After Conscription

Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Alternativa Anitmilitarista Movimiento Objeción de Conciencia (AA.MOC or Anitmilitarist Alternative Conscientious Objection Movement) are a Spanish movement which arose out of the Spanish experience of conscription and resistance in the form of Insumisión, loosely translateable as insubordination or disobedience.  Members have written about the transition to the post-conscription era in Spain, and the challenges faced by antimilitarists in this transition.

'The past can't be accessed by merely remembering: it must be constructed, and this is a collective task.  Our interpretations of the events through which we live will construct their history.'

Ana M. Fernández 

For Alternativa Antimilitarista.MOC (AA.MOC), writing about the terrain which opened up before us after conscription means analysing the Spanish Insumisión campaign – the campaign of civil disobedience and total objection to military service – and stirring up many diverse experiences, emotions, sorrows and joys.

This text, therefore, is but a sample of the many, complex facets of our analysis, an attempt to combine our many differing perspectives.

Insumisión and Conscientious Objection in Numbers

Civil disobedience to compulsory military service, known colloquially as 'the mili', began in the seventies, with many groups of conscientious objectors refusing to take part in this 'service'.  After many years spent in a kind of legal vacuum, during which an antimilitarist movement was developed, this movement found concrete manifestation in the declarations of 57 objectors, or 'refusers', on the 20th of February 1989.  Thus, the Insumisión campaign was born.

Ten refusers were arrested for these declarations.  It was in this year that the first two court martials for such declarations took place in Barcelona, and two refusers were sentenced to thirteen months in prison.  As of 1991, refusers' cases were tried in civil courts.  The military penal code fixed the minimum penalty for refusal at one year's imprisonment, the civilian penal code established the so called '2-4-1': a sentence of two years, four months, and one day of imprisonment.

Between 1989 and 1999, the number of refusers grew from 371 to around twenty thousand.  It is likely that the total figures are in fact even greater, as from 1993, there was an extremely high number of refusers who ceased to organise with Movimiento de Conciencia (MOC), and either coordinated with other organisations, or simply became refusers via the act of refusal itself: by not presenting for duty either in the form of military service nor the civilian alternative.

In 1992, 127 refusers were tried, in the first quarter of the following year, there were 108 such trials.  During these years, the fact that the sentences passed on refusers were completely unpredictable, despite the 'crime' being always the same – a situation which we called 'the sentence lottery' – began to make it obvious that there were profound contradictions and tensions within the judiciary itself and it was not uncommon for judges to refuse to imprison youths for not turning up to military service or the civilian alternative.

Conscientious objection applications increased exponentially from 12,170 in 1985 to 113,000 in 2000.  The peak was reached in 1999 with 164,000 applications.  If we look at the number of young people who completed military service and those who declared themselves objectors, we can see that the number of objectors went from 1.85% of the number of young people completing the service in 1985, to 112% of that number in 2000.  According to Ministry of Justice sources, by the end of 2000 there were 945,195 recognised objectors and 940,000 others with different but recognised grounds for not presenting for military service nor the civilian alternative.  

The new Penal Code, approved in 1995, made repression more subtle and perhaps more effective.  Sentences of 'absolute disqualification', known as 'civil death', were introduced: these made it impossible to work for civil service, make contracts with the public sector, or receive scholarships for a period of between 8 and 14 years.  These sentences could be accompanied by fines of up to 35 million pesetas (more than 200,000€).  This new form of repression opened new routes of disobedience once more, with government departments and public education centres refusing to execute the sentences and keeping on employees and scholars affected by them regardless.

The final stage in this cycle of insumisión was called 'Insumisión in the barracks' – desertion from barracks once enlisted.  This campaign was started in 1997 and entailed returning to military jurisdiction.  Refusers' cases were tired at court martial once more, in various military locations across the country, and – something which made the repression of the campaign much harder to bear – 2-4-1 sentences were brought back in, to be spent in the military detention centre at Alcalá de Henares, Madrid. 

Imprisonment, which was in principle meant to be the government's main dissuasive weapon to put a stop to Insumisión's development, in fact became a political weapon for the campaign.  The impact of imprisonment was important for many refusers and for their loved ones.  A significant portion of Spanish society at that time could not comprehend that refusal of military service could be considered a crime, and the government's position became ever more untenable, the only response to the civil disobedience of Insumisión which it knew being more repression.  In order to minimise the personal cost of Insumisión to those undertaking it, the campaign established mechanisms of protection and resistance and organised entertainments and workshops before trials and when refusers went to prison.

Hundreds of refusers were incarcerated in the prisons of the whole Spanish territory.  They carried out hunger strikes and, in 1994, those sentenced to imprisonment 'in the third degree' – meaning they only had to spend the nights in prison – violated the terms of their imprisonment by sleeping in the doorways of their prisons.  In 1996, the highest ever number of imprisoned refusers was reached: 348.  Writing this, the eternal 'liberty, imprisoned refusers' springs to mind, a chant which was repeated at protests and actions and which used to decorate a fair number of building façades in towns and villages across Spain.  In 1998, there were still 70 imprisoned refusers.

