Dan West – World War I Conscientious Objector

Today is International Conscientious Objection Day. There will be an ecumenical gathering this evening at the World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, commemorating those who were conscientious objectors in World War I. There was no alternative service at that time, so COs had to either serve within the military or go to prison. Dan West, the founder of Heifer International, was one of those men.

Dan was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1918. He entered service not knowing how far he could cooperate with the army. His experience became a defining moment in his life. Here is his story in his own words in a paper titled “Your Goals,” as told to a group of Brethren Volunteer Service workers years later:

       There was not any Alternative Service then, but I was a CO. After a few weeks I was transferred to the 39th Machine Gun Battalion. When I got there, I went to my new captain to get released. He cursed me hard, evidently to change my mind. But he didn’t.
A few hours later I went back with a new idea: to offer to go to the Ft Leavenworth Penitentiary. My captain did not curse me any more, but said he could not move me on then.
After a few hard weeks I was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps. There I did not kill anybody, but I felt a part of a killing machine. That still hurts my conscience, and I developed a new GOAL to work for peace-not for war. That has lasted ever since.

Dan became one of the most prominent voices for peace in the church and later became Peace Educator for the Church of the Brethren. In that role, he was selected to be the Church of the Brethren representative to a Quaker (Society of Friends) relief project in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and 1938. Observing babies and tubercular children dying from a lack of milk while his babies back home were well fed made him determined to promote a plan to send cows to Spain, an idea hatched in discussions with colleagues in the relief project. Four years later, Dan’s plan was adopted by the Church of the Brethren District Men’s Work of Northern Indiana, then later by the denomination as a national plan which soon became ecumenical. The Heifer Project, as it was named, grew into today’s independent Heifer International.

Dan West distributes clothing to Spanish women and children affected by the Spanish Civil War, 1937. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Would that more people would develop the goal “to do as much for peace as a soldier does for war,” another way Dan talked of his goal.

 

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