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The Right to Refuse

PBS documentary profiles the Conscientious Objectors of World War II.


by S.E. Shepherd
January 17, 2002

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The Right to Refuse_S.E. Shepherd-PBS documentary profiles the Conscientious Objectors of World War II. Out of all the wars in American History, no war is considered more “just” than World War II. Nowhere was man’s bend towards evil more evident than in Nazi Germany and the concentration camps it created. Hitler and his allies had to be stopped at any cost. How hard it must have been to be a pacifist during that time.

Recently PBS aired the one-hour documentary “The Good War and Those That Refused to Fight It,” the tale of those who, for religious or political reasons, exercised their right to avoid the war. It is a compelling story and one that raises issues still faced today: Is it unpatriotic to oppose a war your nation faces? What are the rights of those that dissent?

A brief history is given on America’s stance to those citizens who opposed war. The film mentions that even George Washington allowed men to be excused from duty from the Revolutionary War; “those with conscientious scruples against war.” From there it moves rapidly to World War I, and Isolationist movement it invoked in the 1930’s. By 1941, 82 percent of the nation was opposed to entering World War II, until the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet even after that tragic event, there were many men that held a deep conviction that war was wrong and chose to remain conscientious objectors or COs.

COs were seen as cowards, unpatriotic, and even Hitler sympathizers. Many had their manhood called into question and sought out employment as firefighters or other risky jobs to prove themselves. Some even volunteered to undergo life-threatening medical experiments to help aid treatment of soldiers suffering from starvation, or diseases such as hepatitis. Many died from these experiments.

Other COs did go to war, but served as combat medics. The most famous was actor Lew Ayres. Ayres was very popular prior to World War II, and even starred in one of the earliest anti-war films, the 1930 adaptation of “All’s Quiet on the Western Front.” Ayres refused the draft, and was blacklisted in Hollywood. His popularity plummeted, until he finally agreed to serve, but only as a medic. Ayres was also one of the few medics who refused to carry a side arm.

Still others were sent to prison. The film focuses on the famous “Union 8” seminary students, who found the first peacetime draft as unfair and received jail time for their civil disobedience. While in prison, they formed strikes with other COs to change unfair policies in the prison system. There fruits led to many of the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50’s and 60’s. Another group of COs was sent to work at mental hospitals and found treatment of patients so deplorable; they helped reform modern mental health care.

We are proud of the many men and women who served in Word War II. We should be as equally as proud of those that opposed the idea of war, and were so convicted of this belief; they bore public shame and contempt. Many that opposed the war went on to help the rebuilding effort after the war, volunteering for humanitarian services to relieve World War II’s many victims. The COs of World War II are no less honorable than the veterans; indeed, they are as American as anyone else, exercising their rights to hold to what they believe, even if it goes against the grain of popular consent.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, those that opposed and protested the War Against Terrorism were scoffed at. Osama bin Laden is obviously evil and must be eradicated. How can we just let this man and his army go? The COs of World War II had no answer to Hitler either, only the conviction that war, any war is wrong.

If PBS airs the documentary again (as it most certainly will during pledge time), I encourage you to see it. It is a part of American History and the history of World War II that is too often neglected.

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