Should a Soldier Who Changes His Mind About War Have a Right to Status as a Conscientious Objector?

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Mr. Lynd ran for president of the American Historical Association in 1969 on a program of opposition to the Vietnam War. His most recent book is Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Temple University Press).

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Everybody knows the conscientious objector. We recall the Quaker wife in High Noon, who objected to all killing until her husband supposedly showed her that sometimes violence is the only way. Or we think of the Amish elder in Witness who spoke with horror of persons who use a "gun of the hand," or handgun.

Conscientious objection is defined in United States military regulations as objection to "war in any form," based on "religious training and belief." Conscientious objection thus defined is tailored to the subculture of certain small--and thus politically unimportant--Protestant groups: Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, members of the Church of the Brethren, Hutterites. (Viewers of Matewan will remember the tale of Hutterite objectors to World War I who were chained to the bars of their cells at Fort Leavenworth, where two of them died.) Many Jehovah's Witnesses also practice conscientious objection.

Conscientious objectors in a voluntary military are self-evidently something different. If they come to object to war in any form, it will be on the basis of their firsthand experience in a particular war in which they have been asked to take part.

At the Nuremburg trials, after World War II, United States prosecutors including Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson made it clear that in the future American soldiers like all others would be expected to refuse orders to commit war crimes. But exactly how are servicemen expected to refuse? How can they do so in the midst of combat without endangering not only themselves, but the lives of their buddies as well?

Sometimes there are practical ways to say No. In the late 1960s, Hugh Thompson, from Stone Mountain, Georgia, was in command of a helicopter assigned to do reconnaissance over the village of My Lai. When he and his crew saw what was happening on the ground beneath them, they violated orders, landed their helicopter, and trained their guns on United States troops until a number of children, women, and elderly persons could be evacuated. In Iraq, Sergeant Kevin Benderman's unit was ordered by their commanding officer to shoot children who were only throwing rocks. None of the soldiers in the unit obeyed.

More often, as Sergeant Camilo Mejia puts it, when you are in combat it is possible to think only about survival. Both Mejia and Benderman became conscientious objectors when they had the opportunity to return to the United States from Iraq and to reflect on their experience away from the stress of combat and the pressure of peers. Both refused redeployment. Mejia was court martialled, convicted, and is serving a year in confinement at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Benderman awaits court martial at Fort Stewart, Georgia.*


Unlike the traditional conscientious objection of members of radical Protestant sects like the Quakers, the new conscientious objection may become a mass phenomenon.

Numbers are elusive. The New York Times reports that nearly a third of the 950,000 persons from all branches of the Armed Forces who were sent to Iraq or Afghanistan have been ordered to deploy a second time. CBS estimates that there have already been 5,000 deserters. National Guardsmen and Reserves, few of whom expected to see active duty when they enlisted, make up about 40-50 percent of the 150,000 United States troops in Iraq. According to USA Today, although many of them signed up for financial reasons, 71 percent of Guardsmen and Reservists have experienced no change in income (30 percent) or have lost money (41 percent) as a result of military service. Already military personnel are vulnerable to the extension of their tours of active duty beyond the period for which they enlisted, under so-called Stop Loss orders, and beyond the twelve months in a combat zone which in Iraq, as in Vietnam, has thus far been customary. Now they are also threatened with a rumored change in military regulations that would make possible more than twenty-four months of active duty for any particular enlistee.

Numbers are hard to come by. An article in the Los Angeles Times indicates that in the Vietnam war, there were 172,000 applications for CO status by draftees and 17,000 by active duty soldiers. In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, one can predict, there will be fewer such applications overall but almost all of them will be from active duty service personnel, based on their actual participation in war.

Accordingly careful attention is warranted to the experience of those persons like Mejia and Benderman who have thus far had the courage to apply for CO status. Hugh Thompson, Camilo Mejia, Kevin Benderman, and David Qualls (the named plaintiff in a suit against Stop Loss by himself and seven John Does serving in Iraq) are all from the South. The new conscientious objection is a "red state" phenomenon. It may spread.


