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Pacifists are filing for CO status in growing numbers

By Jen Cooper -- Scripps Howard Foundation Wire October 23, 2001

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At 17, Daniel Fahey signed up for the Navy ROTC program and attended the University of Notre Dame on a military scholarship. He did well and was commissioned into the Navy as an officer in 1990.

In January 1991, when Operation Storm began, the Navy sent Fahey to be trained to fire nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles.

That was when Fahey's own war began.

For six weeks, the man who had joined the Navy for adventure and travel wrestled with his beliefs and came to the conclusion that because of his moral and ethical code, he could not fire a nuclear missile, or any missile, for that matter.

Fahey was granted conscientious objector status in February 1991, was discharged from the Navy and over the next five years paid back his college scholarships.

Fahey, who is now a graduate student at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said he confronted his beliefs when he was being trained to fire nuclear missiles. Had there been no war or had he been assigned noncombat duties upon entering the Navy, Fahey said he probably would have fulfilled the final three years of his enlistment.

Now, with air strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan underway, other members of the military are wrestling with their own convictions.

Several peace organizations said they have received a dramatic increase in phone calls and e-mails from military personnel who have questions about conscientious objection and other types of discharges. The inquiries tend to come from young enlisted personnel who joined the military within the last 10 years.

"A lot of people didn't give (their decision to join the military) much thought, or what the implications are, or what you might be asked to do," Fahey said. "Maybe the current march to war is really making them evaluate their beliefs."

Conscientious objectors -- people opposed to any and all war -- may be granted an honorable discharge if their beliefs are found to be sincere. Brian Cross, a staff member with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Oakland, Calif., said many of the service personnel who call are people who were already uneasy about their duties in the military, and the renewed threat of war has caused them to think more seriously about filing for conscientious objector status. "Sometimes people are reluctant to take a stand until push comes to shove," he said.

Since Sept. 11, the committee has received hundreds of phone calls, and Cross said 12 times as many people have requested literature as they did in August.

Cross, who gained conscientious objector status during Vietnam, said America has recognized conscientious objection since the time of the colonies.

"It's not part of human nature to want to kill somebody, even for a political end and even for revenge," he said. "Patriotism is one thing and a willingness to kill is another."

The CCCO is also associated with the GI Rights Hotline. The hotline had anticipated 20,000 calls this year, but in light of the terrorist attacks, staff members are expecting that number to jump to 30,000, Cross said.

Most of the military personnel who have called have been between the ages of 18 and 28, he said.

The organization also has received calls from high school counselors and parents who are worried that America's war on terrorism will also mean a reinstatement of the draft.

"It's difficult to have a concrete sense of what it's like to go to war," said Harold Jordan, coordinator of the National Youth and Militarism Program in Philadelphia.

But the attacks that began Oct. 7 cemented the threat of military action, and that has caused some members of the military to confront their beliefs. The same scenario happened during the Gulf War, Jordan said.

Jordan's program is affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee, a social justice and humanitarian organization that estimates 2,500 people attempted to get out of the military during the 1991 Gulf War. A General Accounting Office report said 447 people applied for CO status in 1991, up from 200 the previous year. However, Jordan said that figure does not take into account the people who were in the process of applying or who went to jail for refusing to go to war. Representatives for the service branches said they haven't yet seen any increase in the number of people interested in or applying for conscientious objector status.

Marine Capt. Jeff Pool, who works with Marine Forces Reserves in New Orleans, said the response that he's seen is that Marines are anxious to know whether they'll be mobilized. "No one wants to be left behind, especially after an attack like that one," Pool said. "All the Marines I know are trying to get to go."

Air Force Col. Phillip Deavel, a senior judge advocate at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, said the United States military has long recognized conscientious objector status as an important aspect of a democratic society.

"This is not a program the military resists," he said. "It's an important safety valve."

Deavel said conscientious objector status, however, is not to be used as a way to skirt a commitment to military duty.

People applying for CO status must show that they have a deep and sincere aversion to war, although that belief does not necessarily have to flow from a religious conviction.

In order to prove that sincere belief, a CO applicant must make a written statement, be evaluated by a chaplain and psychiatrist and have their application undergo several legal reviews.

"The vast majority of us are morally comfortable with the justness of the military," Deavel said. "Otherwise, we would not be in uniform in the first place."


Conscientious objectors in the military

Because it is possible for service personnel to change their beliefs after enlisting, the U.S. military offers conscientious objection as a viable way to leave the military based on one's convictions.

The Pentagon receives, on average, 200 applications for conscientious objector status each year.

But one of the biggest arguments as to why conscientious objectors are in that military is that new recruits aren't given an accurate picture of what military life is all about.

Harold Jordan, a spokesman for the Youth and Militarism Program, agrees and said recruiters tend to focus on the benefits of military service like loan repayment programs and job training.

"Traditionally, you see in ads that you go into the military to get a leg up on life and get money for college and that war is not something that's going to affect you or happen very often," he said. "There's something inherently wrong and dishonest about how military service is presented."

Slogans like "Be all can you be," "Fuel your future," "Aim High" and "Accelerate Your Life," don't give people an accurate understanding of military life, Jordan said.

The Army's new slogan, "Army of One", distorts what joining the military is about, he said.

"It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen," he said. "The notion that you go into the military as an expression of individuality is not the reality."

The problem is worsened by schools and career centers that encourage and pressure students to join the military.

"Schools just turn people over to recruiters as if they were guidance counselors," he said.

Jordan said students should be allowed to hear balanced presentations from veterans, not just "government salespersons."

The people who are calling Jordan's organization now are people who he said were probably considering getting out before, but this new possibility of a global war triggered them to take action now.

Jordan said the phone calls and e-mails he receives are from all of the different service branches. However, during the Gulf War he said the people calling were overwhelmingly from the Army and Marine Corps.

Army Capt. Jennifer Wabales, who works with recruiters in the Denver area, acknowledged that people join the Army for different reasons, including education and college benefits. But she said the Army is not trying to disillusion people and trick them into joining the military.

"Commercials do focus on education and benefits but they also show soldiers in rubber rafts floating down the jungle," she said. "There's the implication that somewhere that training will be needed."

Wabales said a lot of her recruiters served in the Gulf War and show pictures and tell stories to people considering enlisting.

Master Sgt. Ron Turner, a public affairs officer with the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in Quantico Va., said from the time people first meet their recruiter they are being told that they are being trained for war.

Marine recruiters ask potential recruits whether they are a conscientious objector and the same question is asked to all new enlistees on the first day of boot camp.

If a person answers yes, they're sent home.

"The Marine Corps doesn't want anybody who doesn't want to be a Marine," he said.

Regardless of their individual training or specialty, all Marines understand that they are first and foremost riflemen, he said.

Lance Cpl. Brent Gregory recently graduated from boot camp in San Diego, Calif., and said it was made very clear that they were being trained to go to war.

His platoon practiced sticking bayonets into mannequins, shot at rifle targets that were in the shape of a person and responded to certain drills with "kill."

Gregory said they also sang cadences that talked about going into a danger zone, getting killed and coming home in a body bag.

"People are ignorant to think they won't have to go to war," he said.

And being a conscientious objector in the military goes against everything the service trains for, he said.

"That's like saying I want to be a firefighter but I don't want to go into a burning building," he said.

© 2001 Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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