|Conscientious Objectors Memorial,|
Tavistock Square, London, England.
Photograph by Vernon White, provided via Wikimedia Commons
People were waiting in line for coffee at work one morning a few years ago when someone commented that every day, week, or month had some significance attached to it by one or more organizations: religions, legislative proclamations, charities —whatever. We started talking about days and months that were of particular relevance to us and then, no doubt, went off and looked days up if we had nothing to contribute to the conversation.For instance, June is Adopt a Shelter Cat Month, while the Church of England has a Commemoration for George Fox on January 13, the day of his death in 1691. (When I first saw this, to my great delight, in a British version of the Book of Common Prayer, I realized that human progress is not always an illusion.) Today, May 15, is International Conscientious Objectors Day, a date chosen for reasons that I have not yet been able to determine.
The history of war is taught all too well; the history of pacifism rarely merits more than a mention in the school curriculum, with the exception of those schools affiliated with the historic peace churches. I learned this myself recently when I was discussing the Grade 10 Ontario history curriculum with our teenaged daughter. Despite having two Quaker parents who have used the term “peace testimony” with some regularity, she had never heard the phrase “conscientious objector,” at least in the sense (to use the definition from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) of “a person who for reasons of conscience objects to military service.”
Part of the explanation in this case is that our daughter is in a form of French immersion and has had all of her social studies classes in French. She thus has to learn both the history and the terminology and with some justification gets concerned when her Anglophone parents provide information that will not be on any exam but will entail learning words for which she will lose points if she gets them incorrect. While the term “draft” might be unfamiliar, “conscription,” a word the same in French and English, would result in a detailed response from her about the (Canadian) War Measures Act of World War I and the introduction of compulsory military service in Canada in World War II. Her meticulous notes contained references to pacifistes (in this case, Mennonites and Doukhobors were given as examples, primarily in regard to World War I), but there was absolutely nothing about what happened when a pacifist was faced with conscription in wartime, other than the fact that Canadian pacifistes were disenfranchised during World War I. At that point, I went to Robert Bothwell’s Penguin History of Canada, which covers the issues in the school curriculum in more detail. Since I went to high school in the US, I had only a passing knowledge at best of the Canadian history of conscientious objection. The Penguin History was more helpful on the point of the Mennonites and Doukhobors, but not much more enlightening on the whole. (See here for a description of the history of conscientious objection in Canada from a Mennonite perspective.)
A few days later, I approached the Friend on Ministry and Counsel (a committee in some Yearly Meetings that handles the combined responsibilities of Elders and Overseers in the UK) whose job it was to set up monthly discussions on topics of Friendly interest. This Friend is one of the more perceptive thinkers about Quakerism that I have come across, so I expected that a thoughtful reply. I cleared my throat: “Maybe we should talk about the peace testimony from the historical perspective and include conscientious objection. It’s not taught in the schools. After all, the centenary of World War I is upon us, and there is all that nasty stuff about Lord Kitchener, for whom the city is named.” (I had already told him about what I had learned about Lord Kitchener.) “Yes, we should be doing the peace testimony soon, but I am not so sure about newcomers being interested in conscientious objection. Why do you think it should be a priority?”
Our Friend had a point. Canada has never had peace time conscription, in part because both World Wars were controversial in Quebec. While the US had the draft through the Vietnam era, the youngest people affected by the US draft are now older than the newcomers whose needs are at the forefront of the discussions. The Young Friend we both know who, like a number of his generation, moved from the US to Canada because he felt his own ability to apply for CO status (and, in all likelihood, to be accepted for it) was unjust when so many others had no alternative to being sent to Vietnam or crossing the Canadian border, is now a grandfather. (Those who left the US during Vietnam later received an amnesty, but that is another story.) The cases of the recent US service people who came to Canada recently for similar reasons to the young men of the Vietnam era, but who were sent back in a completely different political climate, would in all fairness come at the end of a discussion aimed at newcomers, not at the beginning.
Why, then, is conscientious objection relevant in a country that has had no conscription for nearly 70 years? First, Quakerism began in England in a time of social, political, and military turmoil. The question of serving in the army of either Oliver Cromwell or the king was behind the development of what came to be known as the Quaker peace testimony. It was the rationale for Friends’ famous reply to King Charles II in 1661, “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world.”
