Conscientious Objection beyond the Military


Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Here, a UK based feminist discusses forms of action other than refusal to join the military which could nonetheless be considered forms of conscientious objection, despite also taking place outside of conscientious objection movements – at least as these are currently understood. 

For an antimilitarist, conscientious objection is likely to mean conscientious objection to participating in war via the military.  As militaries, both voluntary and conscripted, are overwhelmingly comprised of men, this means an antimilitarist conscientious objection movement will almost inevitably centre men.  But if the movement’s interest in conscientious objection lies in its anitmilitarist potential, then to avoid centring men in approaching conscientous objection is paramount, for the relationship between militarism, masculinity and male supremacy – as reading this book should make clear – is a circular one, and to centre men would be to sustain male supremacy and with it the whole cycle of militarism to which the movement is opposed.  This chapter discusses the pros and cons of thinking about forms of resistance to militarism other than refusal to participate in war via the military – forms of resistance more open to women – as forms of conscientious objection.  Such forms of resistance are then discussed in greater detail in the subsequent chapters.

In 2010, War Resisters' international (WRI) published an anthology of women conscientious objectors.  Some of these women were soldiers or would-be conscripts, but some were also objectors to being defined as supportive wives and mothers to soldiers, while others were objectors to supporting war and militarism in other ways, such as by performing ‘war work’.  Nora Page, for example, refused to be directed to do anything in war time – specifically during the second world war in Britain – that would not have been asked of her during peacetime.  But her situation was exceptional: Britain had introduced a form of ‘industrial conscription’, mobilising the whole of society behind that war.  Modern wars are not ‘total wars’, they do not require that society as a whole be mobilised in the same way – or at least, they do not require that all elements of society consciously contribute to the war effort.  However, it is worth noting that, especially in the minority or 'first' world, it is difficult not to unconsciously contribute to the war industry, given that some of the private companies with the biggest presence in our everyday lives are also war profiteers: think of HP or Samsung, which produce military as well as civilian technology.  Are there opportunities for conscientious objection beyond the military in this kind of world?

Women have in fact voiced objections in a plethora of ways that have undermined the war machine, even if they have not declared themselves conscientious objectors, or been included in WRI’s 2010 anthology.  Bunnatine ‘Bunny’ Greenhouse, for example, exposed a multibillion dollar no bid reconstruction contract, awarded by the US government in the run up to the Iraq war to a company called KBR, which was a subsidiary of another company called Halliburton, whose CEO was none other than the then vice president Dick Cheney.  Unfortunately, this story has all too often been framed as that of a brave woman trying to save the US taxpayer’s dollar, but her story also makes it irrefutable that senior government members responsible for sending the country to war had as much of a personal, financial interest in doing so as they had a care for the so called national interest – let alone the interests of any other nation.  She exposed war profiteering as a continuing driver for warmongering.

The Iraq war also lead to revelations of the lengths to which warmongerers would go to get their own way.  Katharine Gun, for example, exposed a US intelligence plot to spy on diplomats on the UN Security Council in order to blackmail them into sanctioning the war.  A previous whistleblower on US intelligence practices, Daniel Ellsberg, described her action of printing a confidential US memo and taking it to British newspaper The Guardian as unique: ‘no one else – including myself – has ever done what Katharine Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it’.  She did not, of course, avert that war.  She has, however, been explicit that this was her aim, though she never aligned herself very closely with the rest of the anti-war movement.  The question of interest in this handbook is whether her aim might have been achieved had she done so, and whether she would have been more likely to do so had the term conscientious objector been available to her as a way of conceptualising her own role.

We might also ask if her action could become less unique in the intelligence community if conscientious objection were considered as relevant a concern in their work as among soldiers’.  This story illustrates the crucial role intelligence can play in facilitating war, after all.  Bunny Greenhouse’s story, meanwhile, illustrates that conscientious objection could even be a relevant concern among construction workers, given the nature of the particular contract to which she objected.  We can also ask whether the consciences of those working for companies like Samsung and HP should always be easy about it.  Clearly, a definition of conscientious objection which broadens its scope to fields other than the military could be useful.

