You’ve often said that your true education began there – some was from all the reading you did but how illuminating was it rubbing shoulders with men from all walks of life? What age were you?
I was 23 in March 1942 when detention began for me, though the earlier men had been arrested and later sentenced from about July 1941 onwards. So there were about 300 men at Strathmore Detention Camp when I arrived there after my month in Mt Eden Prison. It was a lottery as to when you faced the music and I was lucky. But I was not a typical C.O. Most were older than their years, and more confident in stating why they were there, while my preference was to search for the appropriate words and write them down to reflect on rather than expound. I was a listener, not a talker, in most groups, and constantly surprised by what I heard and had not encountered before.
So I was hungry for books that could explain and give insightful analysis in so many problem areas, in religious and church matters and also in political and life questions. I signed up to take Education stage 1 by correspondence, but this form of study was denied to all C.O.s. So it was all hit and miss, according to what books I could borrow. Here again I was fortunate. My cobbers Roy and Jack were both determined to extend their thinking, so we read and studied and argued incessantly. It certainly extended my horizons.
Mt Eden prison library was hopeless – most of the books were 30 or 40 years old. Mt Crawford was a bit better with a very few decent books left behind – one was a study of the poet Robert Browning, perhaps left by a conscientious objector. There were only about 6 or 8 books worth reading, if that. Kind visitors loaned me good books – these were people who were involved in the peace movement, Methodists and Quakers. It was quite a demanding thing to be a prison visitor. People couldn’t obtain the petrol coupons to drive up that hill. Mostly they came on bikes…
To what extent did this experience shape you? What year did you leave detention?
I left Mt Crawford on 2nd April, 1946. The previous four years had probably not changed me as much as it might have done. My revulsion at the losses and demands and consequences of war was stronger than ever, and I still clung to my Christian commitment despite some doubts about the traditional institution of the Church which still saw war as justifiable. I felt that I understood the world a little better, but there were still a good many unanswered questions. I put them aside and was anxious to get back to meaningful work where I was a key player.
I became far less naïve, largely through reading and meditating on matters. After Strathmore I spent hardly any of the time with people who had a similar way of thinking to me. People there were in fairly close knit groups. The Fundamentalists believed the bible was literally the word of God - Thou Shalt Not Kill. It was a dutiful thing with the backing of their leaders… They probably regarded the Methodist group as very doubtful Christians. We didn’t believe the bible was without contradictions. They saw it much simpler terms. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were also very solid and dutiful; they wouldn’t salute the doctor or the superintendent in prison. They would be given three days bread and water again and again.
Can you describe the political and economic climate of NZ when you emerged?
There was a common feeling among most folk then. The war is over, let’s get rid of all those wartime restrictions and concentrate on personal success and build a new life that has meaning. So the wartime coalition Government was soon replaced by a conservative one, with little desire to think in terms of community and sharing for the sake of a common goal. The Baby Boomer generation was about to show up. I too was caught up in the general surge towards a new life.
Rosemary, my grandmother, met you then. What was her response to the choices you had made and your pacifism? Was she immediately sympathetic to your philosophy and beliefs?
Yes, very much so. After all, she had spent quite some time with her Uncle Gordon and Aunt Edith, both ardent pacifists whom she admired. But she did tell me, soon after we were engaged, that she would be a very angry and probably violent mother if her children were ever threatened. Abstract arguments failed to move her. Even so, I couldn’t ever imagine Rosemary with a revolver.
KM: You both seemed so politically and spiritually in tune. Did Grandma ever disagree strongly with any of your arguments about the issues of war, peace and the nature of Christianity?
No, there was never anything like that. At the same time Rosemary was my best critic, who checked my sermons and bits of writing for The Christian Pacifist in the 1950s and told me how to improve them. She was always honest. It was a good feeling when she praised what I wrote. Regular church attendance for Rosemary became an issue later, when energy was low and demands great. I should have listened more to her plea for more quality family time at home. There were small differences of emphasis on our faith but so much more that we agreed on. Regular times of meditation were important for Rosemary. Spoken prayer she was much less keen on and I also found that difficult. We were both sure however, that compassion and caring were the important things to concentrate on.
You’ve commented on the standard wisdom that suggests WW1 was a waste of lives and a mistake, whereas fighting in WW2 was a necessity. How do you think WW2 could have or should have been avoided peaceably…?
WW1 was simply a clash of competing Empires using traditional means to establish dominance; it was a horror. When it ended there was a strong desire for a world that would never allow this to happen again. But the seeds were there for another conflict, with no nation willing to give up significant power in the interests of peace. So it seemed that there was no other way to remedy gross injustice and humiliation except to trust to the traditional means once again. A successful war teaches all the wrong answers to many desperate people who have suffered. On both sides. The victors sought to maintain their dominance. Those who hoped to challenge that soon became convinced that only military power would decide the matter. The religious institutions and churches were too identified with their national allegiance and culture to press for a rejection of war and a commitment to justice. Only a more just world could dampen the fires that would result in war. Demagogic political leaders gained power by exploiting old prejudices and present hardship, and once again the military option was the only one that was ready to counter the challenge. Another horror followed. Consider some figures of deaths, military and civilian:
Military Military & Civilian
UK 383,000 450,000
US 416,000 418,000
Japan 2,120,000 2,600,000
Germany 5,530,000 6,630,000
France 217,600 567,600
Soviets 8,800,000 23,400,000
These figures for civilian losses are taken from the lower of the two estimates given by Wikipedia. They were certainly greater. So we have a total of about 34 million dead, of whom about 1,500,000 are from the victors of WW1 - US, UK and France. Was this the only way to deal with a crisis that was labelled Nazi aggression, but was actually the result of long avoidance of facing up to the demons of nationalism and racial prejudice that were present to some degree everywhere? These needed another form of attack that would have been costly, but not as costly and counter-productive as war. These demons are still with us and threatening more carnage.
You ask, what was the peaceful alternative to WW2. To be effective politically there needs to be a reordering of priorities. If this does not happen, the next crisis in international affairs is likely to find the world’s political leaders relying on the default setting of most Governments, which is to settle the argument by another contest in killing power. But recent wars suggest that though this may reinforce military dominance of the First World Powers at horrendous cost it does not bring a just peace. Many of the world’s poorest have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will only be after a long healing process that we will have a peace that can endure.
This was Part Three of Kyla's Questions.
Click here for Part One of Kyla's Questions
Click here for Part Two of Kyla's Questions
Click here for Part Four of Kyla's Questions