Acts Of Conscience

FEATURE by Willard Manus

Prof. Steven J. Taylor has written a vast and comprehensive study of the conscientious objector movement in the USA. Although ACTS OF CONSCIENCE (Syracuse University Press) deals mainly with the impact a small group of WW II COs had on this country's mental institutions, Taylor pays considerable attention to the history of the Civilian Public Service, which was formed in the 1940s as an alternative to military duty. The CPS was, as Taylor writes, "an outgrowth of the efforts of the 'historical peace churches'--the Mennonites, Brethren and Friends or Quakers--to enable their members to act on their pacifist beliefs by conducting 'work of national importance under civilian direction.'"

Most of the twelve thousand COs assigned to the CPS were from the peace churches, but there were also Catholics, Jews, African- American Muslims and some secular objectors. Sent to camps that were scattered across the country, the conchies were supposed to do work of "national import," but most of them ended up doing mindless chores for the duration of the war--grading roads, clearing brush, fighting forest fires.

Some, though, were shipped to mental hospitals, not only to work as orderlies but to serve as human guinea pigs in medical experiments. These men were, as Taylor states, "infected with malaria, hepatitis, and pnuemonia; exposed to parasites and subjected to extreme temperatures, high and low altitudes, and various diets." The men suffered horribly and many of them objected to the way they were being treated; others, though, insisted that this was an honorable way for them to serve humanity.

Among those believers were men like Thomas Green, Paul Goering and Paul Comly French who not only fought the racial segregation in America's state hospitals but the inhuman conditions that prevailed there, where the so-called "feeble-minded and crazies" lived in filth and were regularly beaten, starved and locked up in solitary confinement.

"The young COs who exposed the abuses at the nation's institutions and went on to lead a national reform movement did not, in fact, make lasting changes in the care of people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities in America," concludes Taylor. "That is not the point of their story. The point is they tried to make a difference. Acts of conscience in the name of benefitting humanity are always good and never bad or even neutral. Acts of conscience are inherently worthy and deserving of praise. Those people who commit acts of conscience need to be remembered and honored."