The Burden of Conscience

J.E. McNeil recalls the Special Operations soldier who couldn't kill anymore after an Afghan child darted in front of his riflescope, or the Marine who vowed he'd never return to Iraq, unable to justify the devastation he witnessed. McNeil hears such stories every day, as part of her role as executive director of the Center on Conscience and War -- a Washington group that works with conscientious objectors.

Invariably, when the term 'conscientious objector' is mentioned, our minds drift to Vietnam. During that war, nearly 172,000 young men were relieved of military duty after officially registering as pacifists. Scenes of protestors burning draft cards were forever seared into America's collective psyche.

But when Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, who'd gone AWOL after returning from Iraq, publicly announced on March 15 that he was applying for a conscientious objector discharge, the idea of refusing to fight in the name of universal peace was hurled into the maelstrom of debate over the current war.

By definition, a member of the Armed Forces must prove, through an application and the subsequent investigation, that he or she is opposed to all war in general, not just one particular conflict. Mejia, currently assigned to duty with his Florida National Guard unit at Fort Stewart, Georgia, is waiting to see if Army brass will sign off on his application or if he will be prosecuted for going AWOL.

Predictably, the Pentagon has downplayed his story, as well as one involving two Army medics who requested conscientious objector discharges the following day, just before being shipped to Iraq. As reported in The New York Times on March 16, Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd said 31 of 60 applications for conscientious objector discharges were given the nod last year and two of five have been approved so far in 2004 -- hardly a noteworthy percentage of the more than 130,000 troops currently serving in Iraq.

The Army's numbers, however, are not only misleading; they're bound to change.

According to the GI Rights Hotline, a coalition of advocacy groups that offer confidential counseling and legal advice to American troops, thousands of soldiers have called its offices inquiring about conscientious objector status since the war began. In fact, say two leaders of the GI Rights Hotline, the situation is virtually out of control.

Teresa Panepinto, GI Rights program coordinator for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) -- part of the GI Rights Hotline -- says her Oakland office fielded 29,000 calls from soldiers in 2003, both from those awaiting deployment and from those currently in Iraq. The majority of the calls were from soldiers trying to navigate a way out of the military, with 22 percent of them inquiring about the consequences of going AWOL and 13 percent asking about conscientious objector discharges. Judging from phone call intake this year, Panepinto says, it's already clear that the numbers are getting higher.

J.E. McNeil, whose Center on Conscience and War is also part of the GI Rights Hotline, says that after Sept. 11, her office was initially getting one or two phone calls a week from soldiers specifically wanting to know about the conscientious objector application process. But since January, 2003, the call volume has jumped to one or two phone calls a day.

"The military doesn't have accurate numbers" states McNeil, a longtime attorney for conscientious objectors, noting her organization is currently working on the cases of 30 soldiers who have either already requested conscientious objector discharges or are in the process of applying.

The sketchy statistics, she says, are due to overall underreporting by the Pentagon; applications derailed during the process being discounted; and soldiers going AWOL or Unauthorized Absence (UA) before waiting the three months to a year it might take before the Army makes up its mind.

Says McNeil: "The stories we're hearing out of Iraq are horrific. Soldiers are calling us and saying 'I now realize what war is and I can't do it.' It's heart wrenching."

"All I can tell you is how many people have applied," responds Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd. "I can't comment on how many calls the hotlines are taking. If somebody is serious, they'll apply and their application will be considered."

It's worth noting that all of this has considerable historical precedent. According to the Center on Conscience and War, conscientious objectors have been in every major American war, dating back to the American Revolution. Originally, only members of the historic 'peace' churches -- Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren -- were permitted to be conscientious objectors. But even they were required to serve as noncombatants in the military and faced jail time or seizure of property if they refused. By World War II, because of the country's first peacetime draft, anybody could register as a conscientious objector on religious grounds. Such objectors, however, were forced to serve in the Civilian Public Service for four years without pay -- working particularly undesirable government jobs vacated by those who'd gone off to war.

