It’s taken me a long time to decide on what I might stand for; but then, on Thursday last week (the 15th of May) my partner Liz and I attended the commemoration of International Conscientious Objectors Day in Tavistock Square in London.
Co-organised by 9 groups including Quaker Peace and Social Witness, the ceremony included presentations which covered the general point about the importance of conscientious objection and the individual stories of many of the brave people who took the step to object at a time when this was not something that was considered acceptable.
We heard from Mary Dobbing, whose grandfather was a conscientious objector in WW1 and who herself is a peace activist now. Her short speech highlighted two things for me: how important it is to remember those who paved the way; those incredibly courageous young people who were prepared to face ridicule, hatred from their neighbours, friends and family, prison, torture, and death because they believed that it was wrong to kill; and how important it is to carry on working for peace, because although conscientious objection is now guaranteed in law in many countries – though by no means all countries around the globe – war and violent conflict continues.
Sam Walton , of QPSW, ended his remarks by saying that ‘war is always wrong’ and this is a simple truth we need to continue to hold on to; and we need to do all our work on that basis.
The day also slotted into some work, which I had been doing over the last two months for Campaign Against the Arm Trade (CAAT); I participated in a research project looking at the arms trade and arms manufacturing during and around WW1. A website will be launched in early July which will have the material we collected and produced.
But what struck me in researching the Ministry of Munitions and in particular the British response to chemical warfare was this: once you have accepted the logic of war, you are done for; there is no place to hide; there is no way in which you can really say: this is ok, that isn’t. Once you have agreed to put people in harms way in a violent conflict, the thing takes on its own momentum and its own logic. That’s how it was possible to have chemical warfare and chemical weapons manufacture escalate in Britain (as elsewhere): simply because ‘they are doing it to us, so we have to do it to them’. The questions of: ‘is this in any way defensible, is there another way of dealing with this, how is this affecting the people who make these weapons, who use these weapons, who are injured by these weapons?’ all go out of the window because one has taken that first terrible step: to say yes to war.
In the 21st century we are only involved in wars at a distance; but our government (and here I mean the UK government, but it does, of course, also apply to others) are completely at ease with the concept of war; they prepare for it; they support arms sales that drive wars; they engage in wars when it suits them (legally or otherwise).
It is this basic logic we need to stop; it is this basic acceptance that war is a necessary evil in human society that we must counter.
And the COs of a century ago remind us – and reminders are necessary – that the campaign against war is not over, that it will still cost dearly and that we are called upon to do what we can to contribute to that campaign.