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The History of Conscientious Objection

From Wikipedia:

Historically, many conscientious objectors have been executed, imprisoned or sanctioned when their beliefs led to actions conflicting with their society's legal system or government. The legal definition and status of conscientious objection has varied over the years and from nation to nation. Religious beliefs were a starting point in many nations for legally granting conscientious objection status. Acceptable grounds for granting conscientious objector status have broadened in many countries.

In 1971 a United States Supreme Court decision broadened U.S. rules beyond religious belief but denied the inclusion of objections to specific wars as grounds for conscientious objection. Some desiring to include the objection to specific wars distinguish between wars of offensive aggression and defensive wars while others contend that religious, moral or ethical opposition to war need not be absolute or consistent but may depend on circumstance or political conviction. Currently, the U.S. Selective Service System states, "Beliefs which qualify a registrant for conscientious objector status may be religious in nature, but don't have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man's reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man's lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.” In the US, this applies to primary claims, that is, those filed on initial SSS registration. On the other hand, those who apply after either having registered without filing, and/or having attempted or effected a deferral, are specifically required to demonstrate a discrete and documented change in belief, including a precipitant, that converted a non-CO to a CO. The male reference is due to the current "male only" basis for conscription in the United States .

COs willing to perform non-combatant military functions are classed 1-A-O by the US ; those unwilling to serve at all are 1-O.

Conscientious objection and doing civilian service has, in many countries, evolved into a veritable institution. Today in Germany , civil servants who are fulfilling their service in the nursing or social domain bear a huge part of the respective workload. It is believed that abolishing the draft—and with that, the compulsory civil service for objectors—would plunge hospitals and nursing homes into severe trouble.

Religious motives

The reasons for refusing to serve are varied. Many conscientious objectors are so for religious reasons. Members of the Historic Peace Churches are pacifist by doctrine. Jehovah's Witnesses, who, while not pacifist in the strict sense, refuse to participate in the armed services on the grounds that they believe Christians should be neutral in worldly conflicts. Some look at Romans 12:19, which says, Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. Other objections can stem from a deep sense of responsibility toward humanity as a whole, or from simple denial that any government should have that kind of moral authority.

There are divergent views about the degree of pacifism in the early Christian Church. Within the Roman Empire avoiding military service was not a problem, because the legions and other armed forces were largely composed of volunteers. Some legionaries who converted to Christianity were able to reconcile warfare with their Christian beliefs which is formalized in the Just War theory. This option became more normal after Constantine I made Christianity an official religion of the Empire. In the 11th century, there was a further shift of opinion in the Latin-Christian tradition with the crusades, strengthening the idea and acceptability of Holy War. Objectors became a minority.

Feudalism imposed various forms of military obligation, before and after the crusading movement (which was composed of volunteers). But the demand was to send someone rather than any particular person. Those who did not wish to fight, for whatever reason, were left alone if they could pay or persuade someone else to go. Armies in medieval times were quite small - for instance Bosworth Field settled the fate of England with 8,000 fighting for Richard III defeated by 5,000 gathered by Henry Tudor/Henry VII. The question of unwilling service did not arise until armies became much larger.

One argument used by some Christian objectors is that every soldier should be given the choice to go home before every battle according to Deuteronomy 20:8 which states, Then the officers shall add, "Is any man afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his brothers will not become disheartened too." By this interpretation, any military draft as well as all military service that is based on enlistment in years or tours of duty would be unethical without the option to refuse any battle without punishment. This interpretation makes almost all wars in violation of Christian Just War theory.

Because of their conscientious objection to participation in military service, whether armed or unarmed, Jehovah's Witnesses have often faced imprisonment or other penalties. In Greece , for example, before the introduction of alternative civilian service in 1997, hundreds of Witnesses were imprisoned, some for three years or even more for their refusal. More recently, in Armenia , young Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned (and remain in prison) because of their conscientious objection to military service. In Switzerland , virtually every Jehovah's Witness is exempted from military service. The Finnish government exempts Jehovah's Witnesses from the draft completely.

For believers in Dharmic Religions, the opposition to warfare may be based on either the general idea of ahimsa, non-violence, or on an explicit prohibition of violence by their religion, e.g., for a Buddhist, one of the five precepts is "Pānātipātā veramaṇi sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi," or "I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures," which is in obvious opposition to the practice of warfare. The 14th Dalai Lama, the highest religious authority in Tibetan Buddhism, has stated that war "should be relegated to the dustbin of history."

