He brings to mind the buried treasure of the Gospel story, this unlikely hero.
He was born in an unlikely city - Denver, Colorado.
How could he know that one day its resident critics would unite in scoring him. with a great groan of the media, as a "drone" an "arch slacker" a "violent antiwar CO.." a "man with a yellow streak down his spine..."
His crime? He was anti-Denver, anti-American: even anti-Catholic. He was anti war. He was guilty of the Great Refusal. The year was 1914; the country was embarking on Wilson's "war to end all wars." And in the bastion of busbies. Salmon dared, cannily, with more than a soupcon of irony, to put his convictions on record:" If killing has to be insisted on, those responsi-ble for war - kings, presidents. Kaisers, etc. - should be made to fight each other and not drag millions of inno-cent youths into a game where they would be compelled to slaughter each other."
Outrageous. The reaction was swift: was it not war-time, were Catholics not bound (on thinks of the survi-val instinct of an immigrant people and the bidding of their religious authorities) - bound to follow the flag?"
Ben was summarily ejected from the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization famed for its tightfisted Catholic Americanism.
Worse was to come. Imprisoned for refusing induction. Ben encountered a number of priests, chaplains to the military. One after another, each fired off an ecclesiastical salvo. This solitary prisoner was demented or ethically awry, or both; the church would grant him no concession, allow him no sacrament.
In many details. Ben's story eerily resembles that of an Austrian counterpart, Franz Jagerstaetters, and his resistance against World War II.
Both were working class married men, had fathered children. Both were Catholic, both were repudiated by the church. Both were offered alternative noncombatant service by their governments, and refused the concession. Their decision to resist war worked hardship on their families; spouses endured public odium, children were raised and educated as best the women could, alone.
Jagerstaetter was finally executed. Salmon too was condemned to death, a sentence afterward commuted to 25 years at hard labor.
On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed. The War to end war was over, but Ben's sentence had scarcely begun.
In a private war of wills, he was shuttled about the country from one military gulag to another; from Fort Logan. Colorado: to Camp Funston, Kansas; to Camp Dodge, Iowa: then back to Kansas and an ominous phase at Fort Leavenworth.
There was no bargaining with him. he was baffling, outrageous, iron willed. He was Irish. No, he would not work for " our natural butchering process...the system." "To work in a military prison is to aid the killing machine." And Yes, he would organize a strike, to protest the larceny of funds designated for prisoners' food.
In wit and wisdom he could be devastating: "I would rather be one of the conscientious objectors who died in the stand for genuine Christianity, than to be wearing a breast full of medals for service rendered the devil on fields of battle."
Today, more than 30 years after his death, his writings offer an anthology of riches. Suffering lent a razor's edge to the mind of this "uneducated" working man.
Thus he countered a Jesuit ethician who defended in print the just war theory: " Either Christ is a liar or war is never necessary; and, very properly assuming that Christ told the truth, it follows that the state is without judicial authority to determine when war is necessary -because it is never necessary."
No giving in. A further punishment, another circle of hell was devised for him - bread and water and solitary confinement.
Catholic chaplains, exasperated, tarred him as "recalcitrant" and "reckless."
Six months of this. Released to the prison population, he remained adamant: not a finger lifted, no working for the system. His logic was delicious. He saw concession as a game of dominoes falling: "If I could work five minutes, I could work a day, and if I could work a day, I could work a year, and if I could work a year, I could join the army..."
Off again he was trundled. He was the original patron of holy gyrovagues. a Saint Elsewhere.
The destination This time: Fort Douglas, Utah. He arrived, in shackles.
No, he would not work.
Threatened again, this time with life imprisonment, his response was typical, uncowed. He put it in writing: the commandant could "have me tried by court-martial immediately and give me a million years in sentences: but I would not go to work."
The war had come home, as wars will. The brutalities of the battlefields spilled over, a domestic witches' brew. He and his companions tasted it. He reported: "...starvation, beatings, cold baths in zero weather, bay-oneting, were the order of the day"
Late he added, summing up, and in spite of all. exulting: "Every method of torture was used, and while many died, only a few were broken in spirit."
