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Pacifism, in the narrow sense of the rejection of war by an individual, is little more than 2000 years old. Before the Christians, there is no record of a soldier refusing to take part in war on grounds of conscience. And right up until the early 18th century, Western pacifism was a concern only of those who belonged firmly within the Christian teachings.

But pacifism has far broader meanings. It can equally stem from a non-religious belief in the sanctity of life and from a more practical belief that war is wasteful and ineffective. Many believe that pacifism is more than opposition to war, and that it must embrace action to promote justice and human rights. At its most extreme, pacifism can mean complete dissociation from society and all its violent tenets, like the Hutterite communities of the 16th century. It can mean refusing to kill animals as well as men, and rejecting, like the Anabaptists, the whole structure of government, along with the machinery of war, as inherently violent; it can mean absolute non-violence for oneself, but no strictures on those who have not seen the light, as for many Buddhists. It can also mean the refusal to condone or be involved in one war, but not all wars, as in the case of the American pacificists in the war between the States. There are equally those who protest against war, in whatever form it takes, but not against self-defense; and those who refuse to fight, not because they are against fighting, but because they do not believe that the state has any right to order them to do so.

20th century pacifism

Most common in the 20th century pacifists in Western countries have been those who opposed war from rationalist, humanitarian reasons, rather than purely religious ones, and who have wished to integrate pacificism into the world order. Many have seen themselves as disciples of the great teachers of non-violence - Thoreau, Garrison, Tolstoy and Gandhi - all of whom argued that the techniques of non-resistance are ultimately more effective than, and ethically superior to, violence.

Pacifism became widespread as a reaction to the scale of killing in WW1. In Britain, some 16 000 conscientious objectors refused to fight and many were sentenced to repeated terms of hard labour. After the passing of the Military Service Act of 1916, the No-Conscription Fellowship, voicing the concerns of men like Bertrand Russell, Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway, mounted a vigorous campaign against such punishments, and some went to jail themselves for their outspokenness.

During the Vietnam war, the US introduced conscription and between 1963-1973, more than 9000 men were prosecuted for refusing to be drafted into the army. It was in the US that the poet and pacificist, Edna St Vincent Millay, wrote:

"I shall die/ That is all that I shall do for Death./I hear him leading his horse out of the stall/...He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning./ But I will not hold the bridle/...And he may mount by himself:/ I will not give him a leg up"

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Author: Caroline Moorehead