It is never easy to swim against the tide of popular public opinion. With the inevitable
propaganda machine going full steam ahead, as it does when getting a country stirred up to enter a war, those that have the authority to take a country into war will use anything in their power to justify their decision. There are times when it takes the most courage to say no, especially to those who are in positions of authority. In an era where it was seen as good and honourable to die for one’s country in war, going against what was viewed as public duty and saying “no” to war, was not only difficult, but highly disapproved of. However, there were those who refused to take part in war, to instead use all the peaceful options available to bring about resolutions in an attempt to preserve life, as they knew that death, destruction and debilitation are the inevitable outcomes of war. Even though one side may claim otherwise, there are never any winners in war.
Since mankind first walked on this earth there has been conflict resulting in wars, and sadly, this continues to be the case today. Wars occur for many reasons; whether it be over religion, politics, revenge, ethnic ‘cleansing’, resources or border disputes, these can be the catalysts for wars around the world. War can also be financially profitable for countries who supply armaments, often to both sides, showing that profit can be placed above human life. Throughout the different ages of society, serving your country in war has been seen as the right thing to, as it is seen as being ‘patriotic’ to fight for the country you belong to, however, when the consequences of war are so detrimental, it is essential that war is avoided. If one has a love of their country, and mankind, then it is patroitic and just to do everything in one’s power to keep their country out of war. When there is something to gain, it is all too easy for a country to choose going into war over peace.
Some politicians and military commanders put their troops into unwinnable situations.
Sending others into the ravages of war is made easy when those who give the orders to attack often do so at a distance, safe from bullets and mortars. History attests to the costly mistakes that many have made when sending soldiers into battle. An example of this very situation was in the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem – The Charge of the Light Brigade is about such a campaign. In the second verse – “Someone had blundered, Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.” Someone in a position of authority had sent the Light Brigade into a doomed campaign, resulting in huge loss of life.
On a number of occasions, New Zealand has been obliged to enter into warfare because of
the political allies it had, sending New Zealand troops to war. Examples from New Zealand’s involvement in wars and failed campaigns are well documented. In World War One there was the Gallipoli Campaign, where not only the training and preparation for the New Zealand soldiers was inadequate for the conditions they would face, but also because of a landing at Ari Burnu that was so off course. The commanders failed to prepare the troops for the narrowbeach, steep cliffs, and enemy onslaught that they faced. Factors like these lead to repeated failures and high death rates among New Zealand troops. The Battle of the Somme also resulted in the huge loss of New Zealand lives, along with many other countries. World War Two and the Vietnam War contributed to the toll of New Zealander lives that have been lost in war. Ironically, World War I is also known as “The Great War” and it sits like a juxtaposition, as how can any war be great when innocent lives are lost to the ravages of warfare? Even wars that are eventually claimed as victories by one side are failures, because of the death and injury both sides endure. Inevitably victories are hollow because of the true cost in terms of human loss.
Only those who have experienced the battles first hand can truly know what it is like. Many young men who went to war could never have imagined the horrors which they would be embroiled in, and for many by the time they realised what they had gotten themselves into, it was too late, succumbing to either death, injury or a life altered because what they had been exposed to was forever etched in their minds. 1916 in New Zealand brought the introduction of the Military Service Act, meaning that conscription was used for recruitment to the military. If a man was of age and in good health, he was expected to join the military and ‘do his bit for his country’ by going to war. Of course conscription came about when volunteers fell below the numbers required. Sadly, people were simply seen as just a number – a number on a uniform when they served, and a number on a white cross when they died. The individual’s beliefs were not considered when laws of the land were implemented. Surely, when one’s life is at stake, that person should have the right to choose their own destiny.
Propaganda encourages countries and their people to push for and support wars, and in doing so, reject peace as a viable alternative. Those who refused to fight and who challenged conscription for military service were known as conscientious objectors. Exemptions from war could be applied for, but more often than not these applications were turned down if the reason was stated as being that it went against an individual’s belief that war was unethical and to fight and kill was wrong. Those who refused to fight for their country were made to suffer the consequences. Even New Zealand’s Prime Minister at the time, William Massey, said there would be “no escape for the shirker.” It was a time when many people were led to believe that those who did not fight for their country were cowards, however, this was not true. There have always been those who have stood strong against the pull of war and in doing so have endured hatred, hardship, ridicule, loss of freedom and rights, in order to stay faithful to their belief in peace at all costs. It is harsh enough being hated by those from another country, but to be hated and despised by people from your own country, community and family causes deep suffering. Those who chose not to fight in wars, the conscientious objectors, did so for many reasons. For some it was the uncompromising belief that war was wrong and that they should not fight. For others it was that they followed the steadfast religious teaching that it was a sin to take another life no matter what the circumstances. In the Holy Bible, one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not kill.” The result of keeping true to these beliefs sometimes resulted in death. In World War 1 soldiers refusing to fight were shot by their own country’s firing squads as a deterrent to others. Those who refused to enlist were imprisoned, and subjected to hard labour and harassment. White feathers, which were the symbol of cowardice, were sometimes posted or given to those who did not go to war and to those that others perceived as not doing their ‘duty.’ This was humiliating and upsetting for anyone who received a white feather.
As the stories of conscientious objectors have become known to more people, there is a
greater understanding and acceptance of an individual’s choices, beliefs and values. More
people are coming to realise that there are alternatives to war and violence. Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King are examples of such people who turned away from violence, and instead advocated through peaceful methods when successfully bringing attention and change for a cause. In New Zealand we have had our own pacifists and advocates against war likeArchibald Baxter, Mark Briggs, Henry Patton and Lawrence Kirwan. These men stuck to their principals and refused to take up arms and fight in a war they believed was wrong. During World War 1 they were arrested, imprisoned, sent to the Western Front and because these men still refused to fight they were tied to poles as punishment known as Field Punishment No.1. It was brutal and barbaric but even this failed to break their resolve to not fight.
Keeping your country out of war begins with keeping yourself out of war. Staying faithful to one’s beliefs and not bending or breaking because it is unpopular takes great courage. We can learn from the stand taken by conscientious objectors and use their example to do all we can as an individual to keep our country out of war and to influence others to do the same, for it is the most patriotic thing you can do for your country.