As More Troops Refuse to Deploy, Getting Conscientious Objector Status is an Uphill Battle
"I don't feel that it's right to take someone else's life," said 19 year-old Tony Anderson, Private in the U.S. Army, in a quiet voice on the phone. "I felt that if it came down to it, I couldn't kill someone, in
After haggling with his commander,
Hailing from the small city of
When he was ordered to deploy to
Meanwhile, an increasing number of active duty G.I.s have been joining Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), an organization comprised of over 1,200 U.S. veterans who have served since September 11, 2001. With 12 active duty members at
The rising number of troops who do not want to join the war face a challenge because conscientious objector status is difficult to obtain. C.O.s must prove that they are opposed to war in all forms, that their objection is based on "religious training and belief," which can include moral or ethical training, and that their beliefs are "sincere and deeply held." The application process is arduous and includes written applications, a series of examinations, and a hearing with an investigative officer. A decision on an application can take up to a year, and in the interim a C.O. application cannot forestall deployment to a combat zone, although it can help ensure that applicants are assigned duties which conflict as little as possible with C.O. convictions. Applicants face pressures to drop the issue from commanding officers, who "accidentally" lose the applications, impose informal punishments on C.O. applicants, or give false information about the process, as in the case of
There has been no reliable study of the difficulty of obtaining C.O. status. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report finding that between 2002 and 2006, the Marine Corps and Coast Guard approved a third of C.O. applications, Army officials approved 55 percent, the Air Force approved 62 percent, and the Navy approved 84 percent. Critics claim, however, that these figures are grossly misrepresentative, as they do not factor in the number of potential applicants who are deterred at all stages of the process: anyone who did not make it entirely through the application process was not counted by the GAO.
Elizabeth Stinson, Director of the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center, urges potential applicants not to be deterred by the difficulty of obtaining C.O. status and counsels them to seek support from allies in the peace movement. "Applying for conscientious objector status is hard," she says. "You will be abused, hazed, systematically degraded and dehumanized whenever possible. Still, I would love to see the amount of conscientious objector applicants go up. For some, it can be the most liberating thing ever."
"There is a huge problem with people being discouraged by the chain of command from going through the process of applying for C.O. status," said Andrew Gorby, who was discharged from the Army in May 2007 as a conscientious objector and now works for the Center on Conscience and War, a counseling organization that works to defend the rights of conscientious objectors. "But being granted C.O. status is possible. It is a matter of getting in touch with a qualified C.O. counseling organization."
Private Anderson recently chose to apply for C.O. status, this time with the extra help of his lawyer. "I am nervous to see what's going to happen to me," said Anderson over the phone. The military is charging Anderson with disobeying a lawful order from a commissioned officer during a time of war and desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty. Anderson's civilian lawyer, James Branum, is currently talking to the military in hopes of avoiding a court martial. However, he expects the case to go to trial in October or November.
Branum expressed frustration with the lack of options for C.O.s, citing the recent case of Robin Long, an Iraq War resister who was deported from Canada into U.S. military custody last month and sentenced to 15 months of confinement. According to Branum, Long's arguments in court about his conscientious objection to war were met with little sympathy, and possibly even hurt his case. "There is no fair process for cases of conscience," Branum says.
The Center on Conscience and War is currently crafting a Military Conscientious Objector Act that seeks to make this a more fair process. The act, which advocates hope will soon be introduced to Congress, protects objectors' rights to apply for C.O. status and broadens the definition of conscientious objection to include opposition to specific wars, something recognized by Amnesty International.
"Tony's refusal to deploy simply underscores that he is a conscientious objector, and it is not his fault that the military denied him the opportunity to go through the application process," said Jeff Paterson, Gulf War resister and Project Director for Courage to Resist, a group that supports war resisters. "I commend his courage in sticking to his conviction and refusing to deploy, despite the challenging situation he faces."
Asked whether he regrets his decision to refuse deployment, Anderson said that, given the lack of options, it was all he could do. He expressed dismay at having disappointed his father and fear of the punishment he faces from the military. "The consequences suck," he said just before getting off the phone. "But more than anything else, I am happy that I am not going to Iraq."
Sarah Lazare is the Project Coordinator of Courage to Resist, an organization that supports military war resisters.