Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ben Salmon: Working-Class Religious Conscientious Objector

I don't have this guy's stones but I definitely have to admit his courage AND fortitude. Having heard about him on Thom Hartmann's listerner blog, I did some quick research:
Ben Salmon (1889-1932) was a World War 1 conscientious objector who completed a lengthy critique of his Roman Catholic Church's Just War Doctrine while in prison.

Salmon was born and raised in a working-class Catholic family, and became an office clerk with the Colorado and Southern Railroad. Outraged by the Ludlow Massacre, he become more active in populist causes such as unionism and the single tax. When President Woodrow Wilson ordered a draft, Salmon was one of a small number of Americans to refuse to cooperate.

Salmon was arrested in January 1918 for refusing to complete a Selective Service questionnaire. While out on bail, he was re-arrested for refusing to report for induction. He was locked in guardhouse for refusing to wear uniform and work in the yard. Despite not having been inducted, he was court-martialed at Camp Dodge, Iowa on July 24, 1918, charged with desertion and with spreading propaganda. He was sentenced to death, but later re-sentenced to 25 years in prison at hard labor. After World War 1 ended, his imprisonment continued, so he took up a hunger strike "for liberty or death". The government claimed that his fast was a symptom of mental illness and sent him to a ward reserved for the "criminally insane" at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C.

While in custody, and despite having only a grade school education, Salmon wrote a lengthy and systematic critique of just war teaching, probably the first American Catholic to do to so.
The fledgling ACLU eventually took up his case, and the tide of public opinion, post-war, favored the release of conscientious objectors. Salmon was pardoned and released in 1920, and given a dishonorable discharge from the military service he had never joined.

Upon his release, Salmon led a quiet life with his family but his prison ordeal, which included beatings and force-feedings, had permanently damaged his health. He died of pneumonia in 1932.

Salmon cited his religious faith as the reason for his utter pacifism and refusal to cooperate in the business of war. In this he suffered initial opposition from his local church leaders and prison chaplins, who refused to administer to him the Sacraments, even in prison (one brave priest who relented and gave him communion was disciplined for this act!) Today, however, he has been cited as an inspiration for other religious pacifists, such as Father Daniel Berrigan.
I put the above into a little wikipedia biography and hope better scholars can clean it up. When you look at the details in the references, it's quite a ripping yarn.

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