Conscientious Objection and War Resistance


Tony Smythe

This is a plea to the pacifist movement to consign conscientious objection to the capable hands of liberal reformers in the civil liberty field and to get back to effective war resistance. Although a central aim of the WRI has been the recognition of the right of conscientious objection by governments, this issue is in the last analysis largely irrelevant to the anti-war struggle today. The individual stand of the pacifist who is labelled 'conscientious objector' is, on the other hand, the seed from which resistance can grow. The discussion, which should have taken place many years ago amongst pacifists, is how to translate the individual stand into group action with clearly defined policies and objectives. It has taken a Vietnam to remind us that resistance to the draft, to conscription, is one of the most effective weapons left when appeals to reason and traditional protest fail. This article is an attempt to trace and compare the parallel development of anti-militarist resistance to conscription and the response of conscientious objectors. This should be the setting for a rethinking of pacifist strategy for the future.

Organised war resistance may net have stopped a single war but on a modest scale throughout the century, and in many countries, it can lay claim to significant achievements which it would be valuable for us to recognise.

'Conscription is the badge of a slave.' Now perhaps the majority or the world's male population are wearing that badge.

Men have always been impressed, levied, requisitioned, conscripted and bullied into the armies of their rulers but modern mass compulsory recruitment has been applied on a scale which makes it one of the major repressive institutions of our time, It is an integral part of the total war concept.

Compulsory recruitment is one definition but conscription could be interpreted more widely. In an economy geared to military preparedness men are compelled to work in war industries because these provide a sizeable proportion of the total number of jobs, Scientists and technicians are compelled to lend their intelligence to destruction because science and technology are geared to military needs. War-thinking confronts us through every mediums of mass communication. When war comes we cease to be human beings at all and are compelled to become permissible military targets.

On the social side, as someone once said, 'Conscription is a tremendous leveller The proud are humbled; the poor spirited are strengthened; the national ideas are fostered; the interplay of various ideals is sacrificed. Good or bad, black or white, all are chucked indifferently into the mill and emerge therefrom no longer black or white, but a drab, uniform khaki'. It sparks off the same negative will to conform and bend to higher authority in the young man which later in life helps him to clock in on time every morning at the factory or troop off obediently to the polls after dubious promises. The most startling and depressing fact is that, after encountering resistance which went far beyond the hounds of peace concern, military conscription has become acceptable and increasingly so to the majority, to the extent that in many countries it is a recognised component of national life.

Conscription came into its own with the French revolution. At the first taste of democracy, the French were quick to see the potential danger of a permanent, professional military caste, Their response in the name of democracy was the Citizen Army and, in 1793, universal military service. The democratic aspect of conscription has been a favourite justification ever since. It was used by socialist leaders Jean Juarés before World War I and Léon Blum before World War II, to coax a reluctant Anglo-Saxon world in the same direction.

How democratic was it in fact? With his vast armies, Napoleon was able to embark upon a series of imperialist adventures. Frenchmen who did not respond to the call were soon taught a lesson. In 1807 a man who used a false document to save his son from service was given 8 years' labour in irons, branding with a hot iron, 6 hours' exposure and a fine. Refractory conscripts were punished by death or the 'peine de boulet'-- 10 hours hard labour a day for 10 years chained to an iron ball, and solitary confinement. In 1910 a French prime minister used conscripts to break a national rail strike and his example has been repeated many times since, notably by the 1945-50 British Labour Government against the port workers.

As conscription spread through Europe, its colonies and North America, resistance grew, In 1863 it required 10,000 infantry, 3 batteries of artillery and a division of the National Guard to force the draft on an unwilling working population of New York City. 1,200 were murdered in the process quite apart from casualties amongst the military.