Indeed, it would be useful to pause over what we mean by conscientious objection in the first place: even in the military field, there is a broad spectrum among those who identify with the term, or who might be identified with it by others.  Not only are there both (would be) conscripts as well as ‘voluntary’ soldiers turned conscientious objectors, there are also conscripts and voluntary soldiers who object to all war and use of force alongside those who object to a particular war, or the use of force in a particular situation, or against particular people.  There are those who object to killing and those who object to being made to kill.  There are some whose objection is not so much to war or the use of force or killing or being made to kill, as to the military as an institution which perpetuates social forces to which they object more generally, such as sexism, racism, capitalism, heterosexism and (dis)ableism.  There are also those who simply and very understandably don’t want to be in the military or a warzone, and have no particular view on war, the use of force, killing, being made to kill, or the social forces listed above.  This last type of objector, whom WRI also supports, would not, however, be recognised as conscientious objectors in, for example, those laws which exist around the concept, as it is difficult to argue that their objection, however understandable, has anything to do with conscience.  From this perspective, if we are committed to the term conscientious objector over any other – we are using it in this book, after all, and the legal mechanisms which exist are not a negligible reason for doing so, even if much of the reason for doing so may also be habit – those who object to war in fields other than the military may actually be easier to accommodate than some soldiers.

This may, however, amount to privileging those whose stake in the issue is ‘less direct’: the life of neither Bunny Greenhouse nor Katharine Gun was put at risk by the prospect of war, as a soldier’s might be.  Then again, such a soldier might be quite happy to take the life of another, even if not with risk to his own.  And if our interest in conscientious objection is an interest in its potential for the struggle to create a world in which there is no war, and there are no militaries to wage it, then the conscientious part of conscientious objection is quite important, even if the term war resister or refuser might more honestly capture many of those who are currently involved in what we are terming ‘conscientious objection movements’: a world without wars or militaries to wage them must also, surely, be a world whose people are not happy to kill each other.  Besides, if we object to privileging those whose stake is 'less direct' – those who are not in the military – then we object to privileging a form of conscientious objection which is more likely to be undertaken by women.  Not to mention the fact that modern wars are increasingly ones in which – thanks to ‘innovations’ such as drone warfare – soldiers do not have a more direct stake than civilians, even if those civilians with a more direct stake are not minority world citizens such as Katharine Gun or Bunny Greenhouse.

There is, however, already a word for women such as Katharine Gunn and Bunny Greenhouse, in English at least, and probably also in other languages: they are whistleblowers.  What do we lose or gain by trying to reconceptualise them as conscientious objectors?  There is a connotation to the word whistleblower which is perhaps missing from conscientious objection: the whistleblower always wants to expose and put a stop to something, whereas conscientious objection can be much more private, a matter of not wanting to be personally complicit: a conscientious objector to a war does not necessarily seek to avert that war, as Katharine Gun did when she ‘blew the whistle’.  This may be why conscientious objection often has a strong religious connotation: the conscientious objector could conceivably be quite happy for their action to change nothing beyond their own life, at least in this world – though of course, this will not always or even usually be the case, even for religious objectors.  But if our interest in conscientious objection is precisely its capacity to change this world, then getting the whistleblower type on board is important.  Yet there is also a ‘lone wolf’ connotation to the whistleblower, even more so than to ‘conscientious objector’.  Is this really how we think the world is changed?

Given that our focus is on movements, probably not.  Indeed, this may be part of the reason Katharine Gun was less successful than she could have been at averting the Iraq war: because she operated alone.  The question is: how can someone like Katharine Gun be drawn into a movement?  Some personalities may simply prefer to operate alone of course, but it could also be a case of making our movements more generally accessible.  A key group in the UK's anti-Iraq war movement, for example, have since been exposed as a deeply sexist organisation with a severe accountability problem – so severe that allegations of rape against a member of the leadership were investigated by his friends and fellow party leaders, and quickly degenerated into an investigation of the rape survivor’s sexual and romantic history: it would be irresponsible to encourage women, or anyone vulnerable to sexual violence, to become involved with anything organised by such a group.

Plenty of women and members of other marginalised and therefore vulnerable groups did nevertheless become involved in the UK’s anti-Iraq war movement of course, but the huge numbers who took to the streets then have not continued to campaign, for example against the UK’s military intervention in Libya, or the renewal of Trident, or the creeping tide of militarisation in UK society – manifest, for example, in the creation of an Armed Forces Day, the government’s explicit policy of promoting a military ethos in schools, and saccharine commemorations of the world wars.  This does not suggest that the anti-Iraq war movement, as a potential ‘gateway movement’, managed to make its many participants feel particularly engaged with the broader issues in which that war was embedded.  This should not surprise us if the movement was dominated by one sexist organisation, whose rationale for its involvement was in any case not antimilitarism per se, but anti-imperialism. 





