When Jason Webb joined the Army in 2004, he hoped his assignment as a telecommunications operator would keep him at arm’s length from combat. Though Webb, now 24, wanted to serve his country, he felt uneasy about killing another human being. He hoped a desk job would save him from a crisis of conscience.
It didn’t. After seven months stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, Webb decided he could no longer live with himself if he stayed in the Army, so he applied for honorable discharge as a conscientious objector (CO) under Army Regulation 600-43. Several weeks later, with his CO application still in process, Webb was deployed to Iraq. A graduate of The Master’s College, an evangelical Christian school in California, Webb knew his family wanted him to fulfill his term of service. He also knew he couldn’t fire a gun at another person. So although he deployed to Iraq as ordered, Webb would not carry a working weapon on patrols. Now he had nothing but conscience to protect him.
“The reason God has given [humans] a conscience is to be a moral compass,” Webb wrote in his application for classification as a CO, “to serve as a guide to what is right and what is wrong. It is for that reason that I cannot kill, participate in warfare, or support any organization that does.”
Webb’s transformation from enlister to objector is not an aberration. Since the start of operations in Iraq in March 2003, a growing number of American soldiers have been seeking CO discharges. How many remains disputed. According to an Army Public Affairs spokesperson, 188 soldiers applied for CO discharges between January 2003 and December 2005; of those applications, 87 were approved.
Michael Sharp of the Military Counseling Network, a Germany-based group that provides education and counseling about military discharges, cautions that the statistics issued by the military aren’t guaranteed to be reliable. “The Army will release some numbers and then the Department of Defense will give out completely different ones a week later,” he says.
J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience & War in Washington, D.C., agrees that the numbers issued by the military do not tell the whole story. Before 9/11, she says, her office received one to two inquiries a month about how to apply for conscientious objection. Today, she receives two to three a day.
Critics accuse COs of being cowards trying to get out of their contracts. But applying for a 1-0 conscientious objector classification is not for the faint-hearted. “Conscientious objection is a hard way out,” McNeil says. “If you’re lucky, it takes a year.” If you’re not lucky, you wind up with a rejected application, a court-martial for refusing to obey orders, and a possible prison sentence. In May, the Army sentenced Spc. Katherine Jashinski to 120 days in prison for refusing to deploy to Iraq; she became the first female CO to be jailed in the current war. But for soldiers whose convictions clash with Army requirements, there may be no other option. The conscientious objector’s struggle to leave the military in an honorable manner is also a struggle to uphold the rights of conscience.
Joining up. Before a soldier becomes a conscientious objector, he or she is first a soldier in a volunteer force. The reasons why some become COs cannot be separated from their initial reasons for joining the Army.
Webb enlisted, in part, for his family. His brother, a Marine, was the family hero; his conservative Christian parents saw patriotism and faith as united. “I saw the current conflict as a war against non-Christians,” Webb wrote in his CO application.
Deshawn Reed, a former human resource specialist stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany, joined the Army in March 2000 because, in his words, “it was a job.” The Army promised money for college, medical care, and opportunities to see the world. Reed, now 26, had dropped out of UCLA after his third semester, partly due to financial pressures. He dreamed of a stable income and finishing college; he also dreamed of becoming a hero.
Former armor crewman Clifton Hicks enlisted in 2003 at age 17. (His mother had to sign a consent form.) He joined because he wanted to go to war. “I didn’t think through what the experience would be like,” he says. Hicks assumed he would work in an armored tank; instead, commanders had him operate a machine gun from the top of a Hummer and patrol for snipers on foot.
When Kevin Hicks (no relation to Clifton Hicks) joined the Army on March 19, 2003, the day the Iraq war started, he says he wanted “to blow things up.” Now a decorated combat engineer, Kevin, 31, came from a long line of soldiers. He subscribed to the Augustinian just war theory and hoped that he could make a difference in Iraq not only through demolitions but also through rebuilding the national infrastructure—he had studied mechanical engineering in college. But when he got to Iraq, nothing was being built. “That was part of my naïveté,” Kevin says. “When I joined I actually believed that the Army was about more than just warfare.”
