Monday, May 15, 2006

For freedom of conscience

Today, May 15th, is International Conscientious Objectors' Day. On this day we remember the thousands of people around the world who have suffered and even died for the right to refuse to kill on behalf of the state. I don't think the New Zealand government has killed anyone for refusing to wear its uniform - but we've come damn close. In World War One, for example, we sent fourteen conscientious objectors to France, where they were beaten, starved, and ultimately tortured in an effort to break their will. This is how one of them, Archibald Baxter, described his treatment:

He took me over to the poles, which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he picked the same one for me. I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will slacken a little after a time. His never did. The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch. Earlier in the war, men undergoing this form of punishment were tied with their arms outstretched. Hence the name of crucifixion. Later, they were more often tied to a single upright, probably to avoid the likeness to a cross. But the name stuck.

A few minutes after the sergeant had left me, I began to think of the length of my sentence and it rose up before me like a mountain. The pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half-an-hour it seemed absolutely unendurable. Between my set teeth I said: ‘Oh God, this is too much. I can't bear it.’ But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning as I did not want to give the guards the satisfaction of hearing me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the physical. I felt I was going mad. That I should be stuck up on a pole suffering this frightful torture, a human scarecrow for men to stare at and wonder at, seemed part of some impossible nightmare that could not continue. At the very worst strength came to me and I knew I would not surrender. The battle was won, and though the suffering increased rather than decreased as the days wore on, I never had to fight it again.

(Archibald Baxter, We Will Not Cease, Chapter 6).

Despite this, Baxter didn't give in. Neither did his friend Mark Briggs, despite being beaten, starved, crucified, and dragged across wire-clad boards until the skin and flesh was flayed from his back.

Baxter's is an extreme case; most conscientious objectors were simply imprisoned. All told, we jailed 273 COs in World War One, plus a further 700-odd in World War Two, plus numerous other people for sedition and subversion for daring to voice their objections to war. All were prisoners of conscience, and all should be remembered. The UK apparently has a monument to its conscientious objectors; isn't it about time we had one of our own?


When conscription was still in use in the country of my birth (Belgium) they did offer a choice to avoid military service if you objected. I had to serve in a charitable organisation but the term was twice as long as serving in the army, lived on the same soldier's pay but was I not clothed, fed or housed like the soldiers were. It was a hard slog for almost two years, but I thought it was totally worth it.

Posted by Hans Versluys : 5/16/2006 10:03:00 AM

I like the idea of a memorial - who do I need to convince? (MP? Council? Minister?)

Posted by Anita : 5/16/2006 10:19:00 AM

What about the Minister of Culture and Heritage? :)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/16/2006 10:25:00 AM