The Gentle Heroes

BY THOMAS POWERS
The Warriors of Pacifism byCaroline Moorehead. Adler & Adler, $19.95.
IF HISTORY IS what gets into books, then pacifism hasn’t got much of a history. The shelves of libraries groan with the history of wars—who fought them and why, how they were run, why the battles turned out the way they did, occasionally even what it was like to live through one as a common soldier, despised and shot at and pensioned off on a pittance at the end. But the flood of books on war—at once the curse and the central business of the nation-state— narrows to a trickle when it comes to the dangerous commitment of the lonely, frightened few who have refused to fight. Caroline Moorehead’s fine, brisk history of pacifism in the twentieth century rescues a few of those few from oblivion. What they have to say is interesting enough, but talk was never their strong suit. It is what they did that instructs.
Conscript armies are as old as history, but it was not until the past century or two that men who read books were commonly drafted to fight. It is one thing to refuse any part in war when no one insists, quite another when the call-up notice has arrived. In 1916 conscription came to Britain, the birthplace of modern pacifism and the last of the belligerents in the First World War to abandon the volunteer army. What followed makes up the longest and best part of Moorehead’s book. The Asquith Government’s conscription bill, which passed the House of Commons by a lopsided 383-36 vote typical of wartime, established local tribunals to decide who might qualify for an exemption “on the grounds of a conscientious objection to bearing arms” without further defining just when an objection might be “conscientious” or what constituted “bearing arms.” The tribunals were free to take a narrow view. “Do you ever wash yourself?” a member of one of them asked. “You don’t look as if you do. Yours is a case of an unhealthy mind in an unwholesome body.” Rejection of one’s case meant a painful choice between submission and jail. About 16,000 “conchies”—as they were soon called—requested exemption by war’s end. Some 6,300 were arrested when they refused to accept a tribunal’s ruling; over 5,900 were court-martialed; 819 spent more than two years in jail, and 69 died there.
The harshest treatment was reserved for the “absolute refusers,” for whom “bearing arms” included literally everything associated with the whole enterprise of war. Their refusal to explain themselves, to accept alternative service, to wear a uniform, to salute officers, to march when ordered, infuriated the authorities. “[For] that kind of man,” Lloyd George said in mid-1916, “I, personally, have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever. ... I shall only consider the best means of making the path of that class as hard as possible.” In practice this meant induction, court-martial, prison, release, re-induction, and so on. The cat-and-mouse approach ended only with the war; 521 men were courtmartialed three times, 50 five times, and 3 six times. The last of the prisoners was released in 1923. Few broke under the harsh regimes in prisons with names like Wormwood Scrubs, Pentonville, and Dartmoor, and the stubborn refusal of objectors brought out the worst in their guards. Men were beaten, half-starved, left naked in dark, damp cells. The sixtynine who died were not murdered in the usual sense, just mistreated to death, which suggests that the captivity of the survivors must often have been harsh as well. Cynics might note that the casualty rate of pacifists was unusually low— onlv a few score dead of the thousands jailed. Survival was part of their ordeal. The official treatment of pacifists during the First World War is not a pretty page in British history, but nothing described by Moorehead can match the scenes of Gothic horror in The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’s brilliant history of Australia’s first half-century as a British penal colony. Evidently some education of the official heart had taken place by the time pacifists challenged the blind British determination to run Edwardian society aground on the great barrier reef of the war in France.
What resulted from the pacifists’ long struggle against Europe’s greatest killing spree? Certainly the British war effort did not suffer. Of the millions who volunteered or were called up after conscription, about 750,000 died. Falk of a negotiated settlement to the war got nowhere, and it was fought to bitter victory. Beyond their own narrow circles pacifists were commonly ostracized as shirkers and cowards. But things began to look very different within a few years of the war’s end, and by the early 1930s the pacifists’ example bore fruit in the notorious resolution of the Oxford Union “in no circumstances [to] tight for King and Country.”Widespread peace activism—not quite the same thing as pacifism—survived the rise of Hitler and the Spanish Civil War but evaporated, predictably, with the onset of the Second World War, in 1939. This time around, British officials had to deal with 60,000 requests for exemption on conscientious grounds, but the bureaucratic machinery handled them easily and Moorehead has no horror stories to relate of the 1940s.
