Peace Matters Index

oppressed and vilified

ONLINE contents

- oppressed and vilified
- corruption unlimited
- falklands action
- development and security
- problems with powers
- resisting the falklands war
  a retrospective
- Two Empires Gone and No Kipling Yet

- compled issue pdf

May 15 – International Conscientious Objectors Day – passed quietly in rain-drenched London’s Tavistock Square. Figures emerged from a canopy of umbrellas to lay fifty flowers, with the names of COs from fifty countries, in a symbolic act of remembrance.

Dozens of people huddling under umbrellas don’t make a good subject for photographs. On the other side of the world, in Seoul, rain also descended on campaigners on CO Day, but not until after they had made their protest: so we are able to publish a photograph of their ingenious campaign.

Military service in South Korea - a country still technically at war with North Korea – is mandatory. But people are increasingly questioning the compulsory nature of military service. ‘If I serve in the military, it would violate everything I believe in,’ said Oh Tae-yang.

There are over 1,000 South Koreans in prison because they refused the draft for religious and moral reasons. The current law makes no provision for conscientious objectors, who can face up to three years in prison. However, the law is currently under review by the Constitutional Court.

Here in Britain, a few days after the ceremony in Tavistock Square, we recorded the first of a series of in-depth video interviews. It was with a former CO, now in his eighties. Several COs who have agreed to take part in similar video interviews have told us that there’s nothing especially interesting or remarkable about their wartime experience; but of course that depends on how one looks at it.

There is a presumption that conscientious objectors were an oppressed and vilified minority who suffered miserably during the two world wars. It is true that many did suffer, particularly during the First World War. To be put in solitary confinement for months and years, or shipped across the Channel and sentenced to death, or crucified on barbed wire fencing: all these were surely ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments. It is also cruel to be forced to sit in a trench expecting a shell to rip your body apart at any moment. In war most people suffer one way or another, but there is something especially grotesque in being given a hard time by your own ‘side’ for refusing to kill.

Many COs in both wars (but more frequently in the second) had cordial as well as problematic relations with the civilian communities in which they lived and worked. It is the former kind which leads many to say that their experience is uninteresting when compared with the general perception that COs had a very bad time indeed. Like the dog that did not bark, this gives a different impression from the view generally promoted: that the country universally backed the war. It did not. ‘Some of our guards’ said Alfred, a CO working on the land side by side with Italian and German prisoners, ‘were more pacifist than we were.’

There are many reasons why people support war, and there are some minds we cannot hope to change. But most often the reason is simply fear: fear generated, in part at least, by ignorance not only of the causes of wars but also of the many available ‘alternatives’ to organised killing and destruction.

There are also several related reasons why we are busy video-recording conversations with conscientious objectors. One aim, of course, is to create a unique archive. Another is to produce – later this year or early in 2008 – a DVD based on these recordings. The DVD will also include study material for use in schools. No images of old soldiers, their blazers drooping with medals, sentimentalising a barbarous activity: instead, today’s young people can learn from the mouths of COs themselves that that war can be resisted – and discover why and how young people like themselves refused to take part in war.

‘Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war,’ said Tony Blair in May 1997. It wasn’t long before he put paid to that vision. We need to revive it in every way we can.

Jan Melichar


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