In our present age of permanent war, it is almost impossible to recall a time when armed conflicts clearly began and ended. In that ancient, bygone era — say, before 2003 — one could judiciously ruminate on an impending war before it got rolling and make a choice about it. Most people, even then, didn’t see it that way — for them there was no choice. If the government said, “War — jump to it,” invariably most of us said, “How high?” whether that meant picking up a gun, plunking down our taxes, or throwing our full spiritual and political weight behind it. It seemed automatic and inevitable and foreordained. Choice, it seemed, had nothing to do with it at all.
But there was a choice, and some took it seriously. And even today, when war is on a dizzying spin-cycle whirling with such tremendous velocity that it virtually disappears before our very eyes — and when the ever-expanding remote-control battlefield increasingly exceeds every horizon — we still have a choice. Groping our way back to such a decision-point is crucial. Though it will be different than before — a choice made in the midst of the 24/7 careening, never-ending centrifugal spin and not amid the more contemplative lull that we once were afforded before all hell would break loose — this choice must be rescued and learned and applied, given the Pentagon and the NSA’s monotonously relentless planning. What better teachers do we have than those who seized this opportunity in the past? Who better than those who chose?
History is chock full of conscientious objection, though it sometimes takes some hunting around to glimpse it. Violence and injustice — and what is more violent and unjust than war? — often prompts an equal and opposite reaction, from lone individual figures to whole communities, like those of the historical peace churches, including the Mennonites and the Quakers. In virtually no case is this easy. Pacifist religious groupings, where one can feel nurtured and supported in the scandalous belief that killing is wrong, ultimately prepare their members to “pay up,” as Daniel Berrigan — the Jesuit priest and activist who was imprisoned for his resistance to the Vietnam War and has been conscientiously objecting ever since — once pithily described it. To hold stubbornly to such a belief in a society where killing is a matter of policy means there are often bound to be consequences.
This is what happened on the eve of World War II. Some 37,000 men facing the first peacetime draft in U.S. history chose to become conscientious objectors, or COs. Many of them — though not all — were members of peace churches who, fearing what happened to their young men who faced torture in U.S. prisons when they resisted induction during the First World War, negotiated the creation of an alternative: Civilian Public Service, which came into being on Dec. 19, 1940 — 73 years ago today — virtually a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Some men chose to serve during World War II as non-combatants in the armed forces as medics and the like. Others opted for prison. (Here’s an astounding statistic that gives one pause in light of today’s Bureau of Prisons: during the Second World War fully one out of six men in federal prisons was a draft resister!) But thousands joined the Civilian Public Service in camps flung across the United States, where they performed hard labor nine hours a day, six days a week. Most of them were held until 1947, two years after the war ended.
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In 2002, Judith Erlich and Rick Tejada-Flores produced The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, a documentary that explores this choice that some men made in the run up to the Second World War to resist the draft based on their religious or ethical principles. They were often assigned to work in horrendous mental institutions that later spurred many to build movements to reform those systems.
In contrast to the nearly uniform support for the war among the larger public, Civilian Public Service members formed community that strengthened, rather than undermined, their commitment to nonviolence. Indeed, the documentary stresses “the CPS camps became incubators for many of the techniques of nonviolent resistance used later in the civil rights and peace movements.” As James Tracy, author of Direct Action, puts it, “A new movement, termed by its adherents ‘radical pacifism’ would emerge. … Far from feeling despondent about the overwhelming popular support for the war effort in the United States, radical pacifists found the shared resistance and the sense of emerging movement in their distinct camp and prison communities exhilarating.” Many COs — including those like David Dellinger and Bill Sutherland, who led successful desegregation strikes in prisons — became key organizers in a variety of new movements over the next several decades.
The irony is delicious. Intending to both punish and isolate conscientious objectors, the government actually provided a training ground for future activists and opportunities to hone these skills. I am reminded of a much more modest example of this, when a thousand of us were arrested at a nuclear weapons lab in California in the early 1980s and were held for two weeks. The sheriff’s intention apparently was to dissuade this from happening again. In fact, it had the opposite effect. For two weeks, we were treated to innumerable workshops from the likes of Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, which immeasurably strengthened our solidarity as a community. We grew as activists. It was a state-sponsored school in nonviolent activism, something that would bear fruit over the next decade. We, like the COs during World War II, were deepening our own skills and commitment to the conscientious objection to the status quo that had landed us in custody, if only for a tiny fraction of the time they served.
Where are our COs today? In our time of permanent war, the Edward Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings are showing us how powerful conscientious objection still is. Like them, each of us can make a choice to withdraw our consent from ongoing war. And, like the COs of the Second World War, our many forms of conscientious objection — both minor and monumental — can not only resist violence but offer us a training ground with opportunities for solidarity and growth as agents of nonviolent transformation. The acts of conscience taken now will open unexpected opportunities for moving social change forward.