British Experience for Americans. Ii

Military Service and the Conscientious Objectors

THE stress of a world-war has brought Great Britain to compulsory military service; but this was not adopted until voluntary enlistment had produced the quite unprecedented total of five million offers to serve, being the free volunteering of more than ten per cent of the census population of all ages and both sexes. There are some who still doubt whether it was either necessary or wise to abandon the voluntary principle; or whether the million or so recruits who have been obtained since the passing of the Military Service Act — at the cost of enormous trouble and waste of officers’ time, great heartburning, not a little personal hardship, and the prosecution of some 4000 ‘conscientious objectors’ — have increased the strength of the Army, all deductions reckoned, appreciably beyond what voluntary enlistment continued for two more years, notably among the 300,000 young men annually coming of military age, would have freely yielded. What is certain is that only by the demonstration of what voluntary enlistment could and could not accomplish were the British people brought to consent to conscription — taking first the unmarried men between eighteen and forty-one, then the married men between these ages, then revising and reducing all the exemptions, and finally requiring all those who have been medically rejected once to present themselves again for examination.

What it concerns America to learn from British experience, if it comes to enforcing compulsion, is, first of all, how to deal with Quakers and other conscientious objectors. Parliament intended them to be exempted; and it set up civil tribunals in each locality, chosen from the leading public-spirited citizens, to ascertain who were really conscientious objectors. Unfortunately, under the growing passion of ‘war-fever,’ and the increasing stringency of the War Office demands, these tribunals have failed to recognize or to admit the conscientiousness of some 4000 men, many of them lifelong members of the Society of Friends, over one thousand of whom have already proved the uncontestable genuineness of their convictions by undergoing, not only a great deal of brutal treatment in the regiments to which they were assigned, but also successive terms of rigorous imprisonment with hard labor, for refusing even to put on khaki, or obey any military order. This is an unprofitable use of these men and of the warders whom they necessitate. The government is accordingly now extremely perplexed as to how to get them out of prison. They cannot be turned into soldiers; and they refuse, no matter how harshly they are treated, to make any compromise with what they hold to be ‘ the accursed thing.’

The British government, which remembered how the endurance of the Quakers had beaten it in years gone by, tried to devise schemes of ‘alternative service’—ambulance work, ministering to war distress, restoring devastated villages in France, roadmaking, and finally the much-needed increase of labor in food-production. Unfortunately the blunder was made — let America take warning — of putting these forms of ‘alternative service’ (in which many who became ‘conscientious objectors’ had actually been engaged) under the control of the military authorities, or of offering them in the form of explicit bargains or compromises. Any one with any acquaintance with Quaker psychology or history could have saved the government from this blunder, which it will be vital for the American government to avoid. What happened, of course, was that some ‘conscientious objectors’ accepted one or other form of alternative service; but that, as might have been foreseen, a large number (including many of the most sincere, the most religious, and the most notable) refused to accept anything from the military, refused even to continue their existing philanthropic work under War Office orders, refused to come to any terms with what they regarded as a sinful ‘militarism.’ It is these ‘absolutists’ — including men of the most saintly lives, honored members of the Society of Friends and leaders of ethical thought — who are certainly very trying to the military mind, whom the British government, in spite of all sorts of good intentions, now finds itself in the dilemma of having to keep in prison at hard labor, to the national loss, and at the peril of growing public scandal.

If compulsory military service is enforced, America will have some difficulty in avoiding a similar dilemma, perhaps on a much larger scale. What British experience teaches is that the grounds for exemption on ‘conscientious objection’ should be made, in the wording of the law itself, absolutely definite and demonstrable for as large as possible a part of the field, even if other parts of the field have to be left to general terms and judicial discretion. Thus, the tribunal — or, better still, the administration itself in the first instance— should be absolutely required to exclude from the operation of the law any objector who proved actual membership, prior to America’s entry into the war, of any religious denomination, or other society, in which abstention from participation in war is a definite tenet. Others might be allowed to submit such evidence of their conscientious conviction as they could produce, for the judgment of the tribunal; but British experience shows the necessity of taking as many cases as possible out of the sphere of judicial discretion. It is no use trying to utilize such men for warfare; and where no loophole is opened for new adherents to pacifism to escape, the conscientious objectors of old standing should be automatically excluded from the operation of the law. Their exemption must not even be made to depend on their applying for it. The government needs to be on the alert not to allow any person voluntarily to make himself a martyr.

The second lesson from British experience is that it is fatal to let the War Department have even the slightest connection with any dealings with the conscientious objectors, and especially not with projects of ‘alternative service.’ This only provokes resistance, and thus simply plays into the hands of those sincere fanatics who desire to make their own martyrdom the means of ‘breaking down militarism.’ Once the government accepts the position of exempting from actual military service the genuine ‘conscientious objectors,’ it had better give up all attempts to exact from them, by compulsion, any alternative service. It is not worth enforcing by compulsion; and it only leads the government to more and more trouble. What would be wise would be for the government to lay the nation’s needs before the governing assemblies or committees of the various denominations or societies to which the conscientious objectors mostly belong; and then request these authorities to organize all practicable ‘ national service ’ among their own members in whatever branches they can conscientiously engage in. The matter had better be then left to their honor. There need be no fear, for instance, of the Society of Friends not undertaking and performing the most devoted service of the community, to a vastly greater amount than the equivalent of the military service that its members of military age would escape; and the government would be relieved of the costly necessity of putting them into prison. Any other person whose conscientious objection was admitted by the tribunal might be requested to join, for the duration of the war, the alternative service organization of one or other of the denominations or societies thus corporately dealt with. If he refused to do even this much, it might be needful to put the penalties of the law in force. But the cases would be very few; and there might even be some governmental discretion in pursuing them to the end.

