Re: A Soldier Shunned

The Winnipeg Free Press published an article today on the phenomenon of Mennonite soldiers and WWII.

Over 40% of eligible Canadian Mennonites enlisted in the Armed Forces during WWII. The varying reactions this provoked at home, the activity of COs during and after the war, and the long-term results of this mass enlistment on the Canadian Mennonite community are all interesting, complex, and important stories.

Unfortunately, the Free Press seems to have taken this story as an opportunity for military propaganda. Soldiers are simply praised for accepting new values and bravely breaking with tradition, even when they did so because they “were looking for adventure.” The potential courage (and real consequences) of breaking with the sentiment of a country at war is not addressed or acknowledged in any manner. And, the author, Randy Turner, condemns those Mennonite churches who “shunned” unapologetic returning soldiers. It’s not explicit, but it seems like he, like those I wrote against a week and a half ago, thinks that the church should not be in the business of judging, but should rather unconditionally support each person in his or her individual choices. Add to this a number of historical discrepancies, and you end up with a very bad article.

I’ve written to the Free Press, telling them as much. The text of that letter is below.

Randy Turner’s article is an excellent example of someone writing out of his depth on nearly every level imaginable. If the Free Press wanted to use Remembrance Day as an opportunity to attack Mennonite practices and convictions it should have done so explicitly, rather than through the pretense of running an historical report on Mennonite soldiers. Those Mennonites who signed up for military service during WWII were certainly entitled to do so, but I fail to see why a church that views all violence as contrary to the Christian life should have welcomed these soldiers back, no questions asked. Indeed, such action would have been contradictory and hypocritical. Meanwhile, I find myself resolutely on the side of those churches who “weren’t interested in glorifying the war” (D5) and condemned the unapologetic stance that war is a good opportunity for adventure (D2, D4) amidst the nationalistic military fervor of the time. Certainly this is an interesting story, full of complexity, nuance, and shameful acts on every side. That story still waits to be written.

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14 comments on “Re: A Soldier Shunned

  1. Mona Scott says:

    As a fellow Mennonite and a believer and member of the MB church I am VERY DISAPPOINTED in what you have had to report on this article. To say that Randy Turner is promoting military propaganda tells me you never even truly read the article. Where in the Bible does it say that God is a pacifist? Yes, we believe in non-violence and pacifism, but God instructed the Jews on MANY occasions that war was the only true response to his commands. I think you need to be more open minded and less judgmental about this. If our churches were a little more open and accepting of Remembrance Day and all it stands for, we would not come across as “judgmental”as you claim he is saying we are. And for the record, the ONLY reason the Mennonites are free and living in religious freedom, FINALLY, is because SOMEONE finally stood up to the bad guys, picked up a gun and protected us. I am not a fan of war either, but I have lost loved ones and I will continue to celebrate what they have done for all of us Mennonites who can scream from the rooftops that war is evil and wrong and we will judge as we see fit.

  2. Mona Scott says:

    And for the record, I have NO issue with the church judging. I take GREAT offense at them judging these soldiers for fighting true evil.

  3. Gerald Ens says:

    Well, I can’t say that I’m sorry to leave you VERY DISAPPOINTED.

    On the contrary, not only did I even truly read Turner’s article, but I read it multiple times. Turner wrote a militaristic piece. But, I won’t defend that because, ironically, your defense of your claim that he did not write a militaristic piece was to argue that he was correct to write a militaristic piece.

    So, we agree on what Turner wrote, but disagree on whether it was good or bad that he did so.

    And now for the turn. Your comment reveals that you never even truly read my article. I have on many occasions argued that the church ought to be nonviolent. But I did not do so here. I merely asked that if the Free Press wanted to write an anti-Mennonite piece that they do so explicitly. You know, something along the lines of what you have done – only I would hope they would be coherent (and use fewer all-caps). I also ask why Turner expects a pacifist institution to endorse its members’ acceptance of violence. Either he should explicitly argue against any institution being pacifist or he should accept that pacifist institutions will not endorse violence.

    But you’re right about it being a great thing that “SOMEONE finally stood up to the bad guys, picked up a gun and protected us.” Ever since that weakling Jesus refused to do so we’ve been in a lot of trouble…

  4. Mona Scott says:

    Since I am ïncoherent I will not continue this discussion. I am just sorry to see that because I did not agree with you, jump to name-calling.

