For many years I have been concerned about the human rights, or rather the lack of rights, of people in the armed forces. That may seem a very strange preoccupation for a pacifist.
In 1972, I thought I was very brave giving out leaflets to soldiers in Belfast. The leaflets called for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland. One day a soldier took a leaflet and asked for more so he could give them out. I thought it was probably a trick and that he would just destroy them, but I did give him a few. I went to see what he was doing.
Wearing an army uniform, with his gun on his shoulder, he was handing out the leaflets to astonished passers-by. I went over and spoke to him. He told me he didn't want to fight the IRA. He had kept saying so, but no one had believed him. He thought that, maybe, if he did this, he would be believed.
I felt ashamed because I was suddenly conscious of the difference in our situations. If I as a British civilian got arrested, I would be tried in open court. I would get legal aid with plenty of radical lawyers ready to defend me. Supporters would rally round and sympathetic journalists would interview me. What would happen to this soldier when his superiors found out about his leafleting - as they surely would? I realised, to my shame, that I knew nothing about military law or any useful source of support for him. Later, back in England, I resolved that attempts at communication with soldiers should be accompanied by some form of helpful information or offer of support.
This line of thinking (shared by others) led eventually to my involvement with the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign (BWNIC) and a document called “Some Information for Discontented Soldiers”. Around the time that I joined BWNIC I also joined another organisation, At Ease, which was setting up a helpline for people in the armed forces.
There had been media reports of young soldiers committing suicide because they couldn't get out of the army.
I became more involved with At Ease and less with BWNIC after my son was born. This was for childcare reasons, but the priority I give to At Ease is now a deliberate choice. If you know someone in the armed forces who might need unbiased advice about their rights then please do tell them about At Ease. It's more constructive than shouting “Desert, you murderers!”