‘You can’t fight your way to peace’: from a 20-year-old Israeli to a 99-year-old Briton, eight conscientious objectors on why they refused to serve in the army

<span>Peter Hathorn: ‘Failure to comply came with a prison sentence.’</span><span>Photograph: Alice Mann/The Guardian</span>
Peter Hathorn: ‘Failure to comply came with a prison sentence.’Photograph: Alice Mann/The Guardian

‘The apartheid society I lived in was offensive to the core of my being

Peter Hathorn,
63, Cape Town, South Africa

The society I grew up in was one of the most bizarre and institutionally racist environments ever to exist. Every aspect of life was stratified along racial lines, puritanical and repressive. Our Durban suburb was all white, save for domestic workers. I went to a whites-only school. At the liberally minded University of Cape Town in the late 70s, barely a single academic or student was a person of colour. Sexual relations across the colour line were prohibited, punishable by jail time.

At that time the African National Congress was a banned organisation, engaged in an armed struggle. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. South Africa’s army was fighting a war in the north of Namibia and southern Angola, and was integral to maintaining the apartheid state, long before it was deployed in Black townships in South Africa to quell uprisings. It was largely a conscript army of white men called up at 16. Failure to comply came with a prison sentence of up to two years, after which you could be enlisted again.

I went to university to defer military service, then decided to refuse it. From the late 70s, a small number of conscientious objectors in mainstream churches had voiced strong objections to apartheid and resisted participating in an unjust war. They had a profound impact on many of us. My opposition to serving was purely political: the apartheid society I lived in was offensive to the core of my being, and after graduation in 1983 I wrote to my prospective unit informing them of my decision.

After my court martial date was set, I spoke to students, other conscripts, campaigners and church groups, explaining my stand. I was sentenced to two years in prison and dishonourably discharged from the army.

Stepping through the wooden doors of Pretoria’s notorious “hanging prison” was daunting. It’s where people were brought to be executed, including many apartheid opponents. The warders were racist towards Black inmates and hostile to me. I felt fortunate when, after three months, a judge halved my sentence. I was released in early 1984, as the End Conscription Campaign was spreading and increasing numbers of conscripts were refusing to join up. We used innovative political methods – striking posters, musical and cultural events, a nationwide fast – as well as conventional rallies.

When I was conscripted again, the maximum sentence had been increased to six years in prison. Thankfully, a lawyer made a strong case that as I had already been discharged, my reconscription was illegal. Faced with a complex legal fight, the army backed off. That was to my great relief: I didn’t fancy having to decide whether to face a further six years in jail.

* * *

‘This war proves that violence is not the answer’

Einat Gerlitz, 20, Tel Aviv, Israel

Through most of my teenage years, the idea of military service barely bothered me. As an Israeli Jew, preparations start early. Some kids at school were excited to fight. I thought I’d just serve my time in a non-combat, educational unit, helping teach children and soldiers: keep my head down, get it over with. Then, in the 12th grade, I found climate activism. We organised nationally as a group of high-schoolers – Israelis and Palestinians. I started to understand the concept of occupation: that while we all lived in the same place, our realities were worlds apart. So much of what I knew was thrown into question.

I had been raised to believe that military service wasn’t only an obligation, but my duty. Those who didn’t do it were selfish and ignorant. The more I learned about the refusenik movement, the more certain I became. Yes, I could take a quiet job. Some people look to other types of exemption: for physical or mental health reasons, or because of religious beliefs. Instead, I decided that I wanted to refuse, publicly. It’s a once in a lifetime chance to have your voice heard. Enlisting into the military is so central to Israeli life that refusing forces society to take notice. Facing time in prison to make your point carries weight in a culture that values sacrifice.

I contacted Mesarvot, a network supporting refusers. A lawyer helped me through every stage. During a volunteering year after high school, I had to go before a committee tasked with deciding whether I was truly a conscientious objector. In Israel these tribunals are made up primarily of military generals who draw a distinction between political and pacifist reasons for refusing. For me and many others, these are intertwined.

