Conscientious objection to military service has long been viewed as an idealist’s position. Adherents to this ideal have been considered both cowardly and unpatriotic by the general public. These enlightened few have been ostracized and treated with contempt because they cannot bring themselves to see war as the best answer to social problems. Concordantly, the prospect of a humanity that extols such ideas as love and concern for our fellowman over the grim “necessities” of war and violence has been written off by most as Utopian. Such hostile social conditions have served to quell most dissension to the doctrine of war as a necessary evil. The intent of this paper is twofold: First, I will establish what is essential to make one a conscientious objector. Second, I will attempt to analyze and discredit the common arguments that are raised against conscientious objection. I will begin by discussing what a conscientious objector is.
Defending Conscientious Objection
According to the United States Selective Service System website, “A conscientious objector is one who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles” – (Selective Service System, Conscientious Objection and Alternative Service, updated April 2002). This definition conveys what a conscientious objector is in a very rudimentary way, but it fails to address some key characteristics of the conscientious objector. Therefore, I suggest the following improved definition:
Conscientious Objectors: What makes them so?[/FONT]
Conscientious Objectors: What makes them so?[/FONT]
A conscientious objector is one who is opposed to war and who refuses to support the waging of war in any capacity. His objection may be influenced by or based on any of the following: religious beliefs (orthodox or not), social beliefs, logic and reason, personal ideals and convictions, etc. In all cases, the objector is an objector primarily on the grounds of conscience.
It should be noted that some objectors only object to specific conflicts, but not to all wars. Those who do so still object on the grounds of conscience. They may then be considered conscientious objectors, based on the terminology used to describe their actions. However, some critics would disagree for the simple reason that these objectors do not object to all wars. I will not attempt to appraise or discredit their position as it is beyond the scope of this paper.
In the past, the government has shown an unjust preference towards individuals who object based on the tenets of orthodox religious beliefs. It should be made very clear that conscientious objectors come from all backgrounds and all systems of belief. “In short, objectors include Christians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists; economic conservatives and radicals; philosophical anarchists, and orthodox socialists” (Thomas, reprinted 1917: p. 2). As stated earlier, all objectors call themselves objectors based on the grounds of conscience, with no regard for religious or political disposition. With a sufficient understanding of what an objector is, let us move on to some of the arguments that are raised against objection.[/FONT]
The most common modern argument that is raised against conscientious objection posits the defense of liberty and democratic government as its justification for compulsory military service. This is a conviction held by people on both ends of the political spectrum. While liberals tend to favor diplomacy over war more than conservatives, most agree that democracy must be defended. It is true that most people from both schools of thought seem to be opposed to the draft. However, in the event of a draft, these same people would most likely behold conscientious objectors with contempt. They argue that in order to maintain democracy and freedom, people must sometimes be forced to serve in the military. At first glance, this argument seems to make sense and could therefore present the conscientious objector with an insurmountable problem. However, upon closer examination, such arguments can be shown to be both illogical and contradictory in terms.
Argument #1: We must defend democracy.[/FONT]
Argument #1: We must defend democracy.[/FONT]
Any argument that utilizes the defense of democracy as its main condemnation of conscientious objection is characterized by erroneously held fears. The argument presupposes that allowing one person to object to military service on moral grounds will cause the majority to do the same. This line of thought of course leads to the fear that at some point there will not be enough people to fight for democracy. Proponents of this school of thought would argue that democracy cannot survive without anyone to fight for it. However, fears like this do not present conscientious objectors with an impossible problem. Instead they only serve to highlight the ignorance of those who would use them to discredit the conscientious objection movement. At the very least, these commonly held beliefs underscore a rampant misunderstanding of the nature of democracy. [/FONT]
If democratic government is truly to be by the people, of the people, and for the people, then its decisions must reflect the desires of the people. If the majority of the people truly agree on a decision, it is only democratic to allow them to proceed as they see fit. This holds true even if the majority were to decide that war is no longer an option. Thus; those who fear not having a large enough military to defend democracy show that what they truly fear is the prospect of a government that is run by its citizens. What they fear is democracy itself - (Thomas, reprinted 1917: p. 7). In other words, they believe that in some cases the majority must be told how to live by a “wiser” and “more elite” minority. This thinking is wholly undemocratic. [/FONT]
Some especially insidious critics would likely attempt to turn my last argument on its head if I afforded them the opportunity. I intend to do no such thing. One might say, “If your argument is true, then the majority should be allowed to tell the minority to go to war, even if the minority does no believe it is morally right to do so.” This argument is naive at best and openly deceptive at worst. For true democracy to exist, along with personal and corporate liberty, the opportunity for dissent must always be upheld. To accept anything less is to ensure that the more elite and socially powerful will take advantage of the opportunity to create a totalitarian state. Words like “rights,” “liberty,” and “democracy” have no meaning in such a state. Having discussed all of these issues, it should be very clear; any attempt by the state to force its citizens to violently defend democracy, is detrimental to the very thing that it is trying to protect.
