Sunday, 7 April 2013

Power, Prison and Pacifism

Arthur Palmer, Downtown Rotary, 12 March 2013
Thank you for inviting me to talk to you today.
Some background may help you to understand what came later.
You must forgive me for being born in Australia.  This was put right five years later when the family crossed the Tasman and settled on a 5-acre section on the Ruawai Flats just south of Dargaville. 100 hives of bees and some horticulture gave us a very modest income.  It was when I became a pupil at a big new consolidated school in 1929 that problems arose for me. I slowly realised that there were two communities where we lived. All around us were shocking hovels in which the Maori community lived on the other side of the road.
In fact it was a very racist society.  Maori, and Yugoslav immigrants from Dalmatia, were at or near the bottom, with very few exceptions, until the middle or late Thirties.  Clearly that was contrary to all the Christian talk and claims that our Methodist church was promoting.  So the Thirties were a period of great confusion and questioning for me.  Many people were struggling and some were challenging the current state of things. There were more questions than answers.
Our Methodist Church in NZ had a strong emphasis on social justice and peace. A number of our best known ministers were declared pacifists. One of these was Ormond Burton, a much decorated returned soldier, now regularly giving voice to a passionate condemnation of war and social deprivation.  He was by no means alone in that.  And there were groups and books that offered a new vision of life that appealed to me hugely.  By the time I was 18 I was convinced that war was a huge backward step in an international crisis. War was at odds with all that I believed.
All this sounded quite na├»ve and irresponsible to most folks.. How could we lie down in the face of Nazi aggression?  Must we keep our hands in our pockets in the face of evil?  No, I agree. That’s a poor model for anyone, Christian or not.  Those questions and many more had swirled around in my head for some time.  But I had come to see war itself as an unacceptable answer to a crisis. Not only would there be huge loss of life, the majority of it civilian, but the seeds of further conflict would remain embedded in both victors and defeated, just as after past wars.
 So in 1940 when I received a notice to report for army service I wrote to say that I was a conscientious objector. But the calls to report for a medical exam continued, until I was called to appear before an Appeal Board who were to decide whether I was sincere in rejecting violence and war.  The Board had power to recommend that you be assigned to the Army Medical Corps. So a good many accepted army uniform and discipline on that basis.  I knew several of those men, and they were fine chaps.
You may consider that I should have done that too.
Well, some of us felt strongly that we had a much more important job to do than simply avoid carrying a weapon.  Yes, Nazi doctrine was abhorrent, and we must fight it.  But the method of war was counter-productive and also abhorrent.  Unless we are willing to pay the price for a just world where ideas of racial superiority and competing empires are on the way out, we will have endless strife and pain. And surely we are being taught by current events that this still holds true.
Of course that was not convincing for many in 1939.  “We must turn back this tide of evil and then talk about a better world.”  That was the argument then.  That will also be the argument when next we stumble into a similar crisis. It’s the only real response that we have prepared our nation to make. So when a crisis like the one over nuclear missiles in Cuba erupts, what do we do? 50 years on we are realising again how close we were to a nuclear holocaust at that time. 
 I think we all want to find a way of being effective and actively involved in building a world where peaceful interaction is the normal state of things, not just in our own backyard but everywhere.  And one of the worst aspects of detention life was that we were being told that there was no place for us in NZ society unless we were in military uniform. If we refused that, we were usually labelled insincere by the Board.
So that led in due course to an appearance in the Dargaville Court where the magistrate took ten minutes to sentence me and two others to one month in Mt Eden Prison, to be followed by detention for the duration of the war. 
When I arrived at Strathmore Detention Camp in April 1942 after serving my month in Mt Eden, I found 300 men already there.  Some of them had been  there for several months, and a few  had also spent time before that in an Army Camp under discipline in the Guardhouse while the Govt worked out what to do with us. What they came up with in the end was a wartime expedient that tried to satisfy the Returned Soldiers Association on the one hand and the Churches and sympathisers on the other.  Strathmore Detention Camp was born out of that. It was about 30 miles south of Rotorua, roughly where Reporoa is now.
Life in Detention Camps or prisons was not too difficult for me to come to terms with. It was much harder for some whose families were unsympathetic.  The work was close to useless.  But that didn’t matter. It was felt that our society had to show a united front.  No one of military age should be allowed to opt out or have an easy ride. 
So we were told to just sit there and obey orders. And for most of us that was okay for a while. We had groups delving into all manner of things: Study groups under skilled tutors from our own ranks were learning First Aid, several languages, Esperanto, weight-lifting, Philosophy, Navigation, Economics, you-name-it. 
And of course groups such as Jehovah Witnesses and Evangelical fundamentalist Christians – lots of those – there was strong pressure from their leaders to hold fast to their beliefs and not buckle. But the Methodists, somewhere between 40 and 50 of us, were not happy to be silent on questions of peace and justice, which had never been excluded from our discussions in Bible class groups.  We had some straight talkers who made it clear to the Camp boss , when the pressure came, that we would continue as in the past. At the end of 1942 there were 30 COs serving their sentence in various prisons, either because they refused to work in the detention camps, or because they were considered to be detrimental to good order and discipline there. According to Govt records 15 of that 30 were Methodists.  I was one of those. I thought that this way of sidelining political and religious undesirables was a dangerous precedent and should be opposed. So prison was the alternative.
I was sorry to lose touch with so many stimulating friends. But our group of eight, after another appearance in court, were sent to Mt Eden for three months and then to Hautu Prison Camp near Turangi, where the daily work programme was not greatly different from that at Strathmore. And it could hardly be called Hard Labour. What can you give 40 men to do on one medium sized farm?
This is the unsettling thing about detention and prison.  Everyone needs to have a life and work that has meaning, that leads somewhere. And when that is lacking it can be very destructive.  Here we were doing work of no real value, designed to keep us out of sight, while others outside were fully engaged in keeping society functioning and the armed forces too. So there was some rethinking going on. What is the use of taking this stand? No one is taking any notice, the war continues, and we make no difference to anything. Some men chose the uniform.   And the three men that I knew who did that were men I respected.  My friend Jack was one of them.  After 2 years in detention he went off to Italy in late 1944. He was involved in some costly front-line fighting as the German forces retreated in Italy, and when he visited me in Mt Crawford Prison after he returned to NZ he had Sgt’s stripes.  After the visit a warder told me that he also had a Military Medal decoration.

