For this week’s Peace of History:
On March 10, 1987, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights officially determined conscientious objection to military service to be a human right. The men and women who founded the CNVA “Peace Farm” (that became the Voluntown Peace Trust) identified as conscientious objectors, and many more involved with VPT over the years have identified similarly. Most men deeply involved with the CNVA and VPT had resisted being drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, and women resisted war and militarism by other means, as we shared in last week’s post. In recognition of the UN decision and VPT’s own history, let us analyze the meaning of conscientious objection today.
Conscientious objection has a history at least a few hundred years long in the western world, largely based off of the beliefs of pacifist religious minorities. Historically, conscientious objection meant supporting a state’s war effort by means other than military service: usually alternative labor or an additional tax. Where C.O. status was not legally granted, C.O.s faced incarceration, and sometimes execution. Most modern states have granted some recognition to conscientious objection, usually granting “exemptions” from military service and assigning alternative labor in service to the state. And yet even this practice is fraught with problems. What are the limits to “exemption” to military service within the context of an economy built around an unfettered military-industrial complex?
And so it is significant that on multiple occasions following its initial adoption in 1976, the UN has reiterated the official interpretation of Article 18 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as including conscientious objection to military service. Article 18 defends “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” However, it is worth examining the exact recommendations and requests that the UN laid out in the 1987 decision. Included are appeals to “exemption from military service on the basis of a genuinely held conscientious objection” and the establishment of “impartial decision-making procedures to determine whether a conscientious objection is valid” (emphases added). But by what measures and tools can a state judge the authenticity of one’s moral beliefs?
The nebulousness of defining “genuine” conscientious objection is a major problem. Under current United States law, conscientious objection is defined as: “A firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief.” The GI Rights Hotline (linked in the sources) does an excellent job of deconstructing this definition. But the interpretation of the definition, and thus the judgment of one’s authenticity, is ultimately up to one’s local board, a mental health specialist, a military chaplain, and an investigating officer -- all connected to the military. The terms “training and/or belief” is especially troubling, as they imply a kind of consistency that excludes personal growth and revelatory experiences. The term “religious,” too, is confusing especially since it is meant to encompass more than just “traditional religious beliefs,” but not to include “political, sociological, or philosophical views.” Which then begs the question: what kind of ethical argument to defend conscientious objection does not rely on religion, politics, sociology, or philosophy?
To a certain extent, attempting to define conscientious objection is a rhetorical trap for those already resisting war. One former member of the US Army, Stephanie Atkinson, begins her account of going AWOL before Operation Desert Storm by stating, “I am not a conscientious objector. I am not someone who has had to defend my beliefs for not participating in war. I am someone who when called upon to participate in a war that I thought was unjustifiable for many reasons, refused to go.” She goes on to describe her reasons as “political” but also as “murky” and coming from “feelings and experiences that indicated to me that my participation in the first Gulf War would be wrong.” But for those who did not grow up in a religious tradition, activist community, or other pacifist organization -- for those who reach the decision to resist military participation through later life experiences -- how can they defend their beliefs as legitimate to the military itself? And by what right can anyone say that their new beliefs are any less authentic as a lifelong acolyte of faith?
Another resister, Diedra Cobb, describes the difficulty of gaining C.O. status in the contemporary U.S. military. Having begun basic training in January 2002, Cobb immediately realized that the violent chants and the actual weapons trainings, alongside the absolute dearth of cultural understanding of other peoples was all very disturbing to her. Within a few months after training, Cobb’s perspective was solidified even further by reading a book by Julia Alvarez. Deceived into reporting for duty, Cobb was sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland with her C.O. papers in hand, and then deployed to Iraq. After months of bureaucratic stalling, false threats by an ambitious commander, and a sexual assault in the barracks, Cobb returned home in December 2003. After all that, her C.O. case was denied, and she began working with a lawyer to defend her objection if she were to be called upon again. The difficulty Cobb describes in her story is unfortunately not uncommon.
And so we return to the question of what conscientious objection means today. In practice, the term is quite arbitrary and is in a very real way defined by the body to which the term objects. Indeed, the United Nations acknowledges certain limitations on the rights to freedom of thought, including those “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” While clearly written to curtail and delegitimize violent or oppressive personal beliefs, that caveat can just as easily be misapplied by a sufficiently motivated military to coerce C.O.s to participate in war more directly. Therefore, for those not already in the military, sometimes other types of resistance are more effective. Perhaps the most familiar type of draft resistance is simply to fail to show up when called to serve. When the draft is inactive, some refuse to register with the Selective Service at all. And for those who awaken to their conscientious objection while already in the military, but who are then denied C.O. status, refusing to obey orders or even desert may be their only options so that they do not violate their conscience.
Next week: we will look at what happens when one objects to even indirect participation in war, including the story of Bayard Rustin’s resistance in WWII.
Elster Ellen and Majken Jul Sorensen, Editors. “Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology.” War Resisters’ International, 2010.
“Conscientious Objection: Fact Sheet.” https://girightshotline.org/en/military-knowledge-base/topic/conscientious-objection-discharge
“Conscientious objection to military service.” https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/RuleOfLaw/Pages/ConscientiousObjection.aspx
“Conscientious objection to military service.” https://www.refworld.org/docid/3b00f0ce50.html
“Conscientious Objector.” https://www.sss.gov/consobj
“International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx