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Backgrounder: Soldiers at War

Learn more about the history of conscientious objection in the U.S. armed forces and the impact of war on soldiers.

History of Conscientious Objection in the United States

Colonial Age
In the colonial age of America, the right to religious freedom was often expressed as the right of an individual to his or her own conscience. This freedom, which was recognized in many of the colonies — and eventually by the first amendment to the Constitution — shielded many religious sects, including pacifist groups such as the Quakers.

Near the beginning of the American Revolution, George Washington called for a draft to fill the ranks of the Continental Army, exempting "those with conscientious scruples against war."

Civil War
During the Civil War, the first federally mandated draft in the United States was implemented, and instances of cruel punishment and deaths of conscientious objectors were first recorded, including being starved and hung by their thumbs.

World War I
World War I saw the reinstitution of the draft at the same time that popular opinion was divided over American participation in the war. Government prosecution of conscientious objectors was intense, and resisting conscription or encouraging others to resist conscription led to arrest and imprisonment for many Americans. Of the 450 conscientious objectors found guilty at military hearings during World War I, 17 were sentenced to death, 142 received life sentences and 73 received 20-year prison terms. Only 15 were sentenced to three years or less.

World War II
In the time leading up to World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940, which was the first peacetime draft in United States history. This period was also marked by the government's recognition that some would oppose military service for religious or conscientious reasons. During World War II, there were 34.5 million men who registered for the draft. Of those, 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status. Of those conscientious objectors, 25,000 served in noncombatant roles, and there were 12,000 men who chose to perform alternative service.

Those who chose alternative service worked in Civilian Public Service camps. These service camps were operated by religious groups, including churches rooted in the pacifist tradition, such as the Mennonites and the Quakers. These camps predominantly put men to work on improving soil conservation or preserving state and national parks.

Vietnam War
The Vietnam War, which became a flashpoint for controversy in the 1960s and 1970s, provoked many more individuals to claim conscientious objector status. Over the duration of the conflict, the Selective Service recognized 171,000 conscientious objectors; 3,275 soldiers received discharges for conscientious objector status that developed after their induction into the military. In addition, hundreds of thousands of men, many of whom were conscientious objectors, avoided the draft by leaving the country or refusing to register.

The Gulf War and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
After the end of the draft in 1973, the military became an all-volunteer force. Before the 1991 Gulf War, 2,500 men and women refused to serve based on conscience. Eventually, 111 members of the Army were officially recognized as conscientious objectors.

During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, far fewer soldiers have made it through the process to become conscientious objectors. In 2006, the Army reported only 42 applications, of which 33 were approved. Advocates and outside observers have argued that these numbers are artificially low because they reflect only those soldiers who complete the lengthy application process. According to the Center on Conscience and War, they received one to two calls per month to their GI Rights Hotline in 2000 and 2001 from someone in the military raising questions of conscience. By 2002 and 2003, they were receiving at least one to two such calls per day.

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been the occasion for a growing number of desertions — defined by the military as soldiers absent without leave for more than 30 days. In 2006, the Army reported 3,196 desertions, a sharp increase from two years earlier, which saw 2,357 desertions. At the same time, the number of prosecutions for desertion went up, a move described by military lawyers as an effort to discourage soldiers from leaving their assignments.


Application Procedure for Conscientious Objectors

Currently, to qualify for conscientious objector status a member of the military must demonstrate that he or she has a "firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and belief." Objections based on a particular conflict or on political considerations are not considered. All incoming soldiers must sign a statement that they are not conscientious objectors. Therefore, any conscientious objector applicant must also demonstrate that this belief "crystallized" — or solidified — during their military service.

Soldiers who want to claim conscientious objector status may face a difficult burden of proof. Applicants are interviewed and evaluated by a chaplain, a psychiatrist and an investigating officer. Their applications must be submitted in writing to a review board, but soldiers are not permitted to appear in person before the board. Applications that are rejected are not eligible for reconsideration.


Impact of War on Soldiers

Studies conducted by both the military and outside researchers have found that soldiers returning from combat are subject to a host of mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that occurs after a person is exposed to an event that is life threatening, extremely dangerous. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and general anxiety that make returning and readjusting to civilian life difficult. People who suffer from PTSD may also have problems with substance abuse; employment; relationships; controlling impulsive behavior, including violence toward self and others, with higher rates of suicide; attention deficit; and tendencies to withdraw and/or intrude within the family, resulting in a higher incidence of abuse, separation and divorce.

The number of veterans seeking health care through the Veterans' Administration grew by 79 percent from 1999 to 2004. Estimates suggest that one in six veterans who saw combat in Iraq has experienced PTSD. Within a year of their service, 35 percent of Iraq veterans sought some form of psychological counseling. Rachel MacNair, an expert in the field of peace psychology, also conducted a study that showed higher indicators of PTSD from soldiers who have killed in combat versus those who have not.

Studies have also found that rates of suicide among service members and veterans have increased in recent years, suggesting that deployment to combat can take a powerful toll on soldiers' mental health. Veterans are more than twice as likely to commit suicide. In 2005, 6,256 veterans took their own lives, an average of 17 suicides a day.

Sources:

Civil War
ยป Lillian Schlissel, Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757-1967 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968).

World War I
» Stephen Kohn, Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Law Violators, 1658-1985 (Westport, CT: Praeger Paperback, 1987).

World War II
» "Civilian Public Service Camps," Ohio History Central (July 1, 2005).
» "Nebraskans on the Front Lines," Nebraska Studies.
» "Conscientious Objection and Alternative Service," Selective Service System.

Vietnam War
» L. Baskir and W. Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation (New York: Knopf Press, 1978).
» Margaret Levi, Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Gulf War & Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
» "Army Is Cracking Down on Deserters," The New York Times (April 9, 2007).
» "Fighting Not To Fight," The Guardian (April 1, 2003).
» The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, Independent Television Service.
» "A Nation at War: Dissent — Conscientious Objector Numbers Are Small But Growing," The New York Times (April 1, 2003).
» "Soldiers' Choice: Fight or Flight," The Denver Post (April 14, 2007).

Application Procedure
» "Army Is Cracking Down on Deserters," The New York Times (April 9, 2007).
» "Conscientious Objection and Alternative Service," Selective Service System.
» Gillette v. United States 401 us 437 (1971).
» "Soldiers' Choice: Fight or Flight," The Denver Post (April 14, 2007).

Impact of War on Soldiers
» "America Suffers an Epidemic of Suicides Among Traumatised Army Veterans," Times Online.
» "The Military Ethicist's Role in Preventing and Treating Combat-Related, Perpetration-Induced Psychological Trauma,".
» "PTSD Facts and Figures," NOW (September 28, 2007).
» "Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans," CBS News (November 13, 2007).
» US Department of Veteran Affairs, "What Is PTSD?"
» William Welch, "Trauma of Iraq War Haunting Thousands Returning Home," USA Today (February 28, 2005)





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