Bluffton presentations highlight the past, present and future of conscientious objection
Standing alone on the stage of Yoder Recital Hall, actor Michael Mears, shaking with fear, began to scribble a letter on an imaginary piece of paper. Reciting the words of James Brightmore, a British World War I conscientious objector, Mears revealed the horrors Brightmore was subjected to for refusing military duty. Punishments included solitary confinement in a muddy pit that echoed the horrors of a foxhole.
During the one-person play, “This Evil Thing,” Mears shed light on the courage it took to be a pacifist in WWI. The event was one of three on the campus of Bluffton University led by officials from the Center on Conscience & War in Washington, D.C. Jake Short, a 2010 Bluffton graduate and administrative and outreach coordinator at CCW, brought the events to Bluffton in an effort to reach a broad audience.
“Bluffton’s motto is: ‘The Truth Makes Free.’ When students have all of the knowledge available, they have the freedom to choose the best option for them,” said Short. “Conscientious objection is all about personal beliefs.”
Short, Mears and Bill Galvin, a Vietnam-era conscientious objector and counseling coordinator at CCW, also shared a history of conscientious objection during a Forum presentation titled “100 Years of Conscientious Objection to War: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties from World War I through Today.”
The presentation highlighted the mistreatment of conscientious objectors including Joseph and Michael Hofer, Hutterite brothers who were sent to Alcatraz for their beliefs and who later died at Fort Leavenworth.
Galvin even shared his experience of being denied conscientious objector status by his local draft board during the Vietnam War, despite having what he thought was a clear and straight-forward application.
“They seemed to know every verse in the Bible to justify war,” explained Galvin.
When asked what Galvin would do concerning being denied he said, “I guess I’ll go to jail.” Instead he “lucked out with the lottery.”
With the draft currently not in use, the CCW mainly works with current military members, who have decided to become conscientious objectors, receive honorable discharges.
However, there are proactive steps people can take in the case the draft is reinstated. Short shared tips for creating a conscientious objector file during a third presentation. This file will help conscientious objectors build their case for CO status. The file can include items such as a statement of beliefs and letters of affirmation from church and community leaders.
While he grew up Mennonite and his grandfather was a CO, Short admits he didn’t know many details about the laws pertaining to conscientious objection until he spent a year of service after graduation with CCW through Brethren Volunteer Service. He’s stayed connected to the non-profit since.
“In the years after September 11and with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a time when we didn’t know what was going to happen, and I feel like people weren’t concerned enough about the draft. We didn’t know if it was going to come back,” said Short.
With continued instability in the world, several Bluffton students participated in Short’s workshop, which was sponsored by campus ministries and PEACE club.
“Being raised Mennonite and through my studies, I believe in non-violence,” said Blake Hershberger a senior from Canton, Ohio. “While I registered and filled out the selective service card, I wrote a paragraph saying that I reject this, but I haven’t taken the steps to put things in writing, so I was curious about what other steps I can take.”
Daniel Dancer, a freshman from Delphos, Ohio, also attended the session.
“I found it really interesting because I’ve always been very opposed to war, and I grew up in a very conservative community, so I was definitely in the minority,” explained Dancer. “I just wanted to learn more especially with the possibility of women being added to the draft.”
While the draft has not been in use in the United States since the Vietnam War, the presentations reminded students that military conscription still exists. Promotional posters for the play highlighted these words, “Even today, in many parts of the world, COs are still punished, imprisoned and even face a death sentence, simply because of their beliefs.”