Thought for the Week: An open mind

Peter Hancock considers the tolerance and intolerance

I was conscripted in 1954, in my teens, long before I knew anything of conscientious objection or pacifism. I was posted to the Royal Engineers to train as a field engineer in skills connected with weapons and explosives use, bridge-building, mine clearance and so on. On a number of occasions I said I was not prepared to kill anyone on behalf of the monarch, and that I would like to be transferred to the Medical Corps. Engineer NCOs and officers seemed unfazed by this and my training continued.

After my training I was posted to a survey engineer regiment in Egypt, where I was, to my amazement, made my unit’s medical orderly/paramedic – a job I also did in Cyprus, where the EOKA insurgency had recently started up. There was no antagonism from the local population; indeed, on a few occasions I treated Cypriot villagers for various medical problems whilst my superiors turned a blind eye.

I travelled about 4,000 miles on various ambulance journeys across the island. I was armed, but we were never confronted by any insurgents, though other British army vehicles were frequently attacked. If we had been, could I have maintained my pacifist stance by just shooting over the heads of the rebels? Who knows? I was, after all, legally responsible for protecting the ambulance driver and patients.

A hero of mine is Albert Schweitzer, who made a huge philosophical advance in moving ethics beyond solely human concerns to a position of protection for all animal and plant life, with his famous tenet ‘Reverence for Life’. Yet he never became a vegetarian. He knew that as a doctor he had to kill bugs.

A proverb says that the ethical man plucks no leaf from a tree! And if he finds a worm on a dry path he picks it up on a twig and places it on moist earth.

One of the nicest men I’ve ever met was major-general Griff Caldwell. He was a Royal Engineer member of the SOE and SAS in world war two and was twice awarded the Military Cross. One day I found myself sitting by him on a knoll on Herm Island. I told him of my time as a sapper in the Royal Engineers, my conscientious objection and my transfer to medical duties, as well as my scepticism about royalty. He was entirely sympathetic, courteous and respected my viewpoint. I am concerned that some Friends today, who are passionate about a cause (and I commend their commitment), may not, like Griff Caldwell, have a similar approach to other viewpoints. We can disagree with respect and courtesy.

The tolerance I experienced in the army and the intolerance of some Quakers seem, to me, to be in sharp contrast. How do we disentangle the original Quaker religious message from the modern political and commerical ones?

Few matters, after all, are wholly cut and dried.

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