Monday, November 16, 2009

Man of conviction

It was a time of national unity against the obvious enemies – Hitler’s Germany and an imperialist Japan that had staged its Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack, but in the democracy that was at home, the one U.S. citizens and military were soon to protect, there was supposed to be room for dissent; otherwise, why the republic?

Yet the price for being a conscientious objector was high – public ostracism and the harshness of federal prison, including the injustices within those jail walls that were counter to the democratic rights of humankind, those very entitlements that are at the foundation of this nation.

There can be – must be – argument in a democracy about war, about relative “good war” (say World War II) and “bad war” (say the Vietnam War); about any government’s historically complicit failure to prevent the death of so many young people; about war’s devastation, war’s aftermath, war’s cost; about the vested interest of the military/industrial complex of which the good soldier Eisenhower warned us; about the polarization of one citizen against another, creating dislike, even hatred, just as brother was pitted against brother in our worst war, the Civil War.

There are no “nice,” safe, easy answers in such debate, yet this much is certain: If the patriot is to lay his or her life down in battle for the democracy, which at times is surely required, then it must also be understood that the sacrifice comes, too, on behalf of the living who choose to protest. Dissent can be sure patriotism as well, and it must be guaranteed.

I know of a distinguished fellow, quite accomplished in his professional career, as a husband, too, a father, a local New York historian, now 90, son of a pacifist, who was the valedictorian of his high school class in 1936, and went on to graduate from Columbia University in 1941. He was called up for the draft during World War II but failed to register because of his conscientious objection to war, and was sentenced to three years in prison, at Danbury, Conn., and Lewisburg, P.A., in March 1943.
The man willingly paid the price, as also befitting a democracy, for expressing his conscience in a time of war and national sacrifice. He knew that and took his punishment without complaint. What this man of principle could not abide was the hypocrisy of injustice against his fellow man, as seen in jail.
He took part in several prison strikes with other conscientious objectors – a work strike at Danbury in 1943 to protest racial segregation in the prison, and two hunger strikes at Lewisburg to protest mail censorship as well as a ruling that lengthened the terms of prisoners who staged work strikes.
Segregation was part of our nation before, during and after World War II, in the military too until 1948, even as a war was being waged against Hitler, who said in no uncertain term that some people (Jews, the mentally ill, social outcasts) were not people at all.
The man I know, who to this day speaks his mind and backs his conscience in peaceful civil protest, was, with others, locked in solitary during their strike to end jim crow seating in the Danbury mess hall. There was also protest against blacks being given menial work tasks.
It took more courage than most of us could muster to do what the man did, along with his fellow conscientious objectors, in defense of others in this democracy. I am not sure I would have had conviction in such a situation.
World War II was not my generation’s war, though I had relatives who served, one of whom was severely wounded. You can argue that this conflict could have been prevented by numerous governments worldwide, including our own, in the 1920s and early 1930s, but there was no other choice but a fight given the German invasions and Pearl Harbor. I believe I would have served if drafted after Pearl Harbor, but whether I would have had the red badge of courage under fire, I cannot tell. I do hope that I would have tolerated in this “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” style of democracy that is my belief, those conscientious objectors like my acquaintance, who is also my friend.
He edited my collection of essays for the Historical Society of Rockland, knowing well that one of my favorites was “1944: A fellow doing his job,” about the wounding of my Uncle Winfield Gunther in December, in the battle of the Huertgen Forest. I wrote that my uncle, an Army private, was  “Unannounced by name, almost anonymous on purpose. He went where he was told and did what he was supposed to do.  He never expected anyone to say thanks because he was just one of many called to the task then at hand. …”
Winfield, in 1944 a father, was drafted along with so many for the retaking of Europe and the expected invasion of Japan. It was his conviction that he could and would serve, and at peril. I am immensely proud of my late uncle, not only for his service but for the way he also continued a democracy as a civilian in responsible fatherhood, in the work place.

My friend, the man of conscientious objection, served his nation, too, for without dissent and without toleration of other views, there is no democracy. Patriotism that is blind to injustice or will not allow railing against it in hope of honest and truthful debate and betterment is infatuation for your country, not love.

As a patriot, I am proud of my friend’s courage then and now.

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