Wednesday 15 May 2013

Pondering Conscientious Objectors Day

On today's train journey to Birmingham I picked up a copy of the freebie Metro newspaper, normally a shallow read it surprised me to find an interesting article on Conscientious Objectors Day, which is today. The article largely focused on Joe Glenton, who, after one tour of Afghanistan, refused to go back.

It is of course easy to switch on the righteous indignation about "conchies" when brave men and women are dying for their country but it struck me there were two parts to the debate that warranted thinking about.

Whilst not all wars are just, and Joe certainly offers an opinion on Afghanistan that "It was conducted in a climate of racism and indifference to the Afghan people, completely at odds with how it’s sold at home", servicemen and women have laid down their lives for the cause of freedom and the right of individuals to safely express their own opinions, after all that is what democracy is about.

Of course this is balanced by the need for people to protect that freedom but in some way, that we allow for people to object on the reason of conscience reinforces the difference between countries where one is allowed to express their opinion and those that don't.

The second part of the debate was around whether soldiers should "pick and choose" the wars they want to fight. Of course this way leads to anarchy and as such should not be the case, but on the flip side it is established in international law that soldiers cannot use the "I was only obeying orders" defence and that they have the right to not obey illegal orders. The question is whether this extends to illegal wars and thus the relationship between the politician who starts the war and the soldier that fights it. SAS veteran Ben Griffin, who served in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan, refused to serve in Iraq as he believed the role he was being asked (by the Government who led the country into the war) to undertake was contrary to that which he believed British soldiers should be undertaking.

The old fashioned simple view that a conscientious objector is just a fancy name for a coward is clearly false and many who object for reasons of conscience are clearly brave to stand up and cite their beliefs, especially when the outcome can be imprisonment (or in some countries worse).

I'm not sure what I think but Conscientious Objectors Day has given me food for thought and made me ponder the subject.

There probably is not a definitive right answer to the subject other than that war should only be undertaken as a last resort when all other measures have failed and it is the moral duty of  all free people to question the necessity of sending their troops into harms way and ensuring politicians are always fully accountable and held to task if and when they fail their country and its armed forces by leading them into illegal or unjust wars.


  1. I don't know the background or the status of the soldier concerned. My initial attitude would be that if one does not want to fight then one should not join the armed forces.

    That said it is of course entirely possible that the soldier changed his mind after seeing the way the war was being conducted on the ground. In that case he should have the right to make his stand.

    The question I suppose would be whether he is leaving the army or is wanting to stay in and have some other role. If he is wanting to leave then I believe he should be allowed to do so using whatever procedures exist for such a situation. If on the other hand he is refusing to return to the front line but still wants to stay in the army then I would suggest he is not being honest. Any position within the armed forces is accepting the fact that those forces are fighting in a war that he considers immoral. At that point he would lose my sympathy.

    It all depends on circumstance but as a rule I would say that when we have a professional army which people join by choice the conscientious objection position becomes harder to justify.

    1. I don't know, Ben Griffin said he was happy to serve in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan and undertake the role he was asked there but when sent to Iraq the role differed from what he as a professional soldier thought was right. That not all wars are the same leads one to the question whether a soldier could object to one war whilst being happy to fight in another?

    2. Ben did everything right as far as I am concerned. He clearly was willing to take the risks and go above and beyond the call as a member of the SAS and when he felt he could no longer support the actions being taken in Iraq he was willing to risk his whole career and future to make that stand. He was very fortunate to have an understanding CO who did the right thing and recognised his legitimate reasons for leaving.

      Reading up about him, Glenton I have far less sympathy for.

  2. One often overlooked aspect is that of those conscientious objectors who refused to take up arms (mainly for religious reasons) but willingly volunteered to serve in medical or civil emergency roles during wartime.

    I never realised there was a Conscientious Objectors' Day, so thanks for this informative post.

  3. A deceased relative got me interested in this subject as he has written to the newspaper after the World was was over about what he witnessed. A boy had signed up, giving his age as 16, and then out on the front began crying for his mother and refusing to fight. It turned out he was only 14. My relative described him whimpering like a frightened animal, and thought that "the child" should be taken to the camp hospital or sent home as soon as, Army rules being what they were though, this did not happen, and to prevent diffidence by any others, he was shot at dawn for "cowardice".
    I think that the problem of not knowing what you are signing up for still prevails. The "Join the Army" ads sell it as a career choice and show all the different things you can do and learn - no scenes of death or combat. If they are not the set of ads marketing it as a way to get a career without tuition fees, it is pitched as a big adventure! In the mind of the recruit it could be expected to be something like a fund weekend with the lads, or getting to play some of the combat games he has enjoyed (and been desensitiesd by?) now in exciting 3D reality!

  4. This was the Metro article I guess?

  5. A very interesting article and quite thought provoking. Tamsin makes a good point that many Conscientious Objectors in WWII went on to serve their country in non combat roles, some in hazardous jobs like bomb disposal. Labelling them cowards may have served the military need to stamp out dissent but it grossly misrepresented what were often much more complicated motivations.