I was summoned to a military base. As a teenager, it was hugely stressful: they tried to trip me up and undermine me. I explained I was a pacifist who campaigns against all violence, and was told terrorists and criminals had me to thank; that my refusal put my family in danger. My request for an exemption on conscientious grounds was refused. I had no idea what would happen next. You can be jailed, released, then conscripted again on repeat. Some have spent years in prison. In the end, I was sentenced four times, serving a total of 87 days, before I received an exemption. After an arbitrary period of imprisonment, the military decides you have suffered enough.

I knew it would be complicated with my family, but deep down, I understood they would always love me. That’s a privilege not all here are afforded. I received messages thanking me for my stance, but strangers would also tell me I am selfish and deluded. Twice in prison, girls screamed at me: “Traitor, you need to die.” But mostly I had interesting conversations with the others detained.

This teenage choice will be with me my whole life. But I’m proud of what I did. Contrary to what some Israelis might think, I refused because I care deeply about this place and its people. Because I believe things can change. This war proves violence is not the answer. To think you can fight your way to peace is delusional.

* * *

‘As a woman, you’re expected to give birth to sons who are willing to fight and die for their country’

Merve Arkun, 34, Aydın, Turkey

Women aren’t conscripted like men into the Turkish military, but I’m still a conscientious objector: military service harms our whole nation, and I want my opposition to be heard. Over 10 years ago, I was a student at university in İzmir and heard of a Kurdish deserter arrested after running from the army. Many Kurdish young men won’t serve, despite the conscription laws: they face discrimination and abuse inside the military, while the Turkish government wages war against their people.

This man was placed in military prison – I went to visit him every week and we became close friends. We spoke for hours about his experiences and ideas. These conversations affected me deeply. I also became close with his wife, who had been left to support his family and children. I saw first-hand how conscription affects not just men but women, too. I started to see how national service is part of a wider militaristic culture. For me, being a conscientious objector means not just refusing to serve, but opposing the wider system: gender-based violence and abuse of women, discrimination, rape and sexual assault. I came to see that the macho military is at the heart of all of this. And as a woman, you’re expected to give birth to sons who are willing to fight and die for their country.

In Turkey, men must serve at least six months, but those with money can cut that time. If you refuse, there are repercussions: fines, imprisonment and human rights violations. And the impact is felt long term. It’s illegal in Turkey to hire a man who has failed to complete his service. Access to education is restricted. Refusing to pay fines on principle means you’re unable to have a bank account; otherwise the funds will be confiscated.

We don’t know how many objectors there are, whether Kurdish, anarchist, communist, LGBTQ+ or religious opponents. People don’t feel comfortable to declare their position openly. I know people who have been forced to leave their jobs and homes. My partner is also an objector. He has faced investigations, criminal cases and financial penalties. We live in a small city and try to hide all this from our neighbours.

When we travel through Turkey as a family, we are often stopped by armed police. Identity checks see him flagged as a draft evader. Our son is six now – it’s terrifying. We are trying to raise him in a peaceful way. I don’t want to send my children into the army – to see my son fight, maim or murder. A woman might not be conscripted, but I want my opposition on the record.

* * *

‘I’m terrified. But if nobody stands up, change will not come’

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, 27, Bangkok, Thailand

The Thai conscription system is over 100 years old. It’s a strange process. When a man comes of age, he can volunteer to serve. Otherwise, at 7am on a specified date, he must present himself at a recruitment centre and pick a card at random. Select a red card and you’re forcibly conscripted. A black one and you’re free to go.

There is a lot of unfairness about conscription: those with money find ways to get around it. The higher your level of education, the shorter your term. There’s corruption, too. As a Buddhist, I oppose all forms of violence, but my opposition to the military is also about the danger it poses to all Thai citizens. Since the 30s, our elected governments have constantly been overthrown by military coups. The one in 2014 politicised me. I was 18 and I declared publicly that I would be a conscientious objector. Education will solve our conflicts, not brainwashing people into supporting violence.

The law allows me to defer my service while studying – and until now I have been in higher education. I’ve had to report once a year at the recruitment centre to confirm this: I arrive with a sign reading #EndConscription to express my opposition. This year, I can postpone no longer as my studies are over.

