Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Peter Brock's Essays on Conscientious Objection from the Radical Reformation to the Second World War. University of Toronto. 2006.

Nov 12, 2006 3:14 pm

Murray Polner: Review of Peter Brock's Essays on Conscientious Objection from the Radical Reformation to the Second World War. University of Toronto. 2006.


As the failed American war in Iraq drags on and the same people who dreamed it up are now promoting an attack against Iran, the question of reinstating the draft arises repeatedly in editorials, op eds, and the Internet. If Washington’s home front warriors are reckless enough to try forcing more young people onto some new battlefield then clearly tens of thousands will apply for CO status, not show up, or simply disappear. The outcome will most likely be a renewal of widespread social disruption. Not too many of our young are willing to fight and perhaps die in yet another worthless conflict instigated by today’s crop of bellicose theoreticians.

Many questions raised by the anti-war and anti-draft movements of the sixties remain unresolved. What to do when our nation primarily conscripts its less privileged young? Who goes: a President’s daughters, a prominent neoconservative’s sons or a waitresses’ kids? More essential questions remain: What, exactly, does a citizen owe his or her government? What shall a young man and his parents make of shibboleths like national honor and national interest? Does the state have a moral right to demand that a 20-year-old risk death or dismemberment, especially now since only a handful of pro-war Washington politicians and their young have ever served or will serve on active military duty?

Peter Brock, the preeminent historian of pacifism and conscientious objection and professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto offers insight and perspective. It takes courage and powerful beliefs to withstand the pressures and punishment that an all-powerful state can bring against potential draftees. A former British CO during WWII, Brock has spent his adult life scrupulously pursuing the subject. His earlier books (Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War and Twentieth Century Pacifism) have allowed others to examine why and how people refuse to kill when called upon to do so by their governments. Against The Draft carries the story to 1945.

From the French Revolutionary era into the latter half of the 19th Century, most European nations introduced conscription—prompting millions to flee their homelands, largely to the U.S., which would institute its own draft in the Civil War and later during WWI. In Britain, those who did not fight were assumed to be mad and sent to mental institutions, a practice which allowed the state “to rid itself” of dissidents. In Tsarist Russia, Tolstoyans, also known as Free Christians, followed the teachings and practices of the great writer and nonviolent resister who preached and taught nonviolence. Russia, Brock tell us, produced more war resisters in WWI than any nation save Britain because of its “rich tradition of sectarianism.” (It’s interesting to note that contemporary Russia is witnessing an extraordinary amount of draft resistance). When the Russian Civil War ended in 1921, Tolstoyans managed to survive for a number of years until the emergence of Stalinist terror, which severely punished any and all nonviolent dissidents. And during WWII, Germany and Japan were just as brutal to all those who refused to join their military crusades.

Against The Draft closes with the end of WWII. There is much more to be explored by historians, especially in the growing insistence by many that they are selective rather than absolute conscientious objectors, that is, they would have served in, say, the “Good War” but not in Vietnam or Iraq. In any event, conscientious objection needs to be accepted as a human right. Should that ever happen Peter Brock’s books would be an unerring guide.

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