The Good War And Those Who Refused To Fight It


REVIEW by Willard Manus

In case you missed it when it played on PBS television two years ago, THE GOOD WAR AND THOSE WHO REFUSED TO FIGHT IT is now available from Independent Television Video Services.
The 1-hour documentary is a compelling and thoughtful portrait of American conscientious objectors who refused to fight in WW II. Produced, directed and written by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Tejada-Flores (a Vietnam-era "conchie"), THE GOOD WAR tackles the always-controversial and explosive issue of what to do about those whose moral and/or religious scruples make them incapable of taking up arms against another man.

In wartime this issue becomes the ultimate test of democracy. Should individuals be allowed to opt out of a war, no matter how worthy it might seem, or should they be punished for their refusal to shoulder arms? THE GOOD WAR tackles these questions head on by interviewing several men who went against the tide during WW II, the most justifiable war of the 20th century.

"There's no question that Hitler was a terrible problem for us," said Steve Carey, a Quaker who refused to fight. A fellow war resister, Carlos Cortez, explained his stance thusly: "Look, if you guaranteed me a shot at Hitler, you wouldn't have to draft me. But to shoot at another draftee, one who I don't even know, one that I have nothing against, no, the heck with that."

Considered cowards and unpatriotic, the conchies were offered alternative service during WW II. Many were sent to government work camps, where they did backbreaking labor for no pay or benefits (including the GI Bill). To prove their courage, many of them volunteered for highly dangerous duty, such as fire-fighting or serving as medical guinea pigs. Others became orderlies in Federal mental institutions where patients were routinely starved, beaten and humiliated. The bravery and militancy of the conchies were instrumental in the ultimate reform of these snake pits.

The most famous C.O. of WW II was Hollywood actor Lew Ayres, whose films were banned when he refused to be drafted as a combat soldier. One of 25,000 other Americans who served as unarmed medics in the armed forces, Ayres was able to salvage his career after the war ended and return to acting.

The C.O. story has largely been lost to history in the half century since WW II ended, but with the release of THE GOOD WAR an important part of our past has been reanimated again.

ITVS recently announced its Winter/Spring season of INDEPENDENT LENS, a series hosted by Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon. Nine American and international documentaries and features will be aired by PBS on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Among the films scheduled are A HARD STRAIGHT by Goro Topshima (about the experience of doing time and trying to go straight) and THUNDER IN GUYANA by Suzanne Wasserman, which looks at Janet Rosenberg Jagan, the first American-born woman to lead a nation.

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