For 10 months last year, I enrobed and ordained as a monk, to further study Buddhism. Ideally, I would still be there. But as a monk I would have been exempt from serving and this didn’t sit right with me. I want to tell my country why I object, not have my religion shield me. In fact, the military have even suggested other ways I might quietly avoid conscription. My case, if I refuse publicly, will generate attention, which they wish to avoid. I want to make it noisy.

On 5 April, I went to the military conscription centre in Samut Prakan province. I refused to pick a card. I wasn’t arrested on the day, but I know there will be consequences. In the coming months, I expect the police at my door: I’ll be charged, tried and sentenced to up to three years in jail. Some people here are arguing I should also be charged with disturbing the peace of the country, which comes with a punishment of seven to 15 years. I’m terrified. But if nobody stands up and shows they disagree, change will not come. It’s unlikely I’ll be let off lightly – I’ll be made an example of to stop others following. Now I wait, prepared for the worst.

* * *

‘I felt an urgency to do anything I could to stop the war’

Bill Galvin, 74, Washington DC, US

During the first world war, conscientious objectors were treated awfully in the US; imprisonment and abuse were common. In 1940, as the country geared up for another conflict, some churches came together to demand better protection for pacifists. The Center on Conscience and War was founded. I’ve been involved with it my whole life, supporting those navigating the process.

While there is no conscription in the US today, there is still draft registration for most 18-25 male residents and citizens: you’re forced to sign up to a database from which you could be conscripted, should the government desire. I help people object to their inclusion. We also support people who become objectors while in the military. Recruitment targets young men from poor and rural communities with few other routes to education, healthcare and opportunity. They’re sold a dream that doesn’t stack up. Warfare and violence often leads to moral injury. Suicide rates among military personnel are at their highest since records began.

I graduated high school in 1967, the height of the Vietnam war. Lots of my classmates were drafted. I was going to college, which allowed me to defer conscription. I was active in the Presbyterian church and planned on joining the ministry. I learned that to follow Jesus I must oppose all war or violence. We organised vigils and rallies. I travelled from North Carolina to the huge November 1969 anti-war march on Washington. While in college, I applied to be a conscientious objector. There was a written application: what do you believe? Why?

In 1971, my hearing was held in front of a draft board, six men in grey suits. All had served in the second world war. They weren’t sympathetic and my application was denied, which was devastating. I made appeals, none successful. I prepared to face up to five years in prison. Thankfully, by this stage in the war, a draft lottery had been introduced. I lucked out and was never selected.

Meanwhile, I was training to be a minister, but stopping the war remained my priority. Alongside four others, I poured concrete over railway tracks leading from a factory producing 6,000 bomb casings a day for anti-personnel weapons to be used in Vietnam. At that time I felt an urgency to do anything I could to stop that never-ending war. For that, I’m a convicted felon.

When I objected, American wars were being fought in plain sight. Vietnam was the first time we had cameras on the battlefield. We saw body bags and devastation. Now, reporters only really see what’s happening first-hand if embedded with troops, under their eye. Often, we don’t know where our soldiers are, or what they’re doing. Our income taxes go to the military, while roads crumble, schools fail and healthcare costs are through the roof. We should stand with Jesus and the early church and say no to violence. No to war.

* * *

‘I spent three years in a psychiatric hospital, drugged alongside maniacs and murderers’

Oleg Sofyanik, 60, Marhanets, Ukraine

I used to live in Crimea, but left in 2020 after years of being persecuted by the FSB, Russia’s security agency, for opposing the illegal occupation of the peninsula. I was born in 1964, under Soviet rule, and raised in Sevastopol. Early on, I became a dissident: listening to western radio I realised the Soviet regime was criminal. As a child, I delivered leaflets criticising the government. My first encounter with the KGB was at 13 – they searched my house, confiscated my things and warned me off.

Back then, military service was mandatory for young men: two or three years. Those who refused, or deserted, were punished. It was necessary to have completed your service to pursue a career – failure to serve meant nobody would hire you. I tried, in my teens, to seek political asylum in the UK and America, but to no avail.