  5. Gerald Ens says:

    In fact, I did not call anyone any names, either in the article or in my comment. I did quite forcefully state that I did not think your comment demonstrated a good reading of my article and also that its arguments themselves were poorly and confusingly made. Name-calling is a serious accusation, and that is not name-calling. If my tone was off-putting, I can only say that I think it matched yours and was worthy of the pseudo-arguments you were trying to make. That is, in today’s context, where Canadian nationalism and militarism is forcefully on the rise, I will be as aggressive as I can be in attacking precisely such an ethos; especially when it comes from a fellow Mennonite.

    I do make several arguments in my comment. I’d only be happy if you were were to critically engage with any of them. I’d also be happy to re-state anything that isn’t clear.

  6. Mona Scott says:

    Blessings to you – you are clear, just intolerable to any opinion other than your own. You truly DO NOT understand true pacifism. Acceptance, respect and honour of Remembrance Day and militarism are 2 different things. You can’t understand that, and I feel sorry that you don’t have that kind of empathy or lack of judgement in your heart. No hard feelings, just agree to disagree.

  7. Gerald Ens says:

    To avoid simply repeating arguments it is sometimes necessary to agree to disagree. However, we have engaged in virtually no argument, so, no, I’m not inclined to simply accept that I should agree to disagree.

    If pacifism does not mean nonviolence, then you are correct that I don’t understand it. Other than that, I don’t think I’ve given any sort of description or account of pacifism. Remembrance Day is a very important day, but when it is twisted into military propaganda then it ceases to be something I respect. In any case, the purpose of this article was not to make any sort of comment on Remembrance Day. It was to critique a one-sided, often inaccurate newspaper article that was not what it claimed to be and framed its critique on very questionable grounds – as I wrote in my 18:12 comment.

  8. Mona Scott says:

    If we want to live in true pacifism, we must also oppose not only the military, but the police service and the criminal justice system as a whole. You are correct that war is bad and harmful, but it would be far worse NOT to use force against people like Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein etc. If we agree to the legitimacy of the police service, we must also do so with the military. Jesus himself said that if his kingdom were in this world his servants would be fighting. I believe he showed us that for His kingdom it is never right to fight, but it is ONLY acceptable when fighting evil and destruction. Paul also says that the government is a minister of God when it executes vengeance against evildoers.

    I truly believe that you misunderstood what Randy Turner was saying. As someone who has NEVER enjoyed ANY of his articles I respected this one for what it was. Recognizing that some Mennonite people DON’T believe in pacifism (and that’s okay) and rather than judge them, we should honour them for doing a VERY DIFFICULT THING. They chose to do what they felt was right despite what their Mennonite faith told them. I love my Mennonite faith, but I don’t necessarily believe we got it ALL right when we believe the pacifism thing. I don’t see that as a God thing, I see that as a Mennonite thing.

  9. Mona Scott says:

    The capital letters are for emphasis nothing more.

  10. Mona Scott says:

    And to answer your question, pacifism is just non-violence, but it is also the belief that punishment and retribution do not work but rather perpetuate or escalate the circle of violence. Some of the greatest stories of pacifism come from men IN the military. Men like Private Desmond Doss, Canadian Chaplain John Weir Foote, and Cambodian Aki Ra. Two of these men were IN the military but believed in non-violence even while they were serving. THIS is what I believe Randy Turner was saying. We don’t know the thousands of other stories of military men out there, but these three are examples of what I believe pacifism is. And to simply judge and ignore them because they enlisted is wrong. They are men to be honored.

  11. Mona Scott says:

    I know I argued both sides – pacifism and military – no need to draw that to my attention – I am aware of that.

  12. Gerald Ens says:

    If we return to the topic of my post, it seems to me that we are in agreement. Namely that: “If the Free Press wanted to use Remembrance Day as an opportunity to attack Mennonite practices and convictions it should have done so explicitly, rather than through the pretense of running an historical report on Mennonite soldiers.” So, that’s settled!

    If you want to comment further here, please do so with reference to the article and my post. You keep on saying that I’ve gotten Turner wrong, but have done nothing whatsoever to substantiate that. We disagree on what Remembrance Day should be about, on Christian pacifism, on what it means to be a Mennonite, and on the benefits of war and its glorification. Okay. Let’s forget about that and talk about how I got Turner wrong or where my letter or the preface to my letter went wrong.

