Conscientious objectors in a volunteer army

By Anthony DeBartolo

The end of the U.S. draft in 1973 and the conversion to an all-volunteer force didn’t put an end to conscientious objectors –  individuals who, due to deeply held religious, moral or ethical beliefs, resist military service. It did, however, force a shift - from trying to stay out, to trying to get out. 

Department of Defense (DOD) statistics for the last decade show the average number of conscientious objector (CO) applications approved annually by all four military branches was 45. Except for an earlier Persian Gulf War spike, from 96 in 1990 to 158 in 1991, CO discharges have been on a gradual, steady decline - down to 32 during each of the last two years. Preliminary numbers, the DOD reports, for “Active Duty Conscientious Objector Losses” for the current fiscal year (October 2002 through February 2003) stand at 11.

As for the total number of applications received, “There is no historical record of CO applications,” says a DOD spokesperson. “They’re only paper records, kept for 90 days.”

Anecdotal evidence at least suggests interest in, if not the number of, CO applications may be up. J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Center on Conscience & War (CCW), founded in 1940 by an association of religious bodies and one of a small handful of groups offering CO counseling, says her phone is busier than ever. 

“Prior to 9/11 we worked on one case a month - after, one a week,” says McNeil. “Since January when it became clear we were going to invade Iraq, and when it became clear the Guard and Reserves were going to be called up first, it jumped to 2 or 3 a week.”

Titus Peachey of the Mennonite Central Committee, a service and relief agency founded in 1920 by the pacifist Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, concurs. Calls for advice have “certainly gone up since 9/11,” he says. And “we’ve had a spike around the Iraq war. During the bombing of Baghdad.”

As for the military members involved, McNeil says those who call CCW for help fall into three groups. By far the largest is the “hopelessly naïve,” she states. “Not everyone, but the vast majority fall into that group.” 

“I probably shouldn’t call them that,” she adds, “but that’s what they are.”

McNeil, an attorney, is also quick to defend them. “They’re young…Recruiters play up travel and educational opportunities. The National Guard ads are all about helping the community during floods. They go into the military not even thinking about war,” she says. “When they get called up (to active duty) is when it hits them over the head.”

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Ryan Yantis doesn’t think much of that argument. “It’s made clear to every recruit that they’re joining the Army,” he says. “Our position is that they’re briefed. Recruiters are required by law to read them a paragraph that says, in brief, you will be required to bear arms.”

The second group looking for help, says McNeil, “joined the military totally aware of what was involved. They often enthusiastically want to participate in war and serve their country,” she says. “But something happens that changes it all for them.”

Like the Army Special Operations soldier McNeil recently counseled. “He knew all about war and killing. He served in Afghanistan and knew he’d be going to Iraq,” she explains. “But he said, ‘I had a child in the sights of my weapon. I can’t do that again.’ ”

The third group, McNeil says, “is also dedicated and committed to serving in the armed forces. As many young people do in their early 20s, they seek religion. As they deepen in their faith, they conclude God does not want them to participate in war.”

“Historically, this is the group most people think of (when considering COs), but it’s really the smallest group,” she says. 

Army Reserve Specialist Diedre Cobb, a 21-year-old Urbana native, says she received her “hit in the head” mid-March of this year: “That’s when I got called up. It forced me to ask - can I participate in this war, or any war?” In early April, Cobb filed her CO application. 

Although each branch has its own regulations, those applying for a CO classification – either 1-O, a request for a full discharge, or 1-A-O, a request to stay in the military but be assigned a non-combat role - must submit written answers to questions about how, when and why their feelings changed since joining. They also undergo interviews with a military chaplain, a psychiatrist and a base investigating officer. Supporting documents, such as letters from religious leaders, teachers or friends can also be submitted by the applicant. A final decision, usually within 6 months, is made by a branch Pentagon review board. 

Speaking from her base commander’s office at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Cobb, who filed for 1-O status, tried to explain why it took nearly two years after joining the Army to ask herself the war question. 

After attending a few colleges, the New Mexico Military Institute among them, “I wasn’t sure what I wanted,” she states. Not having a degree or the work experience needed to be a Peace Corp volunteer, Cobb says she finally volunteered for the Army Reserve “as an alternative source of learning” and “as a way to help.”

“At the time,” Cobb wrote in her application for discharge, “I believed that the Army was an organization focused on furthering world peace.”

“I knew the military killed people,” she admits when asked to explain. “I didn’t understand it was a cycle – that there was no end to it. There is no peaceful outcome of war.” 

Asked to sum up how she thought this admitted mess got started, Cobb declares, “Hasty decisions make great mistakes. That’s how I got into this trouble.”

Although Cobb might qualify for McNeil’s “naïve” group, according to the Supreme Court that doesn’t imply her CO claim is any less noteworthy than, say, a Quaker convert looking for a discharge. As the court ruled in 1965 and reaffirmed in 1970, belief in a “Supreme Being” or membership in an organized religion which forbids violence isn’t necessary. The test is whether or not the belief claimed is sincere and occupies a place in the applicant’s life “parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption.” In 1971 the Supreme Court also made clear there could be no such thing as a “selective conscientious objector,” meaning you can’t pick and choose – for religious, moral or ethical reasons - your own battles. 

To help support her claim, Cobb submitted letters of recommendation, including one from Patch Adams, M.D., a CO himself during the Vietnam War, and the subject of a 1998 biographical film (which he says he “hated”) starring Robin Williams. 

Cobb sought out Adams in Urbana, where the controversial psychiatrist is a scholar-in-residence at the University of Illinois, Adams explains by phone from his home in Arlington, Virginia. “I write about 600 letters a year (in support of COs). I write them long hand. I don’t have a computer.”

As for Cobb, “I loved her,” he recalls. “She’s clearly a CO. A lot of people join ‘cause they don’t know what they’re doing. I think she realized she made a mistake when she examined her inner core – which is where the conscious objection comes from. In the process, she was forced to face who she was.”

“I got my CO status as a doctor from the draft board in 1971,” adds Adams. “The wonderful thing about being a CO is that the government declares you’re unfit to kill.”

And “that’s the question – can you kill? And if you don’t think you can, how can you fight and protect the guy next to you, or yourself?” he asks. “You have to be ready to pull the trigger. You can’t hesitate.”

Cobb, who can’t according to Army regulations be deployed while her case is under review, was asked how she thought it might turn out. “I’m just glad the military allows this process,” she says. “Cause I’m very confident I’ll be approved. I thought this through a lot and I’m very sincere in my position. If not, I’m prepared to do what I have to do to continue.” 

Escape clause or not, says Cobb, “I signed a contract.” 


An edited version of this article first appeared
in the Chicago Tribune on June 10, 2003

© 2003 Hyde Park Media

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