Conscientious objection in the 21st century

11 November 2013 | Joe Glenton

Joe Glenton is a writer and a former soldier in the British army. He is the author of Soldier Box, which tells the story of how his experiences on his first tour in Afghanistan changed how he saw Britain’s involvement there, feeling the war was being conducted with ‘racism and indifference to the Afghan people’. When it was time to return to Afghanistan for his second tour, he refused to go on moral grounds. For this, he spent five months in military prison. He now writes for various publications as well as his own blog   and is studying international relations. Here he shares his thoughts on conscientious objections and how it is perceived today.

One hundred years after Great Britain declared war against Germany, conscientious objection continues to be seen through the prism of World War One. But the issue cannot be understood in terms of ‘white feathers’ and ‘cowardice’ any more than resistance to war by soldiers can be explained away as deriving from some lamentable lack of patriotism.

As I pointed out to journalist Stephen Sackur on the BBC HARDTalk, it does not help us in our efforts to understand the world today, that we still occasionally rely on the ideas and vocabulary of a bygone age.

To sketch the global context, I have had contact with military resisters from across the world, many of whom were conscientious objectors of one form or another. I am waiting to encounter one single individual whose refusal of service or opposition to military deployment was informed by fear.

We are talking here about individual resistance to a system of power. This is not the stuff of shrinking violets. It is also worth noting that conscientious objection represents a single mode of military resistance. There are many methods besides this one which we lack the space to explore; some are spectacular, while others are quietly subversive.

Objection is not about choice in the abstract, liberal sense of the word and conscientious objection is categorically not a case of a soldier, sailor or airman getting out of bed one morning and deciding that he or she does not fancy fighting the war today. It is not something which a military contract can restrain and signing such a contract does not mean that you have relinquished your right to refuse. Objection is not something which is decided upon, it is something which is experienced and cannot be kept in check.

In the UK and elsewhere, conscientious objection is a legal and contractual right whether or not the military themselves like to admit it. Military authorities understandably fear and suppress knowledge of this right, but this has no bearing on whether or not it is a right in the first place. That said, the right to objection is much harder to exercise if few people know about it.

Even when an individual serviceman does raise an objection, the military response is inconsistent. This seems to indicate that the senior ranking personnel whose job it is to deal with an objection do not understand the process themselves. There are numerous modern examples of this:

Ben Griffin, an SAS soldier, refused to redeploy to Iraq. Fortunately, he was processed out of the military very quickly.

Michael Lyons, a Royal Navy medic, refused deployment to Afghanistan and got as far as the military’s little known conscientious objection board before being effectively told that because he was secular he could not have a conscience; meaning his objection was political.

I was refused my right as soon as I raised my objection to my chain of command. Both myself and Michael Lyons served prison sentences.

If we are going to grapple with the issue of objection we need to strip away a century of misinformation, cant and moralism. The centenary of the First World War is the ideal time to do so.

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