Conscience Commemorates International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

by Shaughan Dolan ~ May 16th, 2017. Filed under: News.

On Monday the 15th of May, as we do every year, Conscience joined together with the Peace Pledge Union, Pax Christi, the Movement for the Abolition of War, Quakers in Britain and other peace-building colleagues, to celebrate and honour conscientious objectors, past and present. Around a hundred people braved the spring showers to hear our wonderful speakers; Vietnam War draft resister Nick Jeffrey and Oscar and BAFTA award-winning actor and activist Mark Rylance.

Introduced by Pax Christi’s Valerie Flessati, Nick told us of his own experiences of resisting the draft. He fled the United States and came to Britain, where he became involved with the American Democratic party. When the war-resisting Democrats in London that Nick was involved with elected a representative to attend the Democratic Party Conference in the States, the delegates were arrested on arrival. Nick’s story reminded us all that conscientious objectors face many kinds of persecution and discrimination for their beliefs, and their refusal to kill.

Thank you, Nick, for sharing your story with us so eloquently. Being a CO or a war resister is never the easy option, especially when society is caught up in the warmongering-hype-dressed-as-patriotism which so often accompanies a nation’s entry into armed conflict.

A tradition of Conscientious Objectors’ Day in London is the music of Sue Gilmurray.  She wrote her song ‘The Ones Who Said No’, especially for Conscientious Objectors’ Day several years ago, and, as the song is so fitting and moving, it has become a tradition for it to be sung every year at the ceremony.

When you hear Sue’s lyrics, it is easy to understand why this song has become a CO Day classic:

Ask people what are their hopes for the future,

likelihood is they will say they want peace,

yet pin their hopes upon weapons and armies,

even as damage and danger increase.

Look back to those who have dared to be different,

over the world let their clear courage flow.

Army unarmed, let it swell into millions –

cry Yes to peace with the ones who said No.

This year we felt very lucky to be joined by Mark Rylance, multi-talented and award-winning star of stage and screen, and long-time Conscience supporter. Mark performed two pieces for us, the first being the statement that Roger Baldwin (who later went on to found the American Civil Liberties Union) made in 1918 when he appeared before the Federal Court in New York, charged with violation of the Selective Service Act.

‘The compelling reason for my refusing to comply with the act is my uncompromising

opposition to the principle of conscription of life by the State, in time of war or peace. I not

only refuse to obey the present conscription law, but I would in future refuse to obey any

similar statute which attempts to direct my choice of service and ideals. I regard the

principle of conscription of life as a flat contradiction of all our cherished ideals of individual freedom.’

Mark then invited his young and talented colleague Patrick Walsh MacBride to join him in reading a piece about Siegfried Sassoon. The piece was specially adapted for CO Day from a play by the remarkable Juliet Rose, by the playwright herself, and features Sassoon’s own words.

‘What I do know is every day I am watching men who I care about – and yes, I will say

it now, love – suffering and dying, without purpose and without hope. And I will not

let their suffering be lost in the abyss. Men from Welsh farms and Northern cities,

from factories and shops, or straight from school like Tommy. Men whose integrity,

patience and tenderness have awakened my slow heart from a long sleep.

Out here, I am finding my voice. For my men, the killed and wounded men I could

not protect and the men still suffering in the slaughterhouse we call France, for the

men whose voices are being silenced, I am finding my voice.’

As can be expected from a performer of Mark’s considerable gifts, both pieces, already poignant and inspirational on their own, were given a new sense of energy. The words already provoke many stirring, and often heartrending emotions in the reader, but to listen to Mark perform them adds another level of intensity and emotion that this writer simply does not have the words to express.

Thank you, Mark, for a superb contribution to the ceremony.

Mark and Patrick’s piece was followed by a minute’s silence to remember all those who have fallen in war, and those who have resisted the demand to fight and to kill.

The names of 100 conscientious objectors from 79 nations were read out to close the commemoration. Attendees were invited to lay a white carnation at the stone during this list, which featured COs from the Roman Empire to Modern South Korea, from both World Wars and across the political spectrum.

People were then invited to lay any flowers they had brought with them.

Thank you to everyone who attended. See you next year!

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