Staughton Lynd has an editorial essay up at History News Network titled Should a Soldier Who Changes His Mind About War Have a Right to Status as a Conscientious Objector? article
(Italics in this post are long quotations from the article.)
He notes that conscientious objection comes in two official forms, though I suspect there are varients of both. One objector is someone who is drafted and refuses to serve because of their religious training and belief. Conscientious objection thus defined is tailored to the subculture of certain small--and thus politically unimportant--Protestant groups: Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, members of the Church of the Brethren, Hutterites. (Viewers of Matewan will remember the tale of Hutterite objectors to World War I who were chained to the bars of their cells at Fort Leavenworth, where two of them died.) Many Jehovah's Witnesses also practice conscientious objection.
I think this is the group most of us think of when the phrase comes up. I'm a little uneasy with "belief" - shouldn't it be possible to be anagnostic or aethist and still believe that violence and war are wrong?
The harder group to define for civilians and certainly for military are the folks who have already served in a combat situation and refuse a direct order. Conscientious objectors in a voluntary military are self-evidently something different. If they come to object to war in any form, it will be on the basis of their firsthand experience in a particular war in which they have been asked to take part. If my commanding officer orders me to shoot, I am supposed to shoot, except that I am also supposed to keep certain basic ethics in mind. What to do when the CO's orders contradict my perception of a situation?
My own struggle comes with the soldiers who joined the National Guard to pay for college and are now upset about serving overseas. I sympathize with the difficulty of putting your life and career on hold for a year (or more) and the challenges posed. As the war continues, employers struggle to keep jobs open for the soldiers' return while still getting done that which must be done at home. At the same time, I don't understand how anyone could sign up for the National Guard, particularly after 9/11, and not expect to see duty overseas. The word "patriotic" gets over-used a lot these days, but I would argue that having volunteered for the army, it is your patriotic duty to serve.
I greatly admire those who serve and have the courage to keep to their convictions, whether spending their spare time teaching orphans to play chess or blowing the whistle; I'm just not sure that either one is getting full due.
Lynd's piece is thought-provoking and if you have a moment, I'd urge you all to read it. Disclaimer: yes, he has a left-wing bias. We're all biased in one way or another. It's called being human.
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