The Loving Social Fabric that Sustained the Refusers

Did the Insumisión campaign only involve young men?  At the individual level, this is how it was, given that only men had to complete military service, but these men were surrounded by political groups and friendship groups which supported their decision.  It is also worth noting the group of MOC women who, in 1984, launched the 'Don't Count On Us' campaign in response to the incorporation women into the armed forces.

In some groups, most members were women, who often had a personal connection as mothers, girlfriends, partners, or friends of the refuser, or a double connection, both personal and political.  Though of course the personal is political in feminist theory, it is still possible to try and differentiate between the distinct relationships among support groups in this way.  On some occasions, the feminist movement objected to the role of women within the political project of Insumisión, where they took on caring and support work, had a back seat in the public sphere, and scant visibility in comparison to the masculine figure of the refuser.

Other groups, however, were comprised of men who were either too young for military service, or had already completed it, or were exempt for other reasons.  These men wanted to be involved in the Insumisión struggle against militarism, and participation in support groups was their means of being so.

What should be highlighted here is that Insumisión became something more than a personal stance of civil disobedience.  A young man's decision not to carry out compulsory military service for political reasons would mean that a space was created in which women and men, whether or not they were personally threatened with conscription, could develop their own antimilitarist struggle while providing personal and political support to the person on whom the system made the whole weight of repression fall.  Support groups would accuse themselves alongside the refuser during trials, which also extended the civil disobedience of Insumisión to the entire social network around him.

Strong networks of solidarity were woven around Insumisión.  These networks comprised members of the most diverse sectors of society: the ecological and feminist movements, occupation groups, neighbourhood associations, Christian Base communities (associated with liberation theology), internationalists, the alternative media, students, the unemployed, and many more.

The refusers' support groups, and the Association of Conscientious Objectors and Refusers' Mothers, Fathers and Friends, were especially strong.  These close knit groups tried to reduce the impact of repression and imprisonment on imprisoned refusers and their environment.  They organised prison visits and for prisoners to be greeted on their release, as well as activities for prisoners on weekend leave.  They also reported everything related to Insumisión to the press.  These groups carried out the work not only of emotional support for the refusers but also communicated what was entailed by disobeying the compulsory military service law to the public and what it meant for society as a whole to have these new political prisoners.  They made many dream the dream of a world without militaries.  Following the premise of civil disobedience, they took advantage of this moment of repression to question military spending, the patriarchy of the military institution, and the racist and xenophobic values of the army, as well as to raise the issue of the militarisation of society.  The media take up of their message was very important.

The demonstrations in front of prisons, the press releases, organising the prison visits, setting up camp outside the prisons, the letters and postcards of support to prisoners we didn't even know, all these things live on in memory, as do the worry about whether the prisoners were OK, the tenderness as we pictured their faces, the sadness at not being able to give them a hug during prison visits because they were being sanctioned for non-cooperation, their political commitment, how they used to fight...

What did the Insumisión movement bring to other political groups and to society as a whole?

Refusers were not only committed to the struggle against compulsory military service, at least in MOC.  Many were already involved in other resistance movements before becoming refusers: these included Coordinadora de Barrios – an anti-social exclusion collective –  'Base Churches' – associated with liberation theology – and occupied social centres, among others.

The Insumisión movement 'contaminated' these other movements with the practice of basing political action in both a personal and a collective commitment, using civil disobedience as a political tool of social transformation, and assuming the consequences of  disobedient action to the last extreme, which for many meant imprisonment.  Nonviolent direct action permeated other groups' mode of political action: they chose it as a tool of struggle then and still use it in this way now.

During the Insumisión campaign, the enormous amount of work entailed by the problem of imprisonments meant that MOC groups always had urgent matters at hand, which limited the extent to which they could actively support other struggles.  But when conscription was abolished, a large number of activists who had developed their politics within the antimilitarist movement became involved with other movements.  Some returned to the struggles which had occupied them before they were confronted with compulsory military service, and others joined struggles they had encountered via antimilitarist mobilisations.  These activists took with them the important legacy of horizontalism, an assembly based model of organising, and a capacity for civil disobedience – as well as antimilitarism of course – which pollinated the new struggles they launched and the manner of organising in the new collectives which they joined.

In addition, while they were imprisoned, the refusers and their support groups and lawyers helped many other prisoners against whom 'irregularities' were committed, assisting them to appeal their sentences and denouncing prison conditions in Spain.

What did the end of conscription mean for MOC?

After the 'hangover' which followed the end of the Insumisión campaign as a political strategy, MOC suffered a crisis and went through a low point, not only in terms of the number of people who were involved, but also in its political prominence in the media and social movements and so on.

This crisis was in part due to the fact that young people no longer had to complete compulsory military service and so the movement ceased to be as youthful: many of us had been students, without family obligations, and now we were in our thirties, with other projects to develop, other needs.

Another important reason was burnout.  We had been involved in a long campaign with serious personal implications, both for the refusers who went to prison or suffered 'civil death', and for their support groups and families.

In addition to the political context, the Spanish state itself was also changing.  The army ceased to interest many people now that it was a professional as opposed to conscripted institution: the army was no longer on the political agenda and it went through a makeover – it 'modernised' – so that a significant portion of the population started to see the army as a 'lesser evil', or as an inevitability against which it would be pointless to continue fighting.

