By Camilo Mejía
Conscientious objection is a peril to power and treated accordingly by the military brass. If conscience were allowed to dictate opposition to military service, the U.S. Armed Forces could lose control of the war machine. The Truth Commission on Conscience in War was launched last March in New York City with the goal of honoring and protecting the freedom of conscience of U.S. servicemembers. This effort may reshape the way we view and practice conscience and lead this country in a new direction.
According to the U.S. military, conscientious objection is opposition to all war based on sincere, deeply held ethical or religious beliefs. This opposition cannot be directed against a specific war (selective) or based on political beliefs. By these standards, a service member who believes the invasion and occupation of Iraq are illegal, and therefore opposes them, would not be granted a discharge as a conscientious objector (CO).
The petition for discharge as a CO includes answering questions in writing about the process of transformation into a CO and interviews with a mental health professional, a military chaplain, and a hearing officer. The requirement to be seen by a mental health professional implies that COs must not be in their right minds. The written answers are evaluated by the chaplain and the hearing officer, who are overwhelmingly white, Christian males, and always college educated. This may be why most of the people I know who have been granted CO status are white, Christian, college-educated males.
The face-to-face interviews are filled with questions such as “Would you defend your family if it were under attack?” and “If your country were being overrun by an invading army, would you bear arms in its defense?” To the U.S. military, a “yes” answer to any of these questions shows that the applicant is not against all war and is grounds for denial.
The moment a service member inquires about conscientious objection, a machinery of military “superiors” bombards the applicant with accusations of cowardice, threats of the uncertain future that COs face on the outside, and other false assertions. One very common fallacy used against applicants is that a true conscientious objector would never have participated in war or even joined the military. This could not be further from the truth, since there can hardly be a stronger argument against war than the experience of war itself, especially while serving in the military. In fact, some of the most famous pacifists have seen military service, war, or both before becoming peacemakers. They include Gandhi, Saint Francis of Assisi, San Ignatius of Loyola, and Saint Martin of Tours. An interesting irony about Saint Martin is that while military chaplains can go to great lengths to discourage conscientious objection, they owe their title and office to this ancient soldier-turned-peacemaker.
Conflict of Interest
This brings us to one of the main biases in the CO application process: Chaplains and military officers who work for an institution whose existence is threatened by conscientious objection are the ones evaluating those whose conscience has turned them against war. A better choice for this job would be ethical or religious counselors whose livelihood and career advancement are not dependent on the military.
While seeking my own discharge from the military, as a Catholic CO, I was interviewed by a Baptist chaplain who found me sincere but recommended denial, alleging that conscientious objection was against the Catholic faith. During my CO hearing, held in an army prison where I served nine months, Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton testified that the Catholic faith does indeed recognize conscientious objection whenever a person is called upon by his or her conscience to renounce arms. The hearing officer also found me sincere but recommended denial, alleging now that my beliefs were too political.
In my CO application I quoted a passage from the Second Vatican Council, which views moral conscience as “man’s most secret core and sanctuary, where he is alone with god.” To me, this sanctuary is a place sacred to all people. Regardless of whether we are believers or atheists, whether we have faith in the divine or in the inherent kindness of humanity, we all have a sacred place within us where unwritten and unspoken laws guide our behavior. This is where the silent voice of conscience sounds louder than any military law or command to reveal the clear line between right and wrong. It is this sacred place, the human conscience, which, like faith, must be reclaimed from the hands of the power structure.
The Truth Commission on Conscience in War was launched as an ongoing effort to reclaim that sacred place of conscience from the military by sparking a nationwide conversation on the moral and religious questions facing soldiers before, during, and after combat. The commission started with a gathering at Riverside Church in New York City on March 21 and 22. The first day a panel that included U.S. military and combat veterans, COs, a former military chaplain, religious leaders, and legal experts provided public testimony about moral and spiritual issues surrounding conscience within the context of war. The second day, witnesses and commissioners (which included religious leaders, activists, scholars, etc.) met in private to discuss the testimony and the following steps.
CO Regulation Reform
The commission’s goal is to reform the regulations that govern conscientious objection in the U.S. military by proposing legislative changes allowing selective conscientious objection. But the scope of such a commission can and must surpass its initial goals, since issues such as war and conscience have the potential to unite a nation or tear it apart at its core. Testifiers and commissioners must come from every corner of society without exception.
President John F. Kennedy once said, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” For this to happen, open discussions about war and conscience should take place not only at major events but every day in schools, universities, union halls, markets, and all kinds of public spaces. Artists, students, teachers, workers, and men and women of all ages, races, nationalities, creeds, and walks of life must take part in discussions about life and death, and about the meaning and significance of killing, of war, of torture.
There should also be discussions about the process of applying for conscientious objection. This process should be in the hands of the public, and great effort should be made to ensure CO status is not granted only to white, college-educated applicants but to all those who are guided by their conscience to renounce institutionalized aggression and violence in the name of any state, but not necessarily in self-defense or in the struggle for self-determination.
Our moral conscience has the power to unite people around common moral principles such as equality, tolerance, and justice, and around goals such as the betterment and preservation of life. This power must be taken away from those who stand to gain from war, oppression, and inequality.
A truth commission on conscience in war offers an opportunity to spark the discussions that are capable of transforming the way of life and conscience of an entire nation and beyond. These discussions are taking place mostly in military bases and other installations of the power structure, and between people who are not interested in changing the status quo. They may continue to happen at times and places alien to all of us and independent of our best interest, or they may happen here and now. The decision is for each of us to make.
Camilo Mejía is an Iraq war veteran and resister who served nine months in jail for refusing to return to Iraq. His conscientious objection application, submitted in 2004, is still pending. Mejía is the author of Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía. He lives in Miami.