The price of pacifism: Refusing to go to war is finally being recognised as a brave act

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From the Second World War refusenik to the 19-year-old Israeli, Holly Williams talks to five people who risked shame and suffering to take a stand as conscientious objector.

The conscientious objector is a popular trope in any drama touching on the First World War: Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and more recently The Village have been awash with young men persecuted for their moral stance, the white feathers they were shamed with fluttering about TV screens as if war was a pillow fight.

As we approach the centenary of the First World War next year, we'll no doubt hear a lot more about those that fought – and those that felt an equally powerful compulsion not to. But conscientious objection did not begin and end there: conflicts since, including the Second World War and the Vietnam war, have involved conscription, while countries as diverse as Finland, Israel, South Korea, Greece, Columbia and Turkey still require their young people to perform military service.

Getting an exemption on conscientious grounds is, even today, often an arduous process, potentially prompting the century-old accusations of cowardice. COs may face jail sentences or fines, despite a 2012 UN document stating that "conscientious objection … is based on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

International Conscientious Objection Day took place this week, on 15 May, and in the UK, a ceremony was held at the CO Commemorative Stone in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury. Tomorrow, a small event will be held in the Peace Garden in Birmingham. The UK has also recently seen the opening of a new memorial to COs, at The National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. Last month, the Quakers erected a new circular limestone structure there to commemorate, specifically, the Friends Ambulance Unit – a Quaker-run body open to all COs – and the Friends Relief Service, which aims to relieve civilian distress in Britain.

The earliest recorded incidence of conscientious objection was in 296AD, when a Roman refused to serve as a soldier because of his religious beliefs; he was killed, but subsequently canonised as Saint Maximilian. The term 'conscientious objector', however, only gained currency during the First World War, following the implementation of conscription in 1916. In Britain, over 16,000 men refused to fight. While it is well known that many with strong religious beliefs objected, interestingly some war-resisters refused on socialist grounds: they would not fight brother workers, feeling that the average soldier was but a pawn of the ruling classes.

Conscription laws allowed people to come before local tribunals – although few were given total exemption. Many were forced to join the army or the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC), to serve in a supporting role to the armed forces. Many 'conchies' refused either option, and were sent to prison as a result.

The abuses they suffered for their stance make for extremely grim reading. The Richmond Sixteen were a group of COs sent to Richmond Castle, an NCC base, and from there were sent to war camps in France in May 1916; when all but one of the men refused to move supplies, they were court-martialled and sentenced to death by firing squad, under the order of Lord Kitchener. Prime Minister Asquith intervened and they were sentenced to 10 years hard labour instead, breaking rocks in a Scottish quarry in appalling conditions; one man died of pneumonia, and all felt betrayed when they discovered the granite was, in fact, being used to build military roads. Two members went on the run; the rest went to prison, where they were frequently abused by guards. One man later committed suicide; several more suffered malnutrition and depression.

Ernest England, called up in 1917, suffered hugely for his pacifist beliefs. He was sentenced to two years hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs; when taken ill, he was refused a chamber pot, defecated on the floor – whereupon a guard buried his face in his own excrement. He was later transferred to Dartmoor and put on duty shovelling snow, on a diet of one slice of bread a day. He was still working, three months after Armistice, and died in March 1919. His story is told by David Boulton, in his book Objection Overruled, which adds that at least a hundred people went through similarly harrowing treatment.

But word got out about such experiences – and public feeling did move towards respect. It became recognised that to stand up and be counted as someone who would not fight required its own, very high, degree of courage.

While COs have rarely been subjected to such institutionalised brutality since, the decision not to fight has still frequently been problematic. We speak to five COs – from the Second World War and Vietnam through to contemporary Israel, and even a British soldier who had a change of conviction – about what led them to refuse military service, how they were treated as a result, and what impact their decision had, and continues to have, on their lives.

'I refuse to bear arms and harm total strangers'

John Corsellis, Second World War

The treatment of COs in the Second World War was generally more humane, but many still faced scorn and abuse as cowards; today, of course, the Second World War can be seen as a vindication of armed force, a sort of test-case for proclaimed pacifists: "What would you do if the Nazis were invading?".

For John Corsellis, it was no dilemma. His conviction as a Christian, a member of the Anglican church, was crystal-clear: "In the Bible, Christ said you couldn't kill, and he meant you couldn't kill. I would prefer to be killed myself rather than be involved in killing someone else".

