How the Military Hides Dissent in the Ranks

Ever since Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood last month, the hunt has been on for a motive, preferably one the Army could have detected and thwarted and still be held  harmless. 

It’s a long list, ranging from compassion fatigue to religious militancy, ineptitude to insanity, but it is clear that Hasan was desperate to avoid becoming one of the swarm of soldiers about to be sent to Afghanistan. This includes the possibility that he explored applying for conscientious objector, or CO, status, but Army officials counter that they have no record of any such attempt.

Of course they don’t.  

No reliable count exists of how many soldiers consider themselves conscientious objectors. The Army recorded 39 applications in 2007, the last year for which records are complete (and represents a five-year low). About half were approved. Nobody, however, believes Army statistics on the issue, probably not even the Army itself.

Chuck Fager, director of Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a GI rights organization, has developed a maxim: “There are Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics, And Pentagon Numbers.” Even the U.S. Government Accountability Office threw up its hands when it tried to complete an independent assessment in 2007, before resorting to quoting the Defense Department’s numbers back to it.

The Army counts only those applications that make it to headquarters, but military counselors, such as Fager and J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, believe that the real number is many times the official figure. McNeil’s center alone helped 50 CO applicants in all branches of the military in 2008. Fager estimated that of the CO applications Quaker House has helped complete, about 15 percent have succeeded.  

By any reckoning, the number of conscientious objectors in a volunteer army is very small, and had Hasan applied, it’s unlikely he would have qualified. Military policy defines conscientious objection 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.” Applicants must convince commanding officers that their beliefs have changed since they signed up, that their objection is not based on politics, philosophy, or sociology, and that they oppose all wars. Other countries allow for selective objection; that is, objection to fighting a specific war. The United States does not.

The approval process is complex and stringent. (One step is an interview with a military psychiatrist. That would be someone in Hasan’s position.) It’s meant to be a winnowing -- calls to conscience are not supposed to be easy -- but frequently it feels rigged. The Army makes it hard to get accurate information, officers discourage soldiers from applying, applications can be turned aside, conveniently “lost,” or stopped at any of several steps along the way, and applicants awaiting a decision are ostracized and damned as untrustworthy.

The process usually takes six months to a year and sometimes longer, during which time applicants are expected to comply with all orders and regulations, including deployment to a war zone. They’re supposed to be reassigned to noncombatant duties, but this doesn’t always happen. It may be in the interest of the Army to get rid of soldiers who don’t want to fight, but conscientious objection is a direct challenge to the military’s core beliefs and retribution is commonplace. 

However small in number, COs have a disproportionate influence, both practically and symbolically. Especially during an unpopular war, resisters can be a match to the tinder of growing resentment. Even more threatening, they can make others realize that resistance is possible.

No one, save Hasan, knows what was going through his mind as he opened fire. It may be a stretch to think that a change in regulations could have averted the carnage, but it’s a bigger stretch, particularly as thousands of soldiers prepare to deploy yet again, to think that Hasan’s disaffection with the Army is rare. 

The tragedy at Fort Hood is not the only cost of refusing to acknowledge the growing opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan among those we send to fight them. There are thousands of soldiers and marines -- again, we have no accurate count -- who once bet their future on the military, but have now can no longer make compromises with their conscience or their reality. They find ways other than murder to get out of the army: some turn their violence self-ward, a few try for CO, and many others resist orders, refuse deployment, go AWOL, or just don’t reenlist.

That’s not the stuff of headlines, but it is a major loss for the military and the country.


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