Wednesday, May 23, 2018

“This Evil Thing” drama enacted Sun., April 15 at Iowa Mennonite School, organized by Just Peace Outreach Group (JPOG) and Center on Conscience and War (CCW)

By Verna Zook

On Sunday, April 15, 2018, actor and playwright Michael Mears explored the courage it took to be a pacifist in World War I in the United Kingdom in a dramatic presentation entitled "This Evil Thing."
Governments called it "Conscription" and "the Draft" . . .Conscientious Objectors called it "This Evil Thing!"

With military conscription still in force in many countries today, and prisoners of conscience still languishing in jails, the questions posed by "This Evil Thing" are as relevant and urgent as they were 100 years ago.
            Following are notes from the Michael Mears presentation taken by Verna Zook, lightly edited by Roger Farmer.  Thanks Verna!!
            In January 1916 when Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith of Great Britain signed the Military Service Act, “this evil thing” was the expression used by conscientious objectors (COs) to describe military conscription for men ages 18 to 40 in the United Kingdom.  It is also the title of a one act drama, written and performed by British playwright Michael Mears at Iowa Mennonite School’s Celebration Hall on the evening of April 15, 2018.  The presentation was organized by the Just Peace Outreach Group (JPOG) in cooperation with the Center on Conscience and War (CCW).  Facilities and staff were provided by Iowa Mennonite School.
            Michael Mears entitled his presentation "This Evil Thing" and tells the stories of several COs and what they endured at the hands of the military authorities when they were conscripted during World War I.  Of the more than 18,000 CO's in the United Kingdom, 6,000 served varying prison sentences.  Only 200 were given absolute exemption.
            Using a set of wooden boxes of varying size and several other simple props over the space of 75 minutes, Michael took the audience of about 130 from a watery earthen pit to the halls of Parliament in London, to the battlefields of France, as he assumed the roles of more than ten different characters.   Verbatim testimonies of COs and those who supported them were woven into the dialogue.  The despair of a man confined to a pit in the ground, the abuse of military commanders, the speeches of politicians, and the thoughts of famous philosophers were all dramatized by Michael Mears.  A sound track in the background accompanied the drama and heightened the poignancy of particular moments.  Michael’s stellar performance was both heart-wrenching and inspiring, as he made the various characters come alive with brilliance and amazing dexterity.
            This year, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I along with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.  Although World War I was touted as “the war to end all wars”, it was sadly not to be.  In fact, historians widely acknowledge that the harsh conditions set in the Treaty of Versailles, enacted on June 28, 1919, and meant to “punish” Germany, provided a fertile seed bed for the rise of Hitler and the subsequent events of World War II.  Additionally, US President Woodrow Wilson’s failure to persuade the United States to join his dream of a “league of nations” only added fuel to the fire.
            Today’s issues of war and peace are more complex than ever.  Yet the presence of conscientious objectors among us testifies to the conviction that “war is illogical” – a statement Michael Mears wrote in bold capitals on the outside of his pencil case as a teenager, and continues to believe.  Today in the USA, convictions against participation in war are not tested, as they once were when the military draft was enforced.  However, Registration for a potential draft to prepare for war is mandatory for men when they turn eighteen, and currently there is no provision to register as a conscientious objector.
            Maria Santelli, Executive Director of the Center on Conscience & War (CCW), based in Washington, DC was also present to represent CCW and answer questions.  Today, CCW continues to extend and defend the rights of COs to war, largely with members of the US military who experience a crisis of conscience and seek discharge.  Maria reported that many of the requests come during basic training, when the reality of preparing for war hits, including the attempt to alter one’s moral compass against taking the life of another human being.  Others come to the conviction after deployment.  Today’s practice of drone warfare adds to the complexity of the issue, as the killing is “sanitized” by remote control.  Applying for CO status is not an easy road; the process takes six to nine months, during which time the person is still a member of the military.  Currently, CCW receives up to 100 requests a year.
            The range of how far to take conscientious objection to war varied in World War I, as demonstrated in the drama.  For some, taking a non-combatant role in the military was acceptable.  For others, even tasks like peeling potatoes or hauling rocks to the site of a proposed military road was a contribution to the war effort, and thus resisted.  Such non-compliance was often harshly punished.  Even after the war ended, COs experienced difficulty in finding employment and being accepted in society.
            The reasons for resisting war, according to “This Evil Thing”, also ranged widely.  Some COs were moved by their religious convictions, or were members of groups that opposed war as a matter of long-standing doctrine.  Others objected on purely humanitarian grounds; still others, such as Bertrand Russell, claimed no religious affiliation but were philosophically opposed.
            As JPOG “members” – we don’t have a membership list – we are clear in our convictions against war because we believe that Jesus in his teachings, life and death demonstrated another way, the Way of Peace.  However, we can respect other reasons why people might be conscientiously opposed to war.  After all, if my house is burning, I just need help and don’t care a wit about what motivates the firefighters and neighbors who come to assist.  The United States has been at war now for too many years – estimates vary, causing immense suffering and untold misery in many places, all in the name of “national security” and other such euphemisms.  There must be another way.  Maybe it’s time to listen to the conscientious objectors.

Verna Zook is officially "retired", but keeps busy with volunteer work and church involvement, as well as her role as farm wife to husband Donald.  They are parents of four adult children and grandparents to two.  In recent years, she’s become more interested in how current issues of peace and social justice intersect with the Biblical mandate to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God", especially as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.  Her congregation, East Union Mennonite, Kalona, Iowa, is one of several that support JPOG (Just Peace Outreach Group) by hosting them among other things.