THE INS AND OUTS OF FILING FOR CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR
December 26, 2010
What happens when members of the Armed Services realize that they no
longer believe in the war they are fighting, or in fighting at all? In
the below interview, we get a bird's-eye view of the situation facing
conscientious objectors from McNeil, whose faith-based nonprofit
organization has been defending the rights of conscientious objectors
HOW HARD IS IT TO OBTAIN
CO STATUS ONCE YOU'RE IN THE MILITARY?
There's a Department of Defense regulation that provides that if a
person has a change of heart and for moral, ethical, or religious
beliefs comes to conscientiously oppose their own participation in war
in any form, they can either ask to be discharged or ask to be a
non-combatant. But it's not easy, and it takes time. You have to file an
application form with many questions: What do you believe that leads you
to file this application? How did you come by those beliefs? When did
those beliefs change so that you no longer could be in the military?
What do you believe about the use of force? What in your life shows that
your beliefs have changed?
You submit that form to your commanding officer, who appoints an
investigating officer. Then you meet with a psychiatrist, who determines
whether or not there are mental health issues that would cause you to
leave the military. Then you meet with a chaplain—who may or may not be
of the same religious faith as you—who determines whether or not you are
Then the IO [investigating officer] has a hearing, to which you can
bring witnesses to say, "Yes, he used to be gung ho about the military
and now he hates everything to do with it." After the hearing, the
investigating officer makes a recommendation and the commanding officer
makes a decision. In every other decision except for medical discharges,
a commanding officer is not second-guessed. But under military
regulations, these [CO decisions] go up the chain of command to the
Pentagon, and any one of the people along the way can say, "No, he's not
a CO," even though they've never met the guy.
HOW MANY CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR APPLICATIONS ARE APPROVED EACH YEAR?
It depends on the branch, but it ranges between 75 to 50 percent. And it
also depends on where we are in a war. At the beginning of the Vietnam
War, something like 90 percent of application were denied. At the end,
90 percent were granted. The same thing is happening now with Iraq and
Afghanistan; more are being granted, and faster, than they were at the
DO YOU FIND ANY COMMON
DENOMINATOR AMONG CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS, IN TERMS OF CHARACTERISTICS,
BACKGROUND, OUTLOOK, OR ANYTHING ELSE?
Only this: I find that almost
everyone who comes to us tends to be very conscientious across the
board. Whatever they do, they do it well. I think that's one reason that
people get annoyed with them when they seek a discharge: because they
were good at what they were doing. They often excel; they're often
award-winning. One of these guys kept getting awards in the Navy while
his CO application was pending, because he was going to be conscientious
in his job right up until the moment when he could walk away from it. But
other than that, no. We've got a guy who was a conservative Christian,
and it was becoming an atheist and a libertarian that caused his change
of heart. Other times we get guys who were atheists and become
Christian. There really isn't one story. What kinds of factors do
people cite as triggering their reversal on the military? It really
varies, although there are some patterns. When people have a change of
heart in boot camp, it's often because of the cadences: "Kill, Kill,
Kill" or "What makes the grass grow green?
Blood, blood, blood, brains and guts, blood makes the grass grow green."
You can go on YouTube and hear some lovely cadences about napalm. There
you are doing double time about the granny who turned into a torch. For
some people, that's enough. I remember one CO application where the
woman was being hazed because she wouldn't say "Kill, kill, kill" but
she felt that if she said it, God would strike her dead on the spot and
she'd go to hell. She said, "I realized: This is not something I can
say, this is not something I can do, and this is not someone I can be."
WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE WHO CHANGE THEIR MINDS LATER IN THE PROCESS?
Other people kind of bop along until they get a deployment
order and have to face what it is that they're going to go do.
Especially with national guards and reserves, you can go down to
Guatemala and build a road and feel like you're doing good stuff, and
then you get a deployment order and you know you're going to be asked to
shoot people. And you go, "You know, I joined the national guard to
build levees, not to blow people's heads off." There's an internal
confrontation at that point, and it can become very difficult.
DO MOST PEOPLE CONTACT YOU BEFORE DEPLOYMENT THEN?
No. For many people, the change
of heart doesn't happen until they're in combat or have come back from
combat. I'll never forget that right as we were invading Iraq, I got a
call from a guy who was an Army ranger. He'd been at it for seven and a
half years, all of it active duty. He said, "When I was in Afghanistan,
I had a child in my sights, and I just realized that I couldn't do this
anymore. I only had six more months on my contract, so I figured I'd
come back from Afghanistan and wouldn't re-up. But they stop-lossed me
in and they're deploying me to Iraq. And I just can't do it." I can tell
you lots of horrible stories of what it is that turned people away in
battle—people who killed a kid who was walking toward them with a
grenade, only then they realized it wasn't a grenade. Things like that.
