Objecting: an act of civil disobedience

Conscientious objection is not "opting out". It is an effort to stimulate a new social imagination and a revolutionary mentality that does not normalise violence.

Howard Clark
14 May 2010

The apartheid minister of defence, Magnus Malan, said in banning the End Conscription Campaign in 1986 that it was as “dangerous” to South Africa as the African National Congress itself.  Last November, the vice-president of the country (and of the ANC) told a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the ECC that Malan had been right.  The ECC was a remarkable campaign, full of very talented mainly young white people (only whites were conscripted) determined to stop apartheid and confident that they had found a new fault line in the “wall of steel and flame”.  Part of my job for War Resisters' International (WRI) from 1985 onwards was to work with a number of these young people, and in 1989 when I visited South Africa for activities around 15 May – International Conscientious Objection Day – I found myself echoing sentiments expressed in the USA during the Vietnam war: the brightest and best young white South Africans were saying an ever-louder “no” to the society and privileges they were supposed to inherit. 

The ECC was a movement to challenge a particular vicious type of militarism; it included past and future conscientious objectors but was not confined to them.  Rather it was born when the apartheid government had (temporarily) found a way to halt the growth in conscientious objection.  Until 1983, increasing numbers of objectors were willing to publicly challenge apartheid militarism and go to prison rather than try to evade or postpone military service.  However, in response, the government introduced a mandatory prison sentence for all such refusers of 1.5 times the length of military service – that was six years for somebody who had yet to do their basic military service, a very long time for someone who's only just left school.  For a while, the young men (women were not conscripted) backed off further confrontation.   An older woman, however, the president of Black SashSheena Duncan, who died last week – saw an opportunity.  If the government had for the moment succeeded in deterring young men from conscientious objection, it remained legal to argue against conscription itself.  Sheena Duncan saw the enormous potential for a campaign against conscription itself and also the necessity to challenge the operations of the armed forces. Black Sash, followed by various church figures, issued a call for such a campaign, and so the ECC was born, seeking to create a “popular front” connecting with many different groups in the white community with reasons to oppose apartheid militarism. 

As the situation continued to sharpen, soon there were more young men willing to go to prison – even for six years – and so first 23 of them made a public declaration of refusal in 1987 and then a few months later 143 followed suit, and the first two objectors began serving six-year sentences. 

In that context, the struggle against conscription and the role of conscientious objectors was clearly part of an effort to transform society, to undermine the structures of oppression and to build a better non-racist future.  Actually, I should not just say non-racist, but also democratic, non-sexist and nuclear-free future, because the ECC was firmly aligned with those seeking to widen and deepen the vision of the anti-apartheid movement. 

This, however, was a far cry from the conscientious objection I tended to see in Western Europe in the 1980s.  I had read of First World War COs being people who “pitted their very souls against war”, and I have found the same spirit with various pioneers of objection.  However, the groups who in the early 1980s initiated International CO Day mainly consisted of young men doing substitute civilian service, following a kind of routine that had effectively demobilised objection as a challenge to militarism. The years since then have seen the virtual demise of groups that tended to be mere “trade unions for COs”. , and the debate shifted.  The movement of insumisión (total resistance) in Spain had learnt from how objection had been neutralised and routinised elsewhere, and took a non-cooperative stance towards substitutory civilian service.  It was not just that from 1988 onwards insumisos themselves refused substitute service and instead were imprisoned, but that they also lobbied institutions and non-government organisations not to offer placements for substitutory service. 

In Turkey, where conscription remains in force without any concessions towards conscientious objection, an anti-militarist movement has been struggling to come into existence for nearly 20 years now, and is well aware of lessons from elsewhere.  This is reflected in the book edited by Özgür Heval Çinar and Coskun Üsterçí's Conscientious Objection: Resisting Militarized Society.  Most of the articles on countries other than Turkey are not particularly strong.  However, the material arising from Turkey itself makes up for this, reflecting on the Turkish situation – of the central and highly respected role of the military and militarism in the state founded by Kemal Ataturk, of the role of military and militarism in shaping society, and not least on the relationship between militarism and patriarchy and therefore masculinity.   Indeed Section 2 of the book's four sections is on “Conscientious objection as a critique of patriarchy, sexism and heterosexism”.  Throughout modern Turkish history, as Ayse Gül Altinay, comments “compulsory conscription has been institutionalized and normalized as 'patriotic service' and as the process of 'becoming a man'.

In the situation of an emerging movement, old debates become fresh and alive.  We find Nilgün Toker Kilinç drawing on Hannah Arendt and others to explore the distinction between conscientious objection and civil disobedience.  The term “conscientious objection” was first used not in relation to military service but rather to the objection of parents to their children being vaccinated against smallpox.  On an issue such as that, it is clear that many states will offer some leeway for objection, they are prepared to tolerate a small minority of “cranks” opting out as long as there is no challenge to the overall policy.  This “opting out”, however, is not what motivates anti-militarist movements.  The act of objecting therefore is best seen as civil disobedience, part of a systemic critique, an effort to stimulate a new social imagination.  Taha Parla develops the theme further suggesting the objector is not just saying “I will not do military service” but rather “let no one do military service”.  Cynthia Cockburn in her foreword suggests that what might begin as conscientious objection grows into “an oppositional practice [that] goes way beyond refusal of obligatory service to propose an entirely different duty, the duty of assuring 'security' in the entirely new meaning of the word that feminists have been proposing …  What it imagines is a revolutionary mentality  … simply a mentality that does not normalize violence”.

Cynthia Enloe raises the point that because women are rarely conscripted, a CO movement might sometimes be at risk of  perpetuating gender stereotypes by presenting objectors as “heroes”.  One tactic against this in Turkey has been for women, although not conscripted, to declare themselves as conscientious objectors, because they are anti-militarists and because the most common charge against Turkish anti-militarists - “seeking to alienate the people from the armed forces” - could apply equally to women and to men. 

As for the men themselves, Serpil Sancar writes of the efforts of anti-violent men “who try to confront 'male violence' by acknowledging it in their own lives and questioning their own male values”.  However, he regrets, “the 'male language' that criticizes 'male violence' is still silent, it cannot find a space to represent itself properly”.

It is partly because of experiences such as this – by no means confined to Turkey – that the event War Resisters' International is co-organising for this year's International CO Day is a meeting on Gender and Militarism, taking place in Asunción, Paraguay, and with participants from Israel, Spain and Turkey as well as Latin America. 

Pacifist declarations – such as the declaration adopted by War Resisters' International (WRI) in 1921 – can sound quite glib.  “War is a crime against humanity.  I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war and to strive for the removal of all causes of war.”  Fortunately, that declaration was soon accompanied by a Statement of Principles (1925) elaborating on how difficult it is to refuse war, recognising social pressures that might be faced or genuine dilemmas when there are no easy answers.  This remains the case today, and not least for those struggling with militarist expectations of 'being a man'. 









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