Objecting to War: The Human Conscience v. the US Military

Conscientious objection wages an active challenge to war, one soldier at a time.

Affirmation of conscience and support for conscientious objectors, or COs – helping people get out of the military – is an important part of a larger anti-war strategy, and one with real, concrete and measurable results. Military COs give us powerful insight into our own nature, and they can be strong and credible voices for peace, having fixed the opposition to war in their hearts through experiences most people will never have.

As long as there has been war, there have been conscientious objectors. One of the earliest references to conscientious objection is found in Deuteronomy in the Bible. It says, “Officials are instructed to address troops: Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house or he might cause the heart of his comrades to fail like his own.” This is not to say, by any means, that conscientious objection is akin to cowardice. Quite the opposite: It takes incredible courage to stand up and resist killing from within a culture that exists for that sole purpose.

Nonetheless, the point of this passage shines through: Conscience is contagious. This is why conscientious objection – affirmation of the human conscience -is so threatening to the US military and government, and why there is a history of attempts to suppress it.

The US Military and Repression of Conscience

Throughout the history of the US, we’ve seen both accommodation and repression of those who refused to fight in war.

During the Revolutionary War, pacifists refused both fighting and paying for the war with their taxes, and were sent to prison for their resistance. During the Civil war, COs had protections in theory, though there was systematic abuse and torture of objectors in both the North and South, including accounts of pacifists being physically forced to fight, with weapons actually strapped to their bodies.

During World War I, protection for conscience was written into the 1917 draft law, though it was flimsy: In order to qualify, one had to be a member in good standing with a church that had a statement of peace at the time the draft law was passed. Only non-combat military service was available to COs, not civilian service. The thousands who resisted being conscripted in any form were arrested and tried by military courts, not civilian courts. Of those convicted, 142 were given life sentences and 17 were sentenced to death. No COs actually were executed, but people died as a result of the brutal abuse and torture of their imprisonment. The average time served by these prisoners of conscience, whose only crime was refusing to participate in war or the preparation for war, was 16.5 years, almost three times as long as the average time served for violent crimes in current history.

Expanding Protection for Conscientious Objection

The Center on Conscience & War, celebrating our 75th anniversary this year, was founded in response to this history of repression of conscience. After witnessing what happened to COs in World War I, our founders worked to ensure that – for the very first time – real, enforceable legal protections for conscientious objectors would be included in the 1940 draft law, when it was becoming clear that the US would enter World War II. The law was not perfect, but it was a vast improvement to previous CO protections. While one still had to be a religious objector, one didn’t have to belong to a peace church. Civilian draft boards, and not military officials, would determine CO status, and resisters would now be tried in civilian courts. These protections helped to curb the blatant abuse and torture during World War I of those who refused to fight.

The Center on Conscience & War – known at the time as the National Service Board for Religious Objectors – worked with churches to organize a Civilian Public Service Program, allowing COs to perform civilian service instead of non-combat military service. Still, people of conscience refused even that work, seeing any cooperation as support for the war, and many still went to jail.

As years went by, CO law expanded following key court challenges. In the late 1950s, pacifist Dan Seeger’s draft board denied him CO status because he could not honestly say he believed in a “supreme being.” In 1965, the case of US v. Seeger went to the Supreme Court, which sided with him, ruling that CO status could be given to those who were religious but who did not believe in a “supreme being.” In 1971, conscience won another victory with the Supreme Court decision in Welsh v. US. Thisopened the law even further to say that objection could be based an ethical or moral conviction, and not just religious beliefs.

These court decisions and the 1940 draft law provide the basis the Department of Defense still uses today to allow those already in the military to apply for discharge or, more rarely, noncombat classification as a CO. In these cases, versus draft cases, the legal standard is different. Now, a person has to prove that he or she has had a change of conscience – that he or she previously saw war as good or as a necessary evil, and now does not.

This policy has been in effect since 1962, but is not a still not a guaranteed right. It is not US law, but only a Department of Defense “personnel policy.” The only statutory protection for CO remains that original 1940 draft law.

We can see the consequences of that deficiency. During the first Gulf War in 1991, hundreds of members of the armed services experienced a crisis of conscience and refused to fight. The Pentagon suspended all discharges, including CO, and many resisters were court-martialed and jailed. Just this February, an Army CO we worked with became victim to the whims of Department of Defense policy when his 13-page approval was arbitrarily overturned by the stroke of a pen from the Secretary of the Army’s office.

The Center on Conscience & War has attempted to work with Congress over the last 20 years to get statutory protection for COs written into US law, but it is a formidable task. Think about it: if it were easy for people to leave the military or to avoid the draft, it would be harder for the US to go to war.

If you are a conscientious objector, if you know someone struggling with their conscience from inside the military, or if you want to help defend and extend the rights of conscientious objectors, please contact the Center on Conscience & War.

Maria Santelli is Executive Director of the Center on Conscience & War. She has been working for peace and justice since 1996.

Beverly Bell, Natalie Miller, and Emily Simmons helped with this article.

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