On 2 March 1916, the British Government began to implement the Military Service Act, arresting men who had been refused the exemption which their conscience demanded. They were imprisoned in solitary confinement, and required to keep silent. In society conshies were ostracised and humiliated for refusing to kill other human beings.
This minor triumph delights me:
In one prosecution of No-Conscription Fellowship leaders under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) the crown advocate Archibald Bodkin lectured the accused to the effect that ‘war would become impossible if all men were to have the view that war was wrong’. The N-CF expressed its gratitude for so neat and concise an expression of its own case and proceeded to issue posters with Bodkin’s words, prominently credited to their author. This enraged the authorities, who took the printers to court – with Bodkin again as prosecutor. The N-CF then demanded the arrest of Bodkin as the author of the subversive words, suggesting it was his patriotic duty to prosecute himself. If he went to prison, they promised, the N-CF would contribute to the maintenance of his wife and children.
Men up to the age of 51 were conscripted. At his third court-martial, after a year’s imprisonment with hard labour, Scott Duckers told his judges, The more I see of the Army the less I like it, and the greater is my determination to show that the punishments by which you are accustomed to subdue the spirits of soldiers are quite ineffective against anyone who knows his own mind and will continue steadfast. Whatever happens to me personally, I know that I have done something to maintain those principles of freedom which can only be preserved by individuals, and which will, perhaps more quickly than you think, successfully reassert themselves against all the muddle, waste, mismanagement and blundering incompetence of modern militarism, which these ridiculous trials help to illustrate. He was sentenced to two years hard labour, and was still suffering punishment after the war ended.
Keir Hardie wrote in 1914, ‘Compulsory military service is the negation of democracy. It compels the youth of the country, under penalty of fine and imprisonment, to learn the art of war. This is despotism, not democracy. No liberty-loving people will tolerate having these old forms of servitude forced upon them. Conscription is the badge of the slave.’
There was a section in the Act allowing military tribunals to exempt a man from conscription, but tribunals often refused to believe that the objection was conscientious. They thought of objectors as cowards and shirkers. My favourite answer to the question “What would you do if a German was raping your sister?” is Donald Swann’s, from world war two: “I don’t know, but I would not fly to Germany to bomb his grandmother”.
War will become impossible when everyone agrees war is wrong. It is still possible that Britain will refuse to spend £167 bn on the chance to destroy all life on the planet- a chance which depends on American targeting information, so is in no sense an independent deterrent; and which is useless against the threats which the government discerns to our security.
“Military Service” is about killing people and destroying things- and bullying threats to do so, to enforce servility. Militarists cannot use clear language, as George Orwell explained. In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Stories from The Friend, the Quaker journal.