Friday, 18 May 2018

Conscientious Objection

I worked at UCL in Bloomsbury for 23 years and, although I walked around the campus area to shop, to go to different lecture rooms and Departments, and for pleasure, I had never visited the garden in Tavistock Square, just a few hundred metres away from my office. Three days ago, I travelled into London from my home in Berkhamsted for a meeting and afterwards walked back to Euston Station past Tavistock Square On the spur of the moment, I decided to pop in and look around this lovely green space. In addition to the lawns and shrubs, there are interesting trees, including a cherry tree dedicated to those who were killed by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and among the monuments in the garden is an impressive statue of Gandhi. I was drawn to a large stone (see below, image from Wiki) that had been covered by white carnations, laid out singly in a rather striking way all over its surface. This stone bore a plaque bearing the inscriptions:

To commemorate men & women conscientious objectors to military service all over the world & in every age.

To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope.

This stone was dedicated on 15 May 1994 International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

How interesting, then, that I decided to discover the Tavistock Square garden on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the day that the monument was unveiled. That explains the presence of the carnations and I’m only sorry that I couldn’t take a picture of it at the time (unfortunately, I don’t own a mobile telephone and wasn’t carrying a camera, or my iPad).

The monument set me thinking about what I would do if threatened by the need to fight and kill opponents. Firstly, I don’t think that I could take the life of another human being and, while I have killed mammals when I was younger, I’m not sure that I could now. That’s not to say that I respect all life forms, as I’m an enthusiastic killer of wasps and flies when they invade “my” space and I am an omnivore, so cannot object to killing of mammals by others. Secondly, I find it difficult to accept that war is inevitable and that killing opponents results in anything but pain. Of course, there are victors and vanquished (at great cost on both sides), but settlements are negotiable without resort to force.

A web search reveals the names of many famous objectors, especially during the First and Second World Wars, but large numbers of other citizens, who are less famous, followed their conscience and beliefs and refused to fight. Among famous conscientious objectors was Kathleen Lonsdale (see above) and her story has a personal ring for me as she worked for many years at UCL. She was a distinguished scientist who was raised as a Baptist (as I was), but became a Quaker as she believed in pacifism. Gill Hudson writes [1] that:

..Kathleen saw her life as scientist, Quaker, and mother as inextricably linked. She gave the Eddington lecture in 1964 and described how the practice of science, of religion, and of child rearing should be founded on common themes of scepticism and of knowledge gained at first hand.

She was a firm believer in Gandhian non-violent resistance and in civil disobedience. During the Second World War she refused to register for civil defence and when she refused to pay the fine for this was committed to Holloway prison for one month. Although she would have been exempt from civil service duties, it seemed important to her that she should make the point as a conscientious objector.

Not everyone has the courage of Kathleen Lonsdale and the Peace Pledge Union [2] provides support for conscientious objectors in the contemporary world.

In thinking about my views on conscientious objection, I find myself in a quandary. In my last blog post [3], I recalled the tragedy of the Harrowell brothers, just two of many millions who died prematurely while fighting for their country. I don’t know if they were enthusiastic volunteers in the Great War, or whether they were reluctant conscripts, but many would argue that their deaths, and those of many others, resulted, eventually, in the maintenance of civilised society. Certainly, many combatants show extraordinary bravery and sacrifice and I cannot belittle their contribution in allowing me to enjoy my way of life. However, I still think that I would be a conscientious objector, although who knows? I just hope that the situation does not arise where I have to make the choice.   

It surprises me that this series of thoughts all came about after a serendipitous detour into one of London’s squares, while strolling back to Euston Station to catch the train home. Should it?

[1] Gill Hudson (2010) Lonsdale [née Yardley], Dame Kathleen (1903-1971). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

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