Alternatives for objectors

Some conscientious objectors are unwilling to serve the military in any capacity, while others accept noncombatant roles. Alternatives to military or civilian service include serving an imprisonment or other punishment for refusing conscription, falsely claiming unfitness for duty by feigning an allergy or a heart condition, delaying conscription until the maximum drafting age, or seeking refuge in a country which does not extradite those wanted for military conscription. Avoiding military service is sometimes labeled draft dodging, particularly if the goal is accomplished through dishonesty or evasive maneuvers. However, many people who support conscription will distinguish between "bona fide" conscientious objection and draft dodging, which they view as evasion of military service without a valid excuse.

United States

During the American Revolutionary War exemptions varied by state. Pennsylvania required conscientious objectors, who would not join companies of voluntary soldiers called Associations, to pay a fine roughly equal to the time they would have spent in military drill. Quakers who refused this extra tax had their property confiscated.

The first conscription in the United States came with the Civil War. Although conscientious objection was not part of the draft law, individuals could provide a substitute or pay $300 to hire one. By 1864 the draft act allowed the $300 to be paid for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers. Conscientious objectors in Confederate States initially had few options. Responses included moving to northern states, hiding in the mountains, joining the army but refusing to use a weapon or imprisonment. Between late 1862 and 1864 a payment of $500 into the public treasury exempted conscientious objectors from Confederate military duty.

We were cursed, beaten, kicked, and compelled to go through exercises to the extent that a few were unconscious for some minutes. They kept it up for the greater part of the afternoon, and then those who could possibly stand on their feet were compelled to take cold shower baths. One of the boys was scrubbed with a scrubbing brush using lye on him. They drew blood in several places.

Mennonite from Camp Lee , Virginia , United States , 16 July 1918.

John T. Neufeld was a WWI conscientious objector sentenced to 15 years hard labor in the military prison at Leavenworth . He was paroled to do dairy work and released after serving five months of his sentence. In the United States during World War I, conscientious objectors were permitted to serve in noncombatant military roles. About 2,000 absolute conscientious objectors refused to cooperate in any way with the military. These men were imprisoned in military facilities such as Fort Lewis (Washington), Alcatraz Island (California) and Fort Leavenworth (Kansas). The government failed to take into account that some conscientious objectors viewed any cooperation with the military as contributing to the war effort. Their refusal to put on a uniform or cooperate in any way caused difficulties for both the government and the COs . The mistreatment received by these absolute COs included short rations, solitary confinement and physical abuse so severe as to cause the deaths of two Hutterite draftees.

Eventually, because of the shortage of farm labor, the conscientious objectors were granted furloughs either for farm service or relief work in France under the American Friends Service Committee. A limited number performed alternative service as fire fighters in the Cascade Range in the vicinity of Camp Lewis , Washington and in a Virginia psychiatric hospital.

During World War II, all registrants were sent a questionnaire covering basic facts about their identification, physical condition, history, and also provided a checkoff to indicate opposition to military service because of religious training or belief. Men marking the latter option received a DSS 47 form with ten questions:

  • Describe the nature of your belief which is the basis of your claim.

  • Explain how, when, and from whom or from what source you received the training and acquired the belief which is the basis of your claim.

  • Give the name and present address of the individual upon whom you rely most for religious guidance.

  • Under what circumstances, if any, do you believe in the use of force?

  • Describe the actions and behavior in your life which in your opinion most conspicuously demonstrate the consistency and depth of your religious convictions.

  • Have you ever given public expression, written or oral, to the views herein expressed as the basis for your claim made above? If so, specify when and where.

  • Have you ever been a member of any military organization or establishment? If so, state the name and address of same and give reasons why you became a member.

  • Are you a member of a religious sect or organization?

  • Describe carefully the creed or official statements of said religious sect or organization as it relates to participation in war.

  • Describe your relationships with and activities in all organizations with which you are or have been affiliated other than religious or military.

