Lengthening Limits to Liberty for Life: The Pursuit of Freedom of Conscience within the Military


Maria Santelli is the executive director of the Center on Conscience & War, a 76 year-old organization dedicated to extending and defending the rights of conscientious objectors to war.

Thad Crouch is the National Program Coordinator for the Consistent Life Network and a U.S. Army veteran. He assisted the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild with CO cases from 2009 to 2012 and served on the 2010 Truth Commission on Conscience and War.

“I was told it was necessary… I was brainwashed. As a US Army Chaplain, I watched on August 6th as the Enola Gay took off for Hiroshima; on August 9th when Bockscar took off for Nagasaki. I said nothing! I knew hundreds of thousands of women and children would be vaporized, incinerated, and I said nothing. I was silent…. We – all of us—must no longer be silent.”

These are the words of Father George Zabelka, a WWII Catholic Chaplain and Conscientious Objector (CO).

As long as there has been war, there have been COs. Throughout United States history, military COs have had protections in theory, but yet have endured systematic abuse and torture simply because of their “crime” of refusing to take another human life.

Still, even in the face of centuries of persecution, the conscience could not be silenced and organized resistance to war has continued.

By the late 1930s, it was clear that the US was going to enter World War II. COs and their families who had witnessed or experienced the brutalization of people of conscience who came before them, were determined to prevent the same from happening to another generation. Members of what are known as the traditional “Peace Churches” – Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren – as well as members of the Methodist Office of World Peace worked with the federal government as it was drafting the country’s first peace-time draft law, to enact real, enforceable protections for religious COs in the law. In 1962, the Pentagon instituted policy allowing COs to object from within the military, based on a demonstrated change in beliefs, after either being drafted or volunteering. By 1970, COs in the military or those facing the draft no longer were required to hold strictly religious beliefs, and could object based on moral or ethical beliefs.2 This policy remains in effect today as a legal avenue by which COs can apply for discharge or non-combat status.

Regularly, people unfamiliar with COs are surprised to hear that it still exists in our “all-volunteer” military. They might ask, “didn’t these people know what they were getting into – that the military’s purpose is to fight wars?” Often, they wonder why they should care about these COs at all.

The answer is as simple as their witness is powerful.

Consider Abby Johnson’s crystallization of conscience on abortion that led her to become a Pro-Life organizer and Consistent Life Ethicist. One might pause and realize that if a volunteer in Planned Parenthood who became a career clinic director can have a change of conscience, then it’s also possible that even those who volunteer for the most well-funded, well-armed military – which by far engages in the most killing away from its own borders than any other military or terrorist organization – can also have a change in conscience! And would we not welcome and hope changes in conscience prompt members of ISIS and the North Korean military to become Consistent Life Ethicists? Whether we pray, wish, or work for world peace, do we believe it could ever come to be unless people in our own military have changes in conscience?

The reality is that military COs reveal our true nature by actively challenging the common belief that humanity is violent and war is inevitable. It is not. Conscientious Objectors serve as daily reminders and compelling case studies. Our conscience tells us that violence and injustice against one another is wrong. Remarkably, it is the military who knows this better than anyone.

Look no further than basic military training: the science of killing, which has been meticulously designed to circumvent our natural moral judgment by conditioning a soldier to kill reflexively, without thinking, and without filtering through the conscience. Training to kill requires constant reinforcement. If killing was natural it would come easily for us. Hundreds of thousands of veterans struggling with the trauma of Moral Injury – wounds to the soul caused by a transgression against the conscience – are poignant proof of our tragic misunderstanding of human nature.

Moral Injury is a kind of traumatic stress caused by participating in activities that are contrary to our deepest held values and can occur rather than — or in addition to — traumatic stress from being endangered.6 Moral Injury can be seen very clearly in the examples of drone pilots, who engage in war from the safety of a military base in Nevada and commonly experience traumatic stress by participating in killing without ever having been in danger. They can suffer damaging consequences.

Because the conscience always makes itself heard.

And for the vast majority of us, it already has spoken: only one percent of us has volunteered to join the military. The other 99% have said, by default, “No, I choose not to fight, not to kill or even train to kill.” Even the one percent who has joined the military has done so not with the to take another life, but to make something greater of their own. It is not surprising when the conflict between who they are and what they are being asked to do compels some of them to object.

Unfortunately, following their crisis of conscience, members of the military may find the path ahead riddled with obstacles: frequently they, and even their chaplains or commands, are completely unaware that applying for CO discharge is an option; once they do navigate the complex process to apply, COs will often endure violations of not only their right to due process, but also their rights of conscience at the hands of unsympathetic or hostile commands; finally, the strict definition of CO as opposition to “war in any form,” may effectively deny conscience protection to objectors who observe Just War or similar doctrines or principles such as this journal’s stated ethic of non-aggressive violence.