The first attempt to conscript me was in 1983. I was a first-year engineering student when, after various medical checks, I received my call-up notice. I presented myself alongside thousands of others at a central military base, from where we would be selected for different deployments. My hope was to be sent to Afghanistan – there, I could escape my unit and cross a land border to freedom. Instead, I was selected to serve in the navy’s Black Sea fleet. So I hid in the base as other recruits left. That night, before anyone noticed I was missing, I scaled the perimeter fence and ran away, staying with relatives to plan my escape from the Soviet Union. Before I could get out, police appeared at their door. I’m pretty sure a relation ratted me out. I was arrested, detained and returned to military command, then ordered to conscript again. Again, I ran away, this time from a bus station while being moved to another base. I intended to head to Moscow to seek asylum at the Italian embassy. But the military was already on to me.

I spent a week in military prison: my cell had no bed, so I slept on my jacket. I was then returned to the conscription office. This was my final warning: run away again and I would be locked away for years. Still I refused to take my military oath. I was isolated from the other conscripts and sent to a psychiatric hospital. Here, a sympathetic doctor told me he would lie and diagnose me with a mental illness so the military would excuse me. I spent five months as an inpatient.

In April 1984 I was relieved of military duty and returned to Sevastopol. But my new medical history prevented me finding much work. The KGB constantly harassed me. In the mid-80s, I made various failed attempts to escape the Soviet Union, even jumping off a cruise ship at night with an inflatable dinghy, hoping to cross the Black Sea to Turkey. After a night on the open sea, I was picked up by the coastguard and imprisoned. A court ordered me to a psychiatric hospital, where I spent a further three years, drugged alongside maniacs and murderers. Let’s just say that was difficult.

Today I live in Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk oblast, under heavy Russian attack. Recently I’ve been to visit family in Berlin, but my civic duty is to be in the war zone, not in prosperous Europe. I’m a lifelong pacifist from Ukraine, but Putin’s merciless and evil war is an unavoidable reality. The primary objective of the pacifist movement here must be to stop Russia’s ruthless violence. I’m a man of peace, but what choice do we have? Putin is demonic – intent on destroying the Ukrainian identity. Even pacifists must resist him. All those serving in the Ukrainian military and dying are his responsibility. I plan on going to Russia this spring with a pacifist mission to defend the rights of political prisoners and objectors who have the courage to stand up to Putin. It’s dangerous, yes, but I’ve been through so much: prison and death no longer scare me.

* * *

‘If I’m sent back to Belarus I’ll face a very long prison sentence or the death penalty’

Mikita Sviryd, 21, Vilnius, Lithuania

Rural western Belarus is where I used to call home, but for the last two years I’ve lived in Lithuania. I’m a refugee here, having deserted the Belarusian army. If I’m sent back to Belarus I’ll face a very long prison sentence or the death penalty: the president, Alexander Lukashenko, signed a bill introducing capital punishment for harming national security and for treason.

Mandatory military service in Belarus lasts 18 months. As a kid, I was not interested – not for any moral or political reason at first, but from hearing stories of how poorly new recruits were treated. The alternative, though, was prison time, so I decided to just get on with it. My first month was spent in training. Every Sunday, we had an hour of “education” – mostly it was political, for instance, about how anyone protesting against the Lukashenko presidency is a fascist. We would be shown Russian and old Soviet films, often about the second world war.

This was before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but we participated in joint military exercises with Russia. It was strange: our army depots had brand new combat kits. We were told it was for training, but we had only ever used very old equipment before. I was with this same unit when Russia’s invasion started. We were helping the Russians load ammunition at the time. The Russians left the next day.

After the invasion, everything changed. We were shown extreme Russian propaganda programmes: how in Ukraine Russia was fighting Nazis. It was intensive brainwashing, and it worked. About a third of those who weren’t pro-Putin before were converted. I wasn’t.

