Cowardy cowardy custard

IssueDecember 2009 - January 2010
Comment by Jeff Cloves

I read, with uneasy and strongly personal interest, the discussions in September’s issue. For the whole of my conscious life – or so it seems – I have been confronted by this question: “What would you, a pacifist, have done in the Second World War?” For years, my feeble cop-out was to say: I wasn’t even two when it started so I’m concerned with now, not then.

However, the question is a valid and proper one and, if it is posed by someone whose father fought and died in the Second World War and/or whose family was slaughtered in the blitz, I find I’m too ashamed to argue my case.

I suppose that, because my paternal grandfather was seriously wounded and invalided out of the army in the First World War, and one of my uncles was a conscientious objector in the Second World War, I had a general awareness of the enormity of the First World War, even as a child.

My maternal grandfather, a house-painter spent the war camouflaging the merchant fleet and was an outspoken opponent of red poppies. He argued that stricken families deserved compensation and support not tin-rattling charity.

My soldier grandfather died at the end of the Second World War from wounds inflicted in the First World War. My camouflager grandfather died of throat cancer and a working life using lead-based paint – particularly after the First World War, when he was working in the unventilated holds of ships reverting to civilian use. Of his three sons, one was a CO and one volunteered for the RAF and became a rare sergeant (later commissioned) pilot.

The other was an industrial chemist and may have been too old to be called-up or was directed to war work like my dad. Dad was a sheet-metal worker who built aircraft during the Second World War, and I’m grateful he was a living presence throughout my life.

Lacking moral fibre

As for me, I became familiar very early in my life, with the expression “lacking moral fibre”. Thus were stigmatised many First World War soldiers who we now recognise as deeply damaged – perhaps permanently – cases of shell-shock or post-conflict stress disorder.

In my own case, I came to recognise that I was seriously lacking in moral fibre. I was eligible for national service but deferred until I’d finished my studies. By the time I’d qualified, national service was discontinued.

I knew I was a pacifist by the time I was 18 but I was as terrified of prison as I was of war. If I’d been called up, would I have behaved like my uncle (who did two stretches in Wormwood Scrubs) or bitten my tongue and kept my army-haircut head down? Fortunately I was never put to the test. However, I am clearly what most people recognise as a coward. If I’d been in a trench on the Somme I know I would have sucked my thumb and cried for my mum. I would have lacked the moral fibre to go “over the top”, and it’s as likely I would have been shot dead by my own officers as by the enemy.

Throughout my life my very worst dreams have involved me being in a war and terrified out of my wits. My next worst dreams involve being in a state of claustrophobic panic in prison. I’ve spent three or four (mercifully brief) times in cells and how anybody survives 25 days – let alone 25 years – in prison is beyond me.

I think life in the trenches and life in prison would have driven me clinically insane. I think I’m a pacifist because I’m frightened.

Honour deserters

Recently I saw a TV documentary about COs in the First World War. There was no doubt about the courage of these men and what they endured for their beliefs. Moral fibre they had in abundance but white feathers, hard labour and accusations of cowardice were their daily lot. I lack their courage but I have long thought that the argument for pacifism has avoided considering the actions of cowards like me.

Harry Patch wrote that war was the “calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings”. There is a considerable archive concerning COs but is there one for deserters?

I am entirely on the side of cowardly deserters. Faced with “calculated and condoned slaughter”, the sensible thing to do is to run away. Is that cowardice or common sense? “Wars will cease when men refuse to fight” goes the old Peace Pledge Union slogan but if everybody was too cowardly to fight then wars would also cease. I know I would have run away in the First World War, just as I know, if faced with torture, I would betray anything and anybody.

And as for bravery – what does it mean? When the “great train robbers” planned their heist they knew that failure would land them lengthy prison sentences yet they dared. When they coshed a driver (a stranger) in the course of the robbery, they added years to their sentences. This kind of daring – especially if accompanied by killing enemy strangers – is what soldiers get medals for. When a gang sets on a gay man and kills him, they presumably see him as an enemy of society and so justify their actions. Soldiers who beat prisoners to death may cite the same justification. It’s infectious madness and if everybody ran away before they got infected the world might be a less dangerous place.

There’s a lot more to write about all this and no space but received notions of cowardice and bravery need to be addressed by peaceniks above all.

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