Society’s moral soldiers

May 15, 2013. The day may have passed us by largely unheralded, but to those of us who are in the know, it was International Conscientious Objector Day. This annual event celebrates and honours an individual’s right to refuse to perform active military service on the grounds of freedom of thought or religious beliefs.

Now, the day itself garnered no attention in the mainstream news outlets. I was only aware that there was even such a day, after reading a double page spread on the issue in … The Metro. Yes, that great bastion of journalism, favoured by commuters the world over, ran a strikingly balanced and articulate article on the subject of conscientious objectors.

The issue in itself is a puzzling one. In the UK, the armed forces are completely voluntary. If you do not believe in armed conflict, why join the military in the first place? Joe Glenton, the British soldier at the heart of the news piece eloquently resolves this minor problem:

“It’s not like you make a choice to be a conscientious objector. It’s something that develops over time and goes against the grain of your being”.

Across the world there are varying degrees of active military service. In total, 72 countries have either mandatory or selective conscription. The length of service can range from 6 months, to 18 months or more. For instance, if you are of school-leaving age in Israel, you must serve three – two for women – years in the army. The only exemptions are ultra-orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs. In the case of Natan Blanc, this was a law that he simply could not follow. In an interview for The Guardian he stated his case for refusal of active military service:

“The wave of aggressive militarism that swept the country then, the expressions of mutual hatred, and the vacuous talk about stamping out terror and creating a deterrent effect were the primary trigger for my refusal. The government was not interested in finding a solution to the existing situation, but rather in preserving it … We will talk of deterrence, we will kill some terrorist, we will lose some civilians on both sides, and we will prepare the ground for a new generation full of hatred on both sides … We, as citizens and human beings, have a moral duty to refuse to participate in this cynical game”.

Natan (below) is now serving a record tenth jail term, for his refusal to sign up to compulsory military service and has spent over 100 days in prison. Many Israeli school-leavers face the same dilemma. For some, it is an act of patriotic duty. For others, there may be a small moral dilemma which they have to comprehend. Very few, if ever, refuse on the grounds of conscience. Yet Natan, is the only conscientious objector in Military Prison Number 6.

Joe Glenton (below) on the other hand, was a soldier actively serving in Afghanistan. He was 23 when he went to Kandahar in 2006. In The Metro he states his reasons for joining the army:

“To earn money, as a way out of a boring lifestyle and menial labour and also to serve his country, the idea of Britain as a force for good, liberty and democracy”.

However, his experiences in Afghanistan changed his perspective entirely:

“We’re told we’re going there to help young girls get an education or to build infrastructure or really hackneyed stuff like security there equals security here. Let’s look at probability. Does the US, with Britain in tow, go to Afghanistan to help women go to school or is it because there is, for example, 90 billion barrels of oil in the Caspian? Is it human rights or is it because Afghanistan is in a strategic location with borders with China, Pakistan and Iran? Are we spreading democracy or is this power politics? It’s a new veneer on a very old practice”.

Joe Glenton’s words struck a chord with me. In the West, we are constantly told that the war on terrorism is being fought for the right reasons. We are constantly told that we are spreading “our values” by overthrowing a repressive regime and replacing it with a democracy. John Pilger, in a foreword to Peace Journalism: War and Conflict Resolution writes:

“War and mayhem happen; peace is utopian. Many journalists believe such an assumption immutable. I did. But the more I investigated causes, the clearer it became that so-called mainstream journalism was committed exclusively to the interests of power not people”.

As young journalists, we are told that it is the role of the journalist to hold the powerful to account. Yet, mainstream journalism is becoming increasingly complicit in not holding corporations and the government to account. Yes the media have done a fine job, in holding banks and governments to account for the financial mess that currently grips the world. But bigger and more important issues remain, which get thrown by the wayside in the mainstream media’s interpretation of news values and the ‘public interest’.

The Stockholm Internation Peace Research Institute’s annual report for 2008 concluded that world military spending had reached $1.2 trillion. The USA – naturally – is responsible for around 80 per cent of total expenditure, distantly followed by the United Kingdom, China, France and Japan making up the rest of the world share. I can only estimate at what that figure would be today. In the UK alone, the MOD spends around £32 billion. That’s more than the combined total spent on education, jobs and health. Just pause for a moment to take all that in. We spend more on defending ourselves than we do on actually educating ourselves.

Muhammad Ali, in 1966 famously stated his case for refusing the “draft” to Vietnam:

“My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail”.

Ali was consequently imprisoned, stripped of his titles, denied a licence to fight in the United States and absurdly denied a visa to go overseas to fight. Similarly, Joe Glenton along with Malcolm Kendall- Smith, and Michael Lyons all served prison sentences for their refusal to fight. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 1995/83 states that:

“Persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service and persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections”.

With the statute clearly defined in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, what gives governments the authority to imprison those who refuse to pick up arms, and fight in a war which they believe to be morally unjust? These people are, as Ben Griffin from Veterans for Peace quite rightly states, “heroes whose stories should be celebrated”. These people are not cowards as the media would have you believe. They have a right and a moral obligation to say no to war and promote peace. And as journalists, we have the same obligations too.

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