20/10/2015 07:40 BST | Updated 19/10/2016 06:12 BST

The Best Way to Honour the Dead is to Resist War

Three cheers for George Evans, a 92-year-old Normandy veteran who has the courage to speak out about the futility of war.

Evans has been prevented from participating in this year's Remembrance Day ceremony in Wellington in Shropshire for his refusal to stick to "the script". The stand-off comes after he read an anti-war poem at the event last year.

The British Legion has responded by claiming that remembrance should not be political. What a sad state of affairs, that we now regard politics as something dirty and to be avoided. In reality, any reflection on war or death is political. Of course it is political to commemorate the dead by working to end war. It is equally political to commemorate them with military marches and calls to support those currently in the armed forces. The real question is not whether one or other approach is political, but whether it is right.

Ever since Tony Blair's failed attempt to whip up public support for the invasion of Iraq, British public opinion has been at best ambivalent about politicians' desires to go to war. At the same time, the government and parts of the media have encouraged us to venerate the armed forces and their members to the point at which they cannot be questioned.

Soldiers are labelled as "heroes", rather than complex human beings with needs and emotions. As the government slashes support for disabled people, it is saved from the embarrassment of admitting that this affects ex-soldiers by charities such as "Help for Heroes", telling us that the victims of war should be saved by throwing money into tins rather than by a decent welfare state.

A hundred years ago this month, politicians, campaigners and generals were engaged in heated debates about the introduction of conscription, as the death toll mounted in World War One. Eventually, at the end of December 1915, the cabinet decided to introduce conscription. It was so controversial that the Home Secretary, John Simon, promptly resigned in protest. The bill was presented to Parliament shortly afterwards and conscription came into effect on 2 March 1916.


As we approach the centenary of this sad and deplorable day, let's remember the victims - British and otherwise - who were sent to die in a futile war between rival imperial powers. Let's also remember those who refused.

Thousands of people in Britain resisted attempts to push them into the army. The number of British conscientious objectors (COs) in World War One has traditionally been put at around 16,500, but recent research suggests it may well have been above 20,000. Many were forced into the army against their will, often to be abused and tortured. At least 35 were sentenced to death, although the sentences were commuted after lobbying by peace groups. Over 80 COs died in prison, work camps or military detention. The survivors were the first to acknowledge that they had not suffered as much as the thousands fighting in war that the COs were trying to stop.

At the same time, other peace activists, both men and women, were imprisoned under the Defence of the Realm Act for distributing pacifist literature. In Germany, while a number of objectors were allowed to carry out non-combatant duties, others were imprisoned for their stance. In Russia, they were imprisoned or shot. In the US, conscientious objectors were among the prisoners at Alcatraz and many were kept in jail until years after the war was over. Anti-war sentiment played a significant part in the revolutions that toppled the royal rulers of Russia, Germany and Austria, while there were mutinies in the French and British armies.

Looking back, we can see these people's efforts to stop the was as wise and prophetic. World War One is, after all, regarding as immoral by most people today.

As we approach the centenary of conscription, we can follow the example of those who stood up to the power of militarism 100 years ago.

Our bodies are no longer conscripted, but our money is conscripted to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our language is conscripted, so that we talk of "defence" when we mean warfare and "security" when we mean weapons. Our minds are conscripted, so we feel pressured to regard soldiers as heroes, to believe that violence is the ultimate response to conflict and to put loyalty to a government and its army ahead of our loyalty to humanity.

So let's follow George Evans' example. Let's remember all the victims of war, military and civilian, of all nationalities. And let's honour them in the best way we can: by working to prevent war, and to resist militarism, in the present and the future.