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«The Conscientious Objectors in Iraq: Placing them in an Historical Context. By Shaun Randol The conscientious objector “has never been eulogized by ...»

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Nebula6.1, March 2009

The Conscientious Objectors in Iraq: Placing them in an

Historical Context.

By Shaun Randol

The conscientious objector “has never been eulogized by well-meaning

persons, who understand neither the conscientious objector himself nor the

national interest in a time of war, and he has, on the other hand, been

roundly abused and reviled by a large part of our citizenry as a coward and

a slacker. Apparently, there is no compromise ground: he is diabolically

black to his critics while to his defenders his raiment is as the snows” (Kellog 1919: 1).

Ruminating over war is as ancient as the bloody craft itself. Philosophers through the ages, from Plato (1992) and Kant (1903) to James (1906) and Walzer (2004) have wrestled with the subject. Wondering how supposedly rational beings could partake in such madness, Erasmus queried, “how can I believe them to be otherwise than stark mad;

who, with such a waste of treasure, with so ardent a zeal, with so great an effort, with so many arts, so much anxiety, and so much danger, … purchase endless misery and mischief at a price so high?” (1521). Hindus examine the same moral quandary. In the

opening chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the protagonist Arjun faces on the battlefield:

In both the armies relatives, Fathers-in-law, and companions… Teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, Maternal uncles, and grandsons, Fathers-in-law, brothers-in-law, And many other kinsmen, too.

Thus, in the middle of the battlefield, “Arjun cast away / His bow and arrows and sank down / His mind overcome with sorrow” (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1).

Soldiers of today face the same dilemmas when deciding whether or not to engage in war. The United States military calls those who opt out of war making “conscientious objectors.” The Department of Defense defines conscientious objection simply as, “a Randol: Conscientious Objectors in Iraq 51 Nebula6.1, March 2009 firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief” (2007). This paper briefly reviews current conscientious objector (CO) rationality as related to the Iraq war, and seeks to give some historical context to the recent spate of CO applications. Many Iraq war COs are blazing a new path in this pacifist tradition by staking out juridical claims as justification for their positions as conscientious objectors.

Ideally, for state policy, war is a last resort. Yet neither states nor great scholars can determine the conscience of the individual when it comes to deciding to participate in the same enterprise. Committing oneself to a violent action is a very personal matter; it is a decision that rests ultimately in the conscience. “In conscientious objection,” opines author Norman Thomas, “…(is) a challenge to the basic ideas of men and their instinctive obediences on which the philosophy of the modern state and the practice of modern war are built” (1927: 3). Indeed, in some cases, participating in war ceases to be, or never is, an option. “Pacifism” and “conscientious objection” to violence are two distinct anti-war positions founded on very similar ideas. On the one hand, pacifism is “moral opposition to war” and encapsulates a broad range of positions, from absolute pacifism to selective or pragmatic grounds against a particular conflict (Borchert 2006).

Pacifists often work towards achieving peace. Conscientious objection, as mentioned before, is simply an objection to participation in war. The manifold rationalities for choosing pacifism are often the same as those given for conscientious objection. Thus, a few themes emerge in pacifist and CO literature for the legitimization of these positions,


- religious (faith denounces use of violence as a policy tool)

- anti-war (against war in general)

- political (against the ruling party’s politics)

- socialist (international brotherhood mentality)

- humanitarian (killing people is morally wrong)

- individualist (for those who do not fit cleanly into another category)

- absolute pacifism (Kantian, Gandhian, MLK - moral basis)

- epistemological pacifism (impossible to know sufficiently to warrant killing humans)

- pragmatic pacifism (traces empirical failure of war to accomplish anything)

- nuclear pacifism (social and ecological considerations of modern warfare)

–  –  –

In recent American conscientious objection movements, the justifications for objection often fit neatly into one of the above categories. Yet, in studying numerous CO cases in relation to the current conflict in Iraq, I have discerned a further category. Many of today’s Iraq war COs cite the illegality of the American invasion as their justification for seeking this status. Thus, a classification of “juridical” or “legal” must be amended to the above list.

WWI and WWII – Some Perspective (in Brief)

Conscientious objectors were present in all of the U.S.’s 20th century major conflicts. For example, of the 2,810,296 enlisted soldiers in the United States military, 3,989 personnel filed as COs during World War I (Thomas 1927). A strain of international brotherhood, or the socialist category listed above, underpinned the philosophy of a large portion of these COs, more so than in any other American conflict. While the overwhelming majority of these COs were Christian pacifists (10-11), they often questioned the moral limits of state control over the individual; after all, for them, god as an authority takes precedence over the state. With the Christian faith raising the question of the limits of state authority, in the end, many COs decided that the state should exercise control over the common good, not the consciences of men (8-9). It was up to the individual to decide if he should fight or not.

To be sure, many COs based their decisions on precepts of their faith.

