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Peace Academy Reflection

Peace Academy Reflection

Tory Tevis

I would like to begin my reflection on the Sarajevo Peace Academy by first stating how difficult it was to settle on a topic to write about.  All the themes, ideas and people we discussed with regard to non-violence and peace activism were inspiring, eye-opening, and exciting.  Our instructor, Dr. Brian Phillips, was a reminder of how powerful the combination of enthusiasm and knowledge can be.  To be working with and listening to the individuals who made up or class was a privilege.  As a foreigner and also one who is young and inexperienced, it was enlightening to be part of such a knowledgeable group of people from this region.  In fact, I was a little intimidated by my lack of experience when it came to contributing to discussions; I felt I could generally benefit more from listening than talking.  Some of the topics covered were new to me, and those which were familiar were given new depth and meaning.  It is actually on two subjects which are an integral part of my own country's (the United States) history that I would now like to reflect upon:  Martin Luther King, Jr. and American World War II Conscientious Objectors.  Comparing and contrasting the presentation of these two subjects in the mainstream narrative of American history to the lessons of the Peace Academy is a revealing exercise.  It highlights key ideas which are useful for those who already consider themselves activists, but might also inspire others to become activists.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is held up as an inspirational figure in American history.  There is a holiday to commemorate him every January.  His story is used to invoke ideas of social change- Barack Obama did so by delivering his acceptance speech as the American Democratic Presidential Nominee on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  This general symbolism though is what King has primarily been simplified to provide, rather than a more comprehensive recollection of both King and the Civil Rights Movement of which he was a part.

One major flaw in the history lessons of American schools is the idea that King and the Civil Rights Movement fully achieved their goal of racial equality.  But looking at college enrollment, salaries, prison populations and other socio-economic statistics comparing black and white Americans today tells a different story.  King and the Movement believed in action and should still serve as reminders and inspiration for further action today.  But because they are now used to support the narrative of success, they can often have the opposite effect and allow people to believe that no further action is needed on the issue of racial equality.  The lessons of the Peace Academy very clearly spoke against this idea of complacency.  King and the Movement were placed firmly back in the realm of symbols for concrete and tireless work towards a cause in which one believes.  This is how not only activists, but American society as a whole should remember him.

It must also be remembered and emphasized that King was part of a movement of many, and that he was made its leader.  He did not catalyze the entire group from scratch.  This reflects the importance of having a large supportive and united network working for a cause.  Without the help and ideas of many it is doubtful King would be remembered as he is today.  The importance of strength in numbers is not stressed nearly as much as the importance of a great leader often is.   However, a large group provides support and friendship which are particularly essential tools for activists.

Another aspect of the Civil Rights Movement which our class really brought into focus was the amount of thought and ingenuity that went into their actions, demonstrations and boycotts.  Andrew Young reports that King often said, "Look, normal people do not challenge the law, you got to be creatively maladjusted.  We need people who will trouble the waters."  This "creative maladjustment" contributed immensely to the success of the Movement and the amount of attention they received.  King and his supporters were extremely inventive in the means they used to get publicity for the social injustice that was accepted at the time.  Drawing from Gandhi, they pioneered techniques which activists have continued to use, working to startle those who accept the status quo out of complicit beliefs.

The final aspect of King's ideology which the Peace Academy emphasized, but American history often does not, was the importance of non-violence.  It is not completely erased from mainstream history, but it is only mentioned fleetingly or to contrast the subsequent Black Panther movement of Malcolm X.  King's pacifism is given so little attention because it is not a popular concept in the world today.  Violence is largely seen as a legitimate and fair technique for overcoming one's enemies.  Instead King said, once again drawing on the ideas of Gandhi, "We will meet your physical force with soul force.  We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws.  We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer."  Violence was never to be met with violence, even arising out of self-defense.  This is a concept many do not understand the power of and instead see a refusal to physically fight back as weak.  In American politics today this is particularly evident, as the current administration chooses to continuously use strong arm tactics and increase military spending.  Perhaps their repeated failures and increasing alienation of the rest of the world will serve to illustrate for many the ultimate value of King's non-violent action.

It can never be said though that King is not an integral part of the narrative of United States history.  In contrast, American World War II Conscientious Objectors (COs) are excluded more or less completely.  World War II is remembered as a just war which was fought by the Allied powers for a just cause.  Because of this Americans who were against the United States' involvement have been erased from mainstream history.  Even as King has grown in legacy and legend, the stories of WWII COs have receded further and further into the past.  A few of them were recorded in the documentary film The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, which we watched and discussed in class.

40,000 Americans chose not to fight in WWII.  Many became COs and either entered alternative forms of service or went to prison because their belief that war is fundamentally wrong would not allow them to contribute to the war effort in any way.    The stories the men in the film shared offered an amazing look at what they were able to accomplish for their society even as they refused to ascribe to its beliefs.

The one disappointing element of the documentary was that it only briefly mentioned the existence of COGs, Conscientious Objector Girls, who also filled important roles.  It is particularly amazing that women would choose to make such a stand at a time when they were such disempowered members of society.  The film was meant to be telling the story of subalterns, and yet it missed the opportunity to tell the story of these women.

Despite this oversight, the narratives of the men that were shared were incredible.  It is remarkable that they made so many positive changes in society while refusing to engage in what those around them considered "right" and that the impact they had is largely forgotten because of what they stood for.  Their accomplishments range from contributing to the Civilian Public Service, racially integrating prison systems, reforming mental hospitals and volunteering themselves for medical experimentation.

They received the open disgust and hatred of those around them.  CO Adrian Wilson tells a story of a man trying to run him over on the highway once he learned Wilson was a CO.  Beyond this they were even faced with criticism with from their own families and friends who could not understand their decisions.  For activists today it is crucial to remember that one might not receive the support of either even their closest relatives, but this does not mean they cannot make a difference.

The tasks those engaging in alternative service sometimes put their lives at risk as they strove to prove that their refusal to engage in violence against others did not make them cowards.  Being human guinea pigs to test the effects of combat conditions on the body was a particularly harrowing assignment some agreed to take on.  To combine this with the scorn they were already receiving from society reflects the quantity of determination they needed to maintain a stance for non-violence.

An overall lesson that American WWII COs taught though was productivity and positive action could come from going against a cause that was and is still popular.  Even if history does not vindicate you, as it has for King in many ways, there is always value in peace and non-violent action.  And just as the non-violent element of King's message which is often lost, it makes sense that the entire movement of WWII COs has been historically overlooked due to a continuing lack of popularity.

Analyzing the Civil Rights Movement and the stories of American WWII COs offers only a small portion of the ideas the Peace Academy has left me to consider.  These two examples were ones I could place in the context of my own country's history, and reflect upon their value beyond what is commonly remembered (or forgotten).  Drawing from what our class ultimately learned about the history of peace activism though, it is clear that lessons of peace and non-violence should be taught broadly, not only among activists.  Non-violent action is crucial for everyone, and no one benefits when history is rewritten to gloss over its importance.