He went to a tribunal "which was fairly rough justice", assigning him to the army medical corps. He refused this, knowing that, in a crisis, "they'd put a rifle in your hands and say, go and shoot". On appeal, he was given the option of alternative service and signed up with the Friends Ambulance Unit, an independent body led by the Quakers in both world wars, providing medical relief and practical aid to casualties and refugees across the globe. In the Second World War, it had over 1,300 members, largely working oversees, everywhere from Finland to Syria to China.

Did he have any compunction in doing the work, that it might indirectly enable war? "None at all. It was a sensitive issue, but what they did was always for the relief of suffering, so it was an enormous privilege to be able to do that. It was probably the happiest years of my life,"f says Corsellis, now 90 years old and living in Cambridge.

He joined the FAU in 1942, aged just 20. There was six weeks of training in a rough-and-ready camp outside Birmingham – learning first aid, how to drive, large-scale cooking, and even how to march (for they might end up working alongside army troops) – followed by a stint as an orderly in a hospital in Poplar. From there, Corsellis was sent to Egypt, to help the 25,000 refuges who'd arrived from the Yugoslav coast. He was driving ambulances, ferrying sick people between camps.

"I was given massive responsibility in relation to my age, and of course with that one grows. I went abroad very naïve, and really lacking in self-confidence, and my goodness you learn self-confidence in this kind of very challenging work. In many ways it was a marvellous three years," he insists. He was later posted to refugee camps in Italy and Austria, and has remained in contact with many of the people he encountered.

The work had an enduring influence on his life after the war: he ran an organisation called the Educational Exchange Council, encouraging visits of teachers and students across the Iron Curtain, and later became a language teacher. In retirement, he wrote books recording the experiences of the Second World War refugees, and also documented a harrowing war crime he was witness to.

While in Austria, 10,000 Slovene members of an anti-Communist resistance group surrendered to the British, and, he says, "appallingly, the British Army three weeks later put them on trucks, lied to them – told them that they were being sent down to Italy to a better camp, and in fact they were just handed over to the Communists who brutally murdered them. I was witness to that; it was a traumatic experience. It was part of my mission in life to get this better known." He published an account, called Slovenia 1945 in 2005.

The pacifism he felt so strongly in those years is still very much with him today. "I lived and still am living with it. For me, it wasn't a commitment to pacifism as a young man; it's been so all my life."

'If I were a stronger person I would have gone to jail’

Professor James Tollefson, Vietnam war

It was a religious-based conviction that war was wrong that led James Tollefson to apply for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war. Although raised and educated as a Catholic, Tollefson rejected the notion of a 'just war': "so it wasn't a hard decision for me; there was no question that I would not serve in the military in that war".

The application to the draft board involved answering detailed questions, about your beliefs, but also your actions, to demonstrate that "you're not just making this up to get out of being in the army". Despite being a student in Seattle when he turned 18 – and therefore eligible to defer service until he had graduated – Tollefson actually applied to have his student deferment cancelled, so he could formally apply as a CO, in 1969. He wanted to make that public commitment to not fighting.

His application was approved; this was rare, and many COs had to choose between joining the army after all, or going to prison. Many more fled to Canada – 50,000, it's estimated, while a total of 600,000 evaded the draft (around 170,000 of them citing a conscientious objection). "I spent a lot of time thinking about what would happen if they turned [my CO application] down," says Tollefson. "I made the decision that I would go to Canada. If I were a stronger person I would have gone to prison; that was the morally pure and right route, but I just didn't think I could tolerate that, personally."

Luckily he didn't have to; and, on having a medical examination to check he was eligible for alternative service (typically working in a hospital), Tollefson failed anyway. This was a shock, but it left him free to return tof his studies – and to anti-war campaigning.

Tollefson's father had served in the Second World War, and found his son's stance completely incomprehensible. "That was by far the worst consequence," says Tollefson. "My father and I were alienated for many years. He was a construction worker; he was in that working-class group that Richard Nixon was able to win over. He believed in patriotism: when your country called you to fight in the war, you went. Of course I tried [to explain], but it eventually became impossible." They ultimately reconciled, after his father realised that "Vietnam was not the Second World War".

