Tuesday, February 14, 2012

booknotes: hound of conscience

Background research for a fan fiction series I'm working on (I know, I know) took me to Thomas C. Kennedy's The Hound of Conscience: A History of the No-Conscription Fellowship, 1914-1919 (Univ. of Arkanasas, 1981). The No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was founded in 1914 as Britain entered World War One. It had its origins in a call put out by journalist, socialist organizer, and pacifist Archibald Brockway who published a letter in the Labour Leader in November 1914 "calling on all men of military age who would resist conscription if it became law to enroll themselves in an anticonscription organization" (43). At the time, England had an all-volunteer army, and early enthusiasm for the war meant that the military was not in urgent need of troops. Compulsory service, however, had already been broached for consideration in parliament and antiwar activists of various stripes understood they would need to band together to support each other in the event of a nationwide conscription scheme.

Kennedy's history is a fairly straightforward organizational history, charting the formation of the NCF, its various political activities, and the various ideological perspectives of its leaders. Opposition to conscription during the First World War came from a number of different fronts, from those with theological opposition to war (like the Quakers), to civil libertarians who believed no-one should be forced to serve their country, to socialists who weren't opposed to violence per se but objected to participating in a war which served the capitalist bourgeoisie at the expense of the working class. Hound of Conscience charts out the way the NCF brought together this diverse group of individuals and organized them to lobby politically against conscription and -- once it became the law of the land -- to support those who chose to become conscientious objectors.

While grounded in solid research and providing a decent amount of analysis, Kennedy occasionally gives in to a degree of moral disapproval of his subjects that seems uncalled for in the context of such a history. For example, after a lengthy quotation from the letter of a young conscientious objector just sent to prison, Kennedy writes:
Chappelow's letter is both pathetic and revolting: pathetic because of his obvious hysteria and fright; revolting because it exposes a young man so naive or ill-informed about the nature and seriousness of his actions that he appears ready to collapse under the pressure of minor inconvenience (138). 
Since the letter in question was expressing panicked fear over the prospect of solitary confinement, which Kennedy later describes as a form of "creeping physical and mental degeneration," the character assassination seems peculiar and unwarranted (182). Likewise, at several points throughout the narrative, Kennedy seems to suggest that conscientious objectors had no business protesting their treatment because regardless of what they suffered it wasn't as bad as the experience of the Western Front. Given that the COs were morally opposed to the war, and believed that no one should be punished for refusing to participate in the national war machine, there's a strange dis-connect here. Kennedy teeters back and forth between acknowledging the wholesale objection to war on the one hand, while occasionally lapsing into the treatment of conscientious objectors with a derision that seems to suggest that they should be grateful others were willing to suffer the hardships they (the pansyboys!) were not.

While it is unfair to hold a thirty-year-old study to the standards of present-day scholarship, I hope that subsequent work on the NCF has situated the Fellowship's activities more firmly in the network of organizations promoting pacifism and non-violent action as alternatives to war. As Mark Kurlansky's more recent Nonviolence (2006) suggests, resistance to war as a solution to human conflict is much more than a simple -- and, I would argue, entirely shame-free -- desire to avoid physical suffering and death. The central revelation of nonviolence as a political commitment is that violence (war included) will never result in a world of nonviolence. War always begats war -- never true peace. Once that realization has been taken to heart, the hard work of figuring out active alternatives to violence begins. Since the subjects of Kennedy's study are wrapped up in the immediate goal of opposing a specific war, it is understandable that he glosses over their deeper and wider commitments to alternatives to war. Still, I think the lack of discussion of their motivations is disappointing omission.

Hound of Conscience will probably only be interesting to scholars whose work focuses on pacifism, war resistance, World War One, and specifically Britain during the early twentieth century. Or, you know, people writing Downton Abbey fan fiction who need to construct a believable pacifist character.

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