In Britain in the 1950s conscription was the norm. I was born in the middle of the second world war (1942) My mother would say later “but you must remember that Mickey Mouse gas mask, every child had one. ” But I didn’t; perhaps because I’d never had occasion to wear it. As a schoolkid I joined in Junior School playground chants such as “We won the war, in nineteen forty four” (Well, it rhymes, doesn’t it?) Our Dads, or at least some of them had returned from deserts and jungles with stories, black and white photos and unofficial souvenirs such as knives, german binoculars and signalling mirrors. My own dad had been in the Home Guard and spent most of the war on top of a church tower in Derby on the lookout for approaching german bombers. A bit of a let down really: the only souvenir we got from him was his uniform. At the first opportunity after the war was ended Mum and I stuffed his khaki uniform with old newspapers on Guy Fawkes night and burnt the effigy on a bonfire.
At secondary school we discussed whether we would join the army, the airforce or the navy when the day came . We decided poor old Parker wouldn’t qualify for any of them because his eyesight was so poor he wouldn’t be able to fire a gun straight. Our boys’ comics were full of war stories, the library was full of Biggles books which I devoured (though I never did discover what a joy-stick was!) and the cinema told us what heroes the British had been. Dad’s friend from work, Mr Cooper, took me to see navy films like “Battle of the River Plate” and “The Yangtse Incident”. As an ex-navy type he liked to explain things in the film to me. I just liked the battles and the explosions. At 15 I drove a tank at a recruitment fair the school sent us to. I really liked it and thought “this is the life!” At 18 the Navy took 4 volunteers from school on a 5 day trip on a minesweeper round Lands End in a force five gale. Minesweepers have no portholes. They are armour-plated and easily sink. The best thing about it was the free daily tot of rum . I think you have to be half sozzled to work on a boat like that. I thought “this is not the life for me!” But I like to think my 5 days in the military, well in the navy, (plus the 20 minutes in the tank) makes me a kind of veteran all the same.
Then they abolished National Service!
When I got to University, all the older students had been officers in Aden, fighting “Flossy” (Front for thr Liberation of South Yemen) or in Kenya fighting the Mau-Mau (Land Freedom Army) or in Cyprus….To say they looked down on saps like us was to put it mildly. The college staff too had little respect for us – we didn’t know how to order them about! Anyway the Empire was crumbling and Britain was apparently just a toothless old lion at America’s beck and call.
Now to get to the point of this Post – during all these years I was never aware of the existence of conscientious objectors. Military service was a duty, something all one’s uncles had done without a murmur. It was just a part of life for adult males at that time.
Now I see it somewhat differently. I demonstrated against the attack on Iraq by Blair and Bush. It was not done in our name! Biggest demo in history. I was randomly interviewed by an NBC television reporter. “Blair is Bush’s poodle,” I told him, “He doesn’t speak for the British people.” The reporter looked displeased, probably thinking to himself “Will anyone here say something we can actually broadcast back in the US?” Why were British troops in Iraq? Were the Iraqis climbing up the white cliffs of Dover to get at the Queen? Had they flown planes over and bombed our factories like the germans did? Why are we in Afghanistan? It used to be on the hippy trail. Friends of mine had come back with kaftans and great sheepskin coats. Now I’d never be able to go there!
“Conchies” in Britain today weren’t conscripted. They joined voluntarily and then changed their minds. You’re not allowed to leave just like that. There’s a procedure. You will be called a coward. You will be bullied. All your mates …you get the picture. It takes a brave man to do it. A man like Joe Glenton who fought in Afghanistan in 2006.
Joe began questioning what exactly the army were doing in Afghanistan.”We knew civilians were being bombed, we knew this operation that had started under the banner of peace-keeping and providing security just drifted straight into war fighting.” After further reading and reflection he decided the conflict was part of a much broader project in central Asia, not totally unconnected from the existence of 90 billion barrels of oil in the Caspian basin. He moved from a position of sensing that was going on was wrong and not wanting to be a part of it, to a more politically informed objection. He panicked at the thought of being sent back for another tour of duty and went AWOL. Because he spoke to the media, he was charged with desertion and sentenced to 9 months in Colchester military prison, where he found a lot of support for his position. He wrote a book about his expperiences (i) and to point out that you can be a CO even within the British Army. (ii)
The case for becoming a CO was made in a totally brilliant speech to the Oxford Union on 7th February 2013 by former SAS soldier Ben Griffin. In my 3 years of attending debates there when I was an undergraduate I never heard anything like this. (iii). The motion before the house was “I will not fight for Queen and country”. Here is an extract where Ben describes the realties of war:
“Long periods of waiting punctuated by unforeseen moments of extreme violence.
Having your legs blown off by an IED.
A supposed ally shooting holes in your chest.
Dying in a helicopter crash.
Burning to death in a transport plane.
Being beaten to death by an angry mob.
Being shot in the face as you break into someones home.
The reality is setting up thousands of checkpoints in the country you have occupied, disrupting the lives of the people and then killing them when they approach too quickly or fail to stop in time.
The reality is raiding people’s houses, using explosives to enter homes. Detaining previously unknown males some as young as 15 and handing them over to be tortured. Whilst their families are left to fend for themselves, Traumatised by your action.
The reality is killing people from the safety of an attack helicopter or drone control room. As if you are playing a computer game, with no regard for the lives of people who have been dehumanised.
Haji, Raghead, Sand Nigger, Chogie, Argie, Paddy, Gook, Chink, Jap. Kraut, Hun. All terms used by our armed forces. The product of a society which still believes in its superiority over other people’s and cultures.”
And here at the end of his speech is a declaration for humanity:
“I am a Human Being and my allegiance is not to Queen and Country but to the whole of Humanity.
I no longer accept the lies which perpetuate war.
I no longer accept that violence can lead to Peace.
Never again will I be complicit in the killing and torture of my Brothers and Sisters.
Never again will accept the vile religion of Patriotism.
I refuse to pull on that rancid uniform.
I refuse to fight for Queen and Country.”
To contact the organisation Veterans for Peace which was recently set up in the UK by Ben, Joe and some american Vets contact veteransforpeace.org.uk. This is the London chapter of an organisation set up in the US in 1985. The site lists a Statement of Purpose and a Statement of Non-Violence, and reprints the article “Joe Glenton a jailed war-resister” by Graeme Green from the Metro of 15th May, 2013 (Conscientious Objectors’ Day) (iv)
(i) Glenton, J. “Soldier Box” Verso (2013)
(ii) Williams, H. “Who are you calling a coward?” The Independent Magazine,18.05.2013
“TO BE CONTINUED SHORTLY