The attitude of the general public also shifted during the conflict: the draft started to feel less like a patriotic duty and more like a government betrayal of its young men. While Tollefson says he was "opposed to all war", he adds that "most people I knew did not look at things that way – they were opposed to that war." It was an important distinction to him, personally, but it wasn't like he sat around theorising. "Frankly, most people I knew didn't spend a lot of time trying to distinguish different kinds of opposition. There were hundreds of Americans being killed each week, thousands of Vietnamese, there was a sense of a frantic need to stop this madness."

Tollefson is now a professor of linguistics in Hong Kong, but he took time off to volunteer with refugees in south-east Asia in the Seventies, and in the Eighties – in the face of a new sneering approach to Vietnam anti-war activism – published a book recording the experiences of COs called The Strength Not to Fight. He was then asked to produce educational material on war resistance, as part of a Vietnam curriculum that went into high schools across America.

Even more broadly, he adds, his work is "always about issues of social injustice, inequality and how language is related to that; my work ever since has been all about social justice and peace".

'I won’t take part in the terrorising of the Palestinians'

Noam Gur, Israel

In Israel, all 18 year olds must perform military service – women for two years, men for three – in one of the most controversial political situations in the world today. And achieving exception due to your convictions is not easy.

Noam Gur, who is now 19 and living in Jerusalem, knew this. But she wanted to stand up for what she believes in – a decision she understood would land her in prison.

Conscientious objection was, for her, political rather than religious: in her statement of conscientious objection, she opposed the Israeli army's "terrorising of the Palestinian people", making a commitment to non-violent resistance.

"When I was 15 or 16, I started reading very political [writings] about the history of Israel, and all of a sudden understanding what went on," she elaborates. "For me, going to an army that occupies another people, putting them under siege, that is creating an apartheid state – people in the same place and two different laws. It isn't something I want to take part in, and this is my way of resisting that."

She did know how to get out of doing military service quietly: "I could go to a mental [health] officer, that's the easiest way to get out of it, you tell them that you are depressed. I decided that I didn't want to go to a medical officer because I didn't want to lie".

Instead, she tried to go to a conscientious objectors' board: "It's a committee that basically the army established, but it's only for very, very extreme pacifists. They told me that I'm too political, and not really a pacifist. Which is kind of true! So I went to jail."

And she didn't just go once. Last April, at an army base, she was sentenced to 10 days in a military prison (a month is the maximum). "When you get out, you have a day at home, and then you have to go back and do the process again and again," says Gur, who duly served a second prison sentence. "According to the law, it could go on until you're 27 – obviously that never happens." COs have been known to return to prison up to nine times, but on Gur's third, she was ordered to stay on the army base where she was being charged instead of going to prison.

Although Gur guesses that maybe half of young people manage to get out of joining the army, one way or another, she adds that the public condemnation of the military among eligible young people is still rare.

"It's very common not to go to the army, but people who are making a political stance about it are not that common, maybe two or three people a year."

Her family, at first, were "super against it", but once they realised she was completely serious – and that their 18-year-old daughter would be doing time in prison – they supported her. And they'd already had a daughter who'd fully embraced her role in the army. "My older sister was in the border police, which was really extreme… [she] completely became an extremist, [she] was completely against [my protest]," explains Gur.

She hopes that more young people in Israel – and in other countries with conscription – will "take a stand" against military oppression, in whatever way they can, and she continues to be an active activist.

"For me, my way of resisting was refusing to go into the army, but there are many ways of fighting this system."

'There’s a 99-year history of objectors

Joe Glenton, Afghanistan

Joining the British Army is, obviously, voluntary; but leaving before you've served your time – even if you've undergone a complete change of moral conviction – is not so simple.

There is an established process for coming forward as a CO, but many soldiers may be unaware it is their right.

Joe Glenton joined the Army in 2004, and was on tour in Afghanistan for seven months, from early 2006. During that time, he began questioning what exactly they were doing there. "We knew civilians were being bombed, we knew this operation that had started under the banner of peace-keeping, peace-building, providing security, just drifted straight into war-fighting," he explains, adding wryly that "we ran out of ammunition at one point during this 'peace-keeping' operation…".

On his return to the UK, and after further reading, research and reflection, he became increasingly concerned that Afghanistan was "part of a much broader project in the Middle East and central Asia.

I pillory people who go 'It's all about oil', but there is that: obviously Afghanistan is geo-politically important, and there are 90 billion barrels of oil in the Caspian Basin…"f

Glenton was also suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), after a mortar strike hit near his camp. "So there was that emotional, traumatic stuff, but fundamentally I was opposed to the war. Later, I had more of a politically-informed objection, but initially it was, 'I have a sense that what is going on here is wrong and I don't want to be in it'." He is, however, clear that his objection was specifically against that war; he doesn't consider himself a pacifist: "I still think force, even armed force, has a place, potentially – but that's not it".

