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Conscientious Objector or Not?

Sam Willner Collection
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I’m Kip Wedel from North Newton, Kansas.

Edith Wharton's 1923 novel A Son at the Front is not among her classics, so not being a regular Wharton reader, I didn't know much about it going in. Early in the novel, when her protagonist, John Campton, made dismissive comments about a war that, at that point, seemed imminent, I thought I might be reading an anti-war novel or even a defense of conscientious objection.

But A Son at the Front isn't like that. Campton was not a conscientious objector. In fact, like so many Wharton characters, he wasn't all that conscientious about anything. To him, the war was a gigantic personal inconvenience. First, it took his son, George, from his side, and he didn't like that. Then it forced him to deal with his terrified ex-wife (George's mother) and her oh-so-bourgeois second husband. Then it started plucking away his friends, whom he missed even when they weren't getting killed. To those left in Paris, or at least to those in the wealthy expatriate circles that John knew, the war was either something distant from which to hold oneself aloof or once that became impossible, something to contribute to in fashionable ways like making speeches about German atrocities or raising funds for displaced refugees.

Let's compare John and his friends to the real people who opposed World War I on principled grounds. Conscientious objectors were barely tolerated. In the United States, wartime federal legislation recognized that conscientious objection could exist, but it approached with skepticism anyone who claimed it referred to them. In effect, it required them to pass two tests. First, it required that their objection be based on religious grounds and that the individual in question belonged to what the government called a "well-recognized sect or organization whose creed or principles" opposed war categorically. Members of the historic peace churches like the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren were most likely to pass this first test, but members of other churches had a harder time of it and those who opposed the war on secular philosophical grounds were regarded as having no argument at all. Likewise, those who did not reject war categorically but simply opposed Woodrow Wilson's policies -- in other words, who didn't oppose all war but did oppose this war -- were not regarded as having a conscientious objection.

Even when someone passed this first test, there remained a second. A would-be conscientious objector also had to convince a civilian Court of Inquiry that his beliefs were sincere. The limitations the government placed on conscientious objection, the fact that some of those grounds had to with a person's group membership rather personal beliefs, and the questionable assumption that the seriousness of an individual's convictions could be measured by a panel of strangers drew attention to the importance of individual civil liberties in wartime. It's not an accident that organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and what eventually became the American Civil Liberties Union arose in an effort to defend the opponents of World War I.

I suspect the grumbling, tenuousness, and even selfishness with which the men and women of A Son at the Front approached the war reflected the attitudes of the wealthy expatriates Wharton knew. They may even have reflected some of her views. On the one hand, they eventually recognized the war as the human tragedy it was, but on the other hand, they loved France and its cultural presumptions so much they couldn't extricate themselves from its martial spirit. Few people could, and that itself was part of the war's tragedy.

NOTE – Drawing Caption: 

Of the twenty-four million men who registered for the draft more than 64,000 claimed Conscientious Objector (CO) status; 56,830 of these claims were validated by local draft boards, and roughly 20,800 of those men were called up for military service. Either through coercion or persuasion, approximately 80 percent of the 20,800 eventually went to war. Most of the remaining 20 percent served in noncombat roles, and a devoted 1,500 would refuse any sort of service altogether. Four hundred and fifty individuals were court-martialed and sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Pictured in Russian-born Maurice Becker's drawing is conscientious objector W. Oral James speaking on behalf of striking prisoners at Fort Leavenworth to Commandant Colonel Sedgwick Rice. Rice brought the strikers' requests to the War Department in early 1919.