Guardian Books Blog: Conscientious Objectors

Today’s entry appears on the Guardian Books Blog, and marks International Conscientious Objectors Day. Researching it was a riveting and sobering experience: war is never an easy subject to pontificate on, but you can’t look into this subject and think that refusing to fight was an easy or cowardly option.

This is part of the piece:

The pacifist group Peace Pledge Union are holding their annual ceremony in London to mark International Conscientious Objectors Day. PPU has a fascinating and affecting archive of testimony from COs, but it occurred to me that conscientious objectors are underrepresented in the literature of war. There are many references to conscience: to soldiers who signed up but later doubted the rightness of the cause and to deserters, to those who were, by our standards, wrongly accused of cowardice. But references to actual conchies, as they were known, and not  affectionately, are thin on the ground. 

Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy Parade's End, produced in the 1920s, has some mention of them. However:

'The son,' Tietjens said, 'is a conscientious objector. He's on a minesweeper. A bluejacket. His idea is that picking up mines is saving life, not taking it.'
This might not fit everyone's definition. 

a conscientious objector in court in Belgium in 1950

Historian and writer Lytton Strachey was famous for having faced down a tribunal to get conscientious objector status – and his reputation survived this. Strachey's biographer Michael Holroyd says the correct version of a famous anecdote is that he was asked: "What would you do if you saw a German soldier trying to rape your sister?" Strachey replied: "I would attempt to come … [significant pause] between them."

Lytton Strachey has featured on the blog with his book about Elizabeth I. The piece also features Sarah Waters classic of wartime London life, Night Watch, on the blog here. Sebastian Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement – a French book about World War I – has provided two entries.


  1. Moira - Fabulous piece! I think it's easy to think of the conscientious objector as either cowardly (which they are not!) or unpatriotic (Patriotism has little to do with it). It's much more complex than that. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

    1. Thanks for those kind words Margot - and yes, it's a thought-provoking subject.

  2. Is there a day for everything, methinks? International Pot Noodle Day perhaps, or International Doner Kebab Day? Flippancy aside, I have trouble keeping up with them all.
    Can't say I'm particularly familiar with this concept in my reading, I think the closest I've come would be US border hoppers fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft during The Vietnam days. Does this count?

    1. I didn't think of that at all, but it would have been a really good addition to the piece. It was a big feature of American life at the time, and surely must have turned up in books.

    2. Apologies for the initial comment above - I wasn't denigrating the piece at all, just kind of rolling my eyes at the proliferation of "special days."

      Perhaps the act of evasion made them less of a CO than a draft dodger. You would feel that those who stayed and were prepared to take on the establishment and argue their beliefs maybe had more spine than those that legged it. Hard to imagine what you would do unless actually faced with the choices.
      Muhammed Ali springs to mind as a famous CO from Vietnam - there's been plenty written about his stance.

    3. No worries, it's a fair point!
      I think there are interesting distinctions between different types of non-combatants. Some were willing to do non-combatant jobs, such as ambulance drivers, whereas others would take no part at all, and the young Americans in the 1960s did self-removal. They had quite different opinions of each other also, I think...

  3. Interesting subject and very nice piece at the Guardian. Since I read a lot about wartime, it often shows up somewhere in the story although I cannot bring any to mind right now. I did just (finally) finish Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner and it had information about conscientious objectors in one of the chapters.

    1. I am interested to read more after the research I did for this piece - so perhaps I should get the Gardiner book, the whole topic would interest me. I read another book by her, about the Brontes, and was really impressed by it.

  4. What a topic! It's very complicated.

    During the Vietnam War, the U.S. was in turmoil. That war was very unpopular, to say the least. There were enormous demonstration in Washington. Many men refused to be drafted. Some went to jail. Some went to Canada. Some burned their draft cards. Many who were drafted went AWOL.

    There was so much opposition to that war and the draft that it was ended.

    I knew people who did all of these things.

    I just read an interesting story about a Civil Rights/Civil Liberties lawyer in the States, who was just honored. He obtained CO status during the Vietnam War, and did community work to help people as an alternative to service. He became a community organizer, and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement and then became a terrific lawyer, taking on important cases.

    And I thought of my childhood and a family friend who was a CO during WWII. He went to jail for awhile. He was also the first vegetarian I ever met. He just could not kill or fight another human being, nor could he stand the idea of eating what had been a living creature. He was about promoting life and peace. He just could not personally do anything that ran counter to that.

    Then the Vietnam War was much more complicated; opposition was huge. So many did not want to fight in that war. Three million Vietnamese and 58,000 U.S. GIs were killed, the country was torn up, Agent Orange defoliated so much of it, and it's still affecting the farmland, and causing birth defects.

    1. Thanks Kathy for your most interesting comments. As you say, it is complicated. 'Draft dodgers' and 'conscientious objectors' are two very different phrases aren't they? There was an amnesty for draft dodgers in the end, wasn't there? What an extraordinary time that must have been, with such internal opposition to the war, and mass civil disobedience.

  5. There was an amnesty for young men who had left the country to avoid the draft and the war. Many returned from Canada; some stayed there.

    But even the term "draft dodgers" encompassed many young men who were opposed to the war and didn't want to fight or kill anyone. It wasn't out of "cowardice" in most cases. There was so much opposition to the war and it was acted out in several ways.

    I lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood then. Around the corner and down the block was a whole community of guys who'd gone AWOL. They were opposed to the war, thought it horrific, wanted no part of it.

    Mohammed Ali's actions inspired many. I just saw a program on NBC, a major network, about important moments in the journalists' lives. That scene of Mohammed Ali saying he would not go to Vietnam to fight in the war was shown as a memorable moment in one journalist's life, a life-changing moment for him.

    Being a principled person is a strong part of any CO's stance.

    1. Such an interesting addition to the discussion - thanks Kathy.

  6. You are welcome. I have come late to this blog, and am so glad to have found it, as there is so much that's interesting and thought-provoking.

    I just was inspired to read up on Muhammad Ali's refusal in 1967 to be inducted into the Army and fight in Vietnam, and his being convicted for doing so. He didn't go to jail, but he was not allowed to box, and was stripped of his medals.

    Meanwhile, the anti-war movement had become huge, and the Civil Rights Movement had been incredible. So, in 1971, when the Supreme Court heard Ali's case, they overturned his conviction unanimously! (This I had not remembered.)

    Many people followed his example.


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