Mejia, who is from Florida, is a Catholic not a Protestant. Indeed his father, Carlos Mejia Godoy, composed the "Missa Campesina" or "Peasants' Mass" used as the liturgy in many Nicaraguan Catholic churches during the 1980s, and Camilo's "religious training and belief" was in Catholic high schools in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Mejia joined the Army in 1995 at age nineteen when (according to his application for CO status) he was "working full-time at a burger joint, making minimum wage." Hardly anybody he knows joined the military to go to war, Mejia says. After active duty from from 1995 to 1998, Mejia was honorably discharged and enlisted in the Guard so as to go to college.

In January 2003 Mejia's Guard unit was activated to go to Iraq. Before they deployed to the Middle East, the Lieutenant Colonel in command of the battalion told everyone that he was not going to return without a Combat Infantry Badge (CIB), awarded only after a unit has been under enemy fire.

What this meant became evident in Iraq. On one occasion Mejia, a squad leader, was in charge of a unit that was ambushed as it returned to base. Mejia ordered the vehicles to return fire and proceed at top speed. No one in the unit was hurt, but base commanders chewed Mejia out for his failure to stand and fight. Another time Mejia's unit was directed to follow the same route to and from a checkpoint, night after night. Officers were overheard saying that the purpose of this routine was to draw the enemy out.

During this second maneuver, there came a night when an explosion shattered one of the vehicles. Soon after an "unsuspecting vehicle" approached. One of the occupants was decapitated by machine gun fire from Mejia's unit, but the Iraqi men turned out to be innocent.

The first assignment of Mejia's unit in Iraq was at a prisoner of war camp. "They told us we could not call it that, because the facility did not comply with the Geneva Convention." Interrogation was conducted by "three mysterious guys who did not give us their real names." Detainees were sorted into combatants and non-combatants. Mejia and his men were ordered to soften up the supposed combatants by keeping them awake for up to 48 hours. "The easiest way to do this, according to the soldiers we replaced, was to constantly yell at the detainees, make them move their arms up and down, make them sit and stand for several minutes. When these techniques failed, we would bang on the wall with a huge sledgehammer or load a 9 mm. pistol next to their ears."

Two incidents stood out for Mejia. A squad leader shot a child who was carrying an AK-47 rifle. A man stopped his civilian vehicle to help the dying boy. Just as the man reached a hospital, he was intercepted by Army vehicles and directed to take the victim to an Army medical facility. That facility, and then another Army facility, refused treatment. The boy was then returned to the hospital where the Iraqi had wished to take him but by that time he was dead.

On another occasion, in Al Ramadi, Mejia was one of a group of snipers. "Our platoon leader relayed the order to shoot anyone who threw anything that looked like a grenade." A young Iraqi emerged, carrying a grenade but too far away to have any chance of hurting the American soldiers. They opened fire and killed him.

I observed most of this event through the rear aperture of my M-16 sight, and with my left eye closed. It is impossible to say exactly when I fired my weapon, I just know that I fired it. This incident stayed on my mind for many weeks. The image of the young man, killed by a rain of fire, is still fresh in my memory. Many times I have told myself that maybe the bullets from my rifle only touched his leg, maybe his shoulder, that maybe I missed him completely.

Returning to the United States for leave in fall 2003 "provided me with the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say." The next spring Mejia turned himself in, applied for Conscientious Objector stayus, and refused to redeploy.


Kevin Benderman is from northern Alabama and is 40 years old. He has served honorably in the Army for ten years. His wife Monica has been an advocate for the elderly in Texas.

During a first tour in Iraq, Benderman was a mechanic who fixed Bradley armored vehicles. He witnessed the same kind of incidents in Iraq that so much bothered Mejia. He says in his CO application:

I saw people whose only drinking water was from mud puddles at the side of the road. I met a school teacher in Khanaqin who was supporting his retarded brother and his sister and her family. His sister's husband had been killed by war, and he was unable to marry and have his own children because of his responsibility to her and his brother. This is what war does. As my unit traveled to our destination, I could not ignore the little girl standing by the side of the road with her mother. Her arm was burned to her shoulder, and she cried in pain. [The officer in charge of the convoy said they could not use their limited supplies to help the girl.] I had to look at that little girl, look into her eyes, and in her eyes, I saw my TRUTH. I cannot kill.

