Conscientious objection today: resisting militarism
Resisting militarism was an important aspect of some conscientious objectors’ resistance to joining the army in World War I. Militarism is the belief that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests. Militaristic attitudes see military responses as particularly effective.
In order to sustain the idea of military ‘solutions’ the government needs enough support from the general public. This often manifests as unquestioning acceptance of the armed forces and, by extension, their work.
Hannah Brock of War Resisters’ International shares her thoughts on resisting militarism today, using some of the ideals of those who objected 100 years ago.
The impulse to solve and keep the lid on 'problems' using militarised violence is everywhere – in the actions of the British military abroad, in the increasingly militarised police at home, and in our everyday lives.
But, unlike over sixty countries around the world, the state no longer needs obligatory military service to uphold it. As Ben Griffin, founder of Veterans for Peace UK said recently “They don't need to conscript your body any more; they conscript your minds and your money”. The challenge today then is to resist conscription in all its forms.
There are ways we can challenge the use the idea of conscientious objection here in Britain today, to put a spanner in the works of militarism.
Conscientious objection for serving soldiers
You still have the right to become a conscientious objector (CO) when you join any military voluntarily, so there is work to do to support COs in the British armed forces who develop a conscientious objection after joining. Groups such as At Ease support those who are considering leaving, and the website Before you sign up gives information online. Both need more volunteers.
I would question, however, the very idea of 'voluntary' enlistment. As WRI's book Sowing Seeds: The militarisation of youth and how to counter it puts it,
'For a war to be waged, sufficiently many people have to actively wage it and sufficiently many people have to passively accept and condone it. And since war is not a particularly pleasant business, an effort has to be made to educate people to accept war, to prepare for it, and to fight in it, preferably from a young age.'
In Britain, this education happens in a number of ways, and affects children at a very young age. Respect – even love – for the military is propagated in mainstream media, through the government's strategy to increase engagement with the military within civil society, and in a plethora of other cultural forces.
I grew up on the Isle of Wight, and everyone I know who joined the military did so for want of other job options. This is often referred to as the 'poverty draft': lack of economic opportunities meaning that actually people don't feel like they have a choice about whether to enlist in the army, or not. With army recruitment visits to schools focusing disproportionately on poorer areas, and the concerted effort to inject militarism into young peoples' lives, what do we mean by 'voluntary' enlistment?
We call the many ways in which we are persuaded to see military values as neutral and beneficial 'everyday militarism'. Militarism is impossible to avoid in Britain; it underlies and infiltrates our lives. Bank and pension funds invest in the arms trade; the gym I (occasionally!) go to gives 'British military fitness' classes; universities have relationships with arms manufacturers; a group of young cadets fill shopping bags in aid of Help the Heroes; our taxes pay for drones, for bombing Syria, and for military recruitment campaigns (sadly, they don't pay enough to support veterans who are injured and disabled by war); my favourite museum is sponsored by weapons dealers; schools host 'camo days', in which all the children arrive in school dressed in camouflage gear... The list is endless.
Collusion with the ‘military industrial complex’ is more or less unavoidable in Britain. But the more we talk about its creeping roots the less militarism gets to be seen as natural, uncontroversial and benevolent. And that's a start. By not 'going along with the crowd', we can both free ourselves of the power militarism has over our own minds, and help others to recognise its potency.
Deeply held individual convictions, such as those of conscientious objectors, can inspire collective nonviolent action. As a Quaker I'm down with that.
Those on twitter might like to use the hashtag #EverydayMilitarism to expose instances they come across.
Images courtesy of War Resisters' International.
The Quaker peaceworker scheme supports organisations like WRI by funding one-year placements in organisations working for peace and social justice. Find out more about the peaceworker scheme.
Find out more about the new tide of militarisation.
On arrival at Boulogne, Bert and his comrades from Richmond Castle discovered that another group of conscientious objectors had also been sent to France with the threat of being shot if they continued to refuse orders. They did not know whether the other group – which included Howard Marten – had given in or been executed.
Bert was concerned that campaigners in Britain should hear about what was going on and know that they were in Boulogne. He described what happened next.