MOC's other campaigns – peace education and war tax resistance – also weakened during this time.

A process of reflection and dialogue was begun during the first half of 2001 however, which culminated, at the end of 2002, in the 3rd congress of the organisation now called Alternativa Antimilitarista.MOC (MOC.Antimilitarist Alternative), out of which came the same organisation's third ideological declaration.

Without the urgency of the daily work of Insumisión, we now had an opportune moment to take stock, to see what kind of state our groups were in and what were the common visions about antimilitarism, nonviolence, civil disobedience, coordination and so on which would allow us to continue participating  in the new 'post-Insumisión' era.  The results of the process of reflection and dialogue were campaigns such as 'Disobey War', or the 'Cut the Military' campaign of 2014.We seem still to be looking for the issue that can be our cause célèbre and bring us back into the public eye however, though some don't believe that we will be able to find such a cause, considering the level of media attention which Insumisión attracted.

In addition to the two campaigns mentioned – 'Disobey War' and 'Cut the Military' – AA.MOC groups have dedicated much time over the past ten years to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience workshops, and have coordinated with other groups of a 'disobedient' nature for specific campaigns such as the weeks of action going under the banner of 'Break the Silence' in Madrid.  Also worth mentioning are the protests against military bases in which AA.MOC have participated with affiliates of the European Antimilitarist Network and War Resisters' International (WRI), including actions organised with these groups against NATO bases in Spain.

Members of AA.MOC hold banners reading 'cut the military' at the naval base in Las PalmasMembers of AA.MOC hold banners reading 'cut the military' at the naval base in Las PalmasWe also continue to work together with some of the groups with whom we cooperated during the Insumisión campaign: there continue to be links with Ecologistas en Acción in nearly every AA.MOC group, for example, though they are not as close as they used to be.

What with the recent passage of the 'Mordaza Law' – which clamps down on the right to protest – and the reform of the penal code, we participate actively in the struggle against social criminalisation in Spain, sharing platforms with those who will let us at least try to tinge the conversation with our antimilitarist discourse, while at the same time promoting the use of civil disobedience as an invaluable weapon of protest.  Some AA.MOC groups also take part in struggles against social exclusion, and we maintain firm links with Women in Black, with many women in AA.MOC sharing their antimilitarist time between both organisations.

The average age of AA.MOC members has increased – we are mainly in our thirties and forties – and the membership has also become more balanced in terms of gender.  There are fewer groups: seven in total, each with very different memberships of between 3 and 15 people.  There remain very few who are actively involved in AA.MOC's work: some 15 or 20 in the whole country.  We are aware, however, that many of our old membership are involved in other other groups and movements which are confronting injustice and with which we are in clear sympathy, though their struggles cannot be called classically antimilitarist.

To the best of its ability, MOC worked hard on other issues during the Insumisión campaign, issues which were not given the same level of media attention as Insumisión itself, with its imprisonments and so on.  Peace Education and War Tax Resistance were and continue to be two areas of work which are very important to AA.MOC and which bring together many people who were not as involved in the Insumisión campaign.  This work has been collective, quiet, less visible, but nonetheless a solid means by which we have been able to continue our antimilitarism.  It also, with hindsight, facilitated our passage into the 'post-Insumisión' era.  In fact, war tax resistance remains an AA.MOC campaign to this day (see chapter 29), and continues to bring together other social movements as well as some trade unions.

Challenges for the Future

It is difficult to offer practical advice in this chapter, as though we were offering up our grandmother's favourite recipe.  We are not offering a recipe, but we can make some general reflections:

•  The future – which is already upon us in our case – feels, to say the least, a bit disconcerting after such a powerful and personal struggle.  In our small group analyses, we have often asked ourselves what happened to the many young refusers with whom we worked, why the struggle against militarism is such a minor one in Spain today, and why so many activists have cast their lot with other struggles.  What has happened since conscription was abolished to give the armed forces a relatively benign image?  Why doesn't explicit rejection of the militarisation of society come up in public debate? Why don't social movements whose members were once antimilitarist activists carry the torch of antimilitarism?   

•  Criticism of militarism and the armed forces no longer excites media interest; it is only occasionally possible to break into public consciousness with a powerful nonviolent direct action or an international mobilisation in which a Spanish contingent participates, or sometimes with a celebration of an Insumisión anniversary.

•  Social media and being able to communicate online, without having to rely on big mass media corporations, may make it possible for the antimilitarist movement which comes after Insumisión to get back in touch with 'ex refusers' and have a greater presence in social movements' own media, as well as a greater presence in wider society, which could contribute to more of a critically antimilitarist  social consciousness.

•  Involvement in international networks lends us more strength, which pushes us towards a disobedient and antimilitarist social transformation at the European level and perhaps even at the global.

We can do no other: we continue to be disobedient on the grounds of our personal ethics – we cannot position ourselves before reality in any other way, it is part of our personal and collective identity.  In the end, if we do not disobey, then what?

Go to next chapter: Conscientious Objection: a springboard for radical social change