Beautiful Souls at Powell's BooksSome time ago I spent a weekend in the company of fellow Vietnam War resisters, trying to talk about what we had done then, and why.  How was it, in the face of almost universal pressure to serve in the US military, we had each, separately, announced that we would no longer serve?  What had enabled us to swim out of the rip-tide of patriotic war sentiment, risk the ostracism of friend and family, risk court-martial and military prison?    I had with me that weekend a book recommended by a friend. Titled Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times,  Eyal Press, it sets out to discover,  from a small sample, what conditions and character such people emerge from. Instead of asking the more common question, “Why do so few resist organized violence against others?”  he asks “Why do a few resist?”

He tells us in the prologue:

“This is a book about … nonconformists, about the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive when thrust into a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist.”

By looking at four significant stories, some with supporting additional narratives and plenty of academic and other research, Press tries to understand if there is something common to these  “beautiful souls,” their character or the conditions in which they acted.

The question is opened in the prologue: why, in the horror of Nazi war-time Poland, at Józefów, did a few men refuse to join their comrades in Reserve Battalion 101 in killing their Jewish neighbors, point blank, at the edges of mass graves?  Though he was not able to interview any of these refusers, what they did not do sets the stage.

The first two stories are of non-combatants, caught in war-time situations, who refused to join the prevailing ethos and actions of their fellows.

Paul Grüninger was a low level commander of the Swiss State police, in the summer of 1938.  After Hitler’s annexation of Austria, Switzerland had closed its borders to the desperate, undocumented, Jews trying to escape across the common Swiss-Austrian border. Grüninger, likely alone in all Swiss officialdom — which was worried about the increasing “Jewification” of Switzerland– could not follow Swiss law and deny entry “without exception” to all those without proper papers.  He could not look a refugee in the eye and say no. He falsified papers and let them come in. Within a year, he had lost his job, amid a swirl of rumors about his accepting sexual favors, about bribery. He was denied a license  to open a business, lost his pension money and lived the rest of his life, until 1972, in borderline poverty. Why?

Stefan Keller, who wrote a book about Grüninger, says: “He had no barriers. Refugees came up to him, right up to the door of his office, sometimes on their knees, and asked for help. He did nothing to separate himself from the people…. the other police chiefs didn’t do this. They delegated. They made the decisions, and delegated the responsibility to others.”

Thus, one of Press’ findings: that those who say no to the injury of others are often, emotionally or structurally, unable to separate themselves from those being injured.  Portions of the famous Milgram experiments in 1961  support this observation;  those who had pushed levers, purportedly shocking the victims, when separated by soundproof glass, were less willing to do so when sitting next to the victim.

Perhaps the most startling story is of a Serb, Aleksander Jevtić, who when asked by Serbian militias to identify Serbs among the catch-all prisoners they had, spontaneously gave Croats in the group Serbian names and saved their lives — at great risk of being discovered.  In interviews with Press, Aco, as he is called, did not show himself to have acted from some higher, Kantian judgement about justice and fairness.  His action was spontaneous and little thought out. Nor had he thought about it much since.  When asked about his motivation he essentially shrugged.

“My behavior has to do with the way in which I was raised”— in particular, he said, with his parents, whom he adored. “They taught me to love people. They taught me to respect others and myself. My father used to tell me every day that others would respect me only if I respected myself. That was his maxim.”

Which of course explains little, as it can be supposed that many of his countrymen were raised with similar homilies.  Trying to understand this spontaneous empathy, Press takes a look at recent studies of “emotivist” morality, which, however, have a fine pedigree in the writings of David Hume and Adam Smith.  As Smith expressed it,

…there are evidently some principles in [man’s] nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it,” wrote Smith. “Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.

 Aco, it seems is a quintessential example of those described by Solomon Asch’s 1950s conformity experiments. Given a series of graphical comparisons, very few were able to resist social pressure to mis-compare them. The few who went against the common judgment to correctly judge differences between the objects had “a willingness to tolerate a certain kind of social discomfort, “the painfulness of standing alone.”

The third story, which is really the story of several Israeli soldiers, is perhaps the most gripping.  Their actions of refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories took place in a fully militarized setting.  Not only were they disobeying a law, as Grüninger did, or acting momentarily on powerful empathy as Aco, they were setting themselves against their commanders, their mentors and their war-bonded friends, one of the most difficult acts in the human community.   As Eric Fromm says in his study of why so many Germans went along with Nazi plans:

[It was not]  mindless obedience but to … terror of feeling alienated from one’s community and to the tremendous desire to belong. … It seems that nothing is more difficult for the average man to bear than the feeling of not being identified with a larger group.

The ancient Greeks knew this;  the most feared of all punishments was banishment, exile outside the community. Reports from those held in isolation for weeks and months at a time remind us:  without others lies madness.  So for those in a country swirled into war obedience as Israelis have been for years, and as most Americans were during the war in Vietnam — and particularly for those already in military units–  declaring oneself opposed to the beliefs of comrades is enormously difficult.

