What is bravery?

Yesterday in my post about Facebook I touched upon comments that had been written in response to a story I had posted about a friend’s brother. It reminded me it is easy to make comments on news stories without reading them and without thinking about the people involved.

The original article I posted gave the news that Royal Navy medic Michael Lyons had been sent to prison for refusing to undertake rifle training. His wife Lillian wrote a moving piece last year for the Guardian explaining some of his reasons for wanting to become a conscientious objector and both I feel deserve a wider audience and more understanding.

I’m not posting this as an anti-war post. Personally I believe that in the 21st century the best defence we can have is one when the forces are informed and where moral as well as religious objections can be raised openly.

I understand every member of the armed forces have their own internal battles about war. A few years ago a friend in the army desperately wanted to go and fight but for medical reasons wasn’t able to. If he had had to go to court or been bullied I would have stood up for him because in his heart it was what he wanted to do. He eventually was able to go to Kabul in a non-combative role and I some idea how hard it is waiting for news and hoping that everything will be ok. My friend came home, changed but alive for which I am thankful. At least if something had happened I would have known he was doing what he wanted to do. I think both my friend who went to Kabul and Michael Lyons are brave for different reasons as are all the men and women who make up our armed forces.

My friend Calie is Michael’s sister and has written a strong and powerful piece which I have offered to post here about her brother and what the last few days have been like for the family.

“Family eh? You love them, support them and (hopefully) believe they are good people with a lot to offer the world.

I have three siblings, two sisters (one older, one younger) and a brother. I am proud of all of them, for many different reasons. My sisters are both strong, beautiful women who have the kind of enviable poise and grace that someone like me (messy, disorganised and crumpled) could only ever dream of.

My brother is a man who is guided by the strongest moral compass I have ever known – from the years that I have known him, I have never seen him do anything other than follow a path of true North. With humour, determination and intellect, I have watched over the last year as he has been taunted, bullied and humiliated even as he has fought to shed light in the darkest of corners.

And it is this very same brother who is currently imprisoned in a military facility in England, having been punished for refusing to hold an assault rifle (designed, remember only to kill or maim), because he is a medic in the Royal Navy.

In the hours following the news of my brothers imprisonment, I read, and was in some cases personally targeted with, comments from members of the public who crowed over his sentence, insisted he should have had longer in prison, screeched that he should have been shot instead.

Some commented on his appearance, some expressed joy at the idea that he could be beaten while in jail. Many uttered that they had no ‘sympathy’ for him (I wasn’t aware anyone had asked for it!), and asked why did he join the Armed forces if he didn’t want to fight? Nearly all those who felt the need to log onto news stories such as the Daily Mail and write hateful things about him called him a COWARD.

I would like to explain to you why he is not. Why I believe him to be one of the bravest and most inspirational men I have ever had the fortune to meet, let alone call brother.

Michael Lyons joined the Royal Navy as a medic at 18 years old. He completed his basic training in April 2005 having commenced it in February 2005. He was subsequently posted to undergo medical training in the autumn of the same year. He qualified as a medic and was posted to submarines in a medical role. He is at all times a medic and as such has the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

At no time since completion of his medical training has he has been required to take a weapon handling test or an Annual Personal Weapons test. Since attending the range in basic training to fire a weapon he has only attended the range in a medical capacity and has not had to or been required to handle or fire a weapon.

His own grandfather, a pilot in the RAF, died in the early 60’s in Cyprus during a training exercise, leaving a young wife and baby (Michael’s mother). So Michael (who is named after his granddad), from the youngest age has understood the true cost of fighting for your country and the ripples of loss that can go through a family because of this.

In this knowledge he was a proud but fully informed recruit and decided at the outset that he would join to help and to heal but never to harm.

In the many years since his training, he has not handled a firearm, and that has never been a problem – as a medic he is not required to and may choose to go unarmed to carry out his role if he so wishes. During guard duties, Mike would carry a torch but never a gun. This, to me, takes more bravery.

However, last year – when attending a briefing meeting for his deployment to Afghan, he was told in no uncertain terms that he would have to carry an assault rifle, and if ordered to do so – to shoot ‘enemies’. he was also informed that he would not be allowed to treat women and children casualties with anything other than very basic aid – if that.

He applied to leave the service as a Conscientious Objector following that briefing and then many more weeks of moral heartache and diligent research into the war he was being asked to fight and maybe even kill in – despite his status as medical personal.

From that moment onwards, he has been bullied, intimidated and humiliated. While still waiting to hear if his CO application had been granted on appeal, a superior officer – along with military police, marched him to the weapon store and tried to force him to hold an assault rifle, and learn to shoot it.

This was done in the full knowledge that Mikey would refuse – as he was unable to do so, because of his pending CO application. Essentially, they have engineered a charge so they can imprison him and strip him of his rank, rather than allow him to leave as CO.

A man, in this country, can be imprisoned for refusing to shoot an assault rifle. Sobering isn’t it?

Luckily, Michael will be out in time to start his medical training to become a doctor next year (the Navy knew this) and intends to work for Medicines San Frontier in the future – being able to do exactly what he wanted to here- to protect and give aid to those who need it, without a weapon

So let us define bravery – a Greek philosopher said ‘The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it’. This, we may all agree is brave.

Let us be clear here, Michael was aware when he began his journey that he faced jail.

He knew that he would be treated with contempt by strangers and even some friends and workmates. He understood he would lose his career, his livelihood and that his wife, and family (who have a long and varied history in the armed forces) may suffer also.

But Michael could not find any just and noble cause to carry out the orders that he was being asked to do; and I must ask, would you – Reader – agree to sign away your conscience? Would you sacrifice your belief that you should not kill another human being to order? Michael couldn’t, and I doubt you could either, if you were ever really tested.

And in fact, what Michael has done is totally legal and enshrined in law. The definition of conscientious objection officially broadened on March 8, 1995 when the United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 1995/83 stated that “persons performing milit…ary service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service.” That definition was re-affirmed in 1998, when the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights document called “Conscientious objection to military service, United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77” officially recognized that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections.

In Germany, the rate of those claiming CO stands at around 50%. A country whose history has been marked by the terrible legacy of Hitler’s ‘Final solution’, now allows any serviceman or woman to stand up and say with ease and acceptance that they no longer wish to fight on moral grounds, if they cannot find a just and noble reason to do so.

So where do we go from here? Well, it is no wonder that those who know nothing of the facts, of the history of CO nor of Michael as a man, may feel ready to stand in judgement of him. In these circumstances it is not surprising that people might call from him to be jailed for years, or shot, or forced to carry an assault rifle and shoot a person against his will.

However, to those of us who are proud (as I am proud and Michael is proud), of living in a country that allows freedom of conscience, that embraces the rights of others less fortunate and more vulnerable than ourselves; it is a devastating blow.

In may areas the UK is at the forefront of progressive rights (…for women, children, animals, workers, ethnic minorities, LGBT communities…)and yet we would see no immorality in imprisoning a medic who is living by the very ethical standards that define his chosen profession – Do no harm.

Do you think this is right? I don’t.

Michael is not a martyr nor a militant. He is not a coward or an idiot. He is man; a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend. He is just like you and me.”