Jeffrey Kovac, Refusing War, Affirming Peace

Jeffrey Kovac. Refusing War, Affirming Peace: A History of Civilian Public Service Camp #21 at Cascade Locks. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2009. Pp. 192.

During World War II, about 12,000 young men, in face of the military draft, availed themselves of the option to serve their country with “work of national importance” in non-military settings.

Part of the U.S. government’s purpose with what was known as the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program was to keep these conscientious objectors (COs) out of the public eye.  The government largely succeeded—and in the years since the history of this program has not received much attention.  Now that participants in the CPS program are passing from the scene, the living memory of the witness of World War II COs is fading fast.

However, those events had (and continue to have) importance beyond the small number of lives directly affected by them.  So, this book by Jeffrey Kovac, the first in-depth study to focus on just one particular CPS camp, deserves our attention and appreciation.  Kovac, an ethicist of science at the University of Tennessee, has a personal interest in this topic due to his own pacifist convictions and the role his CO father-in-law, Charles Davis, played in the story.  His research is thorough, and he tells the tale in a clear, straightforward manner.

The camp whose story Kovac tells was operated by the Church of the Brethren and located east of Portland, Oregon, in the Columbia gorge near the small town of Cascade Locks.  The main work that campers in this camp (“Camp No. 21”) performed was forestry work in the mountains south of Cascade Locks.

Kovac’s choice of this particular camp was a sound one.  This camp endured for the entirety of the war and ended up being the scene for more than its share of drama. A key step early on that greatly contributed to the success of the camp was the choice of Brethren pastor Mark Schrock as the camp director.  Kovac portrays Schrock as a crucial player in providing wise guidance for camp operations.

Kovac tells of several of the key events in the five-year history of the camp that gained outside attention.  The most famous CPSer was the actor Lew Ayres—who for the first several months of the War was stationed at Camp No. 21.  In facing the draft, Ayres had sought to serve as a non-combatant in the medical corps.  The military would not guarantee such a position, so Ayres then successfully sought CO status and joined CPS.  However, the publicity his situation gained helped persuade the government to change their policies.  When Ayres was guaranteed a position in the medical corps, he left CPS and served as a non-combatant in the military.  He remained close friends with Mark Schrock and always spoke favorably of his experience at Cascade Locks.

Camp No. 21 next made the news when a CPSer of Japanese extraction, George Yamada, was ordered to leave CPS and enter one of the concentration camps that had been established to imprison Japanese-Americans.  Yamada, with strong support from his fellow campers, refused these orders.  This actually turned out to be one of few direct acts of resistance to the relocation efforts, and ended somewhat successfully as Yamada was permitted to stay in CPS when he accepted transfer to a CPS camp away from the West Coast.

This controversy pitted Camp No. 21, including director Schrock, against the Selective Service—and exposed the ambiguous nature of the arrangement wherein the Peace Churches acted as agents of the warring government.

A third notable story that Kovac tells is of a confrontation between campers and the U.S. Forest Service when campers discerned that one of the projects the Forest Service was asking them to participate in would too directly contribute to the war effort.  The campers stood strong and ended up being excused from the project.

Kovac also tells of an ambitious, and only partly realized, effort at education for campers, called the “School of Pacifist Living.” When the program began, Brethren leader, Dan West, agreed to help it start.  While the school did cover some important ground, it was difficult to sustain.  Participants were asked to invest at least eight hours a week to intense discussion plus significant time in study on top of their 51-hour workweek.  West had to leave after the first segment of the school, and in time the program petered out.

Kovac, along with covering these various high points, also gives the reader a good sense of the challenges facing the program.  Probably the most difficult challenge stemmed simply from the interminable nature of the service.  CPSers were required to stay in CPS for the “duration of the war.”  In time, most of them sought other assignments, especially more challenging and exotic possibilities such as working in mental hospitals and fighting forest fires. Towards the end of the War, director Schrock left to return to his home and the last year or so of the life of Camp No. 21 drug by, ending more with a whimper than a bang.

Refusing War, Affirming Peace is an interesting and important book.  This close-grained look at the experience of World War II COs comes at an important time for present-day pacifists.  As we lose the living connection with those who witnessed to the ways of peace, Kovac has given us a perceptive reminder of their motivations and experiences.

It is mostly an asset that the book focuses directly on the story of Camp No. 21.  We do have a few other books that give us the broader picture of the CPS story—though most of these are long out of print and hard to find (the most thorough treatment is Mulford Q. Sibly and Philip E. Jacob, Conscription of Conscience [Cornell University Press, 1952]).  We have nothing else quite like Kovac’s treatment; it would be great if this book could stimulate some other similar studies.

I did wish for a bit more information in a few cases.  Several times Kovac gives us some tidbits about the future of some of the Camp No. 21 members (e.g., George Brown, who went on to serve 18 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives).  However, after learning a great deal about camp director Mark Schrock’s background and effective time of service at Camp No. 21, we don’t learn about his post-CPS life.

We also don’t learn much about the actual forestry work the CPSers did as part of their service.  Certainly, many (most?) campers found this work to be less than fully engaging and fulfilling, especially in comparison with their social transformative ideals.  Nonetheless, they spent most of their time and energy out in the woods performing “work of national importance.”  It would have been nice to learn a bit more about this work and what the CPSers did accomplish (or not) with it.

Jeffrey Kovac deserves our gratitude for completing this fascinating book, obviously a labor of love.  We now have an accessible portrait of one particular example of life in service of vital and costly ideals.  May it be widely read and serve as a stimulus for better understanding and applying those ideals.

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