War Resistance

Conscription during the World War brought forth from the depths of the masses a scattering of war resisters. Neither their presence nor their number was surprising. By the mathematical law of averages, the drag-net of conscription might well have brought to the surface an even greater number of queer fish; the unanimity of American behavior was an ominous tribute to the power of fear. But in this meagre scattering of individual objectors, conscription succeeded, by its very sweep, in creating the nucleus of an anti-toxin. Since the days of 1917 this faint fringe of war resistance has spread into an unexpected and formidable obstacle to war. It has penetrated, by a kind of spontaneous development, deeper and deeper into the inert mass of men. The principles underlying this direct action against war have become clearer, more convincing and inevitable. The course of history has justified them; and the rising tide of disillusionment, if not despair, has endowed them with a strength difficult to estimate.

From the example of a few individuals a movement has arisen. It is natural to ask what is the power of this movement, from where does it draw its strength, what will be its role in the next conflict? To these questions there can be no definite answer. Moreover, the questions do not reach the heart of the problem; they tend to confuse the meaning, or perhaps it would be better to say, the motivation of war resistance. For the principles of war resistance draw their strength not from the vain hope of abolishing war, but from the realization, in one sense or another, of a way of life. The significance of war resistance - and in the last analysis its strength as well - lies in its emphasis upon motive above result. Unlike war, it represents a means in harmony with its end. Thus it can never fail in the sense in which war must always fail: in achieving its ends. War resistance is a principle, not a device; this is the source of its triumph.

In war, the state reaches its highest moment of power, while the individual suffers a total eclipse. He is as nothing, that the state may be all. At the moment when he is asked to surrender his life in the absolutism of the state, he is deprived of his last vestige of choice. He chooses to die - under penalty of death! If in the last war the resister was spared the ultimate consequences of his actions, he was favored by good fortune. In the next war he may feel the full force of his challenge to the state, as the resisters of France and Germany suffered the ultimate penalty in the last holocaust. An increase in his numbers may only precipitate a more fearful and barbarous attitude toward his principles, and he may be decimated cold-bloodedly to ensure the unity of those who remain. Yet, as the burden of this butchery increases, it puts an unbearable strain of righteousness upon the state which no amount of propaganda, of invidious idealism, can at last absorb. Thus the state, built upon the confidence, the loyalty and faith of its subjects, fears the uncertain moment when its balance may be suddenly put in jeopardy by the strain of an unexpected opposition from within. For the real power of war resistance lies in its accessibility to all alike. And as war becomes more deadly, as the element of gamble, upon which alone it can successfully be foisted upon the public, is progressively lessened under the destructive powers of modern weapons, of poison gas, of lethal air attacks, of disease and pestilence, it is not unlikely that men may feel impelled to die bravely in opposition rather than weakly under compulsion. The certainty of death will release them from the bondage of their illusions, and in that hour they may forsake the state whose higher aggression demands their extinction.

Finally, let us remember that while the soldier fights merely the enemy’s armament, the war resister fights directly the ideas he opposes. His refusal to participate is in itself an explosive idea which must continue to spread, gathering momentum as it becomes acceptable to the minds of men. Both war and resistance to war are gambles from the point of view of immediate achievement, but the latter becomes ever less a gamble as the number who share its principles increases, while the former becomes at last an utter madness as the world plunges deeper into chaos. So long as men are willing to gamble their lives, they will win only death.

The hope of permanent international peace may be illusory. Whatever the roads that lead to this ultimate ideal, war resistance is the most direct and unequivocal. Its motives cannot be misinterpreted. But if we fail in our attempt to reach this goal, we cannot fail to establish the quality of our peace and the direction of our efforts. As the power of the state drifts inevitably toward death, whether in war or in peace, it devolves upon the individual and upon society to re-assert the fundamental right to life. In abandoning that right, men invite destruction; in war, demented by the lust of the state, they court extinction. Out of that madness must arise, clear and sharp, the calm courage of sanity. Let us refuse to die merely that the state may live.

From: Freedom (New York) January 1 1933..