Telling Tales About Men: Conceptions of Conscientious Objectors to Military Service During the First World War (Hardback)
  • Telling Tales About Men: Conceptions of Conscientious Objectors to Military Service During the First World War (Hardback)
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Telling Tales About Men: Conceptions of Conscientious Objectors to Military Service During the First World War (Hardback)

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£85.00
Hardback 272 Pages
Published: 10/11/2009
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*Telling tales about men* explores some of the ways in which conscientious objectors to compulsory military service were viewed and treated in England during the First World War. In doing so it considers these men’s experiences, their beliefs, perceptions and actions.

Each of the six main chapters explores a different collection of ideas about objectors. Thus, they are, for example, portrayed as cowards, heroes, traitors, patriots, criminals, deviants, degenerates and upstanding, intensely moral men. Here the tales told draw upon sources ranging from diaries, government papers, tribunal records, newspapers, magazines and novels and are informed by writings from fields including literary studies, criminology, sociology and law as well as various branches of historical studies.

*Telling tales about men* is essential reading for scholars in the fields of the First World War, pacifism, militarism and gender. It is also aimed at those with a general interest in the Great War and the military as well as in peace movements and pacifism.

Publisher: Manchester University Press
ISBN: 9780719069222
Number of pages: 272
Dimensions: 216 x 138 x 16 mm


MEDIA REVIEWS

This book is simultaneously impressive and frustrating. The impressive part is the sophisticated thinking about multiple narratives in the presentation of conscientious objectors. Lois Bibbings brings some very useful skills to this project, as a lecturer in law and as someone with some background in the history of medicine. This is a genuinely multi-disciplinary work, which is further shot through with cutting-edge reflections on both critical theory and gender studies. It is difficult to object to the author's desire to recapture the multiplicity of perceptions of conscientious objectors and their own self-projections. She shows how they became subjects of discourses of unmanly weakness and cowardice, of moral deviance and of subversion. But she also shows how their actions could be constructed as acts of high ethical courage and even of patriotism. This thematic and multi-narrative approach in which action and its representation are merged is genuinely interesting. Bibbings writes of the way that the British legal tradition assumes that facts do not speak for themselves and that there is always an element of fact construction in making a case. We should abandon History with a capital 'H' and accept that there are always multiple and competing histories which do bear a relationship to what happened but which can never be entirely transparent in their relationship to the past. All of this ought by now to be fairly uncontroversial. Unfortunately, the principles which shape Bibbings's analysis of conscientious objectors are not applied at all to their broader societal context. This is the source of the frustration. Thus essentially 'mythic' narratives of Britain and the First World War are trotted out without the same level of reflexive consideration which is applied to the tales of conscientious objectors. On pages 51-7 Bibbings states unequivocally that war in 1914 was welcomed by the mass of the population, that this was because war had mostly been presented as a positive good in the Edwardian period and that imperial and religious sentiment combined in an idea of the English as a chosen people (as evidence, she cites the British Israelite movement-a tiny and marginal group by any standards). Although at one point Bibbings does describe this view of 1914 as a 'narrative', to a very large extent she treats it as a simple socio-cultural fact. But this 'fact' derives very substantially from the narratives of the conscientious objectors themselves about their isolated predicament in the face of irrational 'jingoism'; indeed, many of the conscientious objectors 'pathologised' those who disagreed with them in much the same way as they themselves were pathologised. What is really needed is a proper acknowledgement that there were competing narratives about 'war and peace' in the abstract before 1914 and competing and intersecting narratives in concrete terms throughout the war. The problem, of course, with this is that it soon becomes almost impossible to tell the story at all. But there are some interesting linkages: Bibbings points out that some conscientious objectors' narratives of heroism resemble soldiers' stories, but it might be even more interesting to examine the 'martyr narrative' which soldiers and objectors share and which in turn could be linked back to similar self-narrations of both suffragette and socialist agitators pre-war, as well as Republican Irish self-presentations before and after 1916. This in turn problematises Bibbings's rather easy assumption that Christianity served primarily to bolster conventional patriotism. Conscientious objection has fascinated historians for decades, but even now it often ends up signifying something at least slightly misleading. It becomes too often a narrative of wartime 'illiberalism', which is understandable given the discursive violence used against objectors. But it also matters that conscientious objection was permitted at all-in a manner almost unique in the major combatant nations (even the USA, when it entered the war, was harsher on the issue). This lies at the heart of the issue; if conscription was to be introduced at all (a point contested by almost all conscientious objectors but accepted by most of the population), then conscientious objection had to be made difficult and unpleasant. If it were made easy and acceptable, then conscription could not be made to work. Unlike other forms of objection to military service, it rested entirely on whether a tribunal was willing to take the objector's word as to his beliefs. It was not unknown for objectors to be put through a demeaning and insulting process and then granted the objection they sought. Undoubtedly the aggressive manner of those on tribunals was frequently motivated by distaste and anger, but it was also serving a purpose. Bibbings points out that the legal basis for conscientious objection rested in part on the pre-war precedent of conscientious objection to the Vaccination Act of 1898. On the whole those conscientious objectors have not been lionised, despite the fact that they were also usually acting in good faith and defending individual liberty-perhaps more obviously so than some wartime objectors. This is because we can still accept mass vaccination as a public good, but tend not to see the First World War in the same light. Given that most people believed that the war had to be fought and that conscription from 1916 onwards was required to fight it, even if many believed both of these things with regret and reluctance, then it is unsurprising that there was at the time antagonism towards those who opted out and who were, in the minds of many, forcing others to take up their burdens. While this study does add to this field, there may still be a need for an even more radical rethink of this topic. -- Adrian Gregory The English Historical Review 20120201

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