On January 7, 2005, Kevin Benderman is alleged to have refused an order to deploy with his unit for its second tour in Iraq. At about the same time two other members of his unit attempted suicide rather than deploy, and an additional seventeen soldiers in the 2-7 Infantry Battalion are said to have gone AWOL for the same reason. Monica Benderman emailed me on January 31: "We heard from four soldiers today who do not want to deploy, and are looking for information to begin CO applications. [They] are from all over the country."

One of Benderman's superior officers called him a coward. His company commander informed Benderman that he would recommend disapproval of the CO application without even reading the regulation, because it could only be a ruse. A chaplain, after first refusing to meet with Kevin, said he should be ashamed of himself. Benderman has been upbraided before members of his unit for articles on the Internet for which he is claimed to have been responsible, and which were said to constitute "Disrespect to a Superior Officer" and "Disloyal Statements to the United States."

On the other hand, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney has written a letter supporting Benderman, and highly decorated Colonel (Ret.) James "Bo" Gritz profiled Benderman three days running on his radio show.

The process a CO applicant can expect is suggested by Benderman's experience thus far. He has been charged with: 1) Desertion with the intent to avoid hazardous duty, for which he could be imprisoned for five years; and 2) Missing movement by design, which carries a penalty of up to two years' imprisonment.

The military hearing process begins with a pre-trial hearing called an Article 32 investigation, the purpose of which is to decide whether court martial is warranted. The officer in charge, Lt. Col. Linda Taylor, has also served as chief military prosecutor at Fort Stewart. She has declined to recuse herself.

In a depature from the procedure employed with Mejia, whose CO application seems to have been forgotten, Benderman was summoned to a hearing on his CO application less than 24 hours after his Article 32 hearing ended. The Investigating Officer was clearly hostile, not the detached, neutral, and impartial officer required by regulations. Benderman's appointed military counsel objected to the entire proceeding.

On February 10, 2005, Benderman's commanding officer informed him that if the Article 32 hearing recommended that the charges should not go forward, Benderman would again be ordered to deploy.

Note. Kevin and Monica Benderman will be featured speakers at a rally against the war in Youngstown, Ohio on March 19, 2005. The Kevin Benderman Defense Committee has a web site: www.Benderman Defense.org. Contributions are needed in order to hire outside counsel should a court martial be ordered.


*HNN received the following message via email from Camilo E. Mejia on March 7, 2005:

To Whom it May Concern:

This is about the article Should a Soldier Who Changes His Mind About War Have a Right to Status as a Conscientious Objector?, published March 7, 2005.

My CO application wasn't forgotten. A hearing was held at Ft. Sill's confinement facility in, I believe, June of last year. Some of the people who testified during the hearing include Bishop Gumbleton (from Pax Christy), Nancy Lessin (from Military Families Speak Out), Daniel Ellsberg (The Pentagon's Papers), and Lewis Randa (from The Peace Abbey). An observer from Amnesty International wasn't allowed to stay for the hearing. My chain of command was also interviewed by phone. The hearing officer recommended disapproval of my claim, but there is no definite answer yet.
Also, I wasn't part of a sniper team. We were providing overwatch security when the young man threw the grenade. Everything else is pretty much accurate. Please tell Mr. Lynd that I enjoyed his article.
Camilo E. Mejia

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Jerry Jones - 4/27/2010

There were only approximately 6000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany during the 1930s-40s. While many of those 6000 German JWs were repeatedly arrested during the 1930s and 1940s, only a fraction were jailed or imprisoned for any significant length of time. Only about 200-300 German JWs lost their lives, and the majority of those died from any number of causes other than having been executed. Approximately 1000 JWs from other European countries lost their lives while incarcerated by the Nazis.

During that same time period, there were more Jehovah's Witnesses arrested and jailed in the United States than in Germany. In fact, from 1941 until 1945, approximately 4500 American Jehovah's Witnesses "elected" to go to prison rather than serve in the U.S. Military and go fight against those same Nazis who were committing those atrocities. Approximately 3000 of those 4500 American JWs were even offered "conscientious objector" status, in which they were offered "non-combatant" work as a substitute, but 99% of those JWs refused to even help that much.

