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What Is It Good For?

War and how to avoid it

As I go around giving talks for Here on the Edge, my book about how a small group of World War II conscientious objectors on the Oregon Coast helped plow the ground for the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, I sometimes encounter people who ask if I am a conscientious objector. Others ask if I believe that we should all refuse to fight any war under any circumstances.

I tell them that I was not a conscientious objector when I was draft age, and that because I was never called to military service, I was never forced to face such a decision. My guess is that I probably would have gone but not been very happy about it.

Now that I am older and have seen the effects of war on my friends and neighbors, and now that I have had the opportunity to thoroughly research the history of war and peace in this country, I think it’s fair to say that our treatment of dissent in America shows a mixed record. We have spoken of and even proposed some of the highest ideals. Yet we have brutally and sometimes openly indulged our most base impulses.

Conscientious objection in the U.S. is as old as the country itself, with the earliest records from the colonial days and the American Revolution showing that members of the three “historic peace churches” — the Friends (or Quakers), Mennonites and Brethren — petitioned government leaders to excuse them from military service on the grounds that their religion forbade them to participate in war. Some were excused, usually for a fee.

When Congress was debating this fledgling nation’s Constitution, a clause regarding conscientious objection was introduced by none other than James Madison. It was proposed to be part of the Second Amendment: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

No reference to conscience survived to the final version.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, as the U.S. expanded across the continent, various states’ constitutions adopted language recognizing conscientious objection. Pennsylvania, Alabama, Texas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Kansas all allowed some manner of exemption for the CO, usually in the form of alternative service or restitution paid to the state.

This exemption continued into the Civil War. But as the battles grew bloodier, more bodies were needed, and in 1863, the fee for being excused was set at $300, an incredible sum at the time. 

This set off rioting in New York City, requiring 2,000 policemen and five army regiments to disperse the crowds, angry at what was considered a “rich man’s act.” What came to be known as the New York Draft Riots, along with disturbances in other northern cities, took much-needed infantry and sometimes artillery away from the battlefield. According to one source, the Union army was so shorthanded because of this that when they defeated the Confederates at the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, they did not have enough men to pursue General Robert E. Lee’s forces retreating south.

COs who could not pay the fee were tortured in both Union and Confederate armies. Punishments included being forced to march hours loaded down with gear and with weapons hung around their necks, being tied to four stakes in the hot sun with arms and legs stretched into an X, being hung by the thumbs with feet barely touching the ground, and being stabbed exactly 4 inches deep with bayonets.

WWI brought together the scientific advances of both mechanical and psychological warfare. Airplanes, nerve gas and long-range artillery made mass slaughter more efficient. Psychoanalysis, bulk printing and the burgeoning medium called radio made mass behavior easier to manipulate. 

This was necessary and even good for the country, argued those in positions of power. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and the man who later invented the term “public relations” as a euphemism for propaganda, summed it up succinctly: 

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” he said. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” 

The society as a whole was complicit, he added. “This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

Of the 2.8 million men inducted into the armed forces during WWI, barely 4,000 were accorded true conscientious objector status. Most were imprisoned and some endured tortures similar to those of the Civil War era: beatings, stabbings, jerked about with ropes on their necks, dunked in latrines and another method now familiar to us in the 21st century: the “water cure,” in which prisoners were held with their mouths open beneath a water faucet.

WWII brought an alternative, the government-church partnership called Civilian Public Service, in which 12,000 men in 150 locations across the country worked in lieu of military service at camps similar to the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps. 

CPS didn’t last beyond that war, but the contacts made and messages developed laid the foundation for the next generation, facing their own war in Vietnam. When enough young people in the 1960s learned enough about how and why nations go to war, there was no turning back. 

Or was there? The ’60s supposedly changed the world — and in many ways they did. But in other ways the machinery of individual gain through mass psychological and economic manipulation continues unabated. 

What is war good for? It’s a simple question, and the immediate answer might seem simple. But if it is that simple, why do we go to war — again and again and again? 

Only when we are willing to address the deeper questions, only when we are able to understand the relationship between our highest and basest urges, only then can we discover and bring to light those underlying truths that make America not just a nation but an ideal. Only then might it be possible to create that world of freedom, decency and peace — of which we speak so much, but as yet remains a dream.