Contagious Courage: Conscientious Objection Around the World

What might an international version of this book look like? Maybe, just maybe, it should focus on where this all began.

When people ask me about my next book project, I say a lot of things — my MS memoir, a biography of the long-overlooked Lewis Douglass or Charles G. Bolte. But I also mention an international parallel to Ain’t Marching, one that might include the likes of Breaking the Silence or the generations of Russian soldier-dissent. The latter prospect has been tickled by a current project, co-authoring a chapter for a book for the Textbook Industrial Complex, The Oxford Handbook of Peace History, that focuses on conscientious objection against war and its relationship to organizing and movements.

Conscientious objection to war: simultaneously an individual response and a challenge to authority. Throughout history it has also sparked organizing and even movements.

In any history of peace activism, where does conscientious objection fit in? And how far back does/should that history go?

For the Handbook my brief us to cover not just the U,S. but Western Europe, the latter because the religions that nurtured CO were bred there. Those particular religious traditions are Christian: “By disarming Peter Christ ungirt every soldier,” wrote Tertullian in the first century.  Until Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and declared his wars “Wars for Christ”, that principle animated resisters. Marinus of Caesarea refused a military award after converting in 262 A.D., and Maximilianus of Tebessa in 295 A.D. refused armor that he wouldn’t be a soldier: “I cannot make war, for I am a Christian.”

Those two were executed almost immediately , before they could try to spread the practice; but in years thereafter, even after Constantine, some other early Christians created movements, such as Martin of Tours who in 336, mid-battle, told his Caesar “Christi ego miles sum, pugnare mihi non licet (I am a soldier of Christ, it is not lawful for me to fight).

Tours went on to found one of Europe’s great monasteries at Ligure; for the next few centuries, such monasteries were starchly anti-militarist, filled with veterans like Columba of Iona and Benedict of Ariane and young men from military families—Bruno of Cologne, Gilbert del Sepringham, Norbert of Xantem—who refused to enlist or be conscripted. Martin of Tours went on to become the patron saint of military chaplains and an inspiration to many including Iraq vet Logan Isaac, whose memoir Reborn on the Fourth of July describes his path from Army infantryman to CO.

I met Isaac when I was just starting to work on I Ain’t Marching Anymore, after which he has devoted his life to similarly questing Christian soldiers.  To Isaac, those saints – St. Maximilian, Martin of Tours, even St. Francis of Assisi who abandoned an actual Crusade in 1205–are political inspirations and anchors of the movement he joined and works to build. 

All those Italian stories brought to my mind Pietro Pinna, who went from 1948 draft resister to fulcrum of his country’s peace movement. His thinking on this has shaped movements worldwide: “Conscientious objection is a focal point of antimilitarist action,” he wrote, which “operates as a major focus of debate and mobilization.” Pinna called for “the extension of the concept of ‘conscientious objection’ in any other sectors of social life.”  

I think I’ve been trying to do something like that that since at least 1980, when members of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors visited my college campus. (President Carter had just announced the resumption of draft registration, a cold-war response to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis.)  That same organization hired me 15 years later to edit their magazine, and the rest is history. Answering the GI Rights Hotline, I ended up with talking to servicemembers about their prospects for a discharge based on conscientious objection. That discharge is one of the hardest to secure, and requires enlistees to become autobiographers, contending with what they believe and how those beliefs evolved and infuse their lives and writing about it with both passion and a legal rigor that stands up to scrutiny. 

No definition of CO that I’ve read includes the impulse for such self-narration, but you can see its beginnings in Pietro Pinna’s 1948 letter to Aldo Capitini, the father of Italian nonviolence:

I am a person unknown to you. My name is Pietro Pinna and I was born in Liguria twenty-one years ago, but since my childhood I have lived in Ferrara. I am currently at the Complementary Official Student School of Lecce, called on conscription since September of the current year. […]

It would be my current greatest desire to desert military life, out of conscientious objection. I would be truly grateful if you would tell me something about it, especially as regards the punishments I would face, both now and in the event of war. I understand very well that no indecision should hold me back, faced with the conviction of the sanctity of the idea, it will be selfish considerations that lead me to write them (the thought of my mother, perhaps, to which I am indebted for so many things), but it seems to me that the most I expect from you is the comfort of your word.

Capitini’s iconic war-resistance action in 1933, when he refused membership in the Fascist Party loyal to Benito Mussolini, occurred after years of studying the success of the movement founded by Mohandas Gandhi in India; by the time Pinna contacted him he’d survived Fascist imprisonment after mobilizing stealth nonviolent blockades parallel to the armed Partisan warfare. Both knew that more than half a million soldiers had spent the end of World War II imprisoned by Nazis for refusing to enlist in pro-Hitler puppet armies, after Italy ejected Mussolini and left the Axis in 1943. 