  13. Mona Scott says:

    You got Turner wrong in a variety of ways. The definition of propaganda is information of a biased or misleading nature used to promote a political cause or viewpoint. He took a story of a gentleman in Manitoba and told it. He stated what Harvey Friesen told him. Nowhere in the article does he praise what the Mennonite soldiers did nor does he condemn the church or the Mennonites in ANY WAY. He simply stated that truth that MANY Mennonite men who came back were NOT welcomed, but WERE IN FACT shunned and scorned. It DID in FACT tear many families apart. And there is NO WHERE in the article where he infers that the church should not “be in the business of judging but should rather unconditionally support each person in his or her individual choices.” While this is only one story, you are correct that there are historical discrepancies. Many of the Canadian Mennonites did not have a choice about enlisting. They received postponements but not exemptions. Like Friesen, they performed non-combatant military service. My question to you is WHY would you label these soldiers as having participated in something violent. Over 6600 Mennonite soldiers were employed in agriculture, 1400 in essential industries, 550 in logging, 470 in food processing plants, 270 in construction, 85 in hospitals, 65 in coal mining, 15 in grain handling, 170 in Alternative Work Camps, 15 went to jail, 201 were in the hands of the RCMP and 921 were under review as COs. They constructed telephone lines, planted trees, fough fires, completed road construction and produced cordwood. You are incorrect when you say that he is asking the church to glorify war. Not one of the things our soldiers did was glorifying the war. They were simply doing what WE as Mennonites agreed to do when they came to this country – we would not be required to bear arms, but that if we wanted to live in Canada we might be required to perform non-combative services. It seems to me that while you have a wonderful heart for peace and the faith that we have, but I believe you are reading things in the article that just aren’t there. Randy Turner has never been a shy writer – if he thinks the church should not be judging he would have come right out and said it. I have never liked him as a write because I feel he is far to outspoken and opinionated for his own good, but I am pleased with this article simple because, whatever it is he believes, he kept his mouth (and his writing) in check.

  14. Gerald Ens says:

    Okay! Now we’re getting somewhere. Thanks for this response.

    “The definition of propaganda is information of a biased or misleading nature used to promote a political cause or viewpoint.” Correct. This is how I read Turner’s article. I might move a little on my suggestion that his article is merely military propaganda; perhaps to say that his article amounts to little more than military propaganda.

    “He took a story of a gentleman in Manitoba and told it.” Well, from a particular perspective, with a quite unmistakable tone as far as I read. And of course the sources one cites and how one cites them also play into one’s perspective. Turner’s quotations (and there were many quotations) were either neutral descriptions or else (and these were the majority) were very critical of the Mennonite churches’ actions and lauded the soldiers.

    “He stated what Harvey Friesen told him.” Indeed. He gave Friesen and likeminded people the floor – allowed them to take over the article. Their voices came through so strongly and were given so much authority and autonomy that it’s difficult to read the article without seeing their perspective as the one promoted.

    “Nowhere in the article does he praise what the Mennonite soldiers did nor does he condemn the church or the Mennonites in ANY WAY.” I’ll attempt some textual substantiation. Turner begins: “Mennonite men who, in many cases, defied their own family and church to enlist and fight in Second World War. In all, it’s estimated that between 3,000 and 4,500 Mennonites volunteered for the Armed Forces. In some rural Manitoba communities, that decision earned them only scorn And if these soldiers did survive, they did not return to a hero’s welcome. Many were shunned and ostracized by their churches. Even their family members.” So it is true that there’s nothing here that explicitly condemns the Mennonites or praises the soldiers. Rhetorically, it does seem to be suggesting that these soldiers ought to have returned to a hero’s welcome; the narrative flow seems designed to induce shock and horror that soldiers could be treated this way. (And there’s an identical tone and rhetorical flow when he discusses Engbrecht. You know: “he was given medals and the Toronto Star loved him! And, then he wasn’t celebrated at home! Can you believe it!”) So let’s keep that in mind and see where Turner goes next.

    “As noted in Neufeld’s book, Dr. C.W. Wiebe, of Winkler, said: “During the last war our young men were allowed to remain home and take advantage of good crops and high prices, and our English neighbors saw this. We Mennonites like to emphasize the sacrifices we make, when really we make no sacrifices.” Added Elder Toews: “When the (non-Mennonite) soldiers returned after the war, we were told that many a widow’s son had fallen during that long struggle. Where were our young people? Many were found in the dance halls where the returned boys met them and felt this deeply.” I hope I don’t have to demonstrate that this is a very one-sided account of the Mennonite CO experience. (And, dance halls?!) Yes, Turner is quoting, but he’s the one choosing who to quote and which of their quotes to put it. And there is nothing that comes close to balancing this story out – to suggest that, maybe, for some, in some ways at the very least did make sacrifices. Either Turner is in over his head or he has an axe to grind.