This second argument actually has more merit than the first. It suggests that a conscientious objector is so concerned about his own dignity that he would let freedom die rather than jeopardize his conscience. Such a statement could be shrugged off fairly easily, as it is akin to saying, “Sometimes it is wrong to do the right thing.” Nonetheless, I feel compelled to analyze it more thoroughly to show that it is a flawed claim on even deeper levels. The biggest problem with this argument is that it makes a false accusation as to the motives of most conscientious objectors. While some individuals object for the sake of maintaining a personal sense of morality or perhaps righteousness, most do so for deeper reasons. It can be categorically stated that all true conscientious objectors choose to object because they do not believe that war is the answer to humanity’s problems – (Thomas, reprinted 1917: p. 2).
Argument #2: An objector would that liberty die rather than his conscience be tainted.
It is naive to believe that the common objector has not taken into account the social underpinnings of his conviction. He is fully aware of what he believes and what impact it would have on humanity if the majority were to adopt his views. He ardently believes that the result would be a world that seeks to solve its problems in a sane, compassionate, and nonviolent manner. To object to the possibility of such a reality is surely the prerogative of critics, but to state that adherents to nonviolence are insincere in their motives is nothing short of malicious. Therefore, it is not personal dignity that compels most people to object to military service. Rather, they object based on the strong conviction that the world shall not be saved by violence but rather through compassion, love, kindness, and selflessness. Consequently, accusations of motives rooted in self-preservation or selfishness are wholly inappropriate in regard to this topic.[/FONT]
This is another argument that rests on a false premise. The premise is that conscientious objectors agree that some wars are necessary in the first place. Few conscientious objectors would agree that this is the case. Instead, they adamantly believe that war should never be the solution to a problem. With this understanding, the argument begins to unravel.
Argument # 3: Some wars seem necessary. Conscientious objectors must be selfish or cowardly to expect others to fight these wars for them.
Most people in contemporary society would call such views both naïve and Utopian. However, the conscientious objector sees it differently, based on a broader, more international understanding of human life. This broader view is the result of a person’s willingness to see life from the eyes of another. Most conscientious objectors hold their convictions in part because they have learned to transcend the imaginary national lines that divide humanity. Though they are usually patriots, conscientious objectors typically count themselves humans first and citizens of some nationality second. [/FONT]
Whether it comes from religious training, personal exploration, or a myriad of other sources, the revelation of humanity has profound effects. The primary change comes as a sudden or gradual awareness of the conscientious objector’s relationship to his fellow man. The archaic understanding of “us and them” is replaced with the profound truth that there only ever has been “us.” From this perspective, the conscientious objector sees war as something very different than those who would mock him. He sees multitudes of human beings marching against one another under banners of imagined exclusivity. The objector sees his fellow human beings fighting, killing, and dying for causes that in so many cases are not legitimate. It should be noted however, that the objector does not judge the soldier who believes in the morality of war. Instead he respects him. This attitude can be clearly seen in the following quotation from an objector to the First World War:[/FONT]
“The objector does not primarily seek to judge others; he may heartily admire the heroism which leads his friends into battle, he may admit the idealism of their ends, only he cannot agree with them as to the method they use[/FONT]” [/FONT][FONT="]– [FONT="](Thomas, reprinted 1917: p. 1).
