With the U.S. war in Iraq now in its twentieth month, the Bush administration is gradually being forced to confront the prospect of being mired in a grueling conflict that it initiated with supreme confidence but that shows signs of neither progress nor cessation. Some of the strongest criticisms and most probing questions are coming from the military itself. Currently, experts on conscientious objection are fielding more inquiries from soldiers with questions about their participation than from young men who are approaching the age to register with the Selective Service (only men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to do so).
David Mycoff, co-convenor of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship working group on Conscientious Objectors, said that most calls he receives about conscientious objection come from enlisted military personnel. That fact concerns him deeply. “Helping them is where we've focused the least attention and where we have the fewest resources,” he said.
While the percentage of personnel on active duty believed to be considering conscientious objector (C.O.) status is considered significant, the exact number is unknown. “We probably have 20 or more open files of people who are in process, and that's just the current folks that we are working with,” said Bill Galvin of the Center on Conscience and War , in Washington, D.C. “We talk to somebody in the military almost every day who is raising issues of conscience about what they're supposed to do. So, we are certain there are hundreds of people who are in the process in one way or another.”
Galvin's organization is one of several, including GI Rights Hotline and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), with extensive materials for service people who question their participation in war. Galvin's clients often take up their questions because of their faith. “Most of them are putting this in a religious context,” he explained. “A lot of them talk about the things that they are experiencing going against values that they've been taught from childhood. They're finding that they can't do it anymore.”
Even though U.S. troops in an all-volunteer military have chosen to serve, it is not unusual for some to reexamine their decision after entering the service. Some soldiers begin to see a difference between the abstract ideas of being willing to serve and being a good citizen on the one hand, and the actual brutality of war on the other.
“For some people, the training gets to them,” Galvin explained, “from stabbing dummies, to shouting ‘Kill!' or ‘Blood makes the grass grow!' But in the last year or two, we've been hearing people talking about their experiences in the war, or talking about the children they've witnessed being killed, or the civilians that were murdered. Some of them are wrestling with the guilt about people they may have killed or families they may have ruined. That comes up a lot.”
The military recognizes two kinds of conscientious objectors: those who for religious, ethical or moral reasons are opposed to participation in war in any form, and those who, for the same reasons, are opposed to killing in war but who do not object to noncombatant duties. The former are permitted to perform alternative service as civilians, and the latter are assigned noncombatant roles.
Gaining C.O. status while on active duty is rarely a speedy process, draft counselors advise. The review and decision process usually takes at least a year. Also, although the military is obligated to remove applicants from combat, it is not required to transfer them out of combat units. And, there's no guarantee that their application will be approved. Among the requirements that must be met, for example, is objection to any war, not a particular war.
Two of the most publicized cases in recent months involve Spc. Jeremy Hinzman and Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia . Hinzman, a U.S. paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, fled to Canada with his wife and child in January 2004 after his request for C.O. status was rejected and his unit was scheduled for deployment to Iraq. He had attended Quaker meetings after his enlistment and concluded that he could not morally participate in the Iraq war because the reasons for launching it turned out to be false. He is seeking refugee status, and a Canadian immigration board may decide his request in January 2005.
Mejia is now serving a one-year prison term in Oklahoma for desertion because he refused deployment in Iraq. Mejia had already spent eight years in the Army and the Florida National Guard, including a seven-month stint in Iraq. While on a furlough in October 2003, he decided he could not in good conscience return to a war that he considered illegal and immoral. In March, Mejia turned himself in to military authorities, bringing with him a 55-page application for conscientious objector status. In May, Mejia was sentenced, and in August the Army denied his request.
An Episcopalian C.O.
One Episcopalian who was granted C.O. status while on active duty, but prior to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, is Matthew Potts. Potts, of South Bend, Ind., entered the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, and his family has a tradition of military service. At the time, he believed in the validity of the concept of the just war, but, he said, “I didn't have blanket opposition to war-fighting.” In January 2000, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Japan that in July 1988 mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf.
While in training, Potts had seen disturbing footage of the destruction of a foreign gunboat, and his questions began to take shape during his service. He also had been reading Thomas Merton's writings and praying a great deal, and he realized he was in the midst of a deeply disturbing process of re-evaluating his decision to serve.
“I couldn't get Jesus' final commandment, ‘Love one another as I have loved you,' out of my head,” Potts remembered. “Every time I would reason my way through justifying my role in the military, I couldn't get beyond that one aspect of faith I had grown into. I just realized that there was no situation in which I could, in good conscience, take life or fight a war.”
Potts asked friends for advice, and he sent emails to a few organizations. He also found support from a Roman Catholic priest who had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. But, the most useful suggestion was from an officer who had gone through the same process. He urged Potts to first get a lawyer before doing anything else. After Potts submitted his application for C.O. status, he encountered some animosity. Potts' captain at the time wanted to punish Potts for his stance but was convinced otherwise by the base chaplain. Also, Potts believes his paperwork was processed slowly in the hope that he would change his mind. Yet, his two immediate superior officers were professional and fair. “I wouldn't say they were pleased [about the decision], but they walked me through the process,” he said.
After Potts filed his application, he was removed from some situations on the ship, but he remained on board. After about seven months, his request was approved. He left the Vincennes in April 2001 and was discharged in May.
