Remembering another army of heroes

May 25, 2015 by

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I felt an incredible sadness as I counted the names, 259 in all, on the front page of yesterday’s local paper. They represent all of the young men from our area who were sacrificed in the prime of their life in our past five United States wars, from 1914 to the present.

The God who deeply loves the whole world must surely want people everywhere to courageously say “no” to this travesty. Certainly followers of nonviolent Jesus should affirm that no matter what the cause, the cure should never include inflicting bloodshed and carnage on fellow human beings. Yet so-called Christians on all sides have continued to defend war and take part in it, and those who object have often suffered as a result.

On this Memorial Day, and near the 101st anniversary of the start of World War I, we should take time to remember the sacrifices of anti-war heroes who believed, like the Christians of the first century, that war was wrong and refused to take part in it.

World War I, which indirectly or directly spawned many of the wars that followed, is seen by many historians as one of the least defensible and most regrettable waste of life and resources of all time. I remember Barbara Tuchman’s well-researched book, The Guns Of August, having a huge impact on me when I read it over 50 years ago. How could human beings be so shortsighted, so blinded by their own nationalistic aims, as to engage in the kind of insanity that resulted in the deaths of more than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians?

Looking back, it seems unimaginable, but at the time, U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, who declared that the war was “the purest mission that a nation ever espoused,” believed that those who failed to see it as a sign of the “upward pattern of democratic civilization” must be mentally and morally defective.

There were no special provisions made for conscientious objectors in the U.S. 100 years ago, and many young Mennonite, Hutterite, Quaker and Church of the Brethren men were either sent to detention camps, federal prisons or forced to show up at boot camp against their convictions. When they refused to put on a uniform and drill with the rest of the recruits they had to endure unbelievable hardships.

According to James Juhnke’s book, Vision, Doctrine, War — Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930, many of those who followed their conscience against obeying military orders were “beaten with hoses and fists, scrubbed down with stiff brushes in cold showers, forced to stand at attention for hours in the hot sun, reduced to bread and water diets in guardhouses, threatened with various forms of execution, and mistreated in other ways.”

Lloy Kniss, a native of Johnstown, Pa., who retired in the Harrisonburg, Va., area, writes in his memoir, I Couldn’t Fight: The Story of a C.O. in World War I (Herald Press, 1971), about how he and others were physically assaulted and had their lives threatened repeatedly at the military camp where they were stationed.

I also recently read the dramatic story of the tragic deaths of Hutterite objectors Michael and Joseph Hofer in the July 2014 issue of Plough magazine. They had been hung by their wrists at Alcatraz with two other objectors and died soon afterwards at the Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas.

Here’s another link for more on World War I conscientious objectors.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.

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  • J.M. Branum

    The story of Johannes Klaasen is worth remembering.


    John (Johannes) Klaasen was a member of the Herold Mennonite Church near Bessie, Oklahoma. He was drafted in World War I, but refused to fight or put on a uniform. No provision existed at this time for an exemption for conscientious objectors, so Klaasen was one of several Mennonite men who were given 25 year prison sentences.

    John was then sent from Camp Travis, Texas to Fort Leavenworth to complete his sentence. He died not long after from influenza but he never wore the uniform.

    When his body was taken back to Oklahoma, the military had dressed him a uniform and draped the coffin with a flag but his father took the flag off the coffin and took the uniform off of his son saying “In death you will not wear it either.” Not long after that members of the community in Bessie threatened the father and others of the Mennonite church with lynching, so many members of the church (including Klaasen’s family) packed up and moved to Manitoba.

    Unfortunately most Oklahoma Mennonites have forgotten this story and many have sold out the Mennonite peace position, some going as far as encouraging their young men and women to serve in the military and even having flags in the church sanctuary. I can’t help but think that Johannes Klaasen would be disappointed to see how quick some are to abandon the nonviolent way of Jesus.

    • Harvey Yoder

      Thanks so much for sharing this. I had never heard this moving story before.