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Week of 8.24.07

A Closer Look: Conscientious Objection
Facts and figures about choosing one's conscience over the call to duty

What is a Conscientious Objector?

A conscientious objector is "someone who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles," according to the U.S. Selective Service. Until the late 20th century, only members of certain religious groups known for their pacifist beliefs, including Quakers and Mennonites, could qualify for conscientious objector status. In 1971, a U.S. Supreme Court decision broadened the criteria to include anyone who "has deeply held beliefs that cause them to oppose participation in war in any form." This definition was carefully crafted to prevent claims of conscientious objector status to avoid service in a particular war, at that time the Vietnam War.

Conscientious Objectors and the Iraq War

Since the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002, 405 service members have applied for conscientious objector (CO) status. 179 of those requests have been granted. In that same time period, approximately 20,000 service members who have gone AWOL (absent without official leave) have been classified as deserters.

Some 300 deserting service members have fled to Canada since 2002. Canadian immigration laws are much stricter than they were during the Vietnam War, when 55,000 U.S. service members fled there. To remain in Canada legally, service members must apply for refugee status; about 50 have applied so far.

History of Conscientious Objection in the United States

Conscientious objection to military service has been part of American military history since Europeans first arrived. During the colonial era, exemptions to militia service were allowed for members of pacifist religious groups. During the Civil War, when the federal government issued the nation's first draft, it also formally recognized conscientious objectors. Throughout U.S. history, conscientious objectors have been penalized for their position. They often had to pay a fee in exchange for exemption from military service. When World War I broke out, the government restricted the rules for conscientious objectors, which led to the imprisonment of hundreds of Americans.

By World War II, the government had created a program of "alternative civilian service" to provide conscientious objectors with noncombatant support roles. They served in hospitals, national parks, and in other public service positions. In the case of a future draft, alternative service —performing tasks not directly involved in killing, or working outside the military —remains an option for conscientious objectors.

Applying for Conscientious Objector Status

Informing the government of conscientious objector beliefs can begin as soon as one registers with the U.S. Selective Service. All men between the ages of 18 and 25 and living in the United States are required by law to register, in order to track those who would be eligible for the draft. Current members of the military, including ROTC or the reserves, may also apply for conscientious objector status and be subject to honorable discharge. Regardless of one's situation, the process of applying for CO status is complex, often lengthy, and no guarantee that the request will be granted.

Related Links

» "U.S. Selective Service: Conscientious Objection and Alternative Service"

» Unitarian Universalist Association: "Conscientious Objectors and the Draft"

» Center on Conscience & War