What in the World: Honor the conscientious objector

Honor. Definition: high respect; great esteem.

A conscientious objector is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a “person who for reasons of conscience, objects to complying with a particular requirement, especially serving in the armed forces.” I am of the opinion that these folks are given short shrift and even shamed for taking this route in a time of war. I am of the mind that the conscientious objector deserves to be honored both for his contribution and for his knowledge of himself. 

The category of conscientious objectors has been with the United States military since the birth of the country, when, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington called for a draft, excluding those “with conscientious scruples against the war.” During World War I, under the reign of one of history’s greatest monsters, Woodrow Wilson, objectors were sentenced to death, long prison terms or beaten in the street. The draft for the Second World War saw the greatest number of objectors, 72,000, with many taking non-combatant roles or working for the civil service as fire jumpers or conservationists. The Vietnam Conflict was the last draft and consequently the last time conscientious objectors were a major part of the history of the armed forces. 

The reasons for this are twofold. The temptation to set aside one’s convictions to please the mob must be nigh on overwhelming in times of heightened tribalism, such as when a country is at war. To say, “No, I will not do what I know to be evil” is a commendable thing indeed. The conscientious objector does not shirk his duty and run for the border, instead he — knowing full-well that social ostracism by his countrymen and fellows in uniform await him — shows up to the recruiting station. He then bears the spoken and unspoken condemnation of his fellows whilst contributing to the war effort outside of combat. A liberal democracy such as ours should celebrate this individualism and moral sentiment, not seek to shame it.

A critic of conscientious objectors might posit that their unwillingness to engage in combat may well be costly to their country and result in a military loss due to decreased manpower. I think this highly unlikely, both ideologically and practically. What does it say about a country with high-falutin’ ideals if every time there is a threat, those liberties are tossed out the window in “the defense of the whole?” It says this is hardly a country worth preserving. Insofar as the practical is concerned, less than .3% of those drafted in World War II applied for status as conscientious objectors; battles are not being lost or won on those margins. What is more, just because he who believes killing is wrong is forced to hold a rifle does not mean he will fire it. You then have a rifle and ammunition gone to waste, a squadmate with reduced use and a morale issue in the unit as a whole due to this rift in discipline. Better to retain the values we purport to hold dear during peacetime than to toss them away in wartime, forcing a handful of men to betray their morals and do what they cannot. 

What is more, the conscientious objector should be praised for his pacifism, even if it comes not from moral conviction but instead from fear for his life. As Nietzsche said, ”One has to know the size of one’s stomach.” In the crucible of battle, he who is stricken with terror is likely not only to lose his own life, but to take actions that imperil his fellows. It would be better for everyone if he stays stateside and contributes where he is best able to be of use.

Would you want to be next to a fellow in a foxhole who is losing his mind due to unmitigated terror? I should think not. There is a scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” where an American soldier cannot handle the pressures of combat and breaks down in a blubbering heap as German soldiers pass by him to shoot his American squadmates. This pitiable wreck sits there sobbing while his passivity effectively kills his compatriots. He should have never been in that position. Better to have him building munitions at a factory in Detroit, actively helping the war effort, than for his existence in the squad to take the place of a soldier who could handle the strain of war-making and protect his squadmates.

Conscientious objectors should be honored because they exemplify that even in the darkest of times, we are a country strong and moral enough to permit the continued freedom of the individual over the collective. They who took the slings and arrows of their peers, shamed for making a stand, should hold themselves with pride, knowing what they did was enough and that the country is in their debt.