A change of heart. Army Regulation (AR) 600-43 stipulates that for soldiers to receive a CO discharge, they “must establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that ... their beliefs are sincere.” They cannot apply for CO status because they oppose a particular war; they can apply only if they have become opposed to all wars since the time they enlisted. This moral, ethical, or religious opposition must be so entrenched that the soldier’s conscience “allows him or her no rest or inner peace if he or she is required to fulfill the present military obligation.”
How does one prove a lack of inner peace? Before soldiers can be classified as conscientious objectors, they must provide a narrative of their conversion—or as the application puts it, an explanation of “what factors caused the change” in their beliefs.
Although Kevin Hicks engaged in 18 continuous days of combat that earned him an Army Commendation Medal with valor device, his turn to conscientious objection had additional catalysts. An elderly man approached him on the street and asked why the U.S. had not left Iraq. “This old man looks me in the eye,” Kevin recalls, “and he says to me, ‘Why are you still here?’” Kevin’s response sounded strained. “I thought, he’s not going to buy this,” he says. “And you know what? I wouldn’t buy it either, if I was him.” If Kevin could not justify the U.S. presence in Iraq to an Iraqi, then he could no longer justify that presence to himself. Gradually, he came to view all war—including the first and second world wars—as a refusal to take seriously the power of peace.
Clifton Hicks’ disenchantment with war unfolded in a combat environment. He joined the Army as a self-described “bloodthirsty” recruit. Then on Feb. 20, 2004, Hicks’ armored vehicle came across an Iraqi wedding party that another U.S. patrol had shot up by accident after mistaking the celebratory rifle fire from the wedding for a nearby ambush. Two civilians had been wounded and a young girl killed, Hicks reports. After the other platoon reported this incident to the chain of command, Hicks’ vehicle moved from the scene. “We simply continued our patrol and nothing much was ever said of this incident again,” he wrote in his application.
This event and others like it convinced Clifton Hicks that war was a quagmire in which he was implicated. “I hated the air that I breathed, the food that I ate, the rifle that I carried; I was disgusted by my own reflection,” he wrote. “I have destroyed the livelihood of innocent people, I have seen men rejoice in the torment of other men ... I pray that I may never live to endure such things again.” Hicks applied for honorable discharge as a CO at 19.
Deshawn Reed wonders if his story will measure up to those COs who saw combat. Though he would have refused to deploy to Iraq if the order came through, Reed never confronted a Middle East tour of duty. But the ethical and moral questions about war haunted him. He scrutinized past wars and wondered if they could have been avoided; he studied Muhammad Ali and Rep. John Lewis, conscientious objectors during Vietnam; he reflected on the civil rights movement. Eventually, he realized he could no longer continue in the Army, even as a sergeant in Germany. The dream of being a hero wasn’t worth the loss of integrity. “It didn’t matter if I had a direct participation in this war or if my job was just to support those who were fighting,” Reed says. “This is not what I wanted to do with my life.” He submitted his CO application after more than four years in the Army.
A turning point in Jason Webb’s outlook was the funeral of his brother’s best friend, a Marine killed in action in Fallujah. For Webb, that funeral drove home the essential nature of war: senseless death. It also prompted him to think that he could not witness for Christ so long as he wore a soldier’s uniform. Christ taught forgiveness, not vengeance. Webb applied for honorable discharge over the objections of his family, including his father whom he had hoped to make proud. “I have chosen to obey my conscience,” Webb wrote in his application. “I know that I am never alone so long as my faith in God does not falter.”
Getting out. When soldiers apply for a CO discharge, they undergo interviews with commanders, investigating officers, chaplains, and psychiatrists. The assessment is rigorous, weeding out all but the most tenacious. “There are probably a lot more soldiers who think the way we do about the war but who believe it’s impossible to get out,” says Reed.
Soldiers who do navigate the application process often have help. The Military Counseling Network and the Center on Conscience & War provide aid to soldiers who are trying to obtain release as conscientious objectors. Staff can set them up via e-mail with a network of current and former soldiers who have knowledge of the process. This kind of support helps COs make their way through a tedious and unnerving application procedure.