I was sent to man checkpoints around an airbase close to the Ukrainian border. Here, there were 20 or so Russian fighter jets; our job was to wave missile deliveries through. Then we were moved to the Lithuanian border, where we were instructed to find civilian clothes for a later mission. With these in my possession, I realised I could attempt to run away. On the evening of 26 May 2022, I packed a rucksack with these clothes, my documents and anything I had of value. I also grabbed a pair of night vision goggles. By 3am, I was on watch, alone. When I was sure nobody was awake, I got up and ran. I sprinted through the woodland towards Lithuania, changing into my civilian outfit. I’ve no idea how long I ran for. Then I saw a car, told the driver I was heading to see my grandma, and hitched a lift.

I’ve been in Lithuania for nearly two years now. For the first six months I was forbidden to work by law, and now nobody wants to hire me without documents. I applied for political asylum, but this was denied. My first appeal was also rejected – now I’m waiting for the result of another legal challenge. I’m terrified, and am barely sleeping. The only people I am in touch with from home are my parents. They don’t understand why I’ve done what I’ve done. Of course, I still love them. They are ordinary Belarusian people who have bought the propaganda. I don’t know if or when I’ll see them again.

* * *

‘I played my part, just not with guns’

Timothy Tyndall, 99, London, England

My father was ordained in 1913. During the first world war, he was a volunteer chaplain on the western front. He received a Military Cross in the Somme, and a bar to the cross in 1918. Afterwards, he became a parish priest in Birmingham, interested in the growing pacifist movement. Dad rarely discussed the horrors he witnessed at war. As the years went on, he became convinced about pacifist ideas. From the youngest age, I agreed with him.

War had broken out again when I started at public school. We dug trenches to hide in, should bombing start. When old boys were killed in the fighting, their names would be read out at evening prayers. All the boys attended Officers’ Training Corps to prepare us for military careers. All the boys, except me. I refused. There was a brief attempt to try to ostracise me for my decision. If I close my eyes now, I can still picture the changing room at school where one boy tried to bully me. After a few days, however, it petered out.

During the first world war, 16,000 men objected. Some were allowed to do civilian work of national importance; others served in a noncombat corps. Those who were refused objector status were imprisoned. By the time war was declared against Germany in 1939, there was a clearer process. The vast majority of the nearly 60,000 objectors were rapidly put to other work, given dispensation to contribute peacefully.

In 1943, aged 18, I went to a tribunal in Bristol to make my case as a conscientious objector. My outlook was shaped by all I’d learned of the last war. Millions lost their lives, and for what purpose? In front of the panel, I had to present three letters to evidence my case. My uncle took me and sat at the back, watching. The panel wanted to be sure it was my decision alone. The chair asked me explicitly: “Are you making up your own mind or simply copying what your father did?” But strangely, when the moment came, I wasn’t required to argue.

I went on to join the Friends Ambulance Unit. Set up by Quakers in the first world war, it was a volunteer medical service operating behind the lines, taking the wounded off to receive treatment. The idea was that pacifism couldn’t just mean withdrawing from duty, remaining absent. It had to be a visible, active alternative in the midst of war. Its 1,344 members acted as medical orderlies during the blitz, and wherever medical support was needed: Scandinavia, the Middle East, mainland Europe. After my basic training, I set sail for China in 1944, serving the unit in humanitarian schemes, returning in 1947.

I never encountered much opposition to the choice I made. Few talked about their war afterwards. We were keen to get on with our lives, and for many it wasn’t an experience to be relived. I made my choice informed by the first world war. What we witnessed in Germany in the early 1940s was, of course, an altogether different evil. What should a person of peace do in the face of Nazism’s wickedness? It throws up complex questions. I never considered my choice a criticism or judgment on another’s decision to serve. I understood why allied governments acted as they did; why others fought. My view remains that in moments of conflict, it is important that a voice of conscience is heard, even if not followed by the majority.

On returning home I learned to live with my decision not to fight. I’ve no good reason to believe I made the wrong choice. I played my part, just not with guns. Eighty years have passed since I objected. Wherever I look, it’s the same old story. It makes me profoundly sad. When will we learn that war begets war? Violence always begets violence.