Conscientious Objection and Drafts

Ever have one of those arguments in which you insist on arguing your side of it only because you know the other person is right and don’t want to admit it?  Ever find that you’re more likely to do this if the stakes of the argument don’t really effect you?

The other night, my wife Ann and I had a lengthy argument about the philosophy and legal status of conscientious objection in the face of a hypothetical draft.  A little background–when I was about 16 years old, I realized I’m a pacifist.  When I registered for Selective Service at 18 like the good little Boy Scout I thought I was, I also began collecting materials for a prospective CO claim.  Because I didn’t know the law, I wound up sending that file to the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department; I can only imagine the laughs it drew, if anybody actually ever opened it.

At any rate, I’ve long been a supporter of CO.  Ann isn’t.  Her position is that in the event of a draft, everybody has to respond to it.  She’s willing to consider the idea that people who are morally/ethically opposed to killing can do other forms of service, but she contends that they have to be inducted into the military, face the same risks and unpleasantness as soldiers, etc.

As the argument proceeded, I had a hard time disputing her position.  Well, not exactly–I had a hard time answering her position, although I continued to dispute it.  We danced around the circle for a while, repeating our positions without really answering each other’s, until finally she made the point that if CO’s really are opposed to any kind of connection to the military, then in the event of a draft they should have to make their resistance civil disobedience.  That is, if we’re willing to make a commitment to non-violence, we should do so whatever the cost to our persons.

As I’ve thought more about this in the last couple of days, I don’t really like the idea, but I can’t really figure out why she’s not right.  Yes, current law allows for CO, but in principle, I think she’s right that the current law essentially allows COs to avoid the dangers of soldiering without paying off in any way.  At the same time, I side with those COs who say that any form of participation in a war effort is unethical/immoral, so the compromise position of “do some other kind of service for the military” doesn’t work.

This is a hugely complicated problem, although both Ann and I believe that a draft should never happen.  As she put it, “If you can’t raise an army to fight your war, you shouldn’t be having the war.”  But should it happen, I’ll be prepared to work with COs to think their way through civil disobedience as they figure out how to fulfill their commitments.

7 Responses to Conscientious Objection and Drafts

  1. Lee Waters says:

    I think I can help a bit with this one as I’ve been the investigating officer for a number of these cases. For those in the military, there are 2 categories of COs (1-A-O who request non-combatant duties and 1-O who request discharge). The applicant bears the burden of proof that he/she opposes war in any form (not just the current conflicts) or the bearing of arms; the belief is honest, sincere and deeply held; and the belief is by virtue of religion or training akin to religion. Further, the law contemplates and allows that sometimes these beliefs crystallize after joining the military.

    In every conflict we have had those who may not be able to bear arms, but chose to serve in other ways (medics, administrative staff, etc…) both on the home front and overseas. There are also those whose belief system will not let them serve at all. Both can and should be accomodated. However, there are also those who join knowing full well what is expected of them but get homesick, disagree politically with a specific conflict or who otherwise seek to use the CO process as a convenient way to get out of their term of service.

  2. sethkahn says:

    Lee: Thanx for the clarification. Maybe you can answer this question too, although it’s an obscure enough detail that I wouldn’t expect you to know off the top of your head–

    Although Ann didn’t say this in so many words, the subtext of her argument is that because the vast majority of CO claims are based on religious dogma, therefore the vast majority of COs are essentially being protected on religious grounds. As a hardcore atheist, she finds this troubling. So I’m wondering how many CO exemptions are granted on non-religious grounds. Obviously it’s a much harder cases to make if you don’t have theological arguments and support from religious leaders to invoke.

    Hope you’re well.

  3. Lee Waters says:

    You are correct in that the majority of the CO claims seem to stem from a religious perspective. The CO guidance grew out of the understanding of a religious tradition. That does not prevent an atheist from applying as a CO. Essentially, the person has to show that these moral and ethical convictions opposing war in any form or the bearing of arms, once acquired, have directed their life in a way traditional religious convictions of equal strength, depth and duration direct the lives of those who have such beliefs. Essentially, these belifs must be a controlling factor in the way the person lives their life and must have arisen from study, contemplation, training, etc…

    It may seem like it is more difficult (and it may be) for atheists to meet the standard, but the key factor is not whether a person subscribes to a certain religion, but rather how sincere and deeply held is the opposition to war in any form (and not just an attempt to avoid service).

    This is an in-depth process with multiple layers of review. We try our best to get it right and be fair to both the individual applicant and the military. This is especially true with an all-volunteer force. It is much harder to say today (compared with the draft days) that you don’t know what you are getting into when you join the military. That said, some do have views which don’t fully crystallize until later.

    I don’t have the stats on the frequency of atheists applying or being granted CO status. Anecdotally, I only investigated one such case out of 6 I’ve investigated.

  4. sethkahn says:

    Lee: Yes, I’ve followed a handful of cases involving CO claims that emerged after the applicant had done some service. While I’m clearly in favor of allowing the claims, I can certainly understand how that would be hard to prove.

    I’m not sure if you can answer this without referring to specific cases you can’t talk about, but can you say anything about the kinds of claims and proof that investigators and boards find acceptable?

    The reason I’m asking isn’t personal. Should the need ever arise for me to work with a claimant, I’d like to learn, obviously, what works, but I’d also like to learn what we can do not to waste anybody’s time. Knowing more about what’s likely not to work gets everybody off the hook from needing to talk about bad claims.

  5. Lee Waters says:


    Understand the interest. The process and cases can be intersting, frustrating and gratifying all at the same time. When I get back, I’ll be able to engage and get you much more info. As you identified, I can’t talk about specific cases, but I will be happy to provide the applicable regulations and DoD guidance as well as give you more general information. Everything is unclassified and available to the public. Just difficult to get to you in this forum and given my present location. The internet here in Afghanistan is not so reliable (go figure) but getting better.

  6. Karen Porter/Chester Cty Peace Movement says:

    I just want to chime in that I am truly enjoying this informed, polite, intelligent discussion (breath of fresh air, Seth, compared to some past postings by others – glad you’re keeping it civil now!). Seth and I have both been trained by the same trainers in military/draft/CO counseling – the Center on Conscience & War in DC (Bill Galvin) – a great source of information regarding the issues you are discussing here. The AFSC’s Militarism (or Anti-Militarism<) & Youth project (Oskar Castro) in Philly is also a great source of info. Lee, I don’t know you but really am getting a lot out of your input here – as a “lurker” not really participating, but benefiting from your discussion. Keep it up! Good stuff. And, while I’m at it, Seth, enjoying your other recent posts, checking in periodically. I don’t have much time to read blogs (and generally just don’t), but this one is terrific.

  7. sethkahn says:

    Karen: Lee is an Air Force lawyer and an old college friend. We’ve known each other since long before I was a peacenik and he was in the military. Easy to be civil with people who don’t begin by assuming the worst.

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