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William Hathaway, Radical Peace. People Refusing War

Trine Day, 2010; 179pp; £9.23

I don’t doubt that this is an important book, it’s got a quote from Chomsky on the front, so it must be. And there are plenty of powerful stories in it that need to be heard. But, I did struggle to love it, which might perhaps be my problem.

I think it’s partly stylistic – the writer does tend to describe events in rather breathless “action hero” mode when a simpler clearer prose might do. But it’s also infused at other times with the kind of earnest dourness that gives the peace movement a bad name.

Those quibbles aside, this is an excellent collection of US stories that we should take time to read.

Hathaway, a journalist and former special forces soldier, has interviewed a wide range of activists from across the spectrum of resistance, which gives a fascinating insight into the way US citizens are working against war.

I found the work of the groups helping conscientious objectors escape the army particularly inspiring. I hadn’t realised how hard it was for people to leave the military, nor quite how inhumane the system is. Some of these accounts are so painful they literally make you flinch as you read, but it’s encouraging to know that resisters are risking imprisonment to get the victims out. Then there are the tales of the individuals who are taking personal action. The high school teacher who loses her job for encouraging her class to debate the ethics of war, the military chaplain who dresses up in a Guantánamo Bay suit in the middle of the barracks, the saboteur who sets fire to military trucks.

In the face of what seems a vast and monolithic regime, it is heartening to hear these voices willing to say “no”.

There are one or two stories I could do without.

I question the rationale for including a piece by a mother whose reaction to her son having committed abusive acts in war was to sleep with him. That seems to me as abusive a response to his trauma as the military’s and I found her self-justifications for her actions absolutely nauseating.

I could have also done without the last set of interviewees – friends of the author on the verge of a break-up because of their strong and differing opinions on US politics. Whilst I think it showed the divisions in the left quite clearly, framing it as a kind of marriage guidance counselling session distracted from that message and felt rather self-indulgent.

This is a quick, if unsettling, read; one that shines a light on the actions of real people that will never be reported in the mainstream press. I’d recommend you take a look.