By the end of the Korean War, that program was eliminated and by Vietnam, you could also cite moral and ethical grounds. Also during Vietnam, the military began allowing soldiers who could prove they had a change of heart towards war to apply for a conscientious objector discharge, and 3,275 soldiers did. During the first Gulf War, some 111 soldiers were granted conscientious objector discharges, according to statistics culled by the Center on Conscience and War.

The current conflict in Iraq is provoking a new movement of conscientious objectors for two reasons, says McNeil. A sweeping 'stop-loss' decree, authorized by the Army on Nov. 13 and designed to stabilize an over-exerted fighting force, prevents soldiers from retiring or leaving their units 90 days before deployment and 90 days after returning home. Reservists and National Guard soldiers in particular have been affected as they are shifted out of Iraq and then re-deployed within the allotted 90 days. As a result, says McNeil, men and women accustomed to serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year are spending most of the year in Iraq, separated from their families and fighting an increasingly chaotic and dangerous war.

The second variable has to do with the hellishness of this war itself. More and more soldiers, no matter how tough their training or elite their unit, are finding the brutality of urban battle coupled with the murky justification for invading Iraq as reason enough to stop fighting.

One GI being counseled by the Center on Conscience and War spoke with Alternet on condition of anonymity as his application for conscientious objector status is still pending. Part of a Special Operations unit deployed in Iraq early last year, this soldier spent four months on seemingly endless combat missions. It took only his first fight, some three weeks into his tour of duty, to change him.

"There was this numbness..., this human aspect, you didn't think would be there," he said. "People all around me -- us, the Iraqis -- we were all losing friends and family. It was sickening."

Beneath his proudly polished military speak, the soldier suddenly sounded very young, as he described his metamorphosis.

"I saw destruction of people. Innocent lives taken that won't be coming back. I took lives," he said. "You were trained to think these people were lower than you. But you wondered if that person you'd just killed could have been your friend.... There was no honor in it, and I didn't want to be a part of it anymore."

After that first battle, the soldier said it was obvious both to him and to the other soldiers in his unit that he never wanted to fight again, though he never told anyone outright because he felt ashamed. When his unit returned home on leave, he was transferred to a conventional combat battalion, which had not yet been deployed. There, the soldier wrestled with his feelings and spoke to Army chaplains and psychiatrists as well as his own friends and family about what to do.

"During that time I was made aware of the conscientious objector option, and I submitted the paperwork, because I realized I want separation from the military" he said. "I was told I'd be fighting for freedom and honor and glory, but it's been about protecting political interests. It's been a lie."

Meanwhile, the solider is still waiting for his application to be processed and a judgment to be meted out.

Aside from such first hand accounts, both J.E. McNeil and Teresa Panepinto note that another surefire sign of the intense unhappiness many soldiers experience towards fighting in Iraq is the high suicide rate among those stationed there. The Pentagon has acknowledged that 22 soldiers killed themselves in Iraq last year and the Army dispatched a mental-health assessment team last September to investigate. The results of that report are expected sometime within the next few weeks.

Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out and herself the mother of a Marine who returned from Iraq last May, confirms that her organization is working with numerous soldiers and families of soldiers dealing with depression and suicide.

"We're seeing this because people are being deployed for the second or third time and also because soldiers who believed that this war was needed in the beginning have come around to see that it's based on lies," said Lessin, whose group organized a massive peace march in Fayetteville, North Carolina on March 20.

Interestingly, Lessin's analysis of military suicides and depression eerily parallels the motives behind the outpouring of phone calls to the GI Hotline about conscientious objector discharges. Unfortunately, despite President Bush's blind boasts about American resolve and lives sacrificed for freedom, it seems certain that this outpouring -- not to mention the suicides and depression -- is destined to continue, as more GIs like Camilo Mejia and the anonymous Special Operations soldier find themselves unable to keep firing their weapons in good faith.

Nearly 100 years later, apparently, we're still perpetuating what poet Wilfred Owen called the "old Lie: Dulce et decorum / Est pro patria mori."

How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country.

Dan Frosch is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He also contributes to VIBE, POZ and In These Times.

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