From 1903-14 the Australians passed a mass of legislation on the military obligations of men between the ages of 12 and 60 and in 1911 compulsory training for cadets aged 14-18 was actually put into operation, If the authorities expected that the young would be submissive, they were wrong. From 1912-15 27,749 prosecutions of boy defaulters or their parents were made resulting in 5,732 prison sentences. These and other acts of non-cooperation with creeping conscription led to the downfall of a Labour government, an irreparable spilt in the party, organised opposition by the trade unions, the creation of various civil liberties and peace movements and the negative vote in two national referenda during World War I to the proposition that there should be universal conscription for overseas service in Europe. Many young boys faced the rigours of military prison. solitary confinement and bread and water, The issue was not. so much participation in the war as compulsion.

In New Zealand the boys formed their own organisation, the 'Passive Resisters' Union' and made their political opposition more explicit. Iii the vigorous language of youthful revolutionaries they stated, "Because we are born free and in spite of all the attempts to force the fetters of Conscription on us, we will not tolerate serfdom ... Will you join us and stand solidly against tyranny and oppression'. From 1911-13 10,245 prosecutions were made, History repeated itself between the wars and 40,000 boys were prosecuted. As a result the military training laws were suspended in 1931.

During World War I feeling was strong in Britain although it was closer to the battlefront and war hysteria was at its height. Only in January 1916 was and it was not until 1918 that the provisions of the Act were made universal, An attempt was made to include the Irish who stoutly refused to comply. The attempt was abandoned. Perhaps there is a slight parallel here with the attitude of French-Canadians during World War II.

Holland was always the home of much political resistance to. conscription and Immediately following World War II thousands of war-weary Dutchmen refused to be drafted to put down the liberation movement in Indonesia. A similar mood prevailed during the Algerian War. In 1955 conscripts demonstrated against the war at the Gare de Lyon in Paris, again as they were boarding ship in Marseille and in Algiers itself. By 1960 over 3000 soldiers had deserted and made their escape via the mysterious Jean Jeanson network.

The underground movement, Jeune Résistance, was established 'to be a platform for the French youth which opposes the Algerian War and fascism; to spread the true facts of the war and the political situation in France as seen by young militants: to coordinate all forms of resistance, individual and collective; to organise the reception of resisters who manage to escape abroad'. It advised and offered suggestions for action. 'Those of you who arc preparing to go abroad should realise that a mass resistance movement is the thing which most frightens the government and those who support militarism ... Those of you who are in prison have a moral authority which you should not underestimate. ... Try to establish contact with Algerian prisoners and French resisters. ... You who are in Algeria should take note of whet. you see and write home often to make known the realities of the war ... Counteract brainwashing. ... Sabotage the distribution of military tracts and publications.' Friends abroad were able to help by finding jobs and accommodation and in gaining permission for resisters to stay. On the whole the movement tended to support the Algerian FLN rather as some sections of the peace movement today have supported the Viet Cong.

So far I have restricted myself to just a few examples of general, non-pacifist resistance. Conscientious objection is no less important but until recently it has been regarded as rather different. This very separateness, the gulf between collective and individual action, between a moral stand and a political strategy has perhaps contributed to the lack of much effective mass resistance to war service in the nuclear age.

In Britain during World War I, there were about 16,000 COs of all types. Of the 6,264 who were refused recognition, 4,500 worked outside prison under penal regulations and 1,500 went to prison for non-cooperation. Of these 900 served sentences of 2 years or more, 10 died in prison, 31 went insane, 34 wore sentenced to death (but later reprieved through the direct intervention of the prime minister) and many suffered permanent disability because of appalling prison conditions. From 1939-48 the number of men and women COs reached about 69,000 out of a total of 9,332,519 conscripts. 5,770 were prosecuted for various offenccs under the National Service Act.

In the USA after the conscription law was passed in May 1917, 64,693 men whose non-combatant service, which was the only alternative for COs, as opposed to a total of 2,810,296 inducted into the forces and 17,000 'draft evaders', 17 COs were sentenced to death by court martial (later commuted), 142 to life imprisonment, 3 to 50 years, 4 to 40 years and 57 to 25 years. Most of these sentences were later modified and by 1933 all had been released from prison. During World War II there were approximately 100,000 COs out of 34,000,000 registrants.

