flying these cool, powerful military aircraft. And so, I said, I’m not thrilled with this whole military thing, but I’m going to just continue. I’m going to fly C-130s, and then I’m sure it’s going to be fine. Once I get to the fleet, everything is going to be okay.
And eventually you get deployed to Japan, and this becomes a real turning point for you. What began to happen as you’re in Japan?
So, I get to Japan, and I immediately sense that there’s an issue. The people are predominantly great. Everyone’s really nice and welcoming, I was welcome in the community, but I also feel like I don’t fit in a little bit. But then on a deeper level, this was 10 years of putting this moment on a pedestal of this is going to be it. Everything’s going to be awesome. I’m achieving my childhood dream. And then inevitably, there’s no way something can meet that. We spend so much time saying this one thing is going to fix everything. It’s not. And so, I got there, and it was just this crashing moment of really having to face the doubts that had been lurking inside of me the whole time.
And so, part of it was this childhood dream thing, but then the main part was just my feelings about the military in general. Which in hindsight, I always… It’s clear in hindsight that this little nugget was inside of me all along, and I was just ignoring it. I was like, “No, no, no, no, no”. And then I got there and I was like, “Oh shit. Now I have to face this head on”. And so I did.
And so, I was doing my flying and everything and do missions or whatever. And I was starting to just think about my impact not in a general sense, but in a specific sense of what I was doing in the military. So, I started thinking like, “Okay, let’s really break this down on what the military is doing, and if they’re doing predominantly good or predominantly bad.”
And I would just create hypotheticals like, all right, in this situation, “Would you be comfortable killing someone, and would you be comfortable dying? Or better than yourself dying, would you be comfortable knowing that your friend or your family member or your parent or whatever died for XYZ cause or XYZ situation?” And the answer just kept coming up “No”. And I was just like, “Man, this is stupid, honestly.” This is what I said to myself. I was like, “You’re kidding yourself that you actually want to be doing this. When in actuality, sitting here by yourself in your living room, you would not do any of these things. There’s no situation that I would be comfortable killing someone”.
And so, ultimately it made me think anyone that the United States engages in conflict is ultimately no different than us. Not to say that there aren’t people that want to hurt us, but simply to say that I’m not willing to kill them or be killed on the will or the whim of politicians who think it’s okay to engage in organized war. I think the whole idea of a “just war” at all is a sham that we’re taught as part of this propaganda to support it.
Or why especially when you are the powerful empire on the block in this current time in history, you need to justify your actions so that you don’t have this collective guilt as a society about what you’re doing across the globe.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, America, we’re in so deep, not only as a political matter, but just societally. Could you imagine all of the United States all of a sudden realizing the error of our ways and walking it back and apologizing? No, there’s no way. Because yeah, we’ve bit off this thing, and people don’t like to admit that they’re wrong.
So for you, you get to this point where you begin to feel like you’re a conscientious objector. Walk us through what began to happen with you and how that played out being over in Japan and in the Marines.
I couldn’t tell you what triggered it that morning, but I do remember the pivotal moment of like, “I can’t do this. Something is going to happen. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but this is just not going to work for the next six or seven years”, or whatever I had left. It wasn’t just the dread of going to work I think a lot of people experience if you’re working a shitty job that you don’t like. It was like knowing that you’re going to work, but not just because you don’t like the job, but you’re doing something really bad every day.
You know, when you do something bad, and then you get the little pit in your stomach and you’re like, “Man, I shouldn’t have really done that. I shouldn’t have lied.” I don’t know. Or maybe you should have done something. “I should have held the door for that person. I should have offered to pay.” And you feel a little bad about it. It was like that but times a million. And I just knew. I was like, “Yeah, this is just not going to work.”
But also, I was really scared because I had no idea, “What am I going to do?” But I thought realistically what would happen is I would have to finish my time in Japan, and then I would basically volunteer for a desk job. Right? Because most pilots don’t want to go work behind a desk. And so, I figured, well, if I can get some desk job on the East Coast or whatever and just ride out my time, maybe that’ll be livable. Maybe that’ll be at least doable.
And so, then I went to work, and I was preparing to leave for a mission that day, and we’re flying. I think we’re going to Hawaii or Guam or something. And so, there was a bunch of pilots. And so, I recall it being a fine trip overall, except whenever we were stopping somewhere, I was doing more research into what I could do. And I remember when I stumbled upon the GI Help Hotline, which then directs you to the Center on Conscience & War in Washington DC. And it was right before we were taking off, it was like I got this one webpage to load when we were leaving Hawaii, I think. And then I downloaded the Marine Corps order, started reading it, and then the rest is history.