    “But while the RCAF ace might have been seen as too prideful by other locals upon his return, few if any Mennonites were welcomed home with universal acceptance. Worse, many weren’t accepted at all” (my emphasis). And the first moment of truth: Turner explicitly confirms his leading tone and suggestive phrasing.

    And this just continues. Over and over again, Turner’s language, tone, and choice of quotes serves to condemn those Mennonite churches who gave “those returning soldiers…two choices: Publicly apologize for joining the war effort or have their names taken off the Mennonite church register.” This seems like a very reasonable thing to do; it’s in line with Mennonite disciplinarian practices; I would recommend the same thing today. And not just for Mennonites dealing with war: this seems like a good approach for any community that is explicitly tied together by certain convictions when someone intentionally and unapologetically defies those convictions. (For example, people in the military who refuse to follow orders or take up arms against an enemy fare much, much worse than this. I object to the treatment, they receive, but I would think it bizarre if one such a person just assumed that they would still be able to (or even would want to) stay in the military.) But we hear absolutely nothing that suggests this or suggests that that might be a reasonable approach by a pacifist institution, either by Turner or by one of his sources. He continues to use weighted language speaking of “loved ones being spurned” and quotes, as the final, and only, authorities, those who say that their “heart still bleeds for those men and their families” – which directly insinuates that these men ought not to have been treated this way. Meanwhile, the soldiers are described as people who, in line with the new times, “weren’t prepared to follow the rules.” It’s not explicitly praise; but it sure does sound like it, especially when compared with the tone used to describe the churches.

    And then the next source they cover is not a CO or somebody who belonged to the church and agreed with its decisions, but “Mel Reimer, who attended high school in Altona and later became president of Morden Legion, was a boy during the war years.” In other words, somebody who is not at all a qualified source if the point of the article is to simply tell the story of what happened in those years. This is only a credible source if this is a propaganda piece, particularly when we consider the perspectives of those who have been used as sources thus far. And surprise, surprise, the legion president is on board with the sentiment of the article thus far. ““A lot of these guys suffered severely. They didn’t say, ‘Thank you for our freedom’. They were shunned.”” Maybe one could make the case that this is objective description. But let’s again think about what is and is not being said. So far we have only heard one narrative: Soldiers went and fought bravely for our freedom and then were cruelly not welcomed back to a hero’s welcome. When taken as narrative whole, that amounts to judgement, very strong, one-sided, judgement.

    “And there is NO WHERE in the article where he infers that the church should not “be in the business of judging but should rather unconditionally support each person in his or her individual choices.”” I wrote this because if Turner does not want to argue against the against the Mennonite church’s position on violence and yet disagrees with its actions in regards to veterans then I see this as the only possible position he could be advocating for. Obviously if he does not disagree with the church’s actions, but is just telling a story, then my claim falls apart. But, as per my 5 paragraphs above, I think the evidence is overwhelming that Turner is making negative judgements on the churches.

    “My question to you is WHY would you label these soldiers as having participated in something violent.” Turner writes: “By 1944, Engbrecht was a household name in Canada, becoming the RCAF’s only ace who was not a pilot. He shot down eight fighters and disabled a ninth, on bombing runs over Belgium, France and Germany.” I.e.: violence.

    “Like Friesen, they performed non-combatant military service.” I may have misunderstood this part. I took it that Friesen signed up for military service, with the hope of fighting overseas, but (perhaps because of his young age) was not sent there, not through his choice, but the choice of others.

    “You are incorrect when you say that he is asking the church to glorify war.” I’m quoting from the article here. “Harvey Friesen said efforts to have a cenotaph built were for years repeatedly “brushed off” by town fathers. “I think they weren’t interested in glorifying the war,” he reasons.” I’m just saying that as far as I am concerned, that’s a good thing. Whereas, the tone of the article, the manner with which it quotes Friesen (who clearly disagrees with the town fathers) suggests that this (not wanting to glorify the war) is a bad thing.

    “Not one of the things our soldiers did was glorifying the war.” Consider: “Yet Engbrecht wasn’t so openly revered in his own Mennonite community back home. He had a tendency to regale the locals with his war stories and brazenly wore his uniform to church, sitting in the third row.” If this isn’t glorifying the war, then I’m not sure what is.

    “Randy Turner has never been a shy writer – if he thinks the church should not be judging he would have come right out and said it.” Perhaps I should have stuck to saying that Turner was in over his head and as a result ended up writing something that amounts to little more than a piece of war propaganda, whatever his intention might have been.

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