NEW YORK, Apr 15 (IPS) - Although only a handful of them have gone public, at least several hundred U.S. soldiers have applied for conscientious objector (CO) status since January, says a rights group.
The Center on Conscience and War (CCW), which advises military personnel on CO discharges, reports that since the start of 2003 - when many soldiers realised they might have to fight in the Iraq war - there has been a massive increase in the number of enlisted soldiers who have applied for CO status.
”The bare minimum is several hundred, and this number only includes the ones that have come to my group and to groups we're associated with,” CCW official J.E. McNeil told IPS.
”There will be others who will have gone through different channels, and some people do it on their own,” she added.
Generally, COs possess a sincere conviction that forbids them from taking part in organised killing. This objection may apply to all or to only particular aspects of war.
Only a small percentage of people who apply receive a CO discharge. But military statistics lag about one year behind, and the decisions on CO applications take on average six months to one year - sometimes as long as two years - so the exact number of COs in the present war will not be known for some time.
Also, military figures do not count applications from servicemen who are absent without leave, so they will not include Stephen Funk, a marine reserve who was on unauthorised leave before he publicly declared himself a conscientious objector and reported back to his military base in San Jose, California, Apr. 1.
Funk, 20, realised that he was against all war during his training, which including having to bayonet human-shaped dummies while shouting, ”kill, kill”.
Since publicly declaring his opposition to war, he has become a symbol of resistance both in the United States and around the world.
”Since Stephen went public,” says Aimee Allison, a CO from the first Gulf War who has been supporting Funk, ”some people from Yesh Gvul (a group of Israeli soldiers who have refused to fight in the occupied territories in Palestine) have contacted me to pledge their support for Stephen and to show solidarity and to thank him for making a stand.”
”People in other countries are proud that an American can stand up to the hegemony and the violence of the war in Iraq,” she adds.
Soldiers in other countries, including Turkey, have refused to fight in the current war sparked by last month's U.S.-led attack. Three British servicemen were sent home from the Persian Gulf after objecting to the conduct of the invasion and a U.K. member of parliament, George Galloway, says he ”is calling on British forces to refuse to obey the illegal orders” involved in the war.
As it is in the British army, CO discharge is a long-established practice in the U.S. armed forces and always peaks in wartime. CCW says there were an estimated 200,000 COs in the Vietnam War, 4,300 in the Korean War, 37,000 in World War II and 3,500 in World War I.
The military granted 111 COs from the army in the first Gulf War before putting a stop to the practice, resulting in 2,500 soldiers being sent to prison, says Bill Gavlin from the Center on Conscience and War, quoting a report from the 'Boston Globe' newspaper.
During that war, a number of U.S. COs in Camp LeJeune in North Carolina state were ”beaten, harassed and treated horribly”, Gavlin says. In some cases, COs were put on planes bound for Kuwait, told that they could not apply for CO status or that they could only apply after they'd already gone to war.
As far as Gavlin knows, that type of treatment has not happened this time. But he has counselled service members who were harassed. For example, one woman was told that if she applied for CO status she would be court marshalled. It is not an offence to apply, and her superiors did it, Gavlin says, ”to intimidate her.”
Funk is being treated ''with kid gloves'' in his home camp, where he is on restricted duty, according to Allison. But he is poised to be transferred to a ''remote'' camp, a standard procedure for COs, says Gavlin.
Allison says she was both supported and condemned when she became a CO. ”Privately I received overwhelming personal support from the other members of my unit,” she says. ”But publicly I was isolated by my unit.”
”I was a senior at Stanford at the time, and again, in private I got lots of support - for example anti-war groups on campus asked me to speak at events,” she adds. ”But there were also detractors on campus and in the broader community.”
Even though conscientious objection is well established, Funk - like many others - found it difficult to find information about it within the military system. ”It took him six or seven months,” says Allison. ”And eventually he was searching the Internet .... and found the G.I. Rights website.”
G.I. Rights is a network of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) that give advice and information to service members about military discharges and about complaint procedures. CCW belongs to this network.
The NGOs advise soldiers on whether they meet the criteria for CO status, and help them complete a CO application. The process involves filling in a 22-question form, being interviewed by a military chaplain, a psychologist and an investigating officer. To succeed in getting CO status, soldiers must demonstrate that their beliefs about war have changed since they enlisted.
Soldiers that have this change of heart fall into three main groups, says McNeil.
The first group contains ”those who go into the military understanding war and are willing to accept it”, she says. ”But then something happens during their service and they are no longer OK with war.”
The second group contains people who have ”sought out spiritual growth and have come to believe that God doesn't want them to participate in war.”
The third, and biggest, group, she says, is made up of young, often naive, people who join the military in their late teens. They are often poor whites, blacks or Hispanics, who either have limited employment opportunities, or are looking for a way to fund their college education.
Because military recruiters target poor youth in urban centres - the so-called ”poverty draft” - this is probably the fastest-growing group of COs as well as the biggest, added McNeil.