As soon as I got back, I recall I sent them the message and then started working on my package and everything, and I was eager to move it forward. But I’m so, so thankful for Maria Santinelli and everyone at the Center on Conscience & War, because I think if they hadn’t existed and I tried to navigate that myself, I don’t know what the outcome would have been. I think I definitely would have rushed into it without having all the information, without being fully prepared, with having all my statements good.
All right. So, you submit your application to be a CO. How did that process go for you? Was it pretty fluid and easy, or was this a battle that you really had to push to get through?
Yeah, so for me, in hindsight it was fluid and easy. It was almost unbelievably easy in hindsight. But I guess I would say, especially for your listeners or those maybe a little unfamiliar. Right? So, A, I was an officer, B, I was a Marine, which is considered maybe more of a organization that would be less open to COs. But I was a pilot and a wing, which I think has more of a easygoing atmosphere than if I was like an infantry Marine.
But anyway, so when I told my XO and CO, they were surprised, I think, because I had been performing well. It’s not like I had this slow deterioration. It was clear that there was something wrong. I think I had kept work at work and home at home and was dealing with it at home. But at work, I was still performing well and doing my job, and there was no indication, I think, that I was having an issue. So, they were surprised, but they were also extremely supportive.
One of the hurdles that many people who would think about filing for conscientious objection is that their reasons for being CO’s aren’t religious, and many believe that you have to only have religious reasons to be a conscientious objector. Explain for you why that wasn’t the case and why that wasn’t such a huge hurdle.
Yeah, this is one of the things that I was really, really surprised about when I’ve read the conscientious objector order. Because I definitely heard the term before, but I think like many, I associated it with Quakers or devout religious people during Vietnam. And so, I was surprised to read it, it’s so explicitly in the order now, that it does not have to… you don’t have to be religious. But it does have a phrase that’s something to the effect of training equivalent to religious training or religious belief.
I was not that worried about it, I think, when I read that phrase. And in my statement as part of my package, I said very openly that I’m an atheist, and I still am. But I knew that I had gone through this philosophical rigor. And I took them through in my statement from start to end about picking up and putting down different philosophical books and how they all can piece together a picture of the world. All I was proving to them was that I had done the due diligence in forming this new structure. It wasn’t a hurdle because I was just explaining this framework to them. I hesitate to applaud things the military does, but I guess I should say that I applaud them having that in the orders.
Well, finally in October of 2017, your application was approved. What did you do at that point?
Yeah, so I guess the time leading up to when it was approved was, by far and still is, the most stressful. It wasn’t that long. It was April to October, so six or seven months. And it is by far the most stressful time of my life, though. The whole time just wondering what’s going to happen. Is it going to get delayed? Is it going to get denied? Because anyone can really deny it at any stage. And it has to go up every single level of the chain of command. And so, by the time we got to October, I wasn’t flying anymore. And so, I was basically working as a secretary for one of the COs on base. And then there was a few hiccups along the way. They needed some more paperwork. And then finally in October…
So it’s funny. I didn’t get the email first. They accidentally included the approval document in a different fax that was sent to someone else at the squadron that they knew, et cetera. So the bottom line is a friend called me first and told me about it, and then I got the formal notification email, which was obviously a huge, huge relief. And I didn’t really even know how to react at the time. And I just remember being relieved.
But it takes time, I think, to decompress from being in the military. When I got out, a friend advised me to take several months, at least, off. I guess maybe an analogy would be like you’re in a burning house and there’s a door out, but you’re still standing in the burning house. Right? And so, you still need to go through all this stuff to get out.
And so, I definitely didn’t suddenly relax. It felt like there was a weight off my shoulders to a certain extent, but it still didn’t feel real. I think until I got home and until I got my DD214, I still felt like they could just claw it back at any point, which maybe they probably could. And it took, I think, several months to really process that out. And honestly, I think actually years to… And it’s still a process that’s happening. And I say that because I still, they’ve been getting less frequent, but I still have dreams about being called back into the military. The realization I was having these recurring dreams that I thought were going to stop, but have now continued for several years, just shows the amount of stress that you can be under and that we put ourselves under in those types of situations.
Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story of activism and becoming a conscientious objector with us. We appreciate it so much.
It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production, recorded and edited by Matthew Breems with special thanks to Executive Producer Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.
Great job Matthew Breems.
And wonderful description of your journey, Michael Rasmussen!
Professionally done, Impactful, Seriously Important.
Thank you so much.
And, Oh yes – Jeff you’re the best. Keep up the good work!