When Kevin Hicks and a friend, Purple Heart recipient Vincent LaVolpa, applied at the same time for conscientious objector status, their applications became bogged down in red tape. In one instance, a departing general left their applications for his replacement—and the incoming general set them aside as low priority. On another occasion, investigating officers realized that Hicks’ application included an account of an unreported war crime. “They had to stop my packet right there and open up an investigation into the incident I had described,” Kevin says.
Months after Webb applied, he learned that the commanding general in Heidelberg had disapproved his application. Army regulations give soldiers 10 days to write a rebuttal; this was Webb’s last chance. From Iraq, he wrote his rebuttal and sent it to Army headquarters. The CO Review Board approved his application. Webb obtained a release in April 2006, more than seven months after filing.
Some wonder if the military is making the application process unduly difficult. In May, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the 2007 Defense bill outlining a potential solution; the amendment is now headed to the Senate for a vote. Sponsored by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, it would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study of conscientious objection procedures and numbers in the military. In addition, the Center on Conscience & War is working for the introduction of a Military CO Act that would protect the rights of conscientious objectors during the application process. For now, however, soldiers need support to navigate what remains an unpredictable process.
Even with support, becoming a conscientious objector can be isolating. Reed didn’t talk to anyone on base about his convictions until he had filed an application. When Webb told friends in his unit, they resented his decision. “We don’t really talk any more,” he says.
Kevin Hicks and his friend LaVolpa faced less isolation than most. When they announced their decision, he says, their commanders and fellow soldiers were as supportive as possible. “They didn’t harass us about leaving because we had already fought,” he says. Both men had exemplary combat records. “No one’s going to call you a coward if you’ve saved another soldier’s life in combat.”
Going home—and speaking out. AR 600-43 states that persons that the Army has determined meet the criteria for a 1-0 conscientious objector classification “will be discharged for the convenience of the Government.” When a soldier receives the approval notice, the Army puts him or her on a plane home. Whether or not they saw combat, for these soldiers life changes in an instant.
Reed, who has been back from Germany for a year, remembers being plagued by self-doubt in the early days. Having chosen to enlist, he initially wondered if he deserved to get out. Today those doubts are gone; Reed is proud of his decision and thanks God for freeing him from what felt like an impossible situation. Clifton Hicks is glad to be home but not ready to look for a career. He’s living off his dwindling Army savings, traveling, and trying not to get ahead of himself. Webb is looking for IT work to support his wife and child. Kevin Hicks is reconnecting with friends in Portland, Oregon, and thinking about “counter-recruitment,” a movement to teach teens about opportunities outside the military. He’s done some volunteering for a peace group, but not as much as he expected. When he talks about his combat experiences, he has a day or two of depression afterward.
Difficult though their stories may be, these COs insist the message is worth the effort. “No one really knows about conscientious objection in the military,” Hicks says. He urges soldiers to educate themselves. “At some point in your life, you have to take a stand, even if you’re not perfect,” says Reed. He thinks Americans who put “Support the Troops” bumper stickers on SUVs are refusing to look at hard truths and hold America’s leaders accountable.
Political theorist José de Sousa e Brito has defined conscientious objection as “the right to refuse a legal duty in the name of individual conscience.” Army Regulation 600-43 bears out this definition: In certain situations, the “inviolability of conscience,” as de Sousa e Brito calls it, takes precedence over the obligation to fulfill a contract.
Just when conscience can prevail in this manner—and how a soldier’s sincerity can be proven—remains disputed. But the Army does concede that in certain situations, conscience is the higher law. Webb hopes others will take this window of opportunity to heart. “If you believe it, file a claim,” he urges. “Don’t be afraid of standing up for your convictions.”
Kevin Hicks says that if more soldiers started standing up for conscience, peace might be seen not as an option but as a necessity. “I get so angry when I hear people say, ‘War is awful, but ...,’” he says. “There is no ‘but.’ War is awful.”
Stacia M. Brown was a doctoral candidate in religion at Emory University and a freelance writer when this article appeared.