“Ain’t no such thing as a just war,” Ben Salmon, WWI resister

by Kathy Kelly, Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

Several days a week, Laurie Hasbrook arrives at the Voices office here in Chicago. She often takes off her bicycle helmet, unpins her pant leg, settles into an office chair and then leans back to give us an update on family and neighborhood news. Laurie’s two youngest sons are teenagers, and because they are black teenagers in Chicago they are at risk of being assaulted and killed simply for being young black men. Laurie has deep empathy for families trapped in war zones. She also firmly believes in silencing all guns.

Lately, we’ve been learning about the extraordinary determination shown by Ben Salmon, a conscientious objector during World War I who went to prison rather than enlist in the U.S. military. Salmon is buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Carmel Cemetery, on the outskirts of Chicago.

In June, 2017, a small group organized by “Friends of Franz and Ben” gathered at Salmon’s gravesite to commemorate his life.

Mark Scibilla Carver and Jack Gilroy had driven to Chicago from Upstate NY, carrying with them a life size icon bearing an image of Salmon, standing alone in what appeared to be desert sands, wearing a prison-issue uniform that bore his official prison number. Next to the icon was a tall, bare, wooden cross. Rev. Bernie Survil, who organized the vigil at Salmon’s grave, implanted a vigil candle in the ground next to the icon. Salmon’s grand-niece had come from Moab, Utah, to represent the Salmon family. Facing our group, she said that her family deeply admired Salmon’s refusal to cooperate with war. She acknowledged that he had been imprisoned, threatened with execution, sent for a psychiatric evaluation, sentenced to 25 years in prison, a sentence which was eventually commuted, and unable to return to his home in Denver for fear of being killed by antagonists. Charlotte Mates expressed her own determination to try and follow in his footsteps, believing we all have a personal responsibility not to cooperate with wars.

Bernie Survil invited anyone in the circle to step forward with a reflection. Mike Bremer, a carpenter who has spent three months in prison for conscientious objection to nuclear weapons, pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and stepped forward to read from an article by Rev. John Dear, written several years ago, in which Dear notes that Ben Salmon made his brave stance before the world had ever heard of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, or Mohandas Gandhi. There was no Catholic Worker, no Pax Christi, and no War Resisters League to support him. He acted alone, and yet he remains connected to a vast network of people who recognize his courage and will continue telling his story to future generations…

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