On International Conscientious Objectors’ Day we should remember those who bravely refused to wage wars and destruction, writes SYMON HILL
EIGHTEEN-year-old Israeli woman Omri Baranes was last week sentenced to 30 days in a military prison. Her “crime” is a refusal to fight for the euphemistically named Israeli Defence Force.
“The military creates a cycle of violence while claiming to the defend the country,” says Omri. “Public leaders are responsible for the creation of this criminal institution and our country is militaristic as a result.”
On the same day, the Israeli courts sentenced 19-year-old Tair Kaminer to her fifth prison sentence, as she repeatedly refuses to fight and insists that violence cannot solve the problems of Israel and Palestine.
Omri and Tair are among the hundreds of people around the world who are in prison for refusing to join armed forces. Over a hundred are locked up in South Korea alone.
This weekend, International Conscientious Objectors’ Day (CO Day) will be marked around the world. It is observed every year on May 15.
Conscientious objection is sometimes misrepresented as an individualistic attitude. In reality, COs do not generally demand exemption from the armed forces simply as a matter of personal choice. Refusal to fight is an act of resistance.
In Britain, mass conscription was first introduced 100 years ago, in 1916. Under pressure, the government offered exemption to those with a conscientious objection to killing. This clause of the Bill was openly jeered by Tory MPs when it was presented in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, it was passed. In the vast majority of cases, however, it was not honoured.
The reality of conscientious objection in WWI is revealed in stark form on the walls of Richmond Castle. The stones still display the graffiti of the COs who were imprisoned there in 1916. On one wall you can read the words: “The only war which is worth fighting is the class war. The working class of this country have no quarrel with the working class of Germany or any other country.”
The unnamed conscientious objector added: “Socialism stands for internationalism. If the workers of all countries united and refused to fight, there would be no war.”
This message remains just as relevant today.
In Britain, we no longer face physical conscription. Militarisation is now more subtle — but no less deadly.
We are taught from an early age that violence is the solution to conflict and that our first loyalty should be to the nation state in which we happen to have been born. The unquestioning obedience that is required of soldiers is held up as something to be admired rather than an assault on human dignity. The promotion of these attitudes from childhood is a form of mental conscription. Our bodies are not conscripted, but our minds are.
Our taxes are used to fund the fifth-highest military budget in the world (though you wouldn’t know it from the way the right-wing media talks about “defence cuts”). Even our language is conscripted, with preparations for war described inaccurately as “defence” and “security.”
Ever since the invasion of Iraq, politicians and generals have been unable to rely on the support of the British public when going to war. They have responded to anti-war feeling by whipping up support for the armed forces. Initiatives such as Armed Forces Day portray all forces personnel as heroes and present any questioning of their role as unpatriotic. Meanwhile, research reveals that armed forces visits to schools are more common in poorer areas, as the army attempts to recruit vulnerable young people with few options in life.
In one of the most absurd examples of everyday militarism, the RAF are planning a “flypast” over London LGBT Pride. Thus a human rights march is co-opted to promote militarism — the very opposite of human rights.
As everyday militarism becomes more and more visible, we need to resist it with everyday objection.
Ahead of CO Day, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) has called for critics of warfare to become “conscientious objectors” in everyday life.
This sort of resistance can take many forms: there are engineers who refuse to work in the arms industry, self-employed people who withhold tax in protest against military spending, teachers who object to the army cadets, LGBT people who speak out against the militarisation of Pride.
Everyday objection can be as simple as refusing to use the language of “defence” and “heroes.”
Resistance is varied. We are compiling examples of ways in which people are resisting everyday militarism — whether big or small, common or unusual. We would love to hear your own examples (contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
Conscientious objection is both a personal commitment and part of a wider struggle against war and exploitation. The socialist journalist Will Chamberlain, imprisoned for much of WWI, wrote that conscientious objection “is an active protest against what we consider the greatest evil in the world, and our method of protesting is to refuse to acquiesce by a single act or deed in a system which is indescribably evil, both in origin and purpose.”
Symon Hill is co-ordinator of the Peace Pledge Union.