IT IS ONE OF the strengths of Moorehead’s book that she attends to what pacifists do best—instruction by example—and mostly lets theory alone. Pacifism is a response to the problem of war and in theory offers a solution. Any discussion of the subject quickly reaches the central argument—What do we do about threats of imminent violence? It’s a good question. The normally temperate George Orwell dismissed pacifists as a “fascist gang" for refusing to fight Hitler, who dealt with his own by executing 14,000 of them. Early in the war Gandhi urged the Jews to resist Hitler with “the active non-violent resistance of the strong.”Would that have worked better than the mostly passive acquiescence of European Jews, who wore the yellowstar and gathered themselves at railroad stations for deportation to the death camps? Very likely it would have, but it’s not hard to see why the modern state of Israel has chosen a different path.
The question is a live one today, in a militarized world that spends a trillion dollars a year on arms. Active non-violent resistance might hold out some promise for the blacks of South Africa, but does it make sense for the Sandinistas against the contras, or the Afghans trying to expel the Russians? Nonviolent resistance seems to work best against authorities already in power, as it worked in India or works today—better than armed alternatives, at least—in Poland. But what about threats to impose control — in short, war? When war comes, it leaves little room for choice— one either fights back or submits to the dreams and whims of the victor. This is a hard question for pacifism, but not for pacifists. The American pacifist Max Sandima was once asked, “If a man was holding a knife at your mother’s throat, what would you do?” He answered, “I can’t tell you what I’d do. I can only tell you what I’ve done.”
Moorehead seems to like this answer. Pacifism can never refute the arguments of the generals; it can only suggest that there is another way. In the 1960s and early 1970s American pacifism—not the rigorous Quaker kind, but a broad, unruly, thoroughly emotional resistance to going on with war—got the United States out of Vietnam. Since then it has turned its attention to nuclear weapons and war in Central America. Moorehead’s chapter on peace activism in the United States serves as a quick introduction to the major groups and the thinking of their leaders, but fails to convey the range of what they’re up to. A richer portrait of the American peace movement can be found in Paul Rogat Loeb’s Hope in Hard Times, an eloquent book, told mostly through personal histories, which suggests that one of the principal worries on the American mind in the evening of the twentieth century is the danger of nuclear war. What else comes close? To keep track of what people are doing about it, you might subscribe to the monthly newsletter Peacework ($7 a year from the American Friends Service Committee, 2161 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass. 02140). In the back of each issue is a list of several score events—lectures, demonstrations, petition-signings, fund-raisers, and the like—that have something, albeit often tangential, to do with “peace.” You might ask of any of them, as it is routinely asked of pacifism, whether this, even given the benefit of every reasonable doubt, can solve the problem of war. The answer would of course be no. Peace activism is what people do when they don’t know what else to do.
THE BRITISH historian Arnold Toynbee was spared the fate of his generation on the battlefields of France by the accident of a case of dysentery. In a volume of memoirs, Experiences, he remarked again and again that “half" his schoolmates died in the Great War. Doubtless he exaggerated. The amazing fact is not that 16,000 Britons refused conscription but that millions accepted. It was not the Germans who killed so many of them, in Toynbee’s view, but war itself, which he called a Moloch, after the child-eating god of the Canaanites. By the end of his life he frankly feared that a Moloch armed with nuclear weapons would climax the crescendo movement of the two great wars of his lifetime.
Fear of nuclear war is what principally animates pacifists now. The cost of protest can still be high. Two American peace activists, Carl Kabat and Helen Woodson, are currently serving prison sentences of eighteen and twelve years, respectively, for a 1984 protest in which they attacked the concrete hatch cover of a Minuteman missile silo with a rented jackhammer. The damage was trivial, but the two activists were convicted of sabotage and aroused the judge’s ire when they refused to promise not to try again. From one perspective, the protest was foolish: what difference could a single missile make, more or less? But Kabat and Woodson thought the point was worth making anyway. Is anybody listening? That’s hard to say. Activists have helped to put arms control near the top of the American political agenda, and to a large extent are responsible for congressional resistance to President Reagan’s policy of armed confrontation with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. These are not negligible achievements. It’s probably fair to say that pacifism in its broad form, as Moorehead describes it, is making progress in the world, but war is making progress too. The Soviet and American nuclear arsenals, lavishly attended, grow ever more accurate and versatile. Shooting wars in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf could spill over their present boundaries at any moment. No one “wants” war, perhaps, but war is infinitely patient, and does not care what we want.