Down In My Heart: Peace Witness In War Time, by William Stafford
This is an interesting book for a variety of reasons. If my father had been a literary man, I wonder what he would have said about his own time spent working for four years doing farm work instead of studying at what he viewed as God’s College in Big Sandy. Alas, my father was not a literary man and he was disinclined to talk about anything that made him look like a failure, and so there is no record of his own time as a conscientious objector during Vietnam. It is with this personal context, with objecting to military service in my blood despite my own profound interest in military history , that I read this very intriguing book. And although I find myself to be a somewhat different person than William Stafford in terms of my approach to conflict in general, I found this book to be a very intriguing and worthwhile (and short!) book to read and think it a good thing that it has been reprinted for reading by those who were not around when Stafford was writing about his own time as a Conscientious Objector during World War II.
In about 100 pages this book served as the master’s thesis for William Stafford, and it is one of the most enjoyable theses I have encountered in my reading. What makes this little book particularly striking is a variety of qualities, including its eyewitness perspective of the life of Conscientious Objectors during the Second World War and their variety of perspectives, its practical insight into what it takes to make peace and keep peace with others in difficult circumstances of danger and privation, and the insight the author provides into the divides between militant people who are willing to inflict violence upon Conscientious Objectors for disloyalty and treachery and those who oppose war in a violent and hostile way as become rather lamentably common during the Vietnam War era and those who, like the author, sought to oppose war in a peaceful manner, using their peaceful and gentle ways as a rebuke to those who loved conflict on all sides. The book is part poetry and part prose, and tells dramatic stories of gently facing down crazed Arkansas mobs and fighting fires and debating how best to oppose war and violence, and whether it was worthwhile to make oneself a martyr by more actively disloyal means or whether a quiet and determined resistance was better.
While this book is certainly not completely a book of poetry by Stafford, and while its precise genre is certainly difficult to pin down–it is part political manifesto of a gentle kind, part book of poetry, part memoir of interesting experiences–it is certainly a book that can be appreciated by a wide audience. In particular, I can see at least a few groups of people who would appreciate this book a great deal: fans of William Stafford’s poetry who want to know more about the man himself and his life, those who are morally opposed to war and find Stafford’s message of gentleness and peacefulness inspirational, and those who are students of World War II and who want an interesting picture of civilian life during the time. In all of these cases, as is often the case with Stafford’s writing in general, we see a strong and somewhat unusual opinion gently provided, one that provides a counterpoint to much of what we read about and see, and a worthwhile perspective to take into consideration as we ponder how we should live our lives. Stafford, in this book, shows people under pressure in what amounts to an internment camp seeking to live out their principles as they lament a world that has gone mad with hostility, and there is a real sense of poignancy in that.
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