It is nearly 70 years since I began my two years of conscripted military service.
Having been to a boarding school, it was not much of a shock. Despite some class differences we were all in the same boat and got shouted at in the same way by various corporals and sergeants.
In 1947, the cold war was just starting, and it was to faraway places like Malaysia and Korea that some of my contemporaries were sent. At least one, my friend ‘Tubby’ Maycock, a year below me at school, was killed as the Chinese poured in over the Korean border.
Conscientious objectors? I had never heard of such people at school. If I had, they would, I’m sure, have been referred to as ‘wimps’ or worse. Only years after being demobbed did I begin to change my ideas.
From Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness, I learnt about Franz Jägerstätter, the brave Austrian farmer who paid for his refusal with his life. I have no reason to suppose that he was in any absolute sense a pacifist (would someone please define that word for me?), but he thought that Hitler’s war was wicked and would take no part in it. Executed in 1943, his ashes are now buried by the little church in St Radegund, his home village.
It was there, some years later, that I met his widow, Franziska. She had given Franz her full support whatever the result would be. Many of his fellow villagers, however, thought him a crank. His local bishop feared, when he met him, that Franz might be a spy sent to test the bishop’s own opinions. Thankfully, ideas change. Franz is now on his way to canonisation.
“His bishop feared that Franz might be a spy sent to test the bishop’s own opinions.”
Once my own eyes were opened, I learnt more and more about the courage of so many ‘refuseniks’. One who does not easily fit into any peace movement category was William Douglas Home. He was an officer in a guards’ tank regiment as the allies began to move across France in 1944.
Le Havre had a German garrison which showed no sign of surrendering. William was ordered to open fire on the garrison despite the evident fact that the town was full of refugees from the post-invasion fighting. He raised a protest with his superior officer but was told to obey orders. He refused. Court-martialled, he, the brother of a future prime minister and son of a peer, spent the last year of the war in prison.
My last example, though there are so many more, is Stanislav Petrov, who died recently in his home not far from Moscow. He was the senior officer in a forward observation post at a time of great tension in September 1983. He saw in the western sky what all had feared – a surprise missile attack coming from the West. His orders were to report such a sighting at once to Moscow. Had he done so, as some of his team wanted, a retaliatory strike might have been ordered and we would have been into a Third World War.
But he delayed until, after at least half an hour, it became clear that his incoming ‘missiles’ were only part of a very unusual atmospheric formation. Afterwards he was reprimanded for being an unreliable officer. A Nobel Peace Prize might have been more appropriate.
There are so many others, men and women, who have bravely said ‘NO’ – not all of them in the armed forces. Examples to us all, we owe them more than most people realise.