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Pacifists can opt out of war. So why can't their taxes do the same?

The 1916 Military Service Act conscripted all single men between 18 and 41 – apart from the clergy, teachers, and those involved with essential industry. And conscientious objectors.


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The 1916 Military Service Act first introduced conscription into the armed forces. When the act passed, 200,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square to object. Lord Kitchener’s famous Your Country Needs You poster encouraged over a million men to join up voluntarily.

But as fast as they were putting on the uniform they were being slaughtered in the mud of northern France. So the act obliged all single men between 18 and 41 to take up a rifle and fight – all apart from the clergy, teachers, and those involved with essential industry. And conscientious objectors.

To mark the centenary of this conscientious objection clause, a parliamentary bill is being prepared to update the principle. For although modern warfare is no longer conscripted in terms of human resources, what is conscripted is our money to pay for it.

The 1916 act recognised the right of individuals to opt out of war for moral reasons; this new legislation will recognise the right to opt out of paying for war. In practical terms, it would mean the opportunity to register this opt out on our tax returns, so that pacifists could have whatever percentage of their tax that goes on military expenditure redirected to conflict prevention. If we have the right to opt out of conscription, why shouldn’t our money have the same right?

After all, money is the lifeblood of war. And for pacifists, taxation for the technology of war is just another version of conscription. It’s just killing by proxy.

Quakers especially have long taken an absolutist line against any involvement with war. “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or for any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world,” said the Quakers to Charles II in 1660.

And it is significant that the Labour MP who is currently leading the fight for this legislation, Ruth Cadbury, bears a family name with a long and proud Quaker history. “I’m happy to be raising this as an issue in parliament, as I believe that those who object to funding violence should have the right to express their conscience,” she said.

I can’t believe this bill will get anywhere. Pacifism remains toxic stuff. When Muhammad Ali objected to being drafted for the war in Vietnam, he was stripped of his title and denied a licence to box. His reasons for objecting were various, from “war is against the teachings of the Qur’an”, to “why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

Some thought it peculiar that a man who made his living bashing people in the head would become a conscientious objector to violence – though I find that perfectly understandable. “I’m a pacifist because I’m a violent son of a bitch,” is how the theologian Professor Stanley Hauerwas once put it. Pacifism is not some dreamy wishful thinking that people are, deep down, all good and nice. It’s precisely the opposite.

Yet it’s one thing for a person to prefer their own death to taking the life of another – that is recognisably Christ-like in its preparedness for martyrdom. But it’s quite another thing for innocent people to die because I refuse to protect them. And this is where I stumble with pacifism. I know the pacifist response: that trying to extinguish violence with more violence is like trying to extinguish fire with petrol. That war feeds off itself. Furthermore, the innocent die in war all the time. It’s not like innocent suffering is something pacifists have uniquely to account for. Which is why I take no moral pride in the fact that, unlike pacifists, I would be prepared to fight and kill to protect the innocent.

But like pacifists, I wouldn’t ever call such fighting good or right or just. And that’s because I have a high doctrine of tragedy; that there are sometimes impossible circumstances when whatever course of action you choose it’s morally wrong. From Constantine to Blair, the idea of a just war only feeds the beast. There are no just wars. Only tragic ones.

Source: The Guardian


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