Things worse than that."
FOR PEOPLE WHO CHANGE THEIR MINDS DURING ACTIVE DUTY,
DO YOU FIND THAT INCIDENTS LIKE THOSE - WHERE IT BECOMES DIFFICULT TO
CONTINUE TO THINK OF YOURSELF AS THE GOOD GUY - ARE THE MOST FREQUENT
That's a common one, but
it's not the only one. There are more mundane causes as well. For some
people, it's having children. Or there's the story of Josh Casteel, who
was interrogating someone and the person he was questioning said, "Your
God tells you to love your enemy. How do you reconcile that with what
you are doing?" Josh suddenly realized that he couldn't, and that was
TO WHAT EXTEND DOES YOUTH PLAY A ROLE IN THESE CHANGES OF HEART?
Many people get involved with the military when they're quite
young, we're recruited right out of high school and most of us don't
have fully formed belief systems at 17 or 18.
That's right, and the military is well aware of it. That's why they're
happy to recruit you when you're 17 and 18, because hopefully they can
shape your world-view to the one they want. It's also why the United
States government rejected signing the child soldier protocol of the
U.N. for so long: because we can recruit 17-years-old with a parent's
signature. You definitely see some of these kids growing up and
starting to think it through and coming to a crisis. It's not uncommon
for us to get guys who start their time in the military drinking and
partying, and then as they get older and more mature, they start doing
more reading and thinking and studying, and they conclude that this is
not a life they feel they can live.
IT SEEMS TO ME THAT ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MUST BE THE HARDEST IS
REALIZING YOU CAN NO LONGER SERVE IN THE MILITARY IS THAT BEING A MEMBER
OF THE ARMED SERVICES IS VERY MUCH ABOUT IDENTITY.
Once a marine, always a marine.
SO WHEN YOU DECIDE YOU CAN'T BE INVOLVED ANYMORE,
YOU'RE REALLY CONCLUDING NOT ONLY THAT WERE WRONG ABOUT A CHOICE YOU
MADE, BUT ALSO ABOUT AN IDENTITY YOU'D ADOPTED. WHAT'S THAT LIKE FOR
PEOPLES? I've heard from a lot of
guys who feel completely isolated in their units, sometimes deliberately
so. And sometimes they are rejected not just by their unit but by their
family. I can think of several people whose families have said, "If
you're a CO, you're a coward and you're not my son or not my daughter."
One of the reasons we started posting photographs of successful CO
applicants on our Web site is to try to show people that there's another
community out there, that COs represent a broad range of people and you
can find a place among them. We try as hard as we can to provide
emotional support, because the experience is very isolating. A lot of
guys are just so grateful that there's anybody who at all understands
what they're talking about. Last week we had a guy who had felt isolated
and miserable and was virtually suicidal until somebody said the words
"conscientious objector" to him, and he was just so excited that he
wasn't going crazy that there was a name for how he felt and other
people who feel the same way.
IN TALKING TO PEOPLE WHO'VE UNDERGONE RADICAL SHIFTS IN THEIR
BELIEF SYSTEMS, I'VE HEARD SOME STORIES WHERE THE SHIFT WAS VERY
GRADUAL, AND WITH OTHERS THERE WAS A SUDDEN AWAKENING. DO YOU TEND TO
HEAR ONE KIND MORE THAN THE OTHER?
They can be either, or even both. Sometimes it's just a long, slow
process. Other times, there's a long buildup followed by a flash: a
moment where it's, "No, this is the breaking point, this is the end."
And sometimes the whole thing seems to happen in a flash, like the guy
who was doing the interrogation. We call the flashes "Road to Damascus
moments." What's interesting is that Army regulations provide for the
ability to have a Road to Damascus religious conversion but not a
nonreligious one. We tried to take that to the Supreme Court and
got pretty close, but it didn't happen. That's one unfairness
in the system.
WAIT A MINUTE. YOU'RE SAYING THAT ACCORDING TO ARMY REGULATIONS YOU CAN
HAVE A RELIGIOUS AWAKENING, BUT NOT AN ETHICAL ONE? YOU CAN COME TO GOD
IN A MOMENT, BUT ALL NONRELIGIOUS MORAL CHANGE HAS TO BE GRADUAL?
Right. In a couple of Korean War-era cases, the Supreme Court ruled that
because the First Amendment says America doesn't have an established
church, conscientious objector status can be based on moral or ethical
grounds, not just religion, and the regulations in all the [military]
branches reflect that. But in the Army, the regulations say that if the
petition for CO status comes from a nonreligious basis, it has to come
from "study and meditation." "Study and meditation" does not allow for a
Road to Damascus conversion.
WOW! FASCINATING. OTHER THAN THIS ISSUE, ARE THERE
ASPECTS OF THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR REGULATIONS YOU REGARD AS UNFAIR
AND HAVE TRIED, OR ARE TRYING TO CHANGE?
One major issue is selective objection. Lieutenant Watada was the
classic example: He was willing to fight in Afghanistan, but he was not
willing to fight in Iraq.
He felt that his religious beliefs forbade him to fight an unjust war,
and he felt that the invasion of Iraq was unjust. That's not recognized.
What that means is that we have a law that tracks to the religious
beliefs of a very, very narrow sector of society. Because let's face it:
Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethrens—even when you throw in Seventh Day
Adventists and a few other churches—these people do not make up a
significant percentage of the population of the United States.
Most churches, including Catholics, Methodists, and Episcopalians,
recognize the "just war" concept: Some wars are just, and some wars are
unjust. So we feel the statute has established a narrow faith
litmus test, and that it should be possible for someone who is a
conscientious objector to an unjust war to receive a discharge. That was
the law in Great Britain. It's not the law in Israel, but it's sort of
de facto: Many members of the Israeli military refuse to fight in the
Occupied Territories and aren't punished for it. So it's not an undoable
thing, and it would more accurately reflect the beliefs of a much larger
number of people
SOMEONE WHO WAS LESS THAN SYMPATHETIC TO YOUR WORK WOULD SAY THAT MOST
CO'S AREN'T EXPERIENCING SINCERE BELIEF CHANGE - THAT THEY'RE FINE AS
LONG AS MILITARY LIFE IS ABOUT TRAINING AND ROTC AND HANGING OUT IN THE
UNITED STATES, BUT AS SOON AS THEY GET INTO COMBAT THEY FREAK-OUT AND
JUST WANT A QUICK TICKET TO GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE. WHAT WOULD YOU
SAY TO THAT?
I would like them to explain to me why so many of these guys don't
realize that they're COs when they're in Afghanistan and Iraq; they
realize it when they come home. If it was just about "I want to get out
of here," they would do it overseas, not two months after they get back,
three months after they get back, a year after they get back. I would be
getting calls from Fallujah every day, instead of from Omaha. Some
people are going to be cynical; fine, they can be cynical. I think the
reality is that we ignore the possibility that people can experience
real change, on this issue or any other, at our own peril.
I'VE BEEN TALKING MAINLY ABOUT PEOPLE CONCLUDING THAT THEY
THEMSELVES WERE WRONG ABOUT WAR
BUT I'M CURIOUS ABOUT WHETHER DECEPTION OR
MISINFORMATION ALSO PLAY A ROLE? DO YOU FIND THAT MANY PEOPLE FEEL THEY
WERE DELIBERATELY MISLED ABOUT THE REALITIES OF MILITARY LIFE?
There's a joke about military recruiters: "How can you tell when they're
lying? When their mouth is moving." I've used that line in front of
military audiences and had people in the military come up to me
afterward and tell me that I'm way too nice on recruiters. That's true.
I am nice to them, because I think they have the worst job in the
military. For a while it was not uncommon for the military to send guys
with PTSD to recruit. Recruiters have a higher suicide rate than the
general population stateside, and they have terrifically stressful jobs;
for a recruiter to get one recruit, they have to make something like 300
contacts. But you know, they get great training. The military has done
millions and millions of dollars in marketing research about who to
target and how and what to say, and they're extremely good at it. They
know that in one neighborhood you promise this and in a different
neighborhood you promise that.
One of my favorite stories is about this kid who called me up and said,
"A friend of mine was very happily joining the Marines and I took him
down to sign the papers and I don't know how it happened, but after I
left, I had joined the Marines. I've never wanted to join the Marines. I
can't understand how I joined the Marines. But I joined the Marines, and
I need your help." So that tells you how persuasive they are. And they
are not fighting fair. They are not giving these kids the real
information—information about things like rates of suicides, rates of
sexual assault, the reality about the educational and job training
opportunities, the reality for minorities in the military.
ONE LAST QUESTION: IF YOU COULD HEAR ANYONE ELSE ABOUT BEING
WRONG, WHO WOULD IT BE?
I've seen The Fog of War, and it was intriguing, but [Robert McNamara]
never once said, "I was wrong." He's a classic "mistakes were made" guy.
That would be who I really want to hear from [if he were still alive]. I
suppose that reflects my age, and how long I've been doing this work.
Kathryn Schulz is
the author of Being
Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. She
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can follow her on Facebook here.