Potts said the single most useful piece of advice he would offer other is to get legal representation. His lawyer, who was familiar with the military's C.O. guidelines, helped him avoid mistakes in his application and hearing that easily could have resulted in a denial. “Had I not had a lawyer, I don't know whether my application would have been approved or not. It may be been, but I'm certain that he was helpful to my cause. I think legal representation is essential,” said Potts.
In Case the Draft Returns
Despite the promise of President George W. Bush to not reinstate a military draft and a nearly unanimous vote against it in Congress in October, some activists working with conscientious objectors are preparing for the possible reinstatement of the draft.
At the headquarters of the Episcopal Church, Thom Chu, program director of the Ministries with Young People Cluster , maintains a registry for young people who want to document their commitment to being a conscientious objector (click on the link to “Conscientious Objectors”). The Episcopal Church, he pointed out, has a long record of service “in educating people for conscientious objection.” In 1934, the Episcopal General Convention formed a commission to petition Congress to permit conscientious objectors to claim noncombatant status, and it went on record in 1957 in support of recognition for conscientious objectors who oppose war for ethical and moral reasons that were not necessarily based on religious belief.
Chu pointed out that many young men may not realize that registering with the Selective Service currently is required by law. Of course, some Christians consider it immoral not only to participate in war, but also to participate in the state's preparations for war, and they view Selective Service registration as the first step in the war apparatus. Groups exist to aid those who refuse to register as a matter of conscience, but, activists advise, no one should take any principled stand without fully understanding the possible consequences. Failing to register within 30 days of one's 18th birthday could result in up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Non-registrants also may lose access to federal financial aid for higher education and job training as well as employment in the federal government, and some states have additional penalties.
In Chu's view, one of the important lessons for anyone who is considering C.O. status is that documentation of one's objection to war will be crucial if the draft returns. Military draft boards considering C.O. requests will look for a record of opposition to war as evidence, said Chu.
“What people need to understand,” Chu explained, “is that they need to make their case for C.O. status before they are required to register by law. They need to build their file before their case goes to a draft board.”
Chu estimated that his office has fewer than 10 registrations for young men who are between the ages of 18 and 25, and he believes a lot of work needs to be done to let young men in the Episcopal Church know what options are before them. He is focusing some of his work on education, and the website of the national church is an important component in his work.
His office has posted materials about biblical teachings about peace and the Episcopal Church's positions on war, as well as instructions for signing on to the church registry, and even tips about military draft and Selective Service issues.
“Now that materials are on the website,” Chu added, “people are finding out about he resources without the fear of shame. In some congregations, considering being a conscientious objector may seem unpatriotic, unfaithful or disloyal.”
R. William Carroll , co-convenor of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship working group on Conscientious Objectors and junior fellow in systematic theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., pointed out that web resources are equally valuable to others who may counsel young people about the draft. “You can download materials as a PDF and that makes it easy to print them and have them in your office if someone comes in and says, ‘What do I do?' That's very nice for rectors to know.”
Carroll and Chu both place great importance in working in the Episcopal Church at the congregational level, and with youth groups. And the level of information that needs to be available is often as practical as it is theoretical.
“You can't just say, ‘I'm opposed to war' when the time comes to register,” said Carroll. “When filling out your draft card, you need to indicate that you are a conscientious objector on the card, otherwise that can be used as evidence that you are not an objector. And if you do it online with the Selective Service, there's no way to indicate that. . . If you do register, do it on paper, and write ‘conscientious objector' on it in big, capital letters. I would even keep a photocopy of it.” The CCCO website also suggests mailing such a photocopy to oneself, and leaving it unopened, so that the postmark on the envelope can stand as testimony to how long one has held one's views.
But, both Carroll and Chu caution that parish organizing must include an awareness of the church's full position on war. Chu pointed out that even though Episcopal Church has committed itself to supporting conscientious objectors, it also recognizes a stance of conscientious participation in war.
“We need people who are aware that there are multiple positions in the church,” Chu advised. “It's important to be clear about that, because we hear from many people who are already in the armed services. It's OK for people to have a change of heart.”
Carroll agreed, saying that the questions people confront when they think about conscientious objection are just as important for those preparing to serve in the military.
“I personally am a pacifist,” said Carroll, “and so I would hope that all Christians would opt for conscientious objection. But if people are going to participate, it's a good thing for them to have thought about what the requirements of the just war tradition are and to think about what they will and will not do if they serve.”
In fall 2004, the prospect of a military draft seemed finally put to rest, and even the website of the Selective Service reflects the administration's view that the renewal of the draft is not being planned. Nonetheless, the future of the war in Iraq appears increasingly bleak. Troop levels have steadily risen since September 2003, and they will reach 150,000 in January 2005, in time for elections in Iraq. About 40 percent of the troops on the ground are Army Reserve or National Guard, and the administration's over-reliance on those units is beginning to take a severe toll. Recruitment now is falling below target for certain army and reserve branches, and incentives for re-enlistment are being increased.
In mid-December, Galvin was asked if he believed that the overstretched personnel conditions in the military will require a draft in a couple of years, regardless of promises to the contrary. “I hope I'm wrong,” he said, “but I think there will be talk about the draft in the next couple of months. Today, I spoke with a congressional office whose member of Congress was considering introducing a bill to reinstate the draft. So I know it's going to be on the table.”