|ISSUE 61 AUTUMN 2010
In Britain conscientious objection (to military activity) is at first glance not what you might call a live issue. If the media is to be believed then Lance Corporal Joe Glenton is that rare species a conscientious objector, though according to some he might also be a deserter, a ptsd sufferer as well as being a bit naïve. ‘There are many soldiers in the Army today’, said the judge Advocate at his court martial, ‘who have extremely unpleasant experiences, who watch friends die or suffer appalling injuries, but they have to … do their duty.’ The question not asked is why they should put up with this if they prefer not to. The military would say it is their duty but the plain fact is that it is a condition of their employment and has nothing to do with duty. Deciding to leave this intolerable situation gets you a jail sentence. ‘Duty’ is meant to suggest a moral commitment but in reality it is a hollow word. Soldiers went to Afghanistan and to Iraq before not because of any moral commitment but because they were ordered to. Of course they did not have to go, they could have taken a ‘moral’ stand against an illegal invasion of another country and being the brave men and women that they are, would have taken their punishment gracefully.
Conscientious objection as so many other values has its origins in our more religion-steeped past and first emerged in law following riots and resistance by mostly religious groups to compulsory vaccination. The 1898 Vaccination Act, introduced a conscience clause that allowed parents who did not believe vaccination to be efficacious or safe to obtain exemption. Objection to compulsory military conscription in 1916 resulted in a similar clause in the Act though what conscientious objection might mean was not made clear.
Few things these days are compulsory and the few that are can be circumnavigated – attending school for example. In the case of the military which in Britain while not compulsory nevertheless has strong elements of ‘compulsion’. It is observable that the lower ranks of the army are recruited from certain parts of the country and that recruitment is noticeably easier at times of economic downturn. Unsurprisingly the Army recruiters like to visit disadvantaged schools where students are likely to have limited career options. From time to time there are complaints about this but unsurprisingly this cuts no ice with the army; and why should it. They need to recruit and it makes sense to go to place where they are most likely to be successful. Critics’ say that the recruiters do not inform young people about the full implications of joining up which is almost certainly true: ‘Do you want to learn to kill strangers in countries you could not place on a map?’ but when did young people take much notice of what they are told. Of course people, not just the young, should be given sufficient information to make an informed choice but what is sufficient, and is a well-informed young recruit any more desirable than an ill informed one?
Until Tony Blair’s spiritual awakening and enthusiasm to make the world a better place via the barrel of a gun the military were fading into insignificance in Britain. For years they had special units that traveled the country to ‘keep the army before the public’ lest we forget about the boys in khaki; after 1989 we luxuriated in thoughts of a ‘peace dividend’ but instead gravediggers and coffin makers courtsey of UK and US taxpayers were the beneficiaries. Now a day hardly goes by without a heartwarming tale of the life and times of another dead soldier who loved the army. The media will do what the media does but there are more concerning issues to keep an eye on, challenge and resist. We touched on some of these in Peace Matters 57, which looked at the National Recognition of our Armed Forces’ report commissioned by the prime minister. In Turkey they have a proverb: Every Turk is born is a soldier. In Britain things are a little subtler but the states adoration of all thing military is the same. The Labour Party’s attempts to insert the military and the ‘military’ ethos into areas of public life has been noted elsewhere and now comes the assault from the Conservatives who believe that the discipline of the parade ground will turn round failing schools and pacify unruly pupils.
‘We have a troops-to-teachers scheme explicitly designed to help people who have come from Army backgrounds and are used to taking 16 and 17-year-olds and giving them a sense of self-discipline and order’ said Michael Gove Shadow Children’s Secretary. ‘The number one area of choice for people who leave the Army is to go into education and training. We are talking about people who have already proven themselves.’
It is quite likely that some ex officers would make good teachers and the more people that turn to socially useful work the better, but it is surely questionable whether experience of a closed, hierarchical and destruction focused system is going to be much use in a school. More concerning is the validation of the efficacy of the violent military approach to conflict that this implies. It is unlikely that the exploration of conscientious objection to killing strangers when ordered will find a place in lessons imbued with a vacuous though no doubt firmly held believed in the notion of duty.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the colleague who challenged the view that conscience is the legitimate reason for objection to participation in the military was German. In WW2 Britain conscientious objectors had a relatively easy time, in Germany it almost certainly meant a death sentence. Unsurprisingly there are not many recoded COs in Germany but there were many deserters. In 1997 the German Federal Parliament passed a resolution for the rehabilitation of those who were persecuted by the NS-military justice for conscientious objection and desertion and this has prompted research into the lives of these men and commemoration of their ‘conscientious’ of other stand. Monuments to their memory have been erected throughout Germany. Britain has a less painful need for such monuments but has its own commemoratives stone, which the PPU was instrumental in erecting and at which a ceremony is held every May 15, International CO Day.
In central London there is a statue of Fenner Brockway a WW1 conscientious objector who spent much of the war in jail. At 19 he joined the Independent Labour Party and in 1914 wrote its anti war manifesto. Since then one way or another until shortly before his death he campaigned for peace. His statue is on the route of the PPU’s forthcoming PeaceWalk; you can also find out more about him and the memorial.
Conservatives believe that the discipline of the parade ground will turn round failing schools and pacify unruly pupils and propose a troops to teacher programme