Peace is in the air: is it time to free pacificism from shame?

Enduring wars in the Middle East, sabre rattling between North Korea and the USA – how did pacificism become a dirty word, and is it time for the rediscovery of peace politics? 

Tim Crook
26 May 2017

The Apotheosis of War (1871) by Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin. Wikimedia commons. Public domain.Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, felt compelled to assert that he was not a pacifist when discussing his party’s policy position on defence. This rhetoric is a reminder of the prejudice and stigma attached to the pacifist and conscientious objector position in history.

It could be argued that we are all pacifists until we demean ourselves by resorting to violence in any situation.

Might it be the case that pro-nuclear deterrent politicians, and global figures with a bellicose disposition, are pragmatic pacifists even if they lack the ethic and ideology that underpins the concept?

When a nation does commit to war, the ferocity of patriotic consensus is brutally unforgiving.

When a nation does commit to war the ferocity of patriotic consensus is brutally unforgiving when men or women refuse the call to arms.

In the peace-time rhetoric that problematizes pacifism the underlying imputation is that failing to bear arms to protect one’s country is cowardice, unpatriotic and potentially treasonous.

It may not be a coincidence that a rise in global tension and anxiety about nuclear conflagration and super-power conflict has aroused interest in the extraordinary story of conscientious objectors during the Great War of 1914-18.

This has led me to write an original full-length stage play produced by Goldsmiths College Acting and Film Making Society – “Devils on Horseback: the secret trials of conscientious objectors in Deptford.”

It is not widely known that it was the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith in 1916 who pushed through the clauses to conscription legislation giving the legal right to conscientious objectors to be considered for non-combatant duties. In some cases they could also be exempt as absolutists with no obligation to do work in uniform or connected with war.

When he rose in the House of Commons to speak for the proposal he was met with jeering and howls of derision from the all-male chamber. The cacophony of disrespect and hate was replicated in the British media, public opinion and operation of military tribunals that were constituted by local authorities. Municipal politicians and military representatives controlled what could be rightly described in many cases as kangaroo proceedings.

Men refusing to either enlist or seeking conscientious objection should experience deep personal and social shame.

One of those persecuted in Deptford was a local postal worker, Henry Albrow. He was forced to accept work in a non-combatant Labour battalion. His memorable memoir of confronting the brow-beating of a military tribunal is probably a description of his experience at Deptford where uniquely all the hearings were held in secret.

The Quakers were organised and marshalled evidence and references for those who sought exemptions. People of other denominations, motivated by politics or simple socio-economics, were not so fortunate. 

Albrow argued unsuccessfully that he was a socialist and moralist, and could not kill in war because he believed every man to be his brother.

Thousands of conscientious objectors were jailed during the First World War. A plot was enjoined to have a small group shot for disobeying orders in France, though fortunately it was frustrated by intervening politicians and campaign groups.

Poster campaigns were just one aspect of an intensive propaganda campaign that used children and shameful emotional manipulation to make sure that men refusing to either enlist or seeking conscientious objection should experience deep personal and social shame.

This was a global conflict that transformed the word propaganda into a pejorative concept. Total war engaged unethical industrial marketing and advertising practices in the black art of hate propaganda.

Men avoiding the patriotic consensus pressure would be constructed as unworthy of fatherhood. 

It was inevitable that men avoiding the patriotic consensus pressure would be constructed as unworthy of fatherhood. Hence the slogan: “Daddy, what did you do in the war,” demanded by a little girl sitting on her father’s knee. And: “what will your answer be when your boy asks you ‘Father what did YOU do to help when we fought for freedom in 1915?’”.

Heterosexual emasculation was achieved through the poster headlined: “Women of Britain say ‘GO!’” The image implied men who don’t were unworthy of their mothers, sisters, wives, fiancés, and girlfriends.

An even nastier “poster art” was directed at conscientious objectors. The social and cultural climate of homophobia was deployed to construct them in stereotypical prejudicial representations of homosexuals with effeminate build and affected mannerisms. The essential sub-text and message communicated without any notion of subtlety was cowardice.

The enduring civil war in Syria and instability in the Middle East, the sabre rattling between North Korea and the USA, and the undoubted engagement of an arms race by Russia and China vis-à-vis the West may well be contributing to a rediscovery and new exploration of peace politics.

The Imperial War Museum has a current exhibition “People Power: Fighting for Peace” and it will also host a Peace History conference on 10th June called “Protest Power & Change.”

This is also accompanied by performances of the much-acclaimed “This Evil Thing” written and performed by Michael Mears.

Peace is in the air as much as the sulphurous odour of war.

Peace is in the air as much as the sulphurous odour of war.

This increasing interest in researching, studying and dramatising the history of pacifism is significant.

It could be argued that respect and toleration of those who put the intrinsic sanctity of life above the instrumentalism of killing for power are the essential benchmarks of human civilization. 

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