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(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 268 pp.
This absorbing book offers a study, in miniature, of the perils of civic obligation amid the extremities of war. A professor at Goshen College, a Mennonite institution in Indiana, Stoltzfus tells the story of four devoutly pacifist farmers from South Dakota who, after being conscripted into the US army in 1918, were punished severely for disobeying military orders. After refusing to wear uniforms or line up with other draftees, the quartet spent weeks chained up in rat-infested solitary cells, lacking bedding, light, or any nourishment besides bread and water. Two of them died from treatable illnesses before the US government got around to relaxing the rules on what duties conscientious objectors could be forced to perform. Only a few hundred Americans were subjected to a similar ordeal during World War I. Most were, like the Hutterites, members of Anabaptist sects, whose creed forbade participation in any military at any time. A few, like Evan Thomas (brother of Norman, later the leader of the Socialist Party), followed the dictates of a more secular conscience and objected primarily to taking part in this particular conflict, which, they argued, had no moral justification. [End Page 332] Stoltzfus’s well-crafted narrative raises the larger, vital question of how modern states should balance the need for obedience to law with a sensitivity to the religious and ethical beliefs of an ever more pluralist population. A full century after the Great War, this problem continues to puzzle and plague lawmakers, judges, and ordinary citizens, whose ideologies and theologies have little or nothing in common with those of the Hutterite quartet, one of whose ministers asked a government official, “Is it necessary to torture people to find out [their] religion?”
Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and coeditor of Dissent, is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation; Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era; The Populist Persuasion; and A Godly Hero: The Life of Williams Jenning Bryan. He is currently writing War against War: The Rise, Defeat, and Legacy of the American Peace Movement, 1914 – 1918.