All that is almost forgotten history now. Do we have to repeat it? New Empires and threats have arisen since the 1930s. Do you feel that the umbrella of US military might is our best hope for a peaceful and prosperous future? Having seen what that new Empire has done, and persuaded its allies to give assent to, I want to argue strongly for another road. Armaments and Empire-builders are very bad counsellors.  I long to see NZ give up reliance on that deceitful form of insurance. It has a terrible record.
Ed Hillary had a better idea.  Many Nepalese and Indians revere him for his example of simply giving opportunities to people who were hungry for access to education and health.  He wasn’t thinking of winning hearts and minds, just of simple human obligation to meet need.  Contrast that with uninvited foreign troops breaking down resistance and bringing token gifts, along with enforced conditions…  It clearly doesn’t work.  The most powerful nation in the world finds that it cannot prevail in one of the poorest areas of the world without the cost of unacceptable losses in money and men. Yet it seems clear that the decision-makers in most of the world have no plans to meet the next challenge in any different way.   Is violence part of our genetic make-up?   I don’t believe so. 
I was delighted to learn that Rotary is not males only in these days. I think that historians may well say that the major advance that humanity made in the 20th century was to slowly give women more power, so that now it is almost equal to men in legal terms in Western nations. We are still learning what a difference this makes in every aspect of social life.  Nurturing is the special skill that women are born with. Physical strength or power to threaten is not the basis of their authority.  That is not what holds the family together. It’s mutual concern.  Parents caring for children, children learning to respond and also care for parents and others.
So I still put my faith in those old maxims that were banished in wartime, and are still regarded in many places as idealistic foolishness.  Accumulating killing power is no basis for any good outcome. Don’t learn how to repay evil for evil. Love your enemies. If they are hungry, feed them. You do not need to fear us. We want to share this planet with you.
 I must conclude.  If we are serious about peace and justice, then empathy and compassion are the way of the future in a needy world. That’s the language we must learn. And there is real power in that. The action that follows from that has been proven to be more powerful than any military Defence Dept plan.  Yes, it may be dangerous at times. We took that for granted in wartime. Yes, it will demand sacrifice and hard work. We cannot be sentimental and easygoing on this. But instead of a bleak desert of lethal conflict it holds out great promise. It’s our job to make that a reality.  I believe that’s what we are here for. 

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