Nelson, Robert: honour those who refused to go to war

Nelson, Robert

We should honour those who refused to go to war‘, Age, 11 November 2015

The author considers who and what is worthy of remembrance, noting the recently published book World War One: a History in 100 Stories. The article attracted 49 mostly thoughtful comments.

The default position is to honour the people who fought. We pay respects, first to the fallen and then to the survivors who at least got to tell their story to those around them …

[Yet,] given that stubborn regimes went to war over relatively little, the only ethical response for a citizen on either side was to refuse to fight …

We honour the fighters but not the lovers, the people reviled for “cowardice”, one of whom said: “I refuse to bear arms and harm total strangers.” Where is the monument to the folk who took a stand against the war rather than those who capitulated to its madness? And where is the postmortem apology to the poor soldiers who resorted to self-harm, the malingerers, the shirkers, the people who rated human life above military pride?

Behind the enemy lines, we also had friends. They too protested.  It was immensely brave but also logical. If all citizens had taken that stand, millions of lives would have been saved.

The Australian people achieved an impressive domestic victory in the Great War: on two occasions, conscription was defeated by referendum. But because we didn’t have the draft – and technically soldiers enlisted voluntarily – we didn’t experience the full persecution of conscientious objectors, where citizens were court-martialled for insubordination.

Alas, that also means that we’ve never had to confess to injustice. We’ve never had to admit that the nation was wrong and the “cowards” were right. One hundred  years on, the people whom we now need to honour are the good souls who stayed at home and suffered the opprobrium of not killing. The fighters  – who did their best under authority  – deserve our compassion and nothing more.

Lindsey German on the No Glory in War website says we should remember all victims of war.


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