Hell no, they did not go

A Few Small Candles
June 18, 1999

This slim volume is about personal sacrifice in the cause of moral principle. Ten American men, now in their seventies and eighties, each remember their resistance to being involved in the second world war. The Quakers, the Mennonites and other religious denominations associated with the peace movement had made an enormous and successful effort to see that allowance for conscientious objection was inserted into the federal government's Selective Service Act of 1940; provision was made to set up of camps in remote areas where registered objectors could work in forestry and other occupations that could be said to serve a useful national purpose.

These ten were among those not prepared to accept that the state had a right to conscript their services in any form and therefore refused to register under the act. In doing so, they knew that they would be arrested and serve time in prison. Though most were brought up within the Methodist church, they were concerned primarily with political and social rather than religious issues. Some tell of personal experience in prewar Nazi Germany, the Spanish civil war and India under the Raj. All were conscious of the evils of both fascism and imperialism, including the commercial imperialism of their own country in its support of tyrannical dictatorships, but they were equally convinced that means other than war had to be found to deal with them. Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent protests over the salt tax were a common source of inspiration.

None of the ten experienced the violence that their counterparts in the war encountered, but their sentences were long - three to five years - and they lost friends and sometimes the support of their churches. It was humiliating to be treated as common felons, moved from one jail to another in handcuffs and leg-irons. The issue that they all faced was whether to accept prison rules or refuse to collaborate on the grounds that the state had no right to put them there in the first place. Most did not comply and forfeited the pleasanter jobs and opportunities for parole; many spent long periods in solitary confinement. There seem to have been occasions when the conscientious objectors in some prisons went on corporate strike in protest against the racial segregation of prisoners in dining room and chapel and won their point.

Each of these simply and humbly told stories concludes with a brief account of what has since happened to the person telling it - how they went on to lead ordinary and useful lives, some becoming leaders in the anti-war and anti-segregation movements. Now towards the end of their lives, each wonders - was he right to make this protest? Did it achieve anything? Is the world any better for it? It is a privilege to be able to share these men's experiences and their answers to those questions.

Peter Cox is founder-principal, Dartington College of Arts.

A Few Small Candles: War Resisters of World War II Tell Their Stories

Editor - Larry Gara and Lenna Mae Gara
ISBN - 0 87338 621 3
Publisher - Kent State University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 207

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