In the face of this gradually strengthening conviction, he planned to just keep his head down; he wasn't due to go back to Afghanistan again anyway. But in 2007, Glenton was told he would have to return. He refused, declaring conscientious objection. He claims this led to bullying from his superiors. At a very low ebb, partly due to the PTSD, he retreated into himself. And faced with having to return to Afghanistan, he panicked and went AWOL. "A huge amount of AWOLs are because guys come back from tour damaged and there's no provision for them. That was me; I hoofed it," he acknowledges.

After two years, he returned, and a charge of AWOL was ramped up to desertion and talking to the media (he had become an anti-war activist). In the end, these latter charges were dropped – but he still got nine months in Colchester military prison.

There, Glenton says he received support from other inmates – and even guards – who had their own doubts about the war, plus hundreds of letters of encouragement and fortnightly protests outside the prison from people who took up his case. While in prison, he worked in the library and learnt how to write essays; on leaving, he began a degree in international relations. He now writes for newspapers (including this one), and has penned a memoir, about to be published.

Partly, this was to raise awareness that you can even be a CO within the British Army. "When we talk about conscientious objection we talk about it in the context of the First World War. And then it disintegrates into this hero-versus-coward thing. But that misses out a 99-year history of people who have refused to fight."

'Soldier Box', by Joe Glenton, is published this week by Verso

'I refuse to bear arms and harm total strangers'

Charalabos Akrivopoulos, Greece

Completing nine months of military service is mandatory for all men between 19 and 45 in Greece. Conscientious objection is recognised; in practice, however, COs may have a hard time.

Charalabos Akrivopoulos is currently awaiting trial in October. Aged 37, he was nearing the end of a suspended sentence for insubordination (refusing to do military service) when, on 19 March this year, he was arrested and charged again, meaning he would likely face a prison sentence.

"I knew already that I was going to be arrested. The recruiting office kept calling me for weeks prior to my arrest and asking me to enlist for service," he says. He was kept for half a day in a detention centre in his home town of Veroia, then transferred to a naval court in Piraeus, where he was charged with 'disobedience in a time of peace'.

"I was afraid when they arrested me, because I had never been to jail before. But my parents and friends from the Association of Greek Conscientious Objectors supported me," he says. The trial was postponed until October, to allow Akrivopoulos the chance to consider taking alternative service instead.

This he will have to do. Each time he refuses military service, he will be sent to prison – and fined €6,000, which he cannot afford. But alternative service is hardly a bed of roses. "It is punitive, because it is six months longer than the military service, and it is controlled by the Ministry of Defence. We cannot do this service [with] non-governmental organisations, like Amnesty International; they actually use us as workers in hospitals, post offices and the like," explains Akrivopoulos. "And you have to pass an interview before you are accepted as a CO. The people that interview us do not have a clue what pacifism and non-violence is about – some of them are even army officers!"

Akrivopoulos is not religious, but has a long-standing moral commitment to non-violence. "I am a pacifist; peace, love and non-violence is what I believe in. I refuse to bear arms and harm total strangers. I also refuse to put these total strangers in the awkward position of having to kill me. I believe that all people should live in peace and nations should learn to solve their disputes with dialogue and mutual concessions."

Mandatory military service is not popular with many young people in Greece, he suggests. "They don't want to sacrifice months or years of their life, having to follow orders from ridiculous people," claims Akrivopoulos. "It is very hard for them having to lose their freedom and go to the army. Most people look upon their time of service as totally wasted time."

Not many, however, take a stand against it as a CO; the military has made this even more unattractive. "There are only a handful of objectors; most young men are afraid to refuse service," suggests Akrivopoulos. "They are afraid they will have to face jail, and that they would not be able to work or have a passport – you can't travel abroad if you are a total CO. They are also afraid of the €6,000 fine."

And Akrivopoulos has a cynical view of such fines, suggesting that the current, highly conservative, government is not only stepping up an attack against those on the political left, but is for Greece, and the state is very anxious to collect money. They hope that many of us older disobedients wis also using objections to military service as a way of raising cash: "It is also a time of great economic crisill buy ourselves out of the army". This can be done if you're over 35 – if you are able to pay €10,000 for the privilege.

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