Press adds an interesting distinction here, taking from Hannah Arendt’s observations about Thoreau’s celebrated act of war tax refusal.  She calls his action that of a ‘good man.’  He had no interest in organizing others to his point of view about the wrongfulness of the War against Mexico, or slavery.  He only didn’t want to participate in it himself.  The ‘good citizen’ in her view, goes beyond this to persuade and organize others, to try to stop the evil being done.

The ‘good man’ “is not primarily interested in the world where the wrong is committed or in the consequences that the wrong will have for the future course of the world. It does not say, with Jefferson, ‘I tremble for my country’  … because it trembles for the individual self and its integrity.”

And even more interestingly Press looks at the use of Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr, justify a civil disobedience of another kind:  the refusal of orders to evict Jewish squatters on Palestinian land.

Soldiers who refused to evacuate Jewish settlements were simply carrying on the same honorable tradition [of Civil Disobedience.] “We are speaking about people acting under the command of their conscience!” Haetzni thundered.

The fourth story is of a resister of a different kind: the whistle blower.  Rightly to my mind, Press includes with those who resist war and killing, those who resist corporate or other organized efforts to defraud and steal under the guise of responsibility and authority.  Interestingly, the ranks of these whistle blowers are heavy with women.

Somewhat puzzling is that Leyla Wydler, whom he interviews at length about her experience at Stanford Financial, her suspicions of the CD Ponzi scheme, and subsequent firing, seems not to have had a very public hand in bringing  Stanford down.  Not that she didn’t risk her career simply by asking questions.  She did, and she was fired.  She was brave of course, but as a minor witness in the investigation, she had little to do with initiating it. Perhaps that is Press’s point: though she risked her livelihood and friendships on behalf of a greater good, she did not do it with a view to mighty acts; she did not desire fame nor the reward of victory.   Essentially she acted because ‘she had to.’ Even if her letters to the SEC had never brought her in as a witness, she could not not act as she thought right.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the mystery Press sets out to solve — why do some, and so few, people act at great risk, to right a perceived wrong — remains a mystery.

What is common among all is that in one way or another each has been able to separate him or herself from the received judgement of proper behavior.  Interestingly, for almost all, what pushes them to do this is an overwhelming, almost naive, belief in the stated values of the larger community, the very community they are opposing: the promise of the Swiss constitution, the purity of the Israeli Defense Forces,  the rigor and strength of western financial systems.  What the nonconforming individuals saw in the common behavior was a deviation from the absolute standards which they themselves felt they had to follow.

Beautiful Souls is a very good, slender, introduction to the important question most people only give lip service to: when my conscience says no, how do I respond?  Reading Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” is a rite of passage in most American high schools, and likely around the world.  Press deepens the question and by his stories and interviews presses the reader to ask her, or himself: what would I do?

Strongly recommended.

I would like to see, however, the encyclopedic version, one which finds the common points between those who do say no, and how they are separated from those who go along.  I’d like to see serious probing of some of those Press only mentions in passing —  Hugh Thompson, for example, the helicopter pilot at My Lai who forcibly stopped the massacre taking place and other soldiers who are said to have refused to participate, Joseph Darby who revealed the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib,  Paul Rusesabagina of Rwanda, more about Darrel Vandeveld, senior prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay prison, who was drummed out of the military for his resistance to prosecuting those who had been tortured.

I’d like to know more about the importance of separation from the consequences of actions in providing a deniable cover.  It occurs to me, for example, that the draft resisters in the Vietnam war were able to say no, largely on the basis of film footage; they did not have to be put in a fire-fight to see the effects of pulling a trigger. Yet millions saw the same footage and acquiesced in supporting the war.  The perpetrators at Abu Ghraib were certainly up close and personal — which did nothing to make less-likely the abuse they meted out.  I’d like to know more about empathy, powerful in some and weak in others — but also the ability to respond to its promptings.  Press chose four whom whom he describes as non-ideological in their resistance, but what of those — the Quakers, the Seventh Day Adventists– who act out of deep and long inculcated feeling?  Why haven’t the teachings of Christ made  a similar impact on other Christians?  Or, what happened to the thousands of fiercely pacifist Europeans, including determined anarchists, once WW I began, and they (mostly) leaped into the fray — all their ideology left behind?

Press offers a fine bibliography of academic studies of conformity and resistance , and a beginning list of people who have managed to stand against enormous social pressure but much more is known and could be collected.  Among the Chinese resisters to the draconian post-Mao state there are dozens who have risked as much as these examples from the west.  Russians could provide many more. Brave souls have stood in Africa against abuse and murder.

How is it that some are able to do this and most are not?  Let the stories continue and the research begin.