Tuesday, April 8, 2008

John Abbott

John Abbott was opposed to WWI, WWII, and every other war. He was classified as a Conscientious Objector in WWII (which apparently was not his idea), and ordered to a camp with other CO's. But he refused to serve there, either, thinking that even the make work in the camp was supporting the war effort. He then got sent to prison. In Prison, they wanted him to work, and he refused again, so he was sent to solitary confinement, where he remained for most of the war.

In an interview with Studs Terkel, described in "The Good War": an Oral History of World War Two, he takes up the question of Hitler and the justification of war:

All wars are the same. In war, both sides are trying to kill each other over a "principle." And the principle "thou shalt not kill" got lost in the shuffle.
>What about Hitler?
What about Hitler? He was one person. They were all doing what Hitler said. What do all prisoners do? They do what the warden says. The only power Hitler had was the power the people gave him. I felt the whole world had gone absolutely mad, crazy mad. They were in love with war.
I like that last part, and it makes me wonder. Certainly Hitler had power, but he had power because many of the people did what he wanted them to do. He already had, pre-1933, the brown shirts agreeing with him, and using violence to get what he (they) wanted. Hitler by himself could do absolutely nothing. So when we focus on the leaders who get us into wars, we forget that they are not leaders until they have followers, we forget that there is always an option, that people let themselves be bullied, or else follow willingly. The pacifist refuses, either to be bullied, or to follow willingly. If someone kills him, it is the killer who does something wrong, but not the pacifist.

I'm not sure I agree with Abbott's view, but it certainly is something to think about.


jfinnell said...

I can't help but feel that absolute pacifism falls under the category of heroic. Certainly, Abbott personifies that definition: a person distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility and strength. By this definition, it is heroic to be an absolute pacifist.

However, heroic is a status many of us never attain. Heroes are heralded for their rarity. Exceptions don't make the rule, they simply exists as exceptions. Asking people to be heroes as the rule is a tough sell.

In addition, Abbott was actually put in a situation that put his ideology to the test. In the face of that adversity, he stuck to his beliefs.

However, a belief in absolute pacifism is rarely tested. Moreover, to test such an extreme view requires an extreme situation [an intruder with a gun pointed at your children's heads - you by your belief in absolute pacifism do nothing). I would think, practically, that it is a tough universal principle to follow. If you end up harming the intruder, I would be hard-pressed to call you unethical. As a matter of fact, I would even be hard-pressed to call you a hero.

jfinnell said...

Correction: As a matter of fact, I would even be hard-pressed to call you UNHEROIC

pesky submit button!

aev said...

in terms of blindly following hitler, i think questions of situational hazard and future promises should factor in somewhere - it might be overstating matters to say that people were bullied into following him willingly.

look at the U.S. now - a candidate like obama seems like a new hope for the future, and he has charisma. hitler did too. many people here are tired of iraq, tired of bush, and they want change - much like germany, post-WWI. if in the future it so happened that obama were elected and led the U.S. into mass genocide, would americans be at fault for being bullied into hope? i doubt that germans knew of hitler's darker motivations when he first came to power.

i am in no way saying that obama has ulterior motives, but am simply making the analogy that an atmosphere of hope can be exploited, and it doesn't necessarily mean that the people willingly allowed it.

f said...

There's something oddly selfish about John Abbott. On the face of it it seems heroic and humane; he won't kill. Yet his refusal to 'kill' 1) led to another person being put in his place, 2) if adopted in the US would have led to the deaths of millions more from atrocities at the hands of Nazi and Japanese.

Abbott also comments on how everyone was 'enjoying' the war. A read of several war memoirs like "With the Old Breed" shows something completely different; hell on earth for those soldiers and Marines involved.

He gets to feel good about himself due to the efforts and expense of others with his skin intact.

Anonymous said...

I knew John personally. He was a good kind man.

Anonymous said...

I knew John personally. He was a good kind man.

Anonymous said...

I knew John personally. He was a good kind man.

Bill Becker said...

I also knew John personally; met him in his later years at Emerson UU church in Canoga Park. To Anonymous above, my e-mail is ivanklives@earthlink.net. I'd be pleased to chat with you about John.

He was indeed a good man. At his level of pacifism, it is pointless to assess the right or wrong of it. As I said in a Sunday morning talk I gave once, his was a choice of being, not a means to an end. He simply chose not to be a killer.