As the generals of Europe sent their youth to die in the gaping furnace-mouths of Verdun and the Somme, a young man named Alvin York roamed the hills of Tennessee unaware that his government was making plans to send him to those same muddy fields. When the U.S. military drafted York in 1917, he refused to go to war and filed for status as a Conscientious Objector (CO). His application was unsuccessful. Draft boards, like military recruiters today, had trouble meeting their quotas and found any excuse to send men to Europe; CO review boards helped make that effort easier. His application for CO status refused, despite his protestations, he went to fight in the First World War and returned home to a hero’s welcome. York’s commonly known exploits as a “reluctant hero” were eventually immortalized by Gary Cooper, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor in the 1941 box-office hit Sergeant York.
When put in its proper context, York’s life story helps shed light on the current Iraq War and the role that COs play in American society. If we learn about and demystify the dominant image of York, he can help us understand a man like Army Sergeant Kevin Benderman. In late 2004, Benderman applied for CO status and soon after refused to re-deploy with his unit to Iraq (www.bendermandefense.org). York’s story, like Benderman’s, communicates that a GI’s choice—and right—to seek the status of a CO needs to be understood, protected, and supported.
The comparisons between Benderman and York are appropriate. At the most basic level, York, like Benderman, eventually became an Army sergeant. Both are Southerners, raised in Tennessee. Both men received commendation for their military service. According to his diary, York began his life’s story when “I got my first notice in 1917.” Similarly, Benderman’s now public story begins shortly after he received his notice for re-deployment to Iraq.
Surprisingly, given the attention that Benderman’s struggle has received from the Associated Press, MSNBC, and CNN, among other major media outlets, no journalist has made comparisons between Benderman and the historical York. However, in an email post to the conservative website, lucianne.com, a U.S. Marine stated, “One conscientious objector of long ago Sgt. Alvin York of Pall Mall, Tennessee personally single handed, killed 25 Germans, six of them with his pistol and captured 132 Germans. He could have avoided the war in Europe but he chose to do his duty and was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. All the while with his strong belief in his GOD and his Country.” This soldier continued, “This johnny come lately [Benderman] c.o. is a coward and that sums it up! I wouldn’t want to have to depend on that man at my back in battle.” The Marine signed his email “Semper Fi.”
The difference between York and Benderman is that in the case of York, an elder in the fundamentalist Church of Christ in Christian Union, CO review boards refused to recognize his church as an official Christian sect. Therefore, they denied his CO application, on which he wrote “Dont [sic] want to fight,” at both the local and state level. If the review boards had accepted York, he most certainly would not have gone to Europe. He felt that as “long as the records remain I will be officially known as a conscientious objector. I was.” Furthermore, a local board could presumably not deny an application today for the same reasons. According to the U.S. Selective Service System, “Beliefs which qualify a registrant for CO status may be religious in nature, but don’t have to be.”
In Benderman’s case, he received firm opposition from within the military before his application came up for review. Benderman’s chaplain refused to meet with him to discuss his CO application and berated Benderman through email and again during hearings in early February. Given his difficulties finding help from within the military since December, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that a man of integrity such as Benderman would take the steps that he took by refusing to re-deploy. Because of his actions, Benderman went to a hearing in early February for two counts of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Specifically, he faces charges for desertion with the intent to avoid hazardous duty and missing movement by design. He could spend five years in prison if found guilty of the first charge and up to two years for the second charge. The U.S. Army has announced that Benderman’s court martial trial for desertion charges will begin May 11.
Benderman also had a hearing in early February regarding his application for CO status. His thoughts about his refusal to re-deploy and his efforts to obtain CO status, found in opinions titled “A Matter of Conscience,” “Right to Life,” and “Why I Refused a 2nd Deployment to Iraq,” can be located on the internet. He has come to realize that war is morally unacceptable. “It’s a waste of human energy; it’s a waste of human potential; it’s also a waste of natural resources,” he told the Minnesota Public Radio news program, “Weekend America.” “The larger and higher goal would be to figure out how to not have a war anymore,” noted Benderman.
That he thought a great deal about war before coming to his conclusion is without question; he has more than ten years of distinguished service in the military. Benderman is also married and has children. We can speculate that with a more service in the armed forces, additional education, and a family to support, York might have made the same decision as Benderman—resist, regardless of the repercussions. York would have joined more than 21,000 men during World War I who accepted “noncombatant service.” Nonetheless, it is more than likely that the military coerced, if not induced, York into going to war. As Meirion and Susie Harris tell us in The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918, “Throughout the summer of 1917, the draft boards worked hard to meet their quotas.”