The military calls this “Selective Conscientious Objection” (SCO). Despite the First Amendment, Article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and evidence that being forced to take part in a mission that one does not believe is a Just War is a violation of conscience, the Supreme Court has ruled SCO illegal twice. If you enlist willing to fight and die for Americans’ freedoms, yet attempt to live by the most widespread institutional religious belief on war in America, then America will not hesitate to violate your freedom of conscience and religion.

In order to be classified as a CO, an applicant must answer a series of complex, confusing questions, describing their beliefs in great detail and how those beliefs developed, leading up to the exact moment or experience that led to their “crystallization of conscience.” They must then provide evidence from their life that affirms that their beliefs are “firm, fixed, sincere and deeply held.” The CO is then required to be interviewed by a military chaplain, and undergo a psychological evaluation, an investigation and an official hearing. The case is then forwarded through command channels all the way to the level of the Pentagon – the level of the Headquarters of each particular branch — for final disposition. The entire process can take up to a year, while the CO remains in the military, in violation of their conscience.

This is not due process.

For all these reasons above, some factual COs call themselves “resisters” since they may not currently qualify as legal COs. Some neither apply for CO status, nor even talk with a CO advocacy organization, such as the Center on Conscience & War. Effective CO organizations can walk one through many options and, in some cases, help those who theoretically think they are “SCOs” attain legal CO status because they truly could not in good conscience participate in any real war “in any form” in the real world regardless of hypothetical wars fought by hypothetical militaries in hypothetical worlds.

Some do time in prison. Some flee even, though despite decades without use, the death penalty remains legal for desertion.

In contrast, medical personnel who refuse to take part in abortion or prescribe contraceptives have legal though costly options to quit their jobs and freely follow their conscience at any time. Further, while COs to mandated employer-provided insurance coverage for contraception have successfully won rulings under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, civilian courts do not require the rigorous tests of sincerity and numerous levels of skeptical review that military COs must overcome.

It’s due time for due process for military COs. It’s time those of us who value human rights, human life take a stand for those soldiers of conscience who joined the military to stand up for us, but had a change of heart and acted with courage to stand for life. If we envision a world where all life is honored, it’s truly the least we can do.

Works Cited

1. “The Reluctant Prophet,” GNV Team, accessed September 23, 2016, https://vimeo.com/48820359

2. Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)

3. Department of Defense Instruction 1300.06

4. “Abby Johnson Card,” Consistent Life Network, accessed September 14, 2016, http://www.consistent-life.org/johnsoncard.pdf

5. “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by David Grossman,” GoodReads, accessed September 21, 2016, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/78127.On_Killing

6. “Moral Injury in the Context of War,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, accessed September 23, 2016, http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/co-occurring/moral_injury_at_war.asp

7. Jesse Kirkpatrick, “Military Drone Operators Risk a Serious Injury,” Slate, January 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/01/military_drone_operators_risk_moral_injury.html

8. Nicola Abé, “Dreams in Infrared: The Woes of an American Drone Operator,” Spiegle Online, December 14, 2012, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/pain-continues-after-war-for-american-drone-pilot-a-872726.html

9. Thad Crouch, “I Pray For An Army Chaplain As Well As For A War Resister,” War Is A Crime .org, accessed September 23, 2009, http://warisacrime.org/node/45658

10. J. Curwood Witt, “COMMENT: Gillette v. United States: The End of Selective Conscientious Objection,” Tennessee Law Review, Fall, 1971, https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?action=DocumentDisplay&crawlid=1&doctype=cite&docid=39+Tenn.+L.+Rev.+157&srctype=smi&srcid=3B15&key=f02f23f4553c4ddbaacac3eb27ccec58

11. Patricia Zapor, “Selective conscientious objection to war service gets new push,” Catholic News Service, November 12, 2010, http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2010/selective-conscientious-objection-to-war-service-gets-new-push.cfm

12. Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437 (1971) and Negre v. Larsen, 394 US 968 (1969)

13. Department of Defense Instruction 1300.06 para 5.3.2, p. 6

14. J.E. McNeil and Bill Gavin, “Who is a Conscience Objector? Military Law,” (pamphlet) Center on Conscience & War, May 2007

15. Andreas Speck, “USA: Conscientious objector Travis Bishop sentenced to one year in prison / 30 days for Victor Agosto,” War Resisters' International, August 26, 2009, http://www.wri-irg.org/node/8561

16. U.S. Code, Title 10, Subtitle A, Part II, Chapter 47, Subchapter X, Section 885, Article 85. Desertion, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCODE-2011-title10/html/USCODE-2011-title10-subtitleA-partII-chap47-subchapX-sec885.htm

17. Roger Severino and Elizabeth Slattery, “Little Sisters of the Poor Win Big in Obamacare Case,” The Daily Signal, May 16, 2016, http://dailysignal.com/2016/05/16/little-sisters-of-the-poor-win-big-in-obamacare-case/

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