WHO IS BOB BOWMAN? A BIO…

1998-06-06

Carolyn Ballard


From Fighter Pilot to Peacenik Bishop

Strange Steps Along a Journey in Faith

by Most Rev. Dr. Robert M. Bowman, Lt. Col., USAF, ret.

 

People often ask me why I changed. They want to know what made me switch from 
being a career military officer to being a "peacenik." I usually answer that I 
haven't changed all that much. I saw "peace" as the objective of my military 
service. You remember, "Peace Is Our Profession." Many of us actually believed 
that. Now I just pursue it in a different way.

Throughout my military career, I saw the prevention of nuclear war as the 
primary reason for the military's existence. I never really saw how Vietnam fit 
into that. I even spoke out against the war before going to fight in it. But I 
was young and had perhaps too much faith in the people running things. And sure,
I saw decisions being made (like the MX) which I felt were counterproductive to 
our goal of war prevention. But overall, I felt that our policies served that 
goal, and that they worked. Even when I made a personal decision not to 
cooperate in the release of nuclear weapons under any circumstances - even 
retaliation - I still allowed myself to be used as part of the bluff. After all,
deterrence was working. (This decision was made in 1969 in Korea when I was 
responsible for the war plans of three squadrons of aircraft armed with nuclear 
weapons. I decided that retaliation would be pointless and immoral. But, of 
course, I never said anything to anybody.) This incident was the only time that 
my Christian faith impacted on my military service. After all, the Roman 
Catholic Church (to which I then belonged) and all the others with which I was 
familiar kept chanting "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." So my "nuclear
pacifism" was a personal decision arrived at not because of my church's 
position, but in spite of it.

When I retired from the Air Force in 1978, I felt good about my career, and 
still supported our policy of war prevention. The big change came about when 
Reagan was elected president. He (or more properly the right-wing civilian 
ideologues who shaped his policies) changed everything. They changed the "Star 
Wars" programs which I had directed into a crash program to deploy offensive 
weapons (disguised as defense) in order to regain absolute military superiority.
More importantly, they changed the overall defense policy of our nation from one
of war prevention to one of war fighting. The Pentagon's marching orders were to
prepare to "fight and win a protracted nuclear war." This I could not support. I
started speaking out, warning the people about the suicidal direction the new 
administration was taking us. Very quickly I found that I had less freedom of 
speech in industry than I had had in the military. I left General Dynamics 
rather than be quiet. The next place wasn't any better, and in the middle of 
1982 I was forced to resign from industry altogether.

That fall, my wife and I were on a charter flight for Vienna, where I was to 
chair an NGO conference on space weapons at UNISPACE 82. I was still unemployed,
and struggling with whether this new "peacenik" role was compatible with my 
Christianity. (Now, of course, I can't imagine how anyone can be a Christian 
without being a peacenik.) I picked a magazine out of the seat pocket and 
started reading. There were the words of Bishop Gumbleton and a couple of other 
courageous bishops - saying the very things I had been guiltily thinking. What a
relief to find that I wasn't the only Christian feeling that way!

In Vienna, we spent two weeks fighting the whole US delegation. Then the UN 
asked me to hold a press conference to announce the resolution against space 
weapons that I had written. All the captains of the aerospace industry were 
there (at taxpayers' expense), and I was afraid that if I came that far out of 
the closet, I would never work again. After trying once more to reason with the 
US delegates in their plush hotel suites, Maggie and I were walking hand-in-hand
back to our seven dollar a night youth hostel. I explained my dilemma. How were 
we going to survive financially? After all, we had a seven bedroom house in 
Potomac (the Beverly Hills of Washington, DC) with a 17 1/2% mortgage, and five 
of our seven children were in college. At that moment, Maggie said just the 
words I needed to hear, "If this is God's work, He'll make it possible. Do 
whatever you have to do." It was as if a huge weight had been lifted off my 
shoulders. I held the press conference. (And sure enough, I haven't worked 
since.)

Over the 14 years since then, my Christian faith has become more and more 
intertwined with my work for peace. I preached my first peace sermon in October 
1982. Gradually, they got more frequent. Maggie and I studied for ordination in 
the Episcopal Church, but didn't follow through. Eventually, we were ordained in
the American Catholic Church and in April 1996 I was consecrated an independent 
Catholic Bishop. I am now Presiding Bishop of the United Catholic Church, an 
ecumenical church with the liturgy of the Roman Catholics and the social 
conscience of the Quakers. We are a peace church. The nonviolence I preach is 
incompatible with the "just war" doctrine. So it turns out I have changed, after
all. But it hasn't been a sudden conversion. It has been the result of a 
difficult process of trying to understand the words and example of Jesus and 
discerning and accepting the will of God. I still think of myself as a military 
man seeking the security of my country. But the means now exclude killing 
another country's soldiers. And I have the feeling my journey isn't over yet.

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