Civilian Public Service firefighting crew at Snowline Camp near Camino , California , 1945.Civilian Public Service (CPS) provided conscientious objectors in the United States an alternative to military service during World War II. From 1941 to 1947 nearly 12,000 draftees, unwilling to do any type of military service, performed work of national importance in 152 CPS camps throughout the United States and Puerto Rico . The work was initially done in areas isolated from the general population both because of the government's concern that a pacifist philosophy would spread and that conscientious objectors would not be tolerated in neighboring communities. A constant problem through the duration of the program, especially in camps located in national forests for fire control, was make-work projects designed to occupy the men's time in the off-season and between fires. For instance, men at a camp on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia shoveled snow from an unused roadway while a snowplow was parked nearby. The uselessness of this type of work lead to low morale and loss of experienced men as they requested transfers to other camps hoping for more meaningful work. Draftees from the historic peace churches and other faiths worked in areas such as soil conservation, forestry, fire fighting, agriculture, social services and mental health.

The CPS men served without wages and minimal support from the federal government. The cost of maintaining the CPS camps and providing for the needs of the men was the responsibility of their congregations and families. CPS men served longer than regular draftees, not being released until well past the end of the war. Initially skeptical of the program, government agencies learned to appreciate the men's service and requested more workers from the program. CPS made significant contributions to forest fire prevention, erosion and flood control, medical science and especially in revolutionizing of the state-run mental health institutions which had previously been very inhumane and often cruel.

Alternatives to war bonds and war savings stamps were provided for those who could not conscientiously help fund the WWII. National Service Board for Religious Objectors offered civilian bonds and Mennonite Central Committee offered Civilian Public Service stamps and War Sufferers' Relief stamps.

Civilian Public Service was disbanded in 1947. By the early 1950s a replacement program, 1-W service, was in place for conscientious objectors classified as 1-W by Selective Service. The new program eliminated the base camps of CPS and provided wages for the men.

1-W service was divided into several categories. The Earning Service involved working in institutions such as hospitals for fairly good wages. Voluntary Service was nonpaying work done in similar institutions, mostly within North America . Pax Service was a nonpaying alternative with assignments overseas. 1-W Mission Supporting Service was like the Earning Service but the wages were used for the support of mission, relief or service projects of the draftees choice. The nonpaying services were promoted by church agencies as a sacrifice to enhance the peace witness of conscientious objectors.


Mennonites in Canada were automatically exempt from any type of service during WWI by provisions of the Order in Council of 1873. During WWII, Canadian conscientious objectors were given the options of noncombatant military service, serving in the medical or dental corps under military control or working in parks and on roads under civilian supervision. Over 95% chose the latter and were placed in Alternative Service camps. Initially the men worked on road building, forestry and firefighting projects. After May 1943, as the labor shortaged developed within the nation, men were shifted into agriculture, education and industry. The 10,700 Canadian objectors were mostly Mennonites (63%) and Dukhobors (20%).

Eastern Europe

After World War II, conscientious objectors in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic were typically assigned to construction units, in the absence of a fully civilian alternative to military service.

In Czechoslovakia those not willing to enter mandatory military service could avoid it by signing years-long work contract in unattractive occupations, such as mining. Those who didn't sign were punished by imprisonment. Both numbers were tiny. After the communist party lost its power (1989), alternative civil service was established.

Western Europe


Conscientious Objector memorial in Tavistock Square Gardens , London — dedicated on 15 May 1994Britain's armed services had for centuries been all-volunteer forces - though press gangs took sailors for the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic War.

In the 1914-18 war, Britain introduced conscription with the Military Service Act of 1916. This meant that objections on religious or ethical grounds became an issue. Of those 'called up', about 16,000 refused to fight. Quakers, traditionally pacifist, played a large role. Many objectors accepted non-combat service. Some worked as stretcher-bearers, which was dangerous even though no one intentionally shot at them.

Objectors had to prove their right not to fight.

8,608 appeared before Military Tribunals. Over 4,500 were sent to do work of national importance such as farming. However, 528 were sentenced to severe penalties. This included 17 who were sentenced to death (afterwards commuted), 142 to life imprisonment, three to 50 years' imprisonment, four to 40 years and 57 to 25 years. Conditions were made very hard for the conscientious objectors and sixty-nine of them died in prison.

In World War Two, there were nearly 60,000 registered Conscientious Objectors. Tests were much less harsh - it was generally enough to say that you objected to "warfare as a means of settling international disputes", a phrase from the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. Objectors were required to do work that was either war-related or classified as 'useful'. Conscription was continued (as National service) until 1960.

