"i object": three generations of war resistance

A few nights ago, Allan and I attended "I Object: Three Generations of War Resisters Speak Out".

The panel, organized by a Toronto community peace group, featured Frank Showler, a conscientious objector from World War II, Tom Riley, a draft resister from the Vietnam War (now a organizer with the War Resisters Support Campaign), and Phil McDowell, a current war resister seeking refuge in Canada.

It was a fascinating evening, and a hopeful one, as everyone in the room in some way or another was a person who stands for peace. I was especially interested in Mr Showler's story.

Showler was moved by his Christian faith to seek alternative service when Canada entered World War II. As a conscientious objector, he joined Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers and other "peace-churchers" throughout Canada, but he himself worshipped with the United Church of Canada, the mainstream church.

Showler said when war first erupted in Europe, the United Church was opposed to Canada entering the war, because, their statement said, "War is contrary to the mind of Christ". But when Canada entered the war, Church officialdom rethought that statement. I guess Jesus changed his mind.

Some United Church ministers did not reverse their anti-war position, and some of those were able to retain their congregations, too. Showler was greatly influenced by his own minister, and clearly still believes opposition to war is his Christian duty.

As I'm not a Christian, and I'm not a pacifist (opposed to all violence and war, by definition), Showler's very principled stance gives me a lot to think about. I am very interested in people who are moved by religious faith to work for social justice. People of faith have been part of progressive movements throughout history and throughout the world. Although I am not one of them, it's something I wish every progressive person (and all atheists) would remember.

Showler gave us an interesting statistic. I don't have a source for this, but I also have no reason to doubt it. In World War I, he said, civilian casualties were estimated to be at about 10%. Meaning, 10% of all casualties were civilians. In World War II, including the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilian casualties were about 50%. In Vietnam, they were estimated to be about 75%. In Iraq, 85-90% of deaths are civilians.

War itself has gotten more worse.

Tom Riley, originally from the US (but with one Canadian-born parent) did not evade the Vietnam War for political reasons. He was not particularly political. He simply didn't want to die, and he didn't want to kill. Tom remembered his first Christmas in Canada, when he couldn't go home to his family. He's not one for hyperbole, and said simply, "It was very hard."

Once in Canada, seeing the US from an outside perspective, he gradually became more political. Now his main focus is helping the Iraq War resisters remain safely and legally in Canada. I could hear in Tom's voice and his words, his deep passion for this cause, which I share.

Phil McDowell joined the US Army after September 11th, because he thought it was the right thing to do. When he was shipped to Iraq, he still believed that Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, and that there was a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Serving in Iraq, Phil realized the entire pretense for the war was a lie. He also witnessed terrible human-rights abuses and felt he was complicit in them. A communications specialist, Phil knew that as he did his job (keeping the base's computers running), he made it possible for the perpetrators of those war crimes to do their jobs. He finished his tour in Iraq and was honourably discharged.

Until the Army called him back.

Phil was "stop-lossed," involuntarily re-enlisted, one of the US's many ways of avoiding the politically untenable - but militarily unavoidable - draft. Phil researched every possible legal avenue for not returning to Iraq, but found only dead ends.

Phil had never broken the law, and had never considered taking such a drastic step as leaving his country. After much soul-searching, he and his partner Jamine Aponte packed their car and headed north.

* * * *

After all three spoke, I asked Mr Showler if he had encountered any opposition to his resistance. After all, this was "the good war". Canada fought on the side of good, versus a clear evil. He said he didn't remember anyone saying anything to him. I thought: only in Canada.

I know something about American war resisters in the first World War: they were violently attacked, their homes were destroyed, they were thrown in jail for their beliefs. And that was World War I! I think, only in a place as (generally) civil and tolerant as Canada could conscientious objection to World War II not meet with violent opposition.

Now, again, Canada's civility and tolerance - and its commitment to peace - is being put to the test.

Tom Riley noted that, in his day, there was outspoken, widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, and tens of thousands of people were leaving the US to avoid the draft. By contrast, Iraq War Resisters go against a repressive climate in the US, and are far more alone. I still feel what Tom and others did during Vietnam was very brave, but I share his enormous admiration for the bravery of the Iraq War Resisters.

Another Campaign member told the audience that helping the war resisters stay in Canada is a concrete step they could each take to help end the war. And it's true. Every soldier who removes themselves from the US occupation of Iraq is a loud voice for truth, justice, peace and democracy. If we stand for peace, it's our duty to stand beside them. When Canada allows the Iraq War Resisters safe asylum, it will invigorate the US peace movement as nothing has since Vietnam.

I can't even contemplate Canada allowing the resisters to be deported. Right now we are teetering on the brink. Four resisters, including two with young children, face deportation, with many more waiting for the potentially bad news. In the US, they face jail time (in a military prison) and a "bad conduct discharge" - a felony offense. No one should go to prison for refusing to kill.

Please help.

Join us this Saturday. If you can't make it on Saturday, write a letter to Stephen Harper, Stéphane Dion and to your MP.

Let them stay.


Ferdzy said...

That's kind of amusing - I knew Frank and Isabel Showler back in the 1970's/80's when I was attending Toronto Monthly Meeting. (i.e. the Quaker Meeting.)

Wild English Rose said...

I think there may be some key differences between the concept of war resistance and conscientious objection. Your post mentions that Frank Showler sought alternative service, which implies he volunteered to aid the effort to defeat fascism but by non violent means. Many Quakers in England were involved in ambulance driving, firefighting etc. during the Blitz and in the process many exposed themselves to as much personal danger as those in the armed forces.

This is quite different to somebody - who may not be opposed to violent action in general - who is opposed to the cause of a specific war, in such circumstances alternative service would be difficult to achieve as it might in some way further the cause. Indeed resistance to a particular war could lead itself to violent action or in extreme cases actively aiding the enemy - e.g. German resistance activists during the second world war.

It isn't that there isn't something to admire in both standpoints - but I think that they are quite different.

laura k said...

I knew Frank and Isabel Showler back in the 1970's/80's when I was attending Toronto Monthly Meeting. (i.e. the Quaker Meeting.)

Very cool! Frank is apparently an activist legend in Toronto.

I think there may be some key differences between the concept of war resistance and conscientious objection.

There can be, but there needn't be.

Frank Showler is now sorry that he registered for alternative service, and feels he ended up inadvertantly helping the war effort.

Most of the resisters I know qualify as conscientious objectors as well.

One needn't be a pacifist in every imaginable circumstance to be a CO.

Ryan said...

If you're interested in the history of religious progressives in Canada, there's a book that I thought was quite excellent titled "Beyond the Social Gospel: Church Protest on the Prairies" by United Church theologian Ben Smillie.

I would also suggest looking up Rev. James Endicott, who formed the Canada Peace Congress in the late 1940's to encourage peace, nuclear disarmament and negotiation with the Soviet Union.

There's lots more. I'm a bit of a history nerd, but I think it's important for churches to look back to their radical roots as a lesson for the present.

laura k said...

Thank you, Ryan! I am quite the history nerd myself. I am passionately interested in learning about the history of my new country. Thank you very much.