Conscientious Objectors During World War II
Watching The “Good War” and Those Who Refused to Fight It last night was an excellent complement to the 7 episodes of Ken Burns’ The War. 42,000 American men were classified as conscientious objectors during World War II and did “alternative service” at Civilian Peace Service camps run by the “Historic Peace Churches,” i.e., the Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren. Another 25, 000 became “non-combat conscientious objectors,” that is, they did not object to military service, merely to killing. The Non-Combatatant COs became ambulance drivers and medics during the war–often working to save the lives of “the enemy” as well. Others, who objected to cooperating with Selective Service (coerced military service) at all, went to prison for the duration of the war.
The film points out that America has always had COs–George Washington specifically exempted those “of tender conscience” from induction into the Continental Army. Most Mennonite, Amish, and Brethren/Dunker folk who immigrated to the U.S. did so to escape compulsory military service in Europe. So did many Jews. American history is littered with utopian experimental communities–and often these included a commitment to peace and nonviolence. But, until WWII, if one was a pacifist or conscientious objector in America, one was usually given only a few options: Violate one’s conscience by allowing one’s self to be drafted; pay for another to go in one’s place (an option given up until the Civil War); flee to avoid service (draft dodging); or prison. Thousands of COs went to prison during the first World War.
During WWII, some, like the Union 8, eight students at Union Theological Seminary of New York, still went to prison rather than even register for the draft. (I have met one of them, George Houser, who went on to help found the Congress on Racial Equality[CORE], the American Committee on Africa, and has been a leader in many nonviolent social movements.) Others volunteered to be “human guinea pigs” or “human lab rats” for medical experimentation–experiments that would never be approved by any hospital ethics committee, today, but which helped find cures for diseases and helped keep many civilians in post-war Europe from starving. My teacher, Glen Stassen, has talked about a high school teacher of his, a Quaker, who had weird growths on his body because he had been such a “human guinea pig” during WWII.
Others volunteered to work in mental hospitals. We still have a long way to go in the treatment of the mentally ill, but before this service, “hospitals” for the mentally ill were nightmarish places of torture and torment. The work of WWII COs (and many of their wives, too) transformed these places and changed the way that Americans thought about mental illness.
As one of the witnesses in the film (Sam Yoder) said, being in a Conscientious Objector during World War II was especially hard because everyone agreed that Hitler had to be stopped and no one, including pacifists, had any answer of how to do so without war. Of course, as another witness pointed out, pacifists and COs had warned about the harsh Treaty of Versailles (which ended WWI) sowing the seeds for another war.
Gandhian techniques for active nonviolence were in their infancy (Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried repeatedly to get to visit Gandhi–What would the German Confessing Church movement have looked like if armed with Gandhian nonviolence?). And, even today, there is no guarantee that nonviolent campaigns will be successful: We have many recent successes from the overthrow of Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia (2001), to the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine (2003), but success seems much further away in Burma (Myanmar). And nonviolent 3rd Party intervention, as an alternative to war, did not really begin until the 1970s and is today embodied in such organizations as Witness for Peace, Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Friends Peace Teams, Holy Land Trust, Nonviolence International, and the Nonviolent Peace Force. None of those options existed in WWII. There were amazing efforts using active nonviolence to rescue some Jews from the Holocaust (most famously in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in Vichy France), but those efforts weren’t available to AMERICAN pacifists.
Therefore, it was incredibly difficult to remain true to beliefs that taking human life was always wrong, in the face of the monstrous evil of the Axis onslaught–and in the face of constant propaganda which equated pacifism with cowardice. The COs worked to demonstrate that they were not cowards and to sow the seeds for justice and peace in the future. Many of them helped to launch the post-war Civil Rights movement. As U.S. troops came home from battle, many COs replaced them (especially in Europe, less in the Pacific islands or in Japan), working tirelessly to help in post-war recovery, feeding and clothing civilians.
There were no ticker tape parades for the homecoming COs and some, who felt they had done make work in place of work of significance, went into depression and seldom spoke about their experiences.
But we should never doubt their courage: the courage to go against popular sentiment, to swim against the tide, to suffer for one’s beliefs–even the courage to face war unarmed (as with the ambulance drivers and other noncombatant COs), but never to kill.
It still takes courage to be a CO today, even with more options available and a supposedly “all volunteer” military. Many countries still have no CO exemptions for compulsory military service and being a pacifist exacts a high cost. Even where alternative service exists, so that COs are able to avoid prison, in many countries they are permanently banned from certain occupations or even entrance to university.
The question often posed to us pacifists, “What would you have done about Hitler?” is hypothetical if we were born later. But this movie is a moving description of what some pacifists DID when they refused to kill.
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