Conscience or Cowardice?
‘Too young, at eighteen, to have a conscience’ he scorned.
‘When you grow up you’ll know it’s right to fight.’
Creating the Centena
By Sophie Olszowski
I’ve long puzzled over why countries fight: while knowing I would, to defend loved ones, and that violent atrocities must be halted, state-organised murder is troubling.
I first researched these conflicting sentiments when my partner’s son was fighting in Afghanistan while my work focused on evidence-based medicine. Worried I had missed the point, I would ask military folk (trying not to offend people viewed as heroes) for evidence that war “works.” Show me that good outcomes – lives saved or anguish lessened – are better achieved by war than by not fighting?
I won an award for a short story exploring this (https://issuu.com/tobyvaughan/docs/issue_13_da7e3c3fd96be6) where I referred to the journey of Harry Patch. The longest surviving world war one soldier, his retrospective misgivings were at odds with the military pomp surrounding his life and death. As I wrote “Where’s Harry Patch when we need him? Shrunken man so full of memories who told us that war is organised murder yet sat in your medals while we took your photograph and took you as our hero. Why did you let us, when people like you could have made the space between the dust, heat and grit of Helmand and my Ben, and now the last of you is gone?”
I was interested to explore why “conchies” refused to fight, other than their battles against those who deemed them cowards. Having recently settled in Lyme Regis I wondered whether conscientious objectors had been prominent here, but found little reference other than to them being attacked by women in the street.
Harold Bing appears in The Men Who Said No (http://menwhosaidno.org/index.html) project of the Peace Pledge Union and I was first struck by his trial – deemed old enough for conscription yet too young for conscientious objection – and then by the fact that both he and Harry Patch, via such different routes, went to their graves convinced that war is wrong.
My research also led me to quotes from those considered wise: John F Kennedy: “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” Churchill: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Such illustrious figures, still so much war.
The white feather was a powerful image throughout and Yvonne Green, writer and friend, led me to its origins in cockfighting: a cockerel with a white tailfeather, unlike pure breed gamecocks, is deemed a poor fighter. Interestingly though, in America, white feathers are awarded to symbolise “extraordinary bravery and excellence in combat marksmanship.”
Lastly, in “Conscientious Objectors of the First World War: a determined resistance” Ann Kramer tells of Harold Bing walking from Croydon to hear Keir Hardie in Trafalgar Square in August 2014, addressing the crowds “at the foot of the famous lions.”
It was here that I was reunited with my now husband after our relationship faltered in large part through his anguish at having a son at war. A personal symmetry echoing the centena’s structure.
LIVES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR
You can find out more about Harold Bing here at Lives of the First World War
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