Utne Blogs > Politics

Starving to Serve

by Staff


Tags: Reconstruction, conscientious objectors, World War II, No End In Sight, Iraq, A Duty to Starve,

Imagine a time when our government was so focused on post-war reconstruction, so determined to heal the wounds of war, that scientists were tasked with figuring out how to tend the battered bodies and psyches of civilian survivors. Such was the case in World War II, when some 200 conscientious objectors volunteered to go hungry so that the military could understand what it was up against in resurrecting a ravaged and starving Europe.

American RadioWorks just aired a fascinating documentary on this starvation experiment, which began in 1944 at the University of Minnesota. (You can listen to A Duty to Starve here.) Thirty-six men were chosen for the yearlong study, which tracked the psychological and physiological impact of starvation (the young men's caloric intake was cut in half). Henry Scholberg, one of the participants, explains why he felt compelled to sign up: "American boys were dying on the battlefields, suffering imprisonment, getting wounded. And I felt it was unfair for me to be able to sleep in a comfortable bed at night and always have three meals. I felt I should be prepared to sacrifice." The U.S. government's rationale was similarly simple and persuasive: "Your military leaders," one newsreel intoned, "want no starving people behind their battle lines. For a hungry man is a dangerous man."

Today, when most Americans remain a comfortable distance from the sacrifices demanded of soldiers, A Duty to Starve seems to capture not only a different time but a different country. It's also a striking companion piece to another recent documentary, No End In Sight, which chronicles how obstinately blind the Bush administration was when it came to post-invasion planning. —Hannah Lobel