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Peter Brock (ed), 'These Strange Criminals: An Anthology of Prison Memoirs by Conscientious Objectors from the Great War to the Cold War'
In These Strange Criminals, Peter Brock collects stories of imprisoned conscientious objectors since the First World War, and - with one exception - from the English speaking world; Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the USA. While at times repetitive - but that's the nature of prison life - the different stories manage to capture the experience of imprisoned COs, their thinking, and also the changes to prison over the course of 50 years.
Brock chose prison memoirs from a wide range of objectors - religious and political - but for my liking the balance is slightly too much in favour of religious COs.
The memoirs reveal a lot, not only about conscientious objection, but also about the COs' thoughts on other prisoners. At times coming from the moral high ground, looking down on, but not condemning, those poor normal criminals, at other times with a sharp analysis of the social conditions of society that produce “crime”.
The memoirs show also COs' contributions to the social struggle within prison - for example, in First World War Britain against the silence rule in British penal institutions, and later during the Vietnam War, in US prisons against mistreatment and racial segregation.
While in theory conditions should have improved between the First World War and the Vietnam era, this is hardly the case. While hygiene might have improved, an escalation of violence among prisoners in US prisons makes for a disturbing read, and one cannot avoid thinking that this at times is in the interest of the prison authorities. Since then, things have hardly improved.
Brock managed to include two memoirs of women COs from Britain in his collections, thus showing that conscientious objection is not an exclusively male domain, although during those periods compulsory military service certainly has been. This brings me to my main criticism: this book is too focused on the English speaking world, and lacks examples from the wide range of prison experiences from other countries - Spain, France, Belgium, Latin America, South Africa, Israel. And, although as a book by a north American historian it is perhaps understandable, I think it would be stronger if it didn't end with Vietnam. The experience of Gulf War CO prisoners, Israeli COs from the Lebanon war, and others, could have greatly added to the experiences covered by Brock.
But leaving these criticisms aside, These Strange Criminals makes for an interesting read. Maybe others can fill the gaps?