Academic journal article Nebula

The Conscientious Objectors in Iraq: Placing Them in an Historical Context

Academic journal article Nebula

The Conscientious Objectors in Iraq: Placing Them in an Historical Context

Article excerpt

The conscientious objector "has never been eulogized by well-meaning persons, who understand neither the conscientious objector himself nor the national interest in a time of war, and he has, on the other hand, been roundly abused and reviled by a large part of our citizenry as a coward and a slacker. Apparently, there is no compromise ground: he is diabolically black to his critics while to his defenders his raiment is as the snows" (Kellog 1919: 1).

Ruminating over war is as ancient as the bloody craft itself. Philosophers through the ages, from Plato (1992) and Kant (1903) to James (1906) and Walzer (2004) have wrestled with the subject. Wondering how supposedly rational beings could partake in such madness, Erasmus queried, "how can I believe them to be otherwise than stark mad; who, with such a waste of treasure, with so ardent a zeal, with so great an effort, with so many arts, so much anxiety, and so much danger, ... purchase endless misery and mischief at a price so high?" (1521). Hindus examine the same moral quandary. In the opening chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the protagonist Arjun faces on the battlefield:

   In both the armies relatives,
   Fathers-in-law, and companions ...

   Teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers,
   Maternal uncles, and grandsons,
   Fathers-in-law, brothers-in-law,
   And many other kinsmen, too.

Thus, in the middle of the battlefield, "Arjun cast away / His bow and arrows and sank down / His mind overcome with sorrow" (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1).

Soldiers of today face the same dilemmas when deciding whether or not to engage in war. The United States military calls those who opt out of war making "conscientious objectors." The Department of Defense defines conscientious objection simply as, "a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief" (2007). This paper briefly reviews current conscientious objector (CO) rationality as related to the Iraq war, and seeks to give some historical context to the recent spate of CO applications. Many Iraq war COs are blazing a new path in this pacifist tradition by staking out juridical claims as justification for their positions as conscientious objectors.

Ideally, for state policy, war is a last resort. Yet neither states nor great scholars can determine the conscience of the individual when it comes to deciding to participate in the same enterprise. Committing oneself to a violent action is a very personal matter; it is a decision that rests ultimately in the conscience. "In conscientious objection," opines author Norman Thomas, "... (is) a challenge to the basic ideas of men and their instinctive obediences on which the philosophy of the modern state and the practice of modern war are built" (1927: 3). Indeed, in some cases, participating in war ceases to be, or never is, an option. "Pacifism" and "conscientious objection" to violence are two distinct anti-war positions founded on very similar ideas. On the one hand, pacifism is "moral opposition to war" and encapsulates a broad range of positions, from absolute pacifism to selective or pragmatic grounds against a particular conflict (Borchert 2006). Pacifists often work towards achieving peace. Conscientious objection, as mentioned before, is simply an objection to participation in war. The manifold rationalities for choosing pacifism are often the same as those given for conscientious objection. Thus, a few themes emerge in pacifist and CO literature for the legitimization of these positions, including:

--religious (faith denounces use of violence as a policy tool)

--anti-war (against war in general)

--political (against the ruling party's politics)

--socialist (international brotherhood mentality)

--humanitarian (killing people is morally wrong)

--individualist (for those who do not fit cleanly into another category)

--absolute pacifism (Kantian, Gandhian, MLK--moral basis)

--epistemological pacifism (impossible to know sufficiently to warrant killing humans)

--pragmatic pacifism (traces empirical failure of war to accomplish anything)

--nuclear pacifism (social and ecological considerations of modern warfare)

(Borchert 2006: 67-8; Wright and Dixon 2008; Thomas 1927)

In recent American conscientious objection movements, the justifications for objection often fit neatly into one of the above categories. …

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