According to Harris and Harris, “Large numbers of pacifists, from small, unrecognized sects (‘nut societies,’ in the phrase of one examiner) had their claims for exemption rejected.... Men who converted to a religion since the beginning of the war had difficulty convincing draft board of their sincerity. Some invariably failed, such as [York and] the members of the International Bible Students’ Association (later the Jehovah’s Witnesses), whose founder, Charles Taze Russell, was in jail for selling ‘miracle wheat’ with magical powers.”
We should consider that York never wanted to be memorialized for that day in 1918 when he and nine other soldiers helped to kill 25 German soldiers and capture 132. (By his count, York was responsible for killing nine of the 25 Germans.) The tragedy, however, is that York, despite his objections, actually went against the teachings of his church and that he was bullied into going to Europe. More troubling still is that the U.S. government and citizens since have used York’s life as propaganda, all the while falsely claiming that he single-handedly killed or captured such-and-such number of German soldiers. Meanwhile, only two U.S. soldiers who survived that day were ever acknowledged, and their recognition came nearly a decade later, in 1927, despite the fact that at seven other men in his platoon helped him that day to capture German soldiers and guard prisoners.
According to one biographer, York continued throughout his life to oppose war. “In 1935 York delivered a sermon entitled, ‘Christian Cure for Strife,’ which argued that the vigilant Christian should ignore current world events, because Europe stood poised on the brink of another war and Americans should avoid it at all costs. Recalling his career as a soldier, York renounced America’s involvement in World War I. In order to achieve world peace, Americans must first secure it at home beginning with their own families. The church and the home, therefore, represented the cornerstones of world peace.”
Although York stood for and believed in the U.S. and God, his country failed him. As noted by mainstream historians such as David McCullough, the U.S. took away York’s youthful innocence. The U.S. military also removed Benderman’s innocence by helping to lift the fog from his eyes. That Benderman would resist deployment after ten years of devoted military service, during a moment in U.S. history when we currently have a volunteer army, is rare. Nevertheless, Benderman is not the only soldier resisting. Hundreds of soldiers have refused to return for re-deployment, many of them after confronting unforgivable “stop-loss” measures. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Between 5,000 and 6,000 U.S. military personnel are listed as deserters by the armed services, typically meaning they have been absent without leave from their unit for more than 30 days.” Furthermore, military recruiters today are not meeting their quotas. As noted in the New York Times, five out of six units of the military reserve fell short of their recruiting goals for the first four months of this fiscal year. The Washington Post noted that fewer enlistees are in the pipeline and the Army is rushing incoming recruits into training as quickly as possible. Indeed, these are the stories that the media must tell.
It is important that the citizens of the U.S. know and understand that dissent inside and outside the military is real, it is growing—even among loyal Bush supporters—and it presumably will not stop as long as U.S. soldiers die in Iraq. The media is even making an allowance for dissenting voices. As a result, not only are big names such as Michael Moore appearing frequently on television, but individuals such as Benderman are also receiving attention.
The real lessons that Benderman and York tell us, however, are that history is always more complex and messy than we make it out to be. It is important that teachers and representatives of the media de-mystify the dominant representation of men like York and make their lives more complicated. Indeed, citizens who make history, like York and Benderman, and other soldiers such as Smedley Butler, are often more compelling than the stick figures and straw men we think they are. To be sure, they are heroes. However, they come to realize that war is wrong and that for too long they were pawns to corporate interests and governmental leaders.
U.S. soldiers themselves are now telling us the truth about war. Recently, Marine Staff Sgt. Russell Slay, just before he was killed in Iraq, wrote a letter to his five-year-old son, Walker. “Be studious, stay in school and stay away from the military,” he succinctly admonished. In addition, on February 15 the U.S. military released Camilo Mejia, the country’s first CO to the current Iraq war, after he served nine months in prison for his refusal to redeploy to Iraq while he was home on furlough in 2003. Mejia has finally regained his humanity. He joins a long and growing list of conscientious objectors to U.S.-led wars who have begun to fight for peace and justice. We should find hope in the stories and words of Alvin York, Kevin Benderman, Russell Slay, Camilo Mejia, and a rising number of Conscientious Objectors who oppose war. Indeed, they are the voice of conscience. Peace now!
Joel T. Helfrich is an activist, teacher, and a PhD candidate
in history at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at: