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Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of Their Conversion"

XXIII.—Varying Viewpoints

XXIII.—Varying Viewpoints.

During the courtmartial trials of the Conscientious Objectors, very many admirable statements were made by the "accused," presenting the respective viewpoints of the men who were prepared to sacrifice page 120their liberty rather than sear their conscience. The two statements which follow are widely different in viewpoint. The first is the objection of a very sincere Christian; the second that of an equally sincere Socialist—both of them men of lofty principles, firm purpose, and transcending courage.

Mr. Harry R. Urquhart, M.A., made the following statement to the President and members of the Courtmartial by whom he was tried at Auckland on May 9, 1918:—

I am here, as you know, on a charge of refusing to obey a command of one who is termed my superior officer. The command, namely, an order to submit to medical examination, seems so simple and innocent in itself that few people really understand why it is that a man, no matter what his philosophy of life may be, finds any difficulty in obeying it.

When, moreover, it is made clear that by submitting to medical examination there is a chance of being declared unfit for military service and of thus escaping punishment by imprisonment, the position of one who disobeys such an order becomes all the more difficult to comprehend.

Notwithstanding all this, I have very definite reasons for refusing to obey such as order:

1.To submit willingly to medical examination is to give the impression that if a man is found fit he will have no objections to going on with the rest of the full military programme. If this is not so, and, like me, he has really no intention of becoming a soldier, then submission to such an order is a mere farce—a taking part in an absolutely meaningless proceeding. Now, Sir, to me life is too real a thing for such paltry trifling; hence I cannot submit even to this apparently simple and innocent command.
2.An order to submit to medical examination is the first of a long series of military orders. If a man has not the slightest intention of taking the later orders, then he should refuse to take the first; for the sooner his position is made clear to himself and to all others the less confusion of thought will be caused.
3.There is certainly a chance of a man being declared medically unfit as a result of this examination and of thus escaping many unpleasant experiences, and of even being permitted to follow his usual occupation, but, Sir, men who take the stand which I am taking are not seeking to make things easy for themselves—they are only anxious to prove faithful to the light they have, and they would consider it a species of moral cowardice to attempt to slip through a loophole such as the medical examination sometimes affords.
4.It is good, too, for officials to be forced into the position of dealing with men who refuse to obey orders which they know are indirect conflict with the Divine Revelation that is guiding our lives.

Officials from the days of Pontius Pilate have at times been deeply page 121concerned when they have found themselves, in the execution of what they deem to be their duty, pronouncing sentence on men whom they know to be thoroughly sincere and whose lives show that they seek only the true good of their fellow-men.

Many an official at such a time feels himself a divided creature—he fain would do that as a man which he dare not do as an official. As an official he is forced to condemn and pass sentence on what as a man he would most willingly pardon and condone.

The truth of Christ's teaching may then come home to him with, great forcefulness—that no man can serve two masters. He realises, possibly for the first time, that he must act as a man of independent thought or as an official bound down by rules and regulations. He sees clearly the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon, of being true to himself as a man and true to the State as an official.

It my be that he will learn a lesson—one of the most important he will ever learn—that a man must be a man first of all, an official somewhere after that or not at all, according to the light revealed to him.

I am not a Quaker, and never have been one, but I profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ—it may be, like Peter of old, one who follows at a distance—still, I am seeking to follow and, as the days and weeks so by, to lessen the distance which separates my life from that of the Master.

I feel very definitely the leading of Christ—that Divine guidance which is promised to every man who seeks it. With the pathway so definitely pointed out to me, it would be base treachery on my part to obey commands, even of the highest officials of the land, when those commands mean the surrender of the light I have and the treading of a pathway which I know to be fraught with darkness and confusion.

The question of paramount importance to me, then, is not how should the crowd who have not this light act, but how should the few who have it act?

In such a crisis as the present it is assumed that the individual cannot do any independent thinking, or, if he does, it is deemed to be valueless. Now, history right down through the ages has proved such an assumption to be false. It has not been men in masses but men in ones and twos who have been responsible in the first place for the change of thought which has led to important reforms. A law, then, which ignores such a fundamental axiom of all true progress is a law which every wise man will expect to be broken.

Even granted that the Christian were willing to wear the uniform and accept military pay, although as a matter of fact he could not possibly identify himself so closely with your philosophy of life without most gravely and seriously jeopardising the cause for which he stands, still the military authorities on their part could not possibly allow him to enlist, because—however willing he might be to allow page 122his body to he clothed with a military uniform—he certainly will not and cannot permit any earthly authority to dress his thoughts in a uniform of approved pattern. In other words you may dress him in a uniform and so make him look like you, but you can never force him to think like you. If he goes at all, he must go as a free man and speak those things which God moves him to say. Right along the line he would be a source of danger to you, for one Christian in your ranks who is convinced of the sinfulness of the whole military position would be a constant source of danger to your cause. You dare not let him go—it would be madness on your part to seek to force him to go.

The true Christian follows the light as far as God reveals it to him. The truer he is to this revealed guidance the more light he receives and the less the world understands him. It is perhaps sufficient if he understands himself. But, as he steps more and more from the line which the world thinks it wisest to follow, as he diverges more and more from that path which is mapped out by convention and expediency, the more impossible does it become for him to accept freely a line of life or a definite work set down by another. Hence the Christian may find it impossible to accept alternative non-combatant work. Your only course is to leave him alone to follow that plan which God has revealed to him.

To me the words of John concerning Christ—that He is the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world—and the words of Jesus Christ Himself when He says, "I am the way, the truth and the life," are fraught with very deep meaning. I realise that he who ventures to seek and to follow this light must expect to come into conflict with conventional ideas as to what is and what is not expedient. He must be prepared to oppose popular opinion; he must, even at the risk of being misrepresented and misunderstood, very definitely refuse to move a step out of that pathway which is pointed out to him by Divine Revelation.

Such a follower of Christ will walk with all men as far as he possibly can—he will not lightly nor willingly break the laws of his country; but he reserves, and must reserve, to himself the right to break any law, military or otherwise, which comes into conflict with that Divine law revealed from above.

At a time like the present he arrives at the parting of the ways. Two voices speak to him—there is first that of the military authorities, loud and insistent, but to the Christian there is yet another voice—still and quiet—a voice which can be heard only when the soul of man is hushed to stillness and is eagerly listening for it.

I hear most distinctly these two voices. I see the beckoning figures, pointing out their opposing ways; but in my heart and mind lingers no bewildering doubt. I obey, gladly and willingly, the voice and beckoning hand of Him whom alone I regard as my superior officer.

Multitudes cannot understand such a philosophy of life; but this is page 123only another proof of the marvellous accuracy of Christ's Knowledge of men when He predicted that such would be the case—for He said, "The world cannot receive the Spirit of Truth because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him."

The Prosecuting Counsel has told you that I am a soldier; that the Military Service Act of 1916 has created me one in spite of my opposition to the whole military programme. I should like to say, Mr. President, that you cannot make a soldier of a man by Act of Parliament, any more than you can make a Hindu of him by a similar process. To make a soldier of a man you must secure him both body and soul. No Government has yet been able to do this. The fact that there are scores of Objectors in your prisons is proof that an Act of Parliament cannot make soldiers of men against their wills—it can only make prisoners of them, and as such they are not a help hut a hindrance to your cause.

So, when the Prosecuting Counsel tells me that in refusing to obey a military command I am committing the gravest offence that can be preferred against a soldier, I am not overwhelmed with dismay. I regard his own position as an infinitely more serious one—for, in stating that the religious or conscientious scruples of an accused man can have no weight with the Court and must not receive any consideration, he takes up arms not against me, but against God Himself. Sir, you are surely not amazed when I tell you that, in spite of the so-called grave offence I have committed against military law, I infinitely prefer my position to that of any member of this Court, for my offence is one against the law of man alone; yours, against the law and will of God Himself.

Mr. Colin R. Robertson was courtmartialled at Auckland on Friday, December 7, 1918, for refusing to be a soldier. When requested by the Court to state his personal objections to military service, he made the following statement, to which the Court listened patiently and without any interruptions whatever. He said:—

I am a Socialist, therefore my objections to service in the N.Z.E.F. as a conscript are based entirely on Socialist principles. I am opposed to conscription because, first, it is against the best interest of humanity, it is a machine of war's creation for war waging, and no one, I think, would dare say that war in itself is in humanity's interests.

Secondly, it is undemocratic, especially so in the manner in which it has been ushered into New Zealand.

War is the product of the system of social organisation, or rather disorganisation, under which we in this age live. It is the product of any social system under which the many are economically dependent on the few for the right to work in order that they may obtain the means of subsistence.

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Under the capitalistic state of society the working-class receive only a small portion of the wealth they produce in the form of wages; the balance is retained by the capitalists in the form of rent, interest, and profit. The balance becomes capital, and the capitalists seek fresh fields for its profitable investment.

Since the capitalists of all countries are in the same position, they must compete one with the other for the limited fields in which this accumulated capital can be profitably employed. Their interests conflict, war ensues; thus, to my mind, the causes of all wars are economic, all are capitalistic.

In the war being waged in Europe to-day, I see clearly the clashing of capitalistic interests; the same envious glances cast by one nation at the trade of another that precede all wars preceded this one.

These things do not concern the working-class of any country. Go where you will you will find the workers are dependent on the capitalists for the right to live; go where you will, you will find the workers living in the same poverty and want, you will find the same jails, lunatic asylums, poor-houses, brothels, and all the other evils of our present wage-system. Therefore, it will be seen the workers of all countries have the same troubles—to wit, an insufficiency of the necessities of life. They are all alike struggling to improve their lot by striving for higher wages, shorter hours of labour, and more sanitary conditions of life, all struggling to secure a little more of the wealth they produce, and ultimately to secure their independence from the economic oppression of capitalism.

I realise this and therefore refuse to participate in this or any other war. We are told it is a war of freedom. Freedom from what? The only freedom I can see to strive for is freedom of the masses of wage-slaves from their want and misery, freedom from the economic oppression of capitalism.

We are told it is to punish the perpetrators of the horrors (real or alleged) on the women and children of Belgium. To that I would reply: that, if there is anything in the natural law that every crime brings its own punishment, then the crimes that were practised upon the unfortunate natives of the Congo in the interests of Belgian capital, are bringing theirs. The unfortunate part is, that many of the guiltless workers of Belgium are suffering along with those who were responsible.

We are told it is to secure for the small nations independence; to that I would reply: If that is the case, why is not independence granted to Finland by Russia and to Ireland by Britain?

I am opposed to participation in this war or any other, on the grounds that all wars are wrong and against the best interests of humanity.

I refuse to hate the working-class men and women of Germany or any other country allied to her; I refuse to slay and maim the workers of those countries. I refuse to be the cause of depriving any German page 125woman of her life's partner, and I decline to be the means of any child of Germany shedding one tear over the loss of a living father.

For these reasons I must decline to be a soldier, or recognise the right of any Government to force me to become one. I must decline to recognise the right of any orders given to me by an alleged superior officer; therefore, I have declined to be medically examined, especially when I know that such examination is only for the purpose of determining my physical fitness to take human life.

I seek to make this world a little better for my having been in it, than it may otherwise have been, and participation in war is not tending towards that ideal.

I quite realise that for my views and principles I shall have to undergo certain punishment, but however severe that may be, even should it involve execution, I would still maintain the same attitude.

I would rather suffer the agonies of a million hells for a period of time covering a million eternities than develop legs on my stomach and crawl, centipede fashion, into a heaven (there to bask in the sunshine of an orthodox God) by violating the principle of humanitarianism, which I hold dearer than life itself.

Finally, I definitely state that I decline to perform one single action that would tend to leave what is now the live pulsating body of a German working man, with hopes and ideals perhaps the same as mine, on a bloodstained field of battle a mangled mass of humanity, with the life-blood welling from great gaping wounds, enriching the earth from which he sprung and to which he will now return.

Mr. Robertson then proceeded to make the following offer:—

I am prepared to offer myself to the military authorities for one purpose and on one condition. It is only by research and experiment that medical science has reached the stage of development that it has. It can only advance by still further research and experiment. This war has provided many opportunities for the advancement of antiseptic surgery, many operations have been performed which before the war were considered impossible. Many cases, I believe, of transfusion of blood, grafting of skin, flesh, or bone, etc., have been successfully dealt with.

Now, I am a healthy individual. I have lived a clean life, have no vices that I know of such as drinking, smoking, etc, have never had a day's constitutional illness in my life, so would consider that my blood, bone, and flesh would be in a good enough condition, that portion of my body could be grafted on to the bodies of individuals who may have been maimed, with a reasonable hope of the injured person being benefitted.

I therefore am prepared to offer my body to the military authorities for use in any hospital for the purpose herein stated for the benefit of any soldier who has been maimed at the front. The only page 126condition I impose is that no soldier after such treatment shall be re-ordered to the front.

I make this offer in the hope that it will be accepted, and that because I really wish to do something for the good of humanity. ' For the sake of the millions yet unborn and with the hope that the knowledge of surgery may be increased for the purpose of minimising the sufferings of those unborn millions may be heir to, I make this offer, it being toe only way I can conscientiously assist the military authorities.