Note that British conscription never applied to Ireland - but see Conscription Crisis of 1918 ( Ireland ). The various parts of the Empire and Commonwealth had their own rules.


According to Article 12a of the German constitution (Grundgesetz), every adult man can be obligated to military service called Wehrdienst. The draftee can apply for an alternative service called "Zivildienst" (civilian service), if he declares conscience reasons. The civil service may not last longer than military service. This rule has been applied since October 1, 2004. Before that date the civilian service was longer than military service, because soldiers could later be called to military exercises (Wehrübungen). In wartime, civilian draftees are expected to replace those on active military duty in their civilian professions.

South Africa 's Anti-War Experience

During the 1980s hundreds of South African "White" Males dodged-the-draft, refused the call-up or objected to conscription in the Apartheid Defense Force. Some simply deserted, or joined organizations such as the End Conscription Campaign, an anti-war movement banned in 1988, others fled into exile and joined the Committee on South African War Resistance. Most lived in a state of internal exile, forced to go underground within the borders of the country until a moratorium on conscription was declared in 1993. Opposition to the Angolan War, " South Africa 's Vietnam ", was rife in English-speaking campuses, and later the war in the townships became the focus of these groupings.


The issue is highly controversial in Turkey . Turkey and Azerbaijan are the only two countries refusing to recognize conscientious objection and sustain their membership in the Council of Europe. In January 2006, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found Turkey had violated article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of degrading treatment) in a case dealing with conscientious objection. In 2005, Mehmet Tarhan was sentenced to four years in a military prison as a conscientious objector (he was unexpectedly released in March 2006). Journalist Perihan Magden was tried by a Turkish court for supporting Tarhan and advocating conscientious objection as a human right; but later, she was acquitted.


Israel has a long history of individuals and groups refusing military service. Such acts are recorded since the state's foundation in 1948, but during the country's first decades involved mainly a few isolated individuals, usually of a Pacifist persuasion, due to pervasive public feeling that the country was fighting for its survival and that the IDF was a "Defense Force" in fact as well as in name. This view came in question following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 when the army took up the job of keeping a sizeable Palestinian population under Israeli rule by force, often involving what were perceived by many Israelis as violations of human rights and the safeguarding of an increasing number of settlements erected on formerly-Palestinian land acquired in ways which many Israelis considered highly questionable.

The invasion of Lebanon in 1982, launched with the proclaimed aim of "creating a new order in the Middle East" and without a visible existential threat to Israel, precipitated a mass anti-war movement (comparable in many ways to the American movement against the Vietnam War) of which a major component was an organized movement by thousands of soldiers (especially reserve soldiers) refusing service in Lebanon. This was continued during the First Intifada and the Second Intifada and has become a permanent feature of Israeli social and political life up to the present.

While some of the individuals and groups involved fit with the definition of Conscientious Objection common in other countries, the phenomenon of "selective refusal" - i.e. soldiers who remain inside the army but refuse particular orders or postings, especially to Lebanon or the Occupied Territories - seems more widespread in Israel than anywhere else. A longstanding debate continues, of which there is no definitive conclusion, on whether or not this constitutes Conscientious Objection in the strict sense or should be treated as a separate phenomenon. (See wikipedia page on Refusal to serve in the Israeli military).

Other Countries

As of 2005, COs in several countries may serve as field paramedics in the army (although some do not consider this a genuine alternative, as they feel it merely helps to make war more humane instead of preventing it). Alternatively, they may serve without arms, although this, too, has its problems. In certain European countries such as Austria , Germany , Greece and Switzerland , there is the option of performing Civilian Service, subject to the review of a written application or after a hearing about the state of conscience (see below). In Greece , Civilian Service is 2 times longer the corresponding military service and in Switzerland , the Civilian Service is 1.5 times longer. In 2005, the Swiss parliament considered whether willingness to serve 1.5 times longer than an army recruit was sufficient proof of sincerity, citing that the cost of judging the state of conscience of just a few thousand men per year was too great.

Hearings about the state of the conscience

In the United States , military personnel who come to a conviction of conscientious objection during their tour of duty must appear in front of a panel of experts, which consists of psychiatrists, army chaplains and officers. In Switzerland , the panel consists entirely of civilians and military personnel have no authority whatsoever. In Germany, objections to military service are filed in writing, and an oral hearing is only scheduled if the written testimonials has been unconvincing; in practice, due to the heavy workload—about half of all draftees in a given year file memorials as conscientious objectors—the competent authority reviews written applications only summarily, and it denies the alternative of a civilian service only in cases of grave shortcomings or inconsistencies in the written testimonials. Commonly, once an objector is summoned to a hearing, he has to explain what experiences drove him to recognize a conflict concerning his conscience.

