Monday November 10, 2003
Yesterday the nation remembered those who fell during the world wars. For many, fighting for their nation was an act that symbolised not only devotion to their country but their powerlessness to influence the decisions taken for them. These young people were victims of forces greater than themselves. Few understood the subtleties of diplomacy or the complex relations of great powers to make rational judgments on whether war was wholly right or substantially wrong. Some did and objected on grounds of conscience. Those who rebelled did so legally; the Military Service Act of 1916 enabled them, if the authorities could be convinced that their resistance was honestly grounded in religion, politics and morality, to be exempt from military service.
The reason that this is important today is not just that the the right to conscientious objection remains, even though conscription has been abolished. It is that Iraq's blasts, bombings and the emergence of a desert war fought in the shadows of American and British troops have now seen the biggest call-up of this country's reservists since Suez. More than 7,500 have been asked to sign up. But as BBC's Newsnight reported last week, not only are politicians and civil servants unaware of the right to conscientious objection but so is much of the serving defence top brass.
Muslim reservists who decline the request to go to Iraq are not being disloyal but are being guided by their sense of right or wrong. These are intensely personal decisions - fellow believers might disagree - but a belief that the war is wrong or opposition to harming fellow humans should be considered as proper reasons for a refusal to fight. There should be a recognition that soldiers are susceptible to these human responses. Troops too traumatised by what they have seen to continue fighting should be afforded understanding, not a court martial. The key is to comprehend what informs another's morals or ethics. An individual's conscience can be fallible, but a politics that forces people to violate their conscience is worse.