On 2 July Conscience was delighted to welcome Symon Hill, Campaigns and Communications Manager at the Peace Pledge Union, as our guest speaker at our first webinar, ‘Voices of Conscientious Objection’. Many of you will know, the Peace Pledge Union is a pacifist network promoting active nonviolence and challenging militarism.
Learning more about the early days of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) had a personal resonance for me, as my grandmother was an active member. She was 36 when the PPU started in 1934. I remember my father talking about going to PPU meetings with my grandmother, when he was a teenager. He later became a conscientious objector to National Service after the war.
You can watch a video of the ‘Voices of Conscientious Objection’ webinar here: https://youtu.be/o-bHc2vTwV8
Symon’s talk starts at 6:26
Four months ago I had never heard of a webinar. In April I was invited to speak at an international webinar. ‘Move the Nuclear Weapons (and Fossil Fuel) Money ‘. https://conscienceonline.org.uk/blog/2020/05/02/international-webinar-marks-global-days-of-action-on-military-spending/
Later I attended a CND webinar, ‘Will Britain honour its NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) commitments and disarm? https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=1290526594671372&ref=watch_permalink
It was these very positive, cooperative, accessible learning experiences which prompted me to suggest that Conscience organise a series of webinars as part of its ‘Voices of Conscientious Objection’ project. We have adapted the project, originally envisaged as a series of physical public meetings in different parts of the country, to a webinar format. Each of the webinars will be on a different theme and will be open to people all over the country, and beyond.
We wanted the sharing of stories of people’s experiences to be integral to the ‘Voices of Conscientious Objection’ project. Symon told us, very movingly, about three people from different times and situations, who each had a very strong conscientious objection to war. They were; Howard Marten (top left, a conscientious objector in the First World War), Tair Kaminer (a conscientious objector from Israel), and Michael Lyons (a Royal Navy medic who became a conscientious objector to the war in Afghanistan). Symon’s talk inspired me to read more about Howard, Tair and Michael.
First World War
The ‘White Feather Diaries’ (diaries of conscientious objectors in the First World War) project says:
‘Howard Marten was living above his father’s shop in Wigmore Street, central London, when the [First World] War broke out. A 30-year-old bank clerk, he opposed the war from the beginning … he had long been vocal about his pacifism, having campaigned against the Boer War in his early teens‘.
“I was as a boy always inclined to pacifist views. I could never side with the idea of martial violence. It didn’t appeal to me at all; even as far back as the Boer War, I felt that was inconsistent with our Christian beliefs”.
‘Howard had arrived in France with sixteen other conscientious objectors (COs), all of them knowing that they faced the death penalty if they disobeyed orders while deemed to be on “active service”. After imprisonment and various punishments at a camp known as Cinder City near Boulogne, four alleged ringleaders were singled out and court-martialled. Howard was one of them‘.
“Finally, after our second court martial, we were taken out to the parade ground, where a big concourse of men was lined up in an immense square. We were taken to the side of it, and then under escort taken out one by one to the middle of the square.
I was the first. I wouldn’t say I marched. I never did march. I just walked ordinarily. I did keep in step but it wasn’t intentional.
I had a feeling of a sinking in the stomach, wondering what was going to turn up.
Then an officer in charge of the proceedings read out the various crimes and misdemeanours – refusing to obey a lawful command, disobedience at Boulogne and so forth.
And then, “The sentence of the court is to suffer death by being shot.”
It was very curious. On that parade ground I felt that I was a different personality. I was part of something much bigger outside myself. I was part of something that I couldn’t explain. There was something mystical about it. It was very strange.
There was a pause and one thought, “Well, that’s that.” And then, “Confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief”. That’s double-sealed it now.
Then another long pause and, “But subsequently commuted to penal servitude for ten years”.
‘Howard was shipped back to England to begin his sentence in Winchester Prison. His sentence – like those of the others – had been commuted due to political pressure in Britain’.
Tair described how she became a conscientious objector:
“My name is Tair Kaminer, I am 19. A few months ago a ended a year of volunteering with the Israeli Boy and Girl Scouts in the town of Sderot, on the Gaza Strip border. In a few days, I will be going to jail. An entire year I volunteered in Sderot, working with children living in a war zone, and it was there that I decided to refuse to serve in the Israeli military. My refusal comes from my will to make a contribution to the society of which I am a part and make this a better place to live, from my commitment to the struggle for peace and equality.”
“I want to tell you why I am in prison. I am sitting in prison because I refused to enlist in the Israeli army, because I am against the continuation of the policies of occupation in the occupied territories. I requested to do alternative community service, but they are not letting me do that.”
You can read more about Tair here:
“In 2011 Michael Lyons, a Royal Navy medic, was sentenced to seven months’ detention after refusing to undergo rifle training. A military court in Portsmouth sentenced British conscientious objector Michael Lyons to seven months’ imprisonment today, following a two-day trial. Michael Lyons joined the Royal Navy as a medic in 2005, and in May 2010 he was notified that he would be deployed to Afghanistan later that year. Soon after, he applied for discharge as a conscientious objector, as he had developed a conscientious objection to participating in the war in Afghanistan in particular, and against war in general.”
The BBC reported; “Leading Medical Assistant Michael Lyons, 25, of Plymouth, said he had a “moral objection” to bearing arms and the war in Afghanistan. At the time he refused training as he was waiting to have his status as a conscientious objector confirmed. It was later rejected.”
A huge thank you to Symon Hill from the Peace Pledge Union for introducing these three voices of conscientious objection to us.