Despite the lack of a mass movement however, militarism has not gone completely unchallenged in the UK.  Indeed, there are people who have made it their life’s work to challenge militarism.  Emma Sangster is co-founder and coordinator of Forces Watch – an organisation which scrutinises the ethics of armed forces recruitment practices in the UK and challenges efforts to embed militarist values in the UK’s civilian society.  We spoke about whether she considered her work a form of conscientious objection and what she thought might be lost or gained in thinking about her work in those terms.

She explained that she had come to peace work in the wake of Britain’s imposition of sanctions on Iraq in 1991.  A statistic that stood out for her was that half a million children died unnecessarily as a result of those sanctions.  Something about the suffering of these children and ordinary people in Iraq lit a spark, a visceral sense that this was wrong and that she, as a British citizen, might be able to do something about it – given that her own government was responsible – and that she should therefore try.  She became involved with an organisation called Voices in the Wilderness, with whom she was active until the late 2000s, putting across the human face of Iraqi suffering to UK society. 

One of the reasons she felt happy with this group for so long was its contrast to many of the hierarchical, ideology driven organisations of the British left – such as eventually dominated the anti-Iraq war movement and in which members were expected to 'toe the party line'.  Not only were the personal relationships between members of Voices in the Wilderness stronger for the group being non-hierarchical, but working together from what might be termed the conscientious position of viscerally objecting to Iraqi suffering – as opposed to from an ideological position which saw campaigning against that suffering as part of a grand plan for revolutionary world change revolving around liberation from the faceless enemy of capital – gave them a more immediate stake in their work and allowed for a sense of fulfilment that may not have been possible had their end goal been a glorious revolution in the unseeable future.

The unpopularity of the war to which the UK eventually went in Iraq was a huge contributing factor to the government adopting various pro military measures as of 2008, when a report entitled ‘National Recognition of the Armed Forces’ was published, suggesting such measures as an attempt to ensure popular support for any future wars the UK might want to wage.  Even more so than had been the case when Britain imposed sanctions on Iraq in the early nineties, this was something to which Emma viscerally objected and about which she felt she was well positioned to take action, not only as a British citizen who could exert pressure on British policy, but as one who had gained a lot of experience in doing so.  Forces Watch was born in 2011.

The existence of Forces Watch is clearly a manifestation of conscientious objection, in the sense that it was born of the conscientiously held objection of one of its founders, and in the sense that it forms part of a continuum of war resistance.  However, too much talk of conscience or of war resistance could in fact be detrimental to the work of Forces Watch: in so far as Forces Watch has an agenda, this agenda can be carried by the evidence of hard facts, these being more likely to influence UK policy than either appeals to conscience or an a priori commitment against war which UK governments clearly do not share.  Nevertheless, if conscientious objection speaks to a visceral sense of wrong and personal responsibility to address that wrong, then Emma’s account of her experience of peace work makes a case for this being taken up as a position from which such work – and indeed much activism for progressive social change – can be fruitfully taken up.  Conscientious objection provides a language to articulate the premises of this position, which should clearly not only be accessible to those in the military.

Similarly, while there clearly should be specialist support for those who are conscientious objectors in the military or within the military system, like would be conscripts, there should also be support for those whose conscientious objection takes place outside the military, like Emma: to object to militarism is to object to powerful vested interests and patriotic, patriarchal values often instilled at a very deep level in those who support the military.  It is not risk free and does not come without a personal cost.  Those costs and risks are also incurred without recourse to the authority which the figure of the soldier turned conscientious objection often commands in the peace movement and wider society – though of course, wider society may equally see the soldier turned conscientious objection as a debased, emasculated figure, and the peace movement may see him as a victim.

Though there have not historically been movements built in support of conscientious objectors whose objections fall beyond the military, nor of such objectors working together and calling themselves conscientious objectors, there are well known examples to follow in the field of war tax resistance (see chapter 29) and movements such as the boycott of South African goods in protest at apartheid.  It should therefore be possible both to diversify the understanding of what counts as conscientious objection and of who can therefore be a conscientious objector, as well as to channel this diversified understanding into organised – though hopefully non-hierarchical and certainly non-sexist – movements.


Go to next chapter: 21st Century War Profiteering: more openings to object?


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