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- War withouth end
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- Soldiers on the batlefield
- What an I doing to stop the war?
- Question time?

Peace Matters


Ben Copsey reflects on the value of talking about the resistance to war by WW1 conscientious objectors amid the clamour to commemorate, ‘remember and commercialise the 1914-1918 conflict.

November is always a busy month on the Objecting to War project as national interest in the First World War has never been higher, and we’ve been making sure the stories of Conscientious Objectors aren’t lost in the clamour to commemorate, “remember” and commercialise the 1914-1918 conflict.
We’ve travelled all over London, and beyond, delivering talks, workshops and Question and Answer sessions in libraries, archives, museums, schools and universities, talking about Conscientious Objection but also hopefully leaving the audience with an enduring question - “What am I doing to end war?”
It’s a tricky balance. Everyone wants a historical talk, something to listen to and learn from, delivered in a comfortable environment with hopefully a wine and cheese reception afterwards, but does anyone want to be preached to about their responsibilities towards conflict in the modern world and, depending on the venue and the type of talk, is it even an appropriate place to loftily pontificate on pacifist theory?

As we do more and more talks with the project I think we’re getting better at striking this balance. We do this in a couple of main ways.
The first is the easiest - we talk about history. Conscientious Objection is an endlessly fascinating and emotive subject, one based on the ideals and aspirations of a diverse and inspiring group of men acting in the hope of a better world one hundred years ago. Just talking to people about Conscientious Objection, simply explaining some of the experiences COs had and their reasons for refusing to kill proposes the subject as something worth talking and thinking about. It drags Conscientious Objection out of the shadows of history where it’s been consigned - as something cowardly, shameful and wrong - and makes it a relevant topic, encouraging people to think about what it entails, what it means and why it happened.

The second is sometimes controversial, but always necessary - talking about the present. Conscientious Objection isn’t just a historical fact, but a present day reality. Whether discussing the nations that still today force their young men and women into the Armed Forces, or into National Service, or Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation, we try to remind our audience that Conscientious Objection is not a dead subject, but one that is still, shockingly, relevant today
The talks and lectures we deliver always end on the same point, conveniently coming back to the PPU offices, with the CO Plaque. It’s a good place to end a talk on, not because it’s particularly good to focus on the dead - unlike other aspects of First World War heritage, I prefer to focus on the future, embodied by the COs that survived, but because of the tribute carved on it: “It is by the faith of the idealist that the ideal comes true”. The audiences we talk to are not pacifists, they might not be interested in peace at all. They aren’t guaranteed to be sympathetic, so to stress that COs were working towards the ideal of world peace can be a powerful message. “Whatever you think about Pacifism” I always say, “you can’t argue with that ideal - that’s what they were trying to achieve”. Hopefully showcasing, if only briefly, that ideal gets people to think about it and even perhaps act towards it.

These three points sound simple, but I think they’re key to moving beyond a purely historical talk into something that contributes to the work we do here at the PPU. Draw in an engaging way on the experiences of the past, connect it to the present and talk about the plaque in a way that points towards a better future. That’s not to say that there’s a rigid formula, or that every talk is the same. This month we’ve talked about local COs in Uxbridge, the nature of Edwardian Pacifism in Cambridge and how COs felt in prison with schoolchildren in Islington. In each case though, the idea has been the same. Avoid high-horse preaching, make the story of conscientious objection accessible and instead of dwelling on the past as a curiosity, make Objection important, relevant and about hope for the future - a future that rests as much with the audience as with the peace movement.

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