This commentary aired on KPR on November 1, 2017.  

The city of Lawrence is holding a Veterans Day Parade on November 11. It will be the first to specifically honor veterans since 1968, the height of the divisive Vietnam War.

For the most part, Vietnam veterans returning from southeast Asia were not welcomed home with parades or ceremonies. Instead, they were often greeted with disdain and public antipathy.

It was wrong to mistreat the soldiers — folks who risked everything to simply do what their country called them to do. Perhaps for many, this parade can help heal old wounds.

But there is another group of Americans whose service to their country will never be honored by parades or celebrations: conscientious objectors.

Those who oppose violence and war have long played a significant role in America.

In fact, a traveling exhibit organized by the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, is helping to tell their story. “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War” was recently in Kansas City.

As a conscientious objector myself, I think it’s important to recognize the contributions and sacrifices that America’s pacifists have made to this country.

Kansas has played a significant role in the history of conscientious objection in America. Beginning in 1865, the Kansas militia law allowed conscientious objectors to free themselves from any obligation to bear arms by paying $30 to benefit public education.

But things began to change in World War I.

After being drafted, nearly 4,000 conscientious objectors -– most from churches with long histories of pacifism — were sent to military camps like Camp Funston at Fort Riley. There, they had to convince officials of their sincerely-held beliefs. Some were imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth where they faced abuse and torture… even death. Records show 12 conscientious objectors died at Fort Leavenworth from 1916 through 1919.

During World War II, more than 72,000 men applied for conscientious objector status. In the end, more than 6,000 of them went to prison for refusing to cooperate with Selective Service. Not all were sent to prison. About 12,000 conscientious objectors worked in the Civilian Public Service, a program designed to accommodate their status by having them do “work of national importance.” Some of this work involved farming, fighting wildfires, building bridges and caring for the sick.

Hutchinson, Kansas, native and acclaimed poet William Stafford was himself a conscientious objector and served in the Civilian Public Service. In his book, “Down in My Heart, Peace Witness in War Times,” Stafford reported that those supervisors in those camps disparaged pacifists’ efforts and even expressed a desire to kill them all.

During the Vietnam War, 170,000 men received deferments as conscientious objectors; some 300,000 applicants were denied deferment and nearly 600,000 illegally evaded the draft.
America has benefitted from the efforts of those who refused take up arms. In all its wars, conscientious objectors have served on battlefields as medics. They have worked in non-combatant service on the home front. And, it was, after all, conscientious objectors in the 1960s and 70s – and others involved in the anti-war movement – that turned much of the nation against the Vietnam War… and helped bring it to an end.

On Veteran’s Day, as we honor those who served in uniform, I hope we’ll also recall and honor the sacrifices of those Americans who resisted the drums of war. There are honorable Americans with strongly-held beliefs on both sides of any conflict.  Both deserve our respect.

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