In 1947, Pinna had initially agreed to enlist in the new Italian Army for the usual reasons: his family was impoverished after the long war. But he’d spent the war studying the example of the Italian Gandhi as well as his Indian prototype. Being surrounded by weapons and expected to drill once in training, that promise to his parents felt in conflict with his spiritual self, his commitment to nonviolence, he wrote later in his memoir Objector

Pinna wasn’t the first CO to write to Capitini, but he was the one most famously associated with him in the years to follow. They worked together for years, founding the influential journal Nonviolent Action and national Peace Walks across the country. After Capitini died in 1968, Pinna founded the Perugia Center for Nonviolence, based in the former home of Saint Francis; his example, and the national anti-militarist movement of which the Center was a part, helped sustain the national pressure for the abolition of conscription. The latter didn’t happen till 2005, after Italian troops were deployed twice in Iraq and once to Afghanistan and Italian cities exploded in protest—including a still-living Pinna and hundreds of conscientious objectors both inside and outside the military.

A year after conscription was abolished, Italian troops left Iraq; Pinna’s vision of a CO that changed everything must have felt real.

That vision is palpable to Israeli conscientious objectors, I think. 19-year-old Hillel Rabin, just released from military prison, “was in a cell with a Border Police officer, a woman who served at a checkpoint, two women who refused to serve as surveillance monitoring operators, one woman who had attacked her commander, and a military police officer who went AWOL. We were six in total. The first question they asked me was ‘why are you here?’ I told them, hesitantly, ‘I am a conscientious objector.’ They immediately began asking all the well-known questions: ‘Are you a leftist? Are you pro-Palestinian?’ During my first sentence I learned how to live as a conscientious objector. Every time there was a new group of girls or I went back [to prison], the subject would stir controversy and a great deal of discussion.” Thus, are movements built: Each one to teach one, a friend just told me. Or as coined by the controversial Julian Assange: Courage is contagious.

Rabin’s voice has been amplified by the Israeli NGO Mesarvot, whose main aim is ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They also helped Roman Levin, a Ukrainian-born soldier who served as a truck driver before resisting: “When I was recruited, I thought the army serves the interests of Israeli citizens, but after serving in the territories I understood that the army’s actions don’t serve my interests or the interests of workers in Israel, especially after the continued murder of demonstrators at the Gaza fence. The Nation-State Law [the 2018 national declaration that the country is “a Jewish nation”] strengthened that understanding to me. I came to the conclusion that you can’t hold both ends of the rope – to resist occupation, racism and the capitalist order, while serving in a military that preserves these things.” Refusal to engage in violence on behalf of the state has often sparked deep social change, or at least signaled it. That’s my whole task in this chapter.

It’s also the mission of War Resisters International, founded in 1921; its parent org, War Resisters League, has been in existence since World War I, when this practice of military resistance first got its name.

The practice, and the impulses behind it, are of course much older. If I wanted to write its history, it would have to track with the evolution of militaries itself, what labor historian Erik-John Zurcher calls “Fighting For a Living.” Zurcher’s book by that name usefully takes us from ancient armies through feudalism and mercenary armies to the rise of nationalism and conscription to the present day, whose military-industrial complex includes the rise of a military caste, some of whom are contractors (back to feudalist mercenaries?). The only reason I can conceive of doing so is the other imperial force, which is religion: that’s how CO stories got preserved at all. And literature, of course – e.g., Tolstoy, who ran a one-man GI Rights Hotline in the 1890s and jump-started Gandhi.

Peace history is such a young discipline; don’t know if there are young scholars searching soldier-letters for any indication of what we now call “moral injury.” The “peace churches,” starting with the Anabaptists, have tended to encourage the privatization of CO – as an individual religious right, not a national movement—unless you’re talking what we used to call “liberation theology,” and we’re back to the Xian Industrial Complex. All of which tells me my next book needs to be much narrower, perhaps focused on the 20th and 21st centuries. But tracing this thread for the chapter will still teach me a lot.

Meanwhile, I also need to see this movie, one recommended long ago by my friends at the Center on Conscience and War. Another saint, whose bravery happened a decade after Capotini’s in the face of Hitler.

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

2 thoughts on “Contagious Courage: Conscientious Objection Around the World

  1. Great article, and so much to discuss! I can talk quite a lot about the history of conscientious objection in Australia if you’re interested.

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