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They Went to Jail for Justice

C.J. Hinke has produced probably the best collection I’ve read of writings by and about conscientious objectors and war refusers behind bars. It’s called Free Radicals: War Resisters in Prison.


The book is a bit of a time capsule, somewhat along the lines of Daniel Ellsberg’s recent book revealing the substance of the other half of the Pentagon Papers decades later. In fact, Hinke actually found this manuscript, which he had begun in 1966 and lost a couple of years later in the process of moving to Canada. So it’s a shame that the book proceeds chronologically through the 20th century and then breaks off, more or less, in the 1970s. But what has come since may be more familiar, and what is found here is of tremendous value.

Part of what the book illuminates is the role Canada has played for many decades as a haven for those fleeing all kinds of injustice, including military conscription, in the United States, but also in other countries, such as Russia.

Hinke was a leading peace activist in the United States in his youth in the youthful 1960s, and when he turned 18, he had over 2,000 people sign a statement that they had aided and abetted his refusal of the draft, an act carrying a penalty of 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. They all turned themselves in. Nobody was arrested. (Hinke was arrested belatedly in 1976, but pardoned along with everyone else the next January by President Jimmy Carter.)

The stories in this book are of the thousands upon thousands who have been punished for refusing to take part in mass murder — including people of all kinds of religious persuasions and atheists, but in particular members of the many Christian sects that follow the direction of the early Christians on such matters — or used to, unbeknownst to their current adherents.

I wonder what percentage — if it does even reach 1 percent — of U.S. students graduate high school or college having ever heard the stories of those who were hung by their wrists all day and night for refusing to take part in World War I, that glorious carnival of senseless slaughter of which we are now marking the centennial with uncomfortable silence.

I wonder how many know that some of the key leaders and activists in the early growth of the U.S. Civil Rights movement had been objectors to World War II who had successfully ended Jim Crow in prison cafeterias years before they boarded the Freedom Ride buses or sat at lunch counters.

I wonder how many know that members of the same religious sects and holders of the same conviction that murder is not justified by great volume were punished for their civil disobedience by and in Germany as in the United States.

I wonder how many realize that there was a major mainstream movement in the years after World War II in the United States to demand amnesty for those who had refused to take part in it — a movement which achieved its goal for many, but not for all.

I wonder if it’s widely known how many war resisters were harassed, beaten, tortured, confined in solitary, force fed when they refused to eat, and in some cases subjected to treatment that they clearly saw would and did kill them. I wonder who’s heard that some of them volunteered to be human guinea pigs in dangerous experiments that they hoped would help cure illnesses.

I wonder if people think Malcolm X ran across the Nation of Islam in prison just because of its general criminal nature, as opposed to the truth of the matter: the Nation of Islam was refusing to support war.

It’s worth reading the stories of individual conscientious objectors, and thanking them for their service. They come across these pages as some of the most admirable people you could imagine — perhaps more so. If significantly more people were to follow their example, the greatest possible improvement to the earth, the eradication of war, would be achieved.

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