WWI Maurice Hess, for example, professed his willingness to endure imprisonment, torture and death “rather than to participate in war and military service.” Hess, like many of his fellow COs, was willing to endure persecution as a true soldier of Christ, and not of the American government (Thomas 1927: 26). Yet perhaps just as often Christianity was invoked, so too was solidarity with the global, working class.

Carl Haessler exemplified much of the CO population, invoking the WWI language of international camaraderie when choosing not to fight. At his court martial, Haessler, a former Rhodes Scholar and philosophy professor, stated, “…America’s

–  –  –

participation in the World War was unnecessary, of doubtful benefit (if any) to the country and to humanity, and accomplished largely, though not exclusively, through the pressure of the Allied and American commercial imperialists” (Thomas 1927: 24-5).

Combining his religious and political convictions to justify his resistance to fighting, Roger Baldwin eloquently proclaimed, “I do not believe in the use of physical force as a method of achieving any end, however good.” He felt himself representative of a larger struggle “against the political state itself, against exploitation, militarism, imperialism, authority in all forms…” (27-8). At a time when socialist principles enjoyed a broad audience in the United States, those asked to fight for their country decried imperialist exercises in the name of solidarity with their working class, Christian comrades afield.

World War II saw the galvanization of the American spirit, mobilizing the entire country to fight a two-front war. Volunteerism amongst the “Greatest Generation” to fight the “Great War” was high, pressuring the decisions of conscientious objectors who may have otherwise opted out of fighting in any other conflict. While saw its fair WWII

–  –  –

objectors” because they felt the war was justified; yet, largely due to religious convictions, these soldiers could not bring themselves to personally kill another human.

Harry Truman presented the Congressional Medal of Honor to Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector ever to receive the nation’s highest military honor.

Invoking the Christian tenet of “thou shall not kill,” Doss, like many of his fellow COs, filed for conscientious “cooperator” status, deciding to serve as a medic rather than a soldier. “I was saving life… because I couldn’t imagine Jesus out there with a gun,” Doss recalled. Like many of his contemporaries, Doss told his superiors that in battle he would be right beside them helping the effort, and that he was “willing to go to the front line to save life, not take life” (Benedict 2007). In short, because the U.S.’ engagement WWII was seen as just, COs dropped the mantle of international solidarity and justified their stance on Christian faith.

–  –  –

Vietnam More often than any other American (or foreign) invasion/occupation, the debacle in Iraq is compared to the Vietnam War. The mainstream press has certainly jumped on this “Iraq as Vietnam” bandwagon. USA Today highlighted the comparison before the invasion (Moniz 2003). “Bush Accepts Iraq-Vietnam War Comparison,” ran one headline in The Guardian (Tran 2006), and writing for the Washington Post, Thomas Ricks drew similar comparisons (2006). Intellectuals got on board too: Ronald Bruce St. John, a widely published expert on Mid-East affairs, penned an article titled, “Sorry, Mr.

President, but Iraq Looks a Lot like Vietnam,” for a think tank publication (2004).

Whether there is a parallel to be drawn, in terms of military strategy, tactics, the anti-war movement, press coverage and propaganda, or any number of fronts, is a topic for another paper. What is of interest here is whether there are similarities to be teased out of the conscientious objector movement. For instance, are the rationales behind the filings for CO status similar between the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts?

The American military did its best to dehumanize the Vietnamese people. In the eyes of American soldiers, the “inhuman” Vietnamese were “gooks” or “slopes,” and everyone, even the children, innocent or not, were VC (Viet Cong) or VC-sympathizers.

The military “concocted such phrases as ‘kill-ratios,’ ‘search and destroy,’ ‘free-fire zones,’ and ‘secure areas,’” in order to “mask the reality of their combat policy in Vietnam,” recalled Army CO Edward Sowders (Davis 2002). More than just a policy, this denigrating mindset underscored the very psychology of those running the war. “The Oriental does not put the same high price on life as does the Westerner,” pontificated General William Westmoreland. For the Oriental, “life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient…,” and in Oriental philosophy, “life is not important” (Davis 2002).

Issues of race and class dominated the discourse of resistance amongst conscientious objectors. Largely, those who fought in Vietnam were people of color and the white, working class poor. “Why do poor people have to go into the military for a college education, or for a job?” asked CO Michael Simmons (2008). Ironically, while the opposition to a supposed, imperialist endeavor in Vietnam sought to unite the Randol: Conscientious Objectors in Iraq 55 Nebula6.1, March 2009 working class in the U.S. with those around the world, there were divisions within the peace contingent at home. No “white” peace groups would help Simmons, for example, because, it was thought, his being black would “dilute” the “white, upper-middle class” driven CO action in the U.S. (2008). With race and class divisions apparent at home it was difficult to link the war-resister campaign to a larger, international movement.

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