Common questions at hearings

In general: How and when did you decide against the military service? Why can't you arrange military service with your conscience? What prohibits you to serve in the military?

Military service: Do you fear having to fight, or to use force? Do you want to abolish the army? What do you think about the phrase "We have the army to defend us, not to kill others"?

Use of force: What would you do if you were attacked? What do you feel when you see that others are attacked? What is violence, exactly? Would you rather experience losses than having to use force?

Belief: What does your belief say? Would you describe yourself as a pacifist? What basic values, besides objecting to violence, do you have? What entity gives you the certainty that your thinking and your feelings are right?

Implementation of your beliefs: Why didn't you choose to go into prison if your conscience is that strong? Why didn't you use medical reasons to avoid military service? What do you actually do to further peace, or is your attitude the only peaceful thing about you?

Personality: Who is in charge of defending your children in case of an armed conflict? Do you live your ethical principles inside your family? What books do you read? What do you demand from yourself? Are you merely a leader, a follower or a loner?

These are common questions from Swiss hearings.[21] By and large, these are asked in many other countries. They help to determine if the objector is politically motivated or if he is just too lazy to serve the country; or if he truly has a conflict stemming from his conscience. Arguments like "The army is senseless", "It is not just to wage wars" or opposition to involvement in a specific war (World War II, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War; a hypothetical war of West Germany against fellow Germans from the GDR during the Cold War) will hardly ever be accepted. He has only, and convincingly, to show that his conscience does not allow participation in an organization which is intended to use violence.

Criticism of such hearings

Hypothetical situations

In hearings about one's personal conflicts of conscience, certain subtleties may arise. One example from interrogations in Germany is about a plank of wood floating on the sea, and you, shipwrecked, need cling to it in order to save your life. Another person swims nearby and he also is in need of this plank. If you deny him the plank, you are apparently ready to accept the killing of a human being, and therefore able to serve in the military. Otherwise, when you would give the plank to your fellow shipwrecked being, you are willing to die and therefore not credible. "Well, it comes to a fight!" is not a good answer both because it is elusive, and in stating that there would be a fight you imply that somebody might get killed.

In other examples, the interviewers wanted to know if you're ready to kill someone in personal self-defense, perhaps when a friend or family member is in immediate danger. The analogy to a possible commitment in the military is wrong since defending an emotionally close person rarely damages your personality, but in the military you're forced into a situation where you have to commit collective self-defense. Another example is that by driving a car, you could kill someone by mistake. Since the objector in question refused to waive his driving license, he is deemed to be untrustworthy.

Also in Britain during World War I there was one argument put forward by a conscientious objector. First he asked the people who were part of the tribunal if they were Christian, when they all replied in the positive he then remarked, "Could you imagine Christ in khaki running out into no-mans land?" None of the panelists could, and the man was given total exemption due to 'religious beliefs'

In various places, questions about such hypothetical situations have come into disuse because they do not explore the present-day state of the objector's conflict of conscience, but possible future actions which, with a great probability, will never take place. In the 1980s, these types of questions were abolished in Germany after the Federal Constitutional Court found them unconstitutional.

Similar hearings and questions about hypothetical situations were in use in Finland for the most part of the history of Finnish conscientious objection, from its introduction in the 1930s to the 1980s, when they were abolished. Today, draftees have to specify whether they are objecting for religious or ethical reasons by checking off a respective box on a form, but hearings are no longer held. If a conscripts turns into a conscientious objector during their service, the Defense Force will inquire of their reasons for internal research purposes, but the objectors are not required to answer unless they wish so. Usually, a conscientious objector will be released from the military within a few hours of making the claim.



The following organizations and individuals have joined us in supporting this effort: 


Veterans For Peace - Veterans Working Together for Peace & Justice.



* Noam Chomsky - Activist, Author, and Scholar.


* David Zeiger - Producer and Director of Sir, No Sir.


* Howard Zinn - Author, historian, playwright, and social activist.


* COMD - Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft.


* CCCO - The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors


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