Camilo Mejia quote
Conscientious Objectors

Introduction

"I am a conscientious objector to war" is a phrase often used in the circles of those who have a deep-rooted understanding of what it means. This, for the most part, would mean members of what are known traditionally as the "peace churches" -- and whose faith traditions have always opposed war as a means to conflict resolution. Certainly, many people are conscientious objectors who are not religious, or who belong to some other faith (other than one of the Peace Church faiths: Quaker, Mennonite, or Brethren). The rest of the population, the majority, have either never heard the phrase, or do not understand it -- despite the long history of conscientious objection in the United States. For those who do not understand the concept and who accept militarism without question, a conscientious objector is often referred to as a coward. In fact, the opposite is true: it takes a lot of courage to be a conscientious objector in a society that, generally, does not value it.

Most people, who call themselves conscientious objectors to war, are individuals who would resist military service if the nation ever returned to a draft. However, there is an ever growing number of individuals who don't fit the classic norm. These are men and women who volunteered to serve in the U.S. armed forces, but then became conflicted between the call to serve their country and their inner calls to full humanity. Some were deployed into war zones and became self-realized. Others happened upon a book or a magazine article that became the impetus for self-reflection. What they all have in common is the hard road they faced when they decided to seek a voluntary discharge, after developing a conscientious objection to war.

Stephen Funk: Growing in Self-Realization

Stephen FunkStephen Funk is the first service member to claim publicly to be a conscientious objector and to seek a voluntary discharge after the war against Iraq began. Stephen was a Marine Corp reservist and had volunteered, like so many others, to obtain benefits he thought only the military could provide. Stephen, conflicted by the pacifist outlook brewing in his soul, went AWOL for 47 days while he collected himself and prepared his conscientious objection discharge paperwork. When he returned with his paperwork in hand, he was arrested and charged with "desertion with intent to shirk important duty."

Stephen, who also simultaneously announced that he was gay, was convicted of "unauthorized absence" and was sentenced to six months imprisonment. Reflecting on his conscientious objection Stephen stressed:

I had figured out that war itself was immoral and could not be justified. Yet everyone told me it was futile to try to get out. We were trained to be subordinate in our thoughts, words, and actions. It's hard to go up against all that, even when you know you are right ...

Stephen's treatment as a conscientious objector is not new. There are regulations and policies that afford members of the armed forces the right to file for a voluntary discharge based on a conscientious objection to war. However, the lack of compassion, democratic practices, and the enormous amount of discretion afforded to command structures makes it virtually impossible to achieve.

Camilo Mejia: Choosing Not to Lose His Humanity

Camilo MejiaCamilo Mejia was a U.S. Army National Guard staff sergeant when he found himself conflicted between his conscience and his obligation to the military. He is considered the first Iraq War veteran to seek conscientious objector status and a voluntary discharge. Camilo’s story is similar to Stephen Funk’s in that he joined the Army National Guard because he felt there were no other options for him to live and survive. Camilo also went AWOL, but unlike Funk who was never deployed to the Middle East, Camilo went underground shortly after returning from a tour in Iraq.

What he observed and participated in during his time in Iraq compelled Camilo to go into hiding while he sorted things out. Like Funk, Camilo ultimately turned himself in and submitted his conscientious objection application. He was charged with desertion and was tried and convicted by a special court martial. Camilo was sentenced to one year in prison and received a bad conduct discharge, but his lawyers are currently appealing his conviction.

Camilo realized that his humanity was in jeopardy and that any further participation in the U.S. military adventure in Iraq would not only do harm to Iraqis, but to his soul as well. Upon his release from prison, Camilo reflected:

“I am only a regular person that got tired of being afraid to follow his own conscience. For far too long I allowed others to direct my actions even when I knew that they were wrong.... I was afraid of waking up one morning to realize my humanity had abandoned me.”

Katherine Jashinski: Evolving Beliefs about War

Katherine JashinskiKatherine Jashinski, a former Army National Guard Specialist, is the first woman to declare her conscientious objection to war and the war in Iraq. Katherine came out publicly in November of 2005. When her application for conscientious objection was denied, as so many applications are, she was ordered to Fort Benning to complete her weapons training; Katherine decided that she had to make a public stand.

Like so many people who join the military, Katherine enlisted believing that killing was immoral, but that war was inevitable and therefore it justified the taking of lives when necessary. She was 19 years old when she enlisted and did not have a well-developed worldview at the time, but after her travels and exposure to essays written by anti-war activist, Bertrand Russell, Katherine realized that her beliefs about war had changed.

In the public statement, which she read in front of the gate at Fort Benning, Katherine said:

"Because I believe so strongly in non-violence, I cannot perform any role in the military. Any person doing any job in the Army contributes in some way to the planning, preparation for, or implementation of war."

Katherine was charged with “missing movement by design” and “refusal to obey a legal order." She pled guilty to the "refusal to obey" charge and was acquitted of the charge of "missing movement." Sentenced to a bad conduct discharge and 120 days confinement, Katherine recently emerged from100 days of captivity,

Despite the fact that her superiors testified that they believed in the genuineness of Katherine's claim to be a conscientious objector and the fact that the judge overseeing her case acknowledged that he was convinced of her sincerity, Katherine has yet to be considered as a conscientious objector by the military.

Kyle Snyder: Resisting Participation in an Unjust War

Kyle SnyderKyle Snyder’s story is no different than most. He joined the Army at the age of 19, recruited through the government program known as Job Corps. He acknowledges that he was a troubled youth and that the military offered him the structure and support he was lacking in his life. Today he is among the hundreds of military service members who have fled to Canada in order to resist participation in the war against Iraq.

Kyle is not a conscientious objector in the same vein as Stephen, Camilo and Katherine. He still believes that the military is necessary, but he found himself conflicted when he realized that the war, he had been deployed in, was an unjust and illegal war. There are no provisions for someone who is a “selective conscientious objector” and ,thus, Kyle felt that his only option was to seek safe haven in a country known for its anti-militarism tendencies.

At first, Kyle was the dutiful soldier, but over time realities like not being allowed to go to his grandfather’s funeral began to show him how unjust the military could be. When he learned that the child that he and his fiancé were expecting was literally dying in the womb, he went to the military to ask for assistance. Since Kyle and his fiancé were not legally married, the military told him there was nothing that could be done. Bitter and depressed, Kyle requested a discharge, but instead was put on anti-depressants. Shortly thereafter, he was deployed to Iraq.

Kyle didn’t see much combat, but he did see a lot of his friends injured and other soldiers killed. After witnessing one of his friends kill an unarmed Iraqi civilian, and after his request for an investigation was denied, Kyle was fed up.

He has been in Canada for over a year and is waiting to hear from the Canadian government about his request to have legal refugee status. Kyle has stated:

"I love my country. And that’s why I’m in Canada right now. That’s it. Plain and simple. And any soldier that refuses to fight in this war has my respect."

Conclusion

For Kyle and the many others, dealing with their resistance to war -- whether pacifistic or selective -- calls for courage to take the steps that they are taking. Their valor is even more poignant, given the fact that they are part of a society that values militarism, as if it were a golden calf.

These men and women need not be seen as war heroes; they are anti-war heroes. They are speaking for many others who wish they also could be so brave.

(Editor's Note: The Center on Conscience and War worls to defend and extend the rights of concientious objectors and
the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors [CCCO] supports and
promotes individual and collective resistance to war and preparations for war.

Another inspiring objectors are Darrell Anderson and Ehren Watada, who places "honor above obedience."