Painting the picture at its blackest. COs have been shot; they have seen the inside of concentration camps and gas chambers; where no legislation existed, they have been regarded as deserters and treated accordingly; in recent years they have been imprisoned for periods of between 5-10 years on both sides of the Iron Curtain; they have been relieved of their civil rights and even their jobs, ration cards and passports. Whatever system they have lived under, they have had to face governmental suppression and social disapproval.

Prisoners for Peace Day (December 1, organised by the WRI) each year reminds us of how many COs end up in prison in so many countries. On the positive side, their struggles have led to improvements in their own condition and to certain social gains. Conscientious objection should be regarded as a basic human right. It has been recognised as such in many countries throughout the world e.g. in Western Europe (exceptions: Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal); North America; Australasia; the German Democratic Republic --a unique example which, after Stalin withdrew privileges granted by Lenin, other communist dominated countries have not followed, although they have dealt with some cases sensibly and humanely.

The right was not won easily -- particularly in France. There in 1960 some men were serving their tenth year in prison. The maximum was reduced to 5 years in 1963. That same year the veteran liberation campaigner, Louis Lecoin, fasted almost to death and extracted a promise from President De Gaulle to release those in prison and introduce a statute for COs. In 1963 the statute went into operation with provisions for alternative service. The end of the Algerian War and the needs of nuclear strategy may have been contributing factors but this in no way diminishes the triumph of one man in winning against the military.

In many European countries it was the C0s who led the field in seeking to provide opportunities for the young to serve the community by voluntary social service. The Swiss pacifist, Pierre Ceresole, founded the Service Civil International. In Denmark, even during Nazi occupation, COs were discussing how the scars of war could be removed through community service over borders. With the approval of the government, a relief organisation was set up by COs in 1946 to send long-service volunteers to the developing countries. When in Belgium the CO position was at last gaining some recognition, a governmental technical assistance scheme was launched in 1961 to send about 1,400 volunteers annually to the 'third world' for terms of 3 years as a substitute for military service. Most of them have been COs. Other examples incline the Friends Ambulance Unit the British Pacifist Service Unit and the American CO 'guinea pigs' for medical research. Prison reform would not have been the same in Britain and the USA had not the COs been so vocal about their experiences in prison. The years since 1958 have brought an encouraging increase in the size and influence of peace movements. It is hard to think of one in which COs have not been active. They have contributed their experience and burning commitment if not always their political wisdom.

Even if this list of achievements were extended it is all too obvious that the objectives which more politically minded COs could endorse, such as the end of conscription, mass resistance to war and social change to remove the causes of war, are as far away as ever. The difficulty has been that COs have never constituted a movement with precise political aims.

Closest to this was the thinking around the WRI in the 1930s, associated with such names as Bart de Ligt, and again in the WRI after the 1960 Gandhigram conference in India. But COs cannot be. said to have formed n coherent body of opinion at all for their motives have been varied to the extreme and have even been contradictory. The proportion of COs from fundamentalist Christian sects with little inclination to work with the peace movement has increased while the proportion with recognisable political attitudes has decreased. The international socialist and trade union element, at one time so prominent, has faded away as the Labour Movement has become a willing accomplice in the building of militarism. With CO numbers never within sight of 1%. of the total conscripted, the old pacifist slogan 'War will cease when men refuse to fight' appears to be demonstrably irrelevant to the bulk of young war resisters today. The greatest paradox of all is that the attainment of CO laws has, if anything, increased the effectiveness of the conscription system, It has bestowed the badge of consent on what I have tried to show is one of the most unacceptable of modern state institutions. It has provided an efficient mechanism for weeding out a tiny minority who would be a nuisance in the services and has neutralised their capacity to arouse public guilt from behind bars. It follows that conscientious objection in the accepted sense has little relevance for resistance to war. in the future.

