From ResPoss | ‘Cowards or war heroes?’

16 May 2013 | ResolutionPossible

Yesterday, May 15th, was Conscientious Objectors Day, dedicated to those around the world who refuse to take part in military service on religious or moral grounds.

Conscientious Objectors in Dyce work camp, 1916 (Liddle Collection, University of Leeds)

According to the Peace Pledge Union, during World War I 16,000 British people refused military conscription, of which 6,000 were imprisoned. In World War II around 61,000 people in Britain applied for exemption from military service. Mohammed Ali famously refused to fight for the US in the Vietnam war, saying: ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Congs’.

Whilst some people believe that servicemen and women should have the right to refuse to fight, others feel that allowing this choice risks undermining the whole military system.

Yesterday morning the Metro (UK) published an interview with a former British serviceman, Joe Glenton, posing the question ‘cowards or war heroes?‘. After touring in Afghanistan, Joe became a conscientious objector and refused to return to service:

‘We knew civilians were being bombed and how the war was being conducted. It was conducted in a climate of racism and indifference to the Afghan people, completely at odds with how it’s sold at home. I came back and because of those things, I thought, “No, this isn’t right”…

We’re told we’re going there to help young girls get an education or to build infrastructure or really hackneyed stuff like security there equals security here. Let’s look at probability. Does the US, with Britain in tow, go to Afghanistan to help women go to school or is it because there is, for example, 90 billion barrels of oil in the Caspian?

Is it human rights or is it because Afghanistan is in a strategic location with borders with China, Pakistan and Iran? Are we spreading democracy or is this power politics? It’s a new veneer on a very old practice.

There’s a point past which statesmanship has failed – à la Afghanistan, à la Iraq – where obviously the government aren’t going to do the right thing. Are they the people to be saying what’s right and wrong? Is Tony Blair, for example, going to lecture anyone on morality and ethics? Or David Cameron?’

We recently posted extracts from an essay written by William Payne (grandfather of Resolution:Possible Director Katherine Payne), who was a conscientious objector in World War II. Below is a further excerpt explaining his position:

‘I believe in Pacifism. I believe that no matter how dreadful things are in the world, even if 50,000,000 bombs are being dropped on innocent people, I am never justified in retaliating in a like manner. Neither am I prepared to accept torture without doing something about it. Pacifism does not mean sitting on the fence looking on with arms folded while people are tortured and bullied.

War must be wiped off the map. Whether we call it a Holy War or military sanctions, it is still the grim reality of murder. I hope I shall not be weak enough to give in to it.’

How do you feel about the concepts of conscientious objection and military service?

Should people in the military be able to make a commitment to serve their country, as Joe Glenton did, but also choose to abstain from activity that compromises their own morals? How would this individual choice affect military action as a whole?

Do you have conscientious objectors in your family history? What was the reaction to their decision at the time? How do you feel about it now?

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