Some argue that ideas like this often sound great on paper, but have no application in reality. They cite specific examples such as the Nazi regime and radical terrorist groups to justify such claims. Arguments that cite examples like these present some of the most difficult problems for conscientious objectors. How can anyone maintain an attitude of nonviolence in the face of such monstrous regimes or groups? I suggest that we begin by examining our own assumptions. There is no question as to whether the movements these individuals are involved in are corporately evil. The mistake most people make is to assume that all individuals involved in such groups are intrinsically evil and must be eradicated. Such assumptions underline an inability to set aside one’s own perspective and assume that of another.
Conscientious objectors argue that ideas are what ultimately make a movement good or evil. Take the example of the Nazis; it is likely that most of the soldiers in the Nazi regime were young men who thought they were doing what was good, noble, and brave. Likewise, most radical terrorist groups are comprised of young people who are devoted to following the will of the God they have been taught since birth. However illogical, they believe it is both noble and prudent to die fighting and killing the “unrighteous.” It is incredible, but these individuals are doing what they believe is right. [/FONT]
The obvious question then is this: “How do we deal with people who are a part of these evil groups? What shall we do with individuals who have the potential to be good people, but who lack the light to show the way?” The answer is obvious, in my opinion. We must seek to bring the truth to them. The truth is that righteousness, goodness, prosperity, and hope shall not come by means of violence, hate, and coercion. No one should ever be so convinced that they are right that they are willing to kill to prove it. True community and peace will only come when people learn to look past their differences and see the living human beings beneath the shroud of cultural discrepancies. Marianna Torgovnick emphasizes this realization of the humanity of even our enemies in her groundbreaking book, The War Complex – WWII In Our Time. Here is a quotation from the concluding chapter of her book:[/FONT]
“For our culture to exit from the war complex, we’ve got to start from our reality, project a future – even if it is, at first, only imagined – and build from there to an ethic large enough to include others as though they were our families or ourselves”[/FONT][FONT="] – (Torgovnick, p. 144: 2005).
We can never hope to teach these truths to anyone until we have learned them ourselves. When we try to force our ideas on others by use of military force, we only entrench their hatred for us more deeply. This is why we will never win “The War on Terror,” if we continue to fight it in the way that we have thus far. Actions that are meant to eradicate the evil of terrorism are actually making it stronger. The only way to fight bad thinking and misconceptions is with better ideas and acts of goodwill. That is why the leaders of totalitarian regimes maintain such strict control over the media. They know that if exposed to truth, common men will no longer prostrate themselves before the tyranny of wicked rulers. Truly, “the pen is mightier than the sword” – (Bulwer-Lytton, Edward: 1839).
As for the charge of cowardice, it is of no consequence. Each individual chooses to object because of deep convictions that he is unwilling to lay aside. While there may be a small percentage of individuals who object based on cowardice, they are without a doubt the minority. It takes extraordinary courage to stand up against a society that has little tolerance for dissenters in this area. Conscientious objectors choose dissent because they desire to do what is right; even if that means that they will be ostracized. To further illustrate this, take this quotation from the aforementioned WWI objector:[/FONT]
“As for cowardice, genuine conscientious objectors in America have already proved moral courage by their resistance both to the terrific social pressure of wartime and to the organized appeal to fear which does so much to make war possible. If necessary they will prove their willingness to sacrifice comfort and liberty for their convictions, as have thousands of their brethren in England”[/FONT][FONT="]- (Thomas, reprinted 1917: p. 5)
In writing this paper, I have endeavored to address two major issues. First, I explained just what a conscientious objector is. Second, I addressed the common arguments that are used against conscientious objectors. These arguments concerned the defense of democracy, the true motivations of conscientious objectors, and the “necessity” of war. It is my sincere hope that this paper has caused you to question some of your beliefs concerning democracy, war, and violence. If nothing else, I trust that you have gained a new understanding of and respect for conscientious objectors.
[FONT="]Bulwer-Lytton, E. Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. 1839. Retrieved December 13, 2007, from
Selective Service System[/FONT][FONT="]. (2007, December 13). CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION AND ALTERNATIVE SERVICE. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from
[FONT="]Thomas, N. M. War's Heretics: A Plea for the Conscientious Objector. 70 Fifth Ave., New York City, NY: Civil Liberties Bureau of the American Union Against Militarism, August 1917. 7 p. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from
Torgovnick, M. (2005). The War Complex – WWII In Our Time Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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