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In Good Conscience

Posted Oct 02 2008 6:16pm

Being a person of conscience is never easy, especially during wartime when governments begin mass conscription to bolster their armed forces. Whenever drafting begins, the problems involved in dealing with conscientious objectors who, by virtue of their religious or political beliefs, refuse to serve in the military inevitably arise. Conscientious objectors (also known as COs or "conchies") in many countries were often allowed to serve in non-combatant roles (although there were frequent cases of COs being placed in military prisons where they experienced ill-treatment and abuse). When the United States entered World War II in 1941, there remained the problem of what to do with the estimated 72,000 COs who filed for exemption from conscription (approximately 0.15% of all draftees). Many of these COs belonged to pacifist religions (including Mennonites, Quakers and Seventh-Day Adventists) and it was these churches that spearheaded a new solution. The Civilian Public Service (CPS) was established in 1941 to allow COs to serve their country in various non-combat support roles. For the years that the CPS was in operation, 12,000 COs were interned in camps across the United States and Puerto Rico. During their internment, the COs worked in tasks that included soil conservation, forest fighting, medical research (as test subjects), and social services. Beyond a small allowance (the churches provided most of the funding for the CPS), COs received no compensation for their work, no medical insurance and no 400pxcps31dorm   death or disability benefits despite their often hazardous duties. Life in the CPS camps was harsh as the COs lived in barracks and worked long hours with little recreation. Their families often faced severe hardships, due to the lack of financial support as well as the frequent harassment that they faced from their communities (COs were widely reviled for not "doing their part" for the war effort). While the churches were nominally in charge of the CPS program, they had little actual control over the day-to-day operations or conditions under which COs were expected to live. The American Civil Liberties Association actively denounced the conditions in the CPS camps (they viewed the COS as being more poorly treated than German prisoners) but the program continued until 1947 (well after the end of the war).

One area where COs were widely used was in working with psychiatric patients. The war effort had led to a critical shortage of hospital workers (through lack of psychiatrists as well as orderlies who had left for better paying jobs) and, by the end of 1945, 2000 CPS workers were working in psychiatric institutions across twenty U.S. states. Many of these workers reported being appalled by the poor conditions under which mental patients were expected to live. The use of physical restraints and punishments (including beatings) to control patients was common and CPS workers were instrumental in developing non-violent alternatives. The CPS also helped publicize the widespread abuses that they found in psychiatric hospitals across the United States (this was long before psychiatric medications were introduced) and paved the way for crucial reforms. With the assistance of Eleanor Roosevelt, COs helped launch what would later become the National Mental Health Foundation which, in turn, merged with other agencies in 1950 to become the National Association of Mental Health (now Mental Health America ).

Long after their term of service with the CPS ended, former COs would continue their activist work for mental health reform as well as post-war relief efforts across Europe. It was because of this relief work that the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize was presented to Quaker organizations in the U.S. and U.K.(largely staffed by COs). Despite later wars, the CPS was never reformed in the U.S. and conscientious objectors continue to be imprisoned in countries around the world.

COs served in other areas as well, including as subjects in dangerous medical experiments. More on that next week....

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