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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.