Harry Leslie Smith has written what is to me a very moving piece at The Guardian on the upcoming remembrance we call Veterans Day. Here is one of those insightful folks who sees the ambiguity of life and does not quail but rather stares directly at it, and in so doing achieves a measure of understanding of the Other.
Smith volunteered for the RAF at the start of World War II, and he seems to feel nothing resembling regret about that decision. Yet he is able to look at the 60,000 men who registered as conscientious objectors in the UK and the 100,000 who deserted posts or failed to return from leave without rancor. He points out that many, especially the poor, in Britain at the time had been destroyed by the Depression and did not see a clear reason to offer their lives to support a state that didn’t support them. Some had gone through World War I and had PTSD, or shell shock as they called it then. Some had religious or moral objections. Some simply couldn’t handle the strain.
It is unfortunate that too many in this present age look upon these men as cowards whose objections to battle are best forgotten. But I believe it is important that we remember those who dissent in a time of war even if we believe our struggle to be true and just. How a nation treats those who oppose their war aims is the true measure of its enlightenment.
To say Smith is forgiving these people would be to underestimate his point. He is honoring multiple approaches, while maintaining his own approach as best for him. But what caused me to tear up was the phrasing of the penultimate sentence in this paragraph:
This is but one of the reasons I will no longer wear the poppy today: it represents only what is seen as the “courage” of war — those who stood and fought, but not those who stood and disagreed. It is the reason why, when I recently went to see the ceramic poppies that surround the Tower of London like a turgid lake of blood, I recalled not only lives lost in battles from ancient and modern wars but also those that were changed irrevocably by the consequences of having an individual conscience during a time of collective insecurity. I feel we must find a way to remember them too.
Here in the US, at least, there seems to be little social room for “having an individual conscience during a time of collective insecurity.” Our collective emotional insecurity is used by politicians, weapons and drug manufacturers, and insurance and health-care corporations to keep the economy going (“the economy,” as Bill Hicks said, “which is fake anyway!”). Our collective economic insecurity is ensured by the financial system enshrining inequality as the proper measure of a civilized society, offering an everyone-for-themselves ethic to confuse those who attempt to emulate the government dependence of those heroes who claim to bestride our world.
But I digress. My intent is to thank Harry Leslie Smith for his dedication to his own ideals and those he fought for. From the point of view of a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, I’d like to return the kind words and say, along with Joseph Campbell, that one can disagree with the aim of a war and feel that it should not have been fought, but that does not detract one whit from the courage and heroism of those who offer their lives in the service of a cause they deem greater than themselves.