The times in the history of our Society when male Quakers did not have to think about at least the possibility of being “encouraged” to sign up, if not drafted (and for female Quakers to have been faced with these issues at second hand), have been far fewer than the times when male military service was almost universal. Even today, the United States has Selective Service registration for almost all young citizens and immigrants from 18 to 25, which also applies to the tens of thousands of dual citizens living in Canada and elsewhere. Because the resulting database can be use to set up conscription at short notice, people who would wish to declare themselves as conscientious objectors in the event of conscription are advised to start preparing a dossier as soon as they turn 18. Such documentation is also required if someone enlists and then develops moral objections along the way.
Then there are the countries with conscription, Russia and Ukraine being among them. In some of these nations, conscientious objection is very difficult to obtain (cf. reports from the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection and the Quaker Council on European Affairs on cases in Europe alone). In others, conscientious objection is not allowed under the law, despite the efforts of the United Nations. (The main problem is that it is not explicitly recognized by human rights conventions.) People have gone into self-imposed exile to avoid military service, even if they are entitled to desk jobs; others have gone to prison. Their comfort is that the fate of others has been and occasionally continues to be worse.
While Friends, like members and attenders of other historic peace churches, have often been conscientious objectors to military service, not all have taken this stand. Richard Nixon is an example of the large number of American Quakers who fought in World War II. Conversely, conscientious objectors come from all religious backgrounds, or none —not just the historic peace churches. A member of my own extended family, a conscientious objector during World War II, fell into this broader category.
The modern concept of conscientious objection first developed in the United Kingdom and some other English-speaking countries such as the US and Canada during World War I. It was revised and expanded during World War II and has undergone further development since, with court rulings and laws in various countries that permit conscientious objection on philosophical grounds and not necessarily strictly religious ones. Generally, conscientious objection must be to all wars that one might reasonably be asked to fight in at the time asked, and not particular ones. (It was the latter issue that sent a number of young Americans to Canada during the Vietnam era.) Men —and it is still almost always men, except for women requesting to leave the military for reasons of conscientious objection— have to prove their cases before assessors whose credentials vary depending on the country (and often within parts of the same country). If someone is approved for alternate service, that service can be non-combatant (e.g., in a military medical corps or ambulance service) or civilian (e.g., working as a hospital orderly or doing manual labor). Absolute objection, that is, the objection to any form of alternate service on the grounds that doing so frees up someone else for war work, has not been accepted in the last century the English-speaking countries known to me. Although all “conchies,” as they were called, suffered greatly during World War I, the Absolutists such as the Richmond Sixteen and the Harwich “Frenchmen” were initially sentenced to death and later had their punishments commuted to hard labor. (See my previous discussion on Lord Kitchener re the Richmond Sixteen.)
In any case, objector status is not easy to obtain, and laws are not always fairly applied. For these reasons, and for countless others, Friends have always opposed military conscription. Even in places where there is no obligatory military service, conscientious objection is also relevant, both in its own right and as a broader moral issue. Soldiers who enlist may develop moral objections for a variety of reasons. The United States has for some time recognized the rights of these men and women to a discharge on grounds of conscientious objection, despite difficulties in its application. Canada has done so since 2004.
In the broader sense, we are all “conscripted” as taxpayers to pay for past, current, and future wars. For US taxpayers in particular, putting two wars on credit cards, so to speak, raises a huge number of ethical concerns, which include the fact that some of the debt is held by countries such as the People’s Republic of China, which has a large military in its own right. Court decisions have not backed up the right to conscientious objection to these taxes, and those of us who work for third parties all have automatic payroll deductions.
Service as a conscientious objector requires its own kind of heroism. Those who have put themselves in positions of danger have often run risks similar to those of combatants. In other cases, the sacrifices are different, but that does not mean that they do not exist. Officials in the Carter administration in the US in the late 1970’s briefly considered the possibility that women, as well as men, would have to register for the draft. Since I was of the age in question, I started considering who might help me assemble a dossier if need be. I spoke with a Quaker who had done alternate service as a conscientious objector in the mid-twentieth century and had then served as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War. He had no problem agreeing to a letter (which, as we now know, never needed to be written), but a few weeks later after Meeting he took me aside unexpectedly and spoke quietly. “There is always a price for conscientious objection. You may or may not know what that price is or will be. It may be then or later. You may pay the price, or it may be someone else. At the time may not even know the person who will pay. But there is always a price.”
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Tavistock Square, London, England.
Photograph by Mark Barker, made available through Wikimedia Commons