Harper's Magazine, January 1945Report From a Conscientious ObjectorWilliam Fifield
We’re located in an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Elmira, New York. There are 165 CO’s in this camp, which is the Eastern reception center for Quaker-administered Civilian Public Service—the alternative service provided for men classified 4E (conscientious objector) in the draft.
The men here in camp now are quite young, as most of them are new draftees and thus likely to be eighteen-year-olds. They fall into three divisions: the men who object to war on the basis of the religious precepts of their church or of their personal interpretation of the Bible, all holding that they owe their allegiance to a higher law than that of the state; the humanitarians who object on the basis of Jesus’ philosophy of the brotherhood of man and the sacredness of human personality; and the so-called “political” objectors, the socialists, independent liberal thinkers, and so on, who subscribe to the ethic of cooperation as against coercion, but certainly don’t consider themselves religious in the conventional sense. This last group is small; the first group is the largest of the three.
This camp, though a Quaker camp, is only about one-third Quaker in membership. There are even fewer Quakers in the other Quaker- administered camps, though in the Mennonite and Brethren camps the ratio of men holding the faith of the administering church is much higher. In this camp the eleven Methodists are second numerically to the Quakers, and there are five Baptists, seven Congregationalists, eight Presbyterians, one Catholic, an Orthodox Jew, four Jehovah’s Witnesses, a follower of Father Divine, eight Christadelphians (the Christadelphian church is one hundred per cent pacifist; in fact a man is expelled from the church if he takes any other position)—and there’s a perfectly normal young fellow from New Jersey who sleeps on the cot beside me and who’s studying to become a Ramakrishna Hindu monk. About half the men are married, and a fifth are fathers.
The camp is the labor source for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service nursery, and we put in fifty-one hours a week of labor for them. Most of my work since I’ve been here has been in the big trees—climbing seventy- and eighty-foot pines and picking the cones for seed to be used in reforestation. I’ve also put in some long days on my hands and knees weeding seedling tree beds, a day latrine-digging, two days spreading manure in the rye fields, and have done other assorted jobs. Most of the men are engaged in this kind of work, only a small number being held in camp to make up the kitchen, maintenance, and clean-up crews.
During our work day—from 7:25 A.M. till 5:00 P.M.—we are under the supervision of government men, civilians. The rest of the time we are under camp government, with rules worked out by ourselves in keeping with the general camp plan laid down by the Quakers and Selective Service. We are allowed two overnight leaves per month, which enable a man to leave camp after work Saturday evening and stay away till Sunday midnight; and we earn thirty days’ furlough a year at the rate of two and a half days a month.
Conscientious objectors are not paid and receive no dependency allotment. This has worked a severe hardship on men with families. We wear no uniforms and provide our own clothes. When able to pay it, we are responsible for our maintenance of approximately thirty dollars a month. We have no accident or death compensation; this has caused quite an issue, as a large number of men have been injured, some seriously, and several killed. Some of the men in Civilian Public Service do very hazardous work—notably those in the smoke-jumper unit in the West who parachute into forest fire areas, and the human guinea pigs who submit themselves to various diseases and disabilities. One of the most dangerous—and significant—of the experiments in which these men have taken part has begun this winter in Minneapolis, where a group of volunteers is being systematically starved for six months until their condition parallels that of the most severe war sufferers abroad; they will then be restored through the use of various rehabilitation diets. The data obtained will indicate the most effective ways of feeding debilitated peoples after the war.
There is a very considerable disagreement about pacifism here in camp, though there are no men who could reasonably be suspected of being draft dodgers. The careful FBI investigations—of well over ten thousand cases to date—have seen to that. The disagreement is largely between the humanitarians, who feel called upon to make their pacifism work in the practical world, and the fundamentalists, who are content to let God’s word stand at face value without the need of human modification. The humanitarians believe that only through the spreading of the gospel of love as against the doctrine of force can permanent peace be obtained and a better world achieved. The fundamentalists—many of whom believe in the Biblical War of Armageddon which according to their interpretation of the Scriptures will bring the end of the world—feel that they must adhere to the injunctions of God as they understand them, even if by this they accomplish no positive good on this earth.
The men vary as widely in type as they do in belief. Here we have fewer farmers than in other camps because of the area from which we are drawn, but the majority of the nation’s CO’s are farmers. This is because two of the historic peace churches—the Mennonites and Brethren—are so generally rural. The farmers are inclined to be fundamentalists, or at least conventionally religious—but along with them we have the philosophical and “political” objectors. These fellows are from the cities, and are inclined to be highly educated. Exclusive of farmers, there are more teachers in Civilian Public Service than men of any other profession. One-sixth of all the men in this camp are teachers—enough to staff a good-sized college. We have a number of men with doctor’s degrees, seven scientists, eight history professors, a Broadway actor, the author of a standard textbook on atrocity propaganda, Massine’s understudy from the Ballet Theatre, a casket salesman, a relief worker caught by the Germans in France and released from internment in Baden-Baden only last March, three fashion designers, four radio announcers, and to round things off a weight-guesser from a carnival.