Written by Kristin Jack, this article was originally published on the Otago Daily Times website. Kristin and his family lived in Cambodia with Servants for many years, and he currently works with The Straight Up Trust (Rock Solid Youth Development Programmes) and is on the pastoral staff of a local church in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Archibald Baxter and other conscientious objectors were heroes and harbingers of a better way, writes Kristin Jack.
In a recent opinion piece (ODT, 10.7.17) Gerrard Eckhoff questioned whether it was appropriate for Archibald Baxter, father of one of New Zealand’s greatest poets James K. Baxter, to be called “a hero”.
Archibald Baxter was an Otago farmer (born on Saddle Hill) who initially did intend to enlist at the outbreak off World War 1. After much wrestling with his conscience and listening to speakers and debates, Baxter came to the conclusion “all war is wrong, futile, and destructive to both victor and vanquished”. His decision was based on both his political and spiritual ideals as a Christian socialist.
Mr Eckhoff suggests Baxter should be regarded as neither a hero nor as a man of conscience, arguing “a personal decision to opt out of a law you disagree with is a form of self-indulgence”.
Like most Kiwis, I have someone in my family who gave their life at Gallipoli, dying tragically young at 21, the only son of his Dunedin-based parents (my great-grandparents). And like most Kiwis, I honour his memory and his sacrifice.
But this emotional connection doesn’t prevent me from seeing Baxter and those who stood with him in opposing the war, as both heroes and harbingers of a better way.
That a small group had the courage to stand against the overwhelming social pressure of that time, and were willing to risk everything to stand up for what they believed in, I find inspiring. They were labelled cowards and traitors, were vilified and spat upon, dragged off to prison and abused. After months of imprisonment and harsh treatment in New Zealand, they were shipped to the Western front, where they were dragged out and tied to posts – crucifixion style initially – between the German and Allied battle lines while bullets and missiles and gas attacks whistled around them. They were beaten and berated by Commanding Officers (but not by the enlisted men, interestingly, who felt sympathy for their stand), who used every tool at their disposal to try and break their resistance and make them join the carnage of World War 1.
I wonder if Mr Eckhoff feels equally critical of German conscientious objectors who refused to go to war for their side in World War 1 (and those who refused to join the fuhrer’s war-machine in World War 2)? Was their stand also “self-indulgent”? They, too, were abused and tortured for their refusal to do their “patriotic duty”.
What if enough young men on both sides had been as willing as Baxter was, to be guided by his conscience, and had seen through their governments’ propaganda and misinformation, and had had the strength to resist the social pressure to fight and kill? Perhaps there would have been no World War 1, no brutal reparations, no depression, no Adolf Hitler, and no World War 2.
The English poet Wilfred Owen, who fought and witnessed first hand the horrors of that first “Great War”, the “War to End All Wars” (ha!), was sickened by what he saw. He responded by writing his most famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Its final line, is the full quotation which adorns so many war memorials (including the entrance to Otago Boys’ High School): “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”). Owen prefaces this quote by naming it as “the old lie”.
Mr Eckhoff asks: “How does civilisation under Archibald Baxter’s example negotiate with another Islamic State into the future?” This is buying into the lie every arms dealer and munitions manufacturer is desperate to spread: that violence can only be overcome by equal or greater violence. In fact, the empirical evidence is to the contrary.
Combining statistical analysis with case studies of specific countries and territories, researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan studied armed conflict, civil wars and attempts at regime change from 1900 to 2006. Their research convincingly showed that campaigns of non-violent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. And when successful, those non-violent resistance movements ushered in more durable democracies that were less likely to regress into further war down the track (and the way that World War 1 led directly to World War 2 is a good example of the failure of this principle).
War is a poor instrument for achieving peace. But it is an effective tool for perpetuating the conditions that lead to further war. The suffering, destruction and horror of war are mainly borne by the innocent and most vulnerable. The real winners in any war are the captains of industry who make the bombs and sell the oil. It is they who sing most loudly “how sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country”.