The armistice was declared. More than a year passed. And Salmon and the other C.O. s remained in prison.
Hell on earth, being the work of humans, must be endlessly reinvented. For these refusers, new circles within circles were drawn up.
Ben, too, to evaluating his past, with a view toward a further act of resistance.
He recalled how at the start, he had refused to report for induction. He would not work at assigned tasks, or wear a military uniform. He resisted the official theft of prisoners' food money.
The war ended. And here he sat. under lockup. Prison, that bitter pill, stuck in his throat.
Was this to be borne?
Everything indicated a further step.
On July 17, 1920, Salmon announced his decision; he was undertaking a hunger strike "for liberty or for death.
Christ's urging that we "overcome evil with good," he wrote, "is the most effective solution for individual and societary (sic) ills...ever formulated."
He was at the brink, my life, my family, everything is now in the hands of God. His will be done."
Though under duress, he could be dauntingly logical in reflecting on his decision. He writes in the tone of Dorothy Day:... We do not attempt to overcome lying with lies; we overcome it with truth. We do not try to overcome curses with curses, but we overcome with silence or with words of friendship...Sickness is not overcome with sickness; it is overcome with health. If I cut my finger, the remedy is not to cut another finger, but to succor the original wound. Anger is overcome by meek-ness, pride by humility."
And he comes to the nub of his argument: "...the successful way to overcome the evil of war is by the good of peace, a steadfast refusal to 'render evil for evil'.
No food, no water, indefinitely.
Another military chaplain entered his cell. This one too proved a harrier of our Job. The priest pontificated; Salmon's hunger strike was "suicidal, and a mortal sin."
Salmon was unmoved.
And inevitably, official anger flared anew. They were at wits' end with him.
He was shipped out again, this time on a daunting continental trek. It was an instance of military overkill, with armed guards, a train with drawn shades, a physician, a commandant - all this to control a single prisoner, half dead with fasting.
What were they to do with this baffling subverter?
The prisoner's train sped out of Utah eastward.
Ben was deposited, under lock and key, in St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C.
In the blueprint of hell, a further circle had been devised. It included a dwelling of sorts for the otherwise unclassifiable.
Salmon was classified, once for all, locked in a wing of the hospital set apart for the 'criminally insane.' He had been thrust in each of hell's circles, rejecting each, declaring with a sublime perversity that hits or that cell as will fitted to his needs. Which is to say, to his conscience.
A hospital for the insane, a scene of cacophony and anguish. His report: " The wilder ones rave and holler, all day long they rant and screech, sometimes in stentorian tones, sometimes a little milder...At night everyone is perfectly quiet except for the intermittent ravings of various unfortunates and the innocent conversations of those who seem to have many friends conversing with them in their solitary cells."
Salmon had arrived at hell's home address.
He continue his strike for an unprecedented 80 days. For months, he was force fed several times each day.
But ever so slowly, a tide was gathering. Support for the resister grew, even in the Catholic church.
The military mind, let it be suggested, reasons somewhat like this: when a tactic proves useless, repeat it.
Ben was shipped off once more, from hell to purgatory, so to speak. To Walter Reed Military Hospital. It was the last redoubt of an astonishing survivor.
In November, 1920, signed, sealed, and delivered to Benjamin Joseph Salmon was a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Army. Hell had given up its prey.
Peacemaking exacted of Ben Salmon a terrifying price, just short of the fate of Franz Jagerstaetter.
They could not defeat Salmon. But the fasting, the torment of forced feeding, the solitary cage, fell on him like a hundredweight, shortening his life.
In the harsh Chicago winter of 1932, in his 43rd year, he fell ill with pneumonia and within days, died..
See, brutes huff and
puff, they rake the world with
they build hecatombs of shuddering bones.
The God of life
keeps them at edge of
no need of vengeance, of judgment;
they crumble, a faulty tower downwind!
At center eye
the apple of God's eye
blossoms, swells, ripens
the faithful who fall
straight as a plumb line
God's right hand!
(after Psalm 33)
is a copy
of a much larger icon
of Ben Salmon
to Phil Berrigan
release from prison,
It hangs in the common room at