Military finds the means to accommodate conscience Approach codified over long experience

December 16, 1990|By Doug Struck

There have been conscientious objectors for as long as there have been wars. And in this country, the military has never quite known what to do with them.

Revolutionary militia marched off to battle without bothering those in the community who were known to have religious prohibitions against war, according to Jim Crichton, a counselor for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers).

In the Civil War, with no such community understanding, objectors were often conscripted and cruelly treated if they continued to refuse. Others were able to purchase an exemption from service.

In World War I, resisters were thrown into military stockades. Fort Leavenworth, Kan., was known for its particularly harsh treatment ofthose prisoners. Many were handcuffed to prison walls, beaten and deprived of clothes and food, said Mr. Crichton.

As World War II began, religious groups won laws allowing conscientious exemptions from military duty. The Army agreed, not eager to have soldiers who would refuse to fight. The draft rules for COs were soon adopted for those already in uniform who claimed they now opposed war.

Those who were given CO status were usually sent to work at revived Civilian Conservation Corps camps, said Igal Roodenko, who served in such a camp in Maryland and now works for the War Resisters League in New York. When he refused even that work, he was jailed for 20 months.

Amid the opposition to the Vietnam War, Supreme Court decisions broadened the definition of conscientious objection. Resisters no longer needed to show a religious background but could be excused because of moral and ethical opposition to all war.

There is no longer a draft, but the military normally gets about 200 applications a year from servicemen who say they have developed a conscientious objection to war since enlisting. The Army said it grants about 90 percent. Mr. Crichton estimated that, service-wide, the approval rate is 85 percent.

That does not mean that approval is easy to win. Servicemen must convince a chaplain, a psychiatrist, and commanding officers up the chain of command before approval is granted by a personnel board in Washington. The Defense Department criteria for conscientious objection are 14 pages long.

Those applying may request a discharge because they oppose any participation in war, or may request duty in a non-combatant role if they do not object to non-fighting military service.

The criteria for conscientious objection include:

* The objection must be a "firm, fixed and sincere objection to participating in war in any form or the bearing of arms."

* The objection must arise from "moral, ethical, or religious beliefs, not political or philosophical." Moral and ethical beliefs "must have the strength of traditional religious convictions."

* The objection may not be based on "policy, pragmatism, expediency or political views." An applicant cannot object to one particular war, but must oppose all war of any kind.

* That belief must be "the primary controlling force in the applicant's life."

* The objection must have developed or "crystallized" after enlistment. All enlistees are asked before they join if they have any conscientious objection to war, according to Pentagon officials.

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