This expedient does not solve all the problems that will come up, if compulsory military training in time of peace should have to be accepted. But in peace-time the provision of a suitable alternative to military training is not so difficult; and America has already shown us, in William James’s suggestion of alternative industrial service, how the peace problem may be solved.

Problems of Labor

In a modern industrial community engaged in a great war — as the United Kingdom had to learn from experience — the skilled manual workers, like the skilled generals, suddenly find themselves in a position of absolute indispensability. The skilled craftsmen in the factories turning out our guns and munitions, in the mines producing coal and the metallic ores and in the furnaces in which the metals are smelted, in the shipyards building all sorts of vessels, and in the workshops in which automobiles and air-craft are made, together with the operating staffs of the railroads, telegraphs, and telephones, and gas and electric plants, must be, by one expedient or other, universally held to duty in the service of the State, just as much as the soldiers and sailors. The nation can no more afford in the one case than in the other any interruption of service, any limitation of output, or any resistance to the imperative prompt increase of staff. The British trade unions at once agreed to suspend industrial war, and Mr. Gompers has been prompt in his declaration that the American Federation of Labor would do the same. In Great Britain it was soon found necessary to ask the trade unions to lay aside, for the duration of the war, whatever trade-union rules or customs, and whatever workshop practices, were found to obstruct the utmost possible increase of production. This sacrifice was made by the British trade unions without demur, on the assurance of the government that it undertook to see that reinstatement of all the rules, customs, and practices was made after the war, the employers being individually put under obligation to undo every change in their factories, and to revert to the ‘pre-war conditions’ and the ‘pre-war practice.’ A second condition was that the employers should be prevented from deriving any increase of profit from the workmen’s sacrifice, a condition which the trade unions regard as scarcely fulfilled by the limitation imposed on the profits of the 5000 ‘controlled establishments.’

The United States will probably find it necessary, in the same way, to secure suspension of industrial warfare and of all rules, customs, and practices standing in the way of continuous maximum production on a vastly increased scale. But this will place upon the government, as it did in Great Britain quite new responsibilities with regard to the treatment of workmen in capitalist employment. If the workmen must not strike, must not leave their employment, and must not enforce their trade-union rules, they are delivered over to the employers in a helpless state. This will be, in spite of the American Constitution, a condition of ‘involuntary servitude.’ The government must, therefore, — merely in order to secure peace, even if equity be disregarded, — not only guarantee, but also actually insure (a) that there shall be no reduction of standard rates, or other ‘nibbling’ at wages; and (b) that there shall be no tyranny or capricious disciplining or discharge of workmen. These conditions are not easy to secure in capitalist establishments without an amount of inspection and control for which neither the government nor the employers will at first be prepared. But in every case in which they are not, in fact, secured, whatever may be the good intentions with which the parties start, there will be the seeds of industrial revolt; and wherever the employers or their foremen repeat their aggression, or what the workmen consider to be aggression, there will be — in spite of all the good wishes and efforts of the leaders — industrial strife. Moreover, prices will certainly continue to rise; and the American government will find, as the British government has found, that employers cannot be trusted spontaneously to raise wage-rates in anything like the same proportion. The government is therefore compelled to intervene, if only to prevent interruption of work, and peremptorily to require and enforce the concession of such advances of wages or ‘war-bonuses’ as it considers to be necessary. All this has become, in Great Britain, for the duration of the war, simply ‘common form’; and the Federal government will find itself, willy-nilly, and quite regardless of the Constitution, in the same position. Where smooth running is from the outset imperative, or where difficulties become acute, — as in Great Britain in the cases of the railways and of the coal mines, — it is found simpler to ‘nationalize’ the whole industry summarily; and to require the existing directors and managers to carry it on for the account of the government.

What has caused most of the ’labor discontents’ which, notwithstanding the tremendous patriotism shown by the manual workers, the United Kingdom has not escaped, has been the inability of the employers — largely of the managers and foremen — to realize that it was essential, under war conditions, to give up ‘taking advantage’ of the workmen in ways which are, in peace-time, customary and condoned. Thus, no injunction of the government has availed to stop the constant tendency to ‘cut rates’ on piece-work jobs (largely on the occasion of fixing new rates for jobs of slightly different magnitude or character), whenever the workmen were thought to be ‘ making too much.’ This has led to repeated strikes and enormous national loss. The only suggested remedy is that the fixing of piece-work rates or premium bonus times should be taken altogether out of the hands of the management, just as in well-organized trades the standard rate for time-work is removed entirely from the arbitrary rule of any one employer or any one operative, and is formulated collectively for all the establishments of the district. The translation of the standard time-rate into the piece-work rate or premium bonus time for a particular job, should, it is suggested, be always done by a pair of independent ‘rate-fixers,’ — one representing the trade union and the other the Employers’ Association, — these two referring to an umpire chosen by them in any case in which they cannot agree upon this issue of fact. But to this curtailment of their autocracy British employers in the engineering industry— unlike those in the brassworking trade and in the Northumberland coal-mines, where the system has long prevailed — cannot yet be made to agree.

It remains to be seen whether the American ‘captains of industry’ will accept this method of avoiding industrial strife, or devise some other. What is certain is that the absolute necessity of securing unbroken continuity of production in modern war compels not only a great deal of ‘involuntary servitude’ in industry, but also, if the gravest discontents and revolts are to be avoided, some entirely novel expedients of workshop management, about which the British Ministry of Munitions is presumably advising the United States government.