By Susan Van Haitsma
I am a conscientious objector, though I am a middle-aged woman whose talents the military is not seeking. I wish the term was not so difficult to pronounce, nor so ostentatious, yet it is a label I wear to stand with persons I respect who have worn it despite disparagement and praise through wars past and present.
The outreach I do in local high schools with Nonmilitary Options for Youth includes giving away CO buttons as an education technique when we do our literature tabling. First of all, students like free stuff, especially if they can wear it or eat it. The buttons read “Conscientious Objector” around the big CO in the middle. We ask, when a student takes one, “Do you know what it means?” Well, um, let’s see – “conscious objector?” O.K., that’s a good place to start. You’re conscious -you’re aware. And you know what “objector” means, for sure. Yeah. So, you’re aware and you’re saying no to something. The student glances around at our other materials and suddenly their eyes light up. “I don’t like war, either! I don’t want to kill anybody!”
Sometimes students eagerly pin on their CO buttons and run right over to the recruiting tables to pick up some free stuff there, too. Even JROTC students have pinned CO buttons to their uniforms. It’s a disconnect that breaks my heart, but I cheer them on. The button states in black and white a core value I know resides in the human being beneath the uniform.
“Conscience” comes from a Latin word meaning, “to know something with oneself.” Each of us knows something about the value of human life. And because we are necessarily social beings, we also know that our lives are not entirely distinct from one another. Is there a spiritual tradition that does not, at its root, conclude that we are all one? When I watch groups of students walking down the hall, leaning together, joined at the hip, I think teenagers must know this better than anyone.
Many also recognize and reject the Bush administration’s illogic of defending life and freedom through the means of war. As one student wrote in a survey we conducted, “Adults are always telling us not to use violence to solve our problems, but it seems like the government is just a big hypocrite.” Concluded another, “I think we should handle things in a nonviolent grown-up way. We should be big enough to reach an agreement with our enemies and settle it like civilized human beings.”
Interestingly, the term, “Conscientious Objector” originally was used by Englishpersons who in 1898 swore moral opposition to a Compulsory Vaccination Act passed by Parliament. Later, men who objected for reasons of conscience to participate as armed combatants during WWI adopted the term, which has been defined in the context of war resistance ever since.
The symbolism of objecting to vaccination offers a useful analogy. As a vaccination subjects the body to small doses of a disease in order to inoculate the body against it, so, perhaps, does subjecting human beings to the dehumanizing preconditions of war desensitize us over time to the disease that war is.
Of course, when we discuss conscientious objection with students, we stress the legal definition of the term as defined by current US law. We explain that being a conscientious objector means objecting to participation in all war, not particular wars, and if they believe they are conscientious objectors, they should create files for themselves that contain evidence of their beliefs and statements from adults who can testify to their sincerity in case of a draft. We also want young people to know that they can cite moral or ethical principles, not only religious beliefs.
It’s important that students know the law, but in my heart of hearts, I rebel against the notion that we must prove to an authority that we are morally, ethically or religiously opposed to killing. We are born with an essential reverence for life woven into our DNA, and I don’t think there is a lawyer, draft board member or politician alive who could untangle it.
Soldiers are persons of conscience, too. And there are many who have developed a conscientious objection to war forged in the awful crucible of war itself. Soldiers on trial now for desertion, whose claims of conscientious objection have been denied by military authorities, are paying very high prices for their convictions.
I see a connection between the uniformed teenager with the CO button and the soldier serving a prison term for refusing to participate any longer in what he or she knows, firsthand, is unconscionable. What the teenager knows instinctively the soldier knows through hard experience, but it is the same undeniable truth of being aware that we are inseparable. As Army veteran, Camilo Mejia, wrote eloquently from jail following a court martial for refusing to return to duty in Iraq, “By putting my weapon down, I chose to reassert myself as a human being.”
“What good is freedom if we are afraid to follow our conscience?” asked Mejia. ” What good is freedom if we are not able to live with our own actions? I am confined to a prison, but I feel, today more than ever, connected to all humanity.”
We suffer soldiers to experience fully the disease of war while most of us become inoculated to it a little at a time. Soldiers who experience the atrocity and then take a stand against it pay doubly.
On May 15, people around the world commemorate International Conscientious Objectors’ Day. I’d like to be able to give more than a pin and a pamphlet to every teenager whose bright eyes assure me that we are bound together by life itself.