A Duty to Serve
Is it ethical for a government to mandate service during a time of war?
"We have to face the essential question... public law and private conscious, when they are in conflict, which shall a man obey?"
- Robert Lehman, 1941
While US intervention in WWI was less popular, WWII was largely accepted as “the good war,” a justifiable stand against evil, causing harsh criticism of WWII Conscientious Objection. Though COs were objecting to war, they still felt a duty to support the war effort. A growing pacifist movement during the interwar period, and accusations of limiting religious freedoms led the US Government to create alternative service for COs.
"Public Service in Lieu of Military Service," Swarthmore College, 2012.
CO’s duty to uphold their personal nonviolent conviction conflicted with their duty to serve their country. The government provided no meaningful way to support the war effort without going against CO’s morals, creating a conflict of ethics.
“Our friends and colleagues in other places were putting their lives on the line, and you know, we wanted to do the same.”
Sign in window near CPS Camp, American Friends Service Committee, 1942.
When the draft began in 1941, this alternative service allowed COs to register for non-combatant service. After registration, COs were placed in the 152 Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps where they were expected to do "work of national importance” as promised by the US Government. However, upon arrival many COs found the basic park and trail work to be far from that promise.
"We want to prepare ourselves to meet the needs of a barren post-war world. Instead, we are experimenting with grasses and trees."
COs working in the CPS Camps, The Civilian Public Service Story, 1943.
Through the Participants' Eyes
"[Some] thought conscientious objection was almost like being a traitor, but I was not objecting to my country as much as I was objecting to what my country was doing. In other words, my definition of patriotism included my refusal to kill."
"How much of an obligation do you think the citizens of the country have to a man who refuses to fight for his country when his country is in jeopardy and everything is at stake?"
"Why do people who were drafted go to fight wars, without escaping? Because there's a duty. It's the same kind of a thing, just a different battlefield. And from our point of view at the time, it was a battlefield consistent with what our conscience would tell us. But it was a battlefield. And battlefields are not supposed to be easy."
- Max Kampleman, Minnesota Starvation Experiment participant, 1993