There remains the grim tact of the growth and extent of the conscription system today in spite of the fact that nuclear strategy would seem to dictate a decrease in military manpower. It covers all the Warsaw Pact and other communist nations, the vast majority of US allies in every corner of the globe (including those not belonging to SEATO, CENTO and NATO), the Spanish speaking world and most, of the major neutral or non-aligned nations. As far as the developing countries are concerned, one is left with the impression that if they retain the voluntary principle at all it is only because they cannot afford anything more comprehensive. In India, compulsory military training was introduced in 1963 under the title National Cadet Corp, and in 1965 this was extended to secondary schools. Apart from the traditional Cold War line-up. Few countries can resist the luxury of a border dispute, a neo-imperialist threat or an internal security risk, be they real or imaginary. The nuclear cloud has done little to remove the old justifications of militarisation and if anything the number of adversaries willing to wage conventional or guerrilla warfare is growing.

Among the richer nations Britain and Canada are almost unique in not maintaining any form of national service and in the ease of the former this may be due to a government parliamentary majority of 3. Australia recently reintroduced the draft to meet commitments to the Americans in South Vietnam.

To continue the war in Vietnam the US Government is relying on the draft system which, by extending the categories for selection, can provide an ever-ready supply of cannon fodder. Perhaps because of the barbarism of this attack by a super-power on a tiny nation, or perhaps because the thought of nuclear war lurks behind every conventional engagement, there has been a reaction against the draft which may turn into the, most startling mass refusal to participate in the war. It is significant that this reaction has not been dominated by conscientious objectors who form but a small proportion of the American boys who are unwilling to go to Vietnam. The rest are called draft dodgers by the press. In spite of the note of moral censure (from those whose morality does not extend to condemnation of US intervention) draft dodging is the most encouraging development the peace movement could have hoped for. It is said that there are a minimum of 3,000 draft dodgers over the border in Canada. Peace and civil liberty organisations in Europe are being inundated by enquiries from American students who are not prepared to return home to he drafted to Vietnam. Cassius Clay and the militant wing of the civil rights movement have started a process which may disaffect the entire American Negro community.

The need is therefore for the pacifist movement to relate its activities to these political and social developments. We cannot leave draft dodgers and deserters to dodge by themselves -- particularly in view of the WRI's leaflet to American Soldiers. The Canadian peace movement has provided an encouraging example in the assistance which is given to those who have fled from the USA. A small group exists in France for the same purpose. The next objective should be to provide a network throughout Western Europe which would assist American students, in obtaining further deferment to continue their studies; arrange legal defence if deportation were threatened; support applications for political asylum; provide travel documents, jobs and whatever material help is necessary. Further, we should continue to contact all the many thousands of Americans in Europe, whether civilian or military, and encourage them to think about the consequences of Vietnam for their country and for themselves. If this thought should lead them to withdraw their services from their Government they should have the firm assurance that the peace movement will stand with them. Today war resistance should not necessarily lead to the prison gates as it did when the number of resisters was small, Hopefully that number, at least as far as Americans are concerned, is growing fast. Martyrdom will not appeal to those non-pacifist reluctant American recruits whose political connections to the war in Vietnam are not so important as their personal objections. Most of them may not be very idealistic or adventurous or rebellious, They just don't want to go and that should be a good enough reason to help them. Because they are none of these things they are unlikely to relish the prospect of permanent exile or long residence in countries where they do not understand the language or are unlikely to adapt to social conditions. This will place a special burden on the peace movement in Canada, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Scandinavian countries.

War resistance can be organised -- up to a point. Hut effective war resistance arises out of the social and political situation. An antiwar situation is happening now. In the past the WRI has looked after the interests of a small number of conscientious objectors, While continuing to do this we should now look after the interests of draft dodgers, deserters or, as I would prefer to call them, war resisters.

Source: Conscientious Objection and War Resistance, in War Resistance, Vol. 2, No 21, 2nd quarter 1967

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