This is my first November 11th back in the UK for a while, and I have been full of trepidation as to how to mark my own remembrance of World War I's end. Remembrance Day has, however, become much more than looking back at the armistice that officially concluded the awful fighting and pitiful loss of life that characterized the years of 1914-1918. The red poppy has now been burdened with continued loss and sacrifice by millions more on the battlefields of empire and political domination.
Several years ago I read Will Ellsworth-Jones' book We Will Not Fight, in which he tells the story of three brothers impacted by the Great War. Their lives serve as a framework for the larger epic of Conscientious Objectors during the war. It is an excellent introduction into the stories of these men, who for political, social or religious reasons refused to fight in combat roles. Some were imprisoned, some took on non-violent capacities at the front, and most were subjected to torture and humiliation. Of the many who were sentenced to death my military court nearly a hundred died as a result of imprisonment and neglect. Most notorious were the infamous field punishments of being tied to barbed fences and artillery wheels.
The enduring symbol of their moral courage, however, was the white feather pinned to them by young women caught up in the frenzy of objectifying both enemy and these so-called shirkers. The phrase "moral courage" is both well placed and deliberate. These men, and the thousands throughout the world that have refused military service, exercised their agency to object to the violence and unjust causes of modern warfare.
Today news in the UK was full of reports of soldiers A, B and C who were tried in a military court over the execution of an Afghan insurgent. Were these soldiers victims as much as they were perpetrators? It is well known to those who experience warfare that combat revolves around survival and preservation of one's fellows. It is no wonder that after seeing their comrades die and successive tours of duty that such atrocities occur. It seems endemic to a democracy that such brutalized soldiers are made meagre examples of, while those politicians and commanding officers who mislead the public, perpetuate the conduct of war and its justification go without punishment. Both the Afghan and Iraq wars have produced multiple examples of demonization and brutalization of both soldier and enemy. The actions of A, B and C are just another in this sad litany of atrocity.
The summit of tragedy is reached when soldiers return and take their own lives in response to their trauma and guilt. The experience of Daniel Somers (see below) is just one of many. In recent years, as combat troops have been drawn out from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers of combat deaths have been surpassed by suicides in the home front. Where is justice for these families who lose beloved spouses and parents?
In sum, we may conclusively consider that these are noble sacrifices to be honoured and respected, whether in combat or in a lethal does of pills. This is where we as citizens of so-called democracies must question the brutalization of warfare, the othering of "enemies" and the burden we place on these soldiers. If they are in some way victims of the atrocities they witness, and in some cases perpetrate, then we too have blood on our hands. This is why, more often than not, we must not fight, and willingly accept the white feather as a symbol of moral courage.
Joe Morton, a contemporary conscientious objector writes in response to today's verdict
Here Joe Morton's imprisonment for refusal to fight is reported on, with a good overview of objection
This is the story and last words of Daniel Somers