Nathaniel Brian Bates - 3/11/2005


Professor Lynd:

It is a pleasure to talk to you, sir. I have enjoyed all of your books over the years. Let me put in my two cents worth.

The Constitution is the highest law of the Land. However, even it is inferior to the Torah, the Highest Law in the Universe. The Torah is very clear on this matter.

Devarim - Deuteronomy
Chapter 20

"5 And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying: 'What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.

6 And what man is there that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not used the fruit thereof? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man use the fruit thereof.

7 And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.'

8 And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say: 'What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart melt as his heart.'"

I believe that the Final Word has been said.

It is clear from this verse that military service can NEVER be compulsory.

Thankyou for writing for HNN.


Arnold Shcherban - 3/9/2005

Yes I'm sure, for you to be sure.

Dylan Sherlock - 3/4/2005

Oh and by the way, another note on Hugh Thompson.

He did not disobey any orders at My Lai. He was not objecting to an order he had recieved. He was objecting to a crime he was witnessing.

Dylan Sherlock - 3/4/2005

Being a volunteer army, each soldier signs a contract with the armed forces when he enters. To violate this contract brings certain consequences. The armed forces, as a rule, allows soldiers who have suddenly discovered pacificism before combat to be transferred to non-combat positions, support positions if they are not in them already.

Some people who are deeply affected by war have these huge pangs of morality and file for CO status, but CO status is essentially an outdated rule from the days of the draft to prevent religiously pacifist people from being coerced into a combat situation. Obviously, when Nixon eliminated the draft, the rule should have been made irrelevent because soldiers are no longer ever in a situation where they are being coerced into the army.

Thus soldiers who jump ship right before it departs, or don't show up for the debarquement are making a choice that has nothing to do with pacifism. They are deciding that they no longer wish to honor a contract they have made. The actions of so-called concientious objectors seem more suspicious considering the army's open policy to reassign (but not allow to stay home) soldiers who have a serious objection to violence to non-combat support jobs.

A note to the author: paragraphs four and five and the inclusion Hugh Thompson's bravery at My Lai is superfluous to the rest of the essay. Concientous objectors are against war itself but Hugh Thompson was a man who stopped a mass murder, not a war, a massacre. Robert Jackson and the Nuremberg trials were not putting war on trial, they were putting genocide on trial, war crimes on trial.

On a personal note, I would like to add that I consider the armed force's treatment of COs and other "contract-breakers" to be too harsh. Charge a fine, lessen the time in prison... Often the armed forces make mountains out of molehills in these cases --- indictive of a lack of recognition in this fundamental change to an all-volunteer force.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/2/2005

Granted, there was a lot of privileged slipping into safe havens. Sen. Dodd, I believe, spent his years in the Peace Corps. In fact, it took a hell of a lot of pull to find a safe haven of any kind, the demand being so high. Privilege will out -- both Gore and Kerry got early outs, though you have to grant that they actually saw Vietnam (if not Cambodia).

Jonathan Pine - 3/2/2005

Yes. It is not relevant to the article. But I couldn't help it. When I saw post 54964 it brought me back to Bush's most obvious and priviledged slip into a safe haven during the Vietnam war.

John H. Lederer - 3/1/2005

Are you sure you don't have me confused with someone else?

John H. Lederer - 3/1/2005

Are you sure you don't have me confused with someone else?

Arnold Shcherban - 3/1/2005

Yes, Chris,
I can testify as to the strict adherence of Mr. Lederer
to the principle of presenting every "side of an issue",
versus "one side" of it.
I remember once over our exchange the defendant mentioned
that though he would "not have dinner with Pinochet", but
President Alende was a "left fascist".
Isn't that a definitive proof of his objectiveness?

John H. Lederer - 3/1/2005


I sometimes regard my self as a pretty contemptible character, particularly when reproached by the forlorn eyes of a disappointed springer spaniel.

However, I like to think that that does not unduly influence my application of a quote from Thucydides in contradistinction to an article that presents one side of an issue.

But perhap I just humor myself.


Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/1/2005

I do not believe that this is relevant to this article. The difference between Bush and the examples listed here are the following:

- Bush's so-called defection has never been definitely proven. Although his presence in AL is disputed and he is unable to "prove" that he served his time there, no one has been able to disprove it either.

- Bush was not claiming CO as the rationale for his not fulfilling his military obligations, if in fact he did not fulfill them.

- If Bush did reneg on his obligations, it would seem to be more a case of laziness than cowardice since there no risk that he would be sent to Vietnam at the time.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/1/2005

Smells pretty fishy to me. One would think that a genuine CO would not want to be paid by a government whose "illegal" or "immoral" activity one is protesting.

Jonathan Pine - 3/1/2005

obviously not all people are obligated to fulfill their military contracts.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/28/2005

Just to augment the record -- you know, include those pesky little facts the author left out -- Lynd's other posterboy, Banderman, returned from Iraq in September 2003, but didn't apparently realize he had been transformed by the incredible combat stress of repairing Bradley vehicles until one week before his January 2005 re-deployment. In other words, he collected checks from Uncle Sugar for over a year, until Uncle Sugar wanted him to serve in Iraq again, at which point he realized he was a conscientious objector -- deployment will focus the mind.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 2/28/2005

I actually agree with Richard on this one. While all US soldiers are obligated to disobey orders that violate the law, and are morally obligated to disobey orders that violate human rights, I do not believe that any soldier, once he signs up for military service, has any right to refuse to be deployed to a particular combat area.

If a military soldier is contractually obligated to serve the US military for a certain period of time, he or she should NOT be permitted to violate that contract simply out of fear of combat. If he or she believes that they are being asked to commit a crime, then let their conscious be their guide. However, that being said, they have to face up to the consequences of their decisions, even if that means court marshal, and hope that the process will redeem them.

I do not believe that any war or conflict should ever be fought simply because the military wants to fight it. That is why we put command of the military in the hands of our civilian political leadership. The flip side is also true. No war or conflict should ever be avoided simply because some in the military don’t want to fight.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/28/2005

BTW, there's an interesting transcript of Rather's interview with Mejia (over at ZNet), wherein Mejia says he opposes THIS war -- tsk, tsk, not the right answer, posterboy. Moreover, Rather (who couldn't complete boot camp, but calls himself an ex-Marine) insists on calling the guy AWOL, when anybody who actually got through boot camp knows that AWOL for more than 30 days means you've deserted (Mejia took off for 5 months before putting in CO papers). Just for the record -- and this shouldn't come as a surprise, given the facts -- Mejia was convicted of desertion.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/28/2005

I'm not sure I follow your thinking. Deployment is not killing -- one could make the claim that by deploying without killing, one is tying up resources that could otherwise be devoted to killing. It isn't even contributing to killing. I thought the basis for the CO status claim was a moral refusal to kill in war. One can refuse to kill in Iraq, though the prospects of being killed (which aren't part of the CO equation) are higher in Iraq.

They hand a weapon to the prosecutors by not deploying. On the bright side, they stand a better chance of surviving. On the dark side, by refusing to deploy, even if they achieve CO status, they get hung with bad paper for life. Bad paper is usually a drawback in securing a good job, though if the current employment of underqualified former terrorists by academia is any indication, it can be a distinct advantage within the ivy walls.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/28/2005

Richard, I suppose your third point would have merit if, while avoiding deployment, they were caught doing murder elsewhere.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/28/2005

First, the Thompson incident at My lai is offered as an example of refusing illegal orders during combat. Thompson indeed refused an order, but not an illegal order -- the example just doesn't pertain.

Secondly, the assertion about Protestant bases of the CO status. Suggest you consult the US Supreme Court case of Mulloy, 1970.

Third, there seems to be a tendency, often glossed over here, for these new "CO's" to go AWOL for more than 30 days (that's called desertion, BTW), and then present themselves as a fait accompli. Unfortunately, they just damage their case. By missing deployment, they demonstrate that their main commitment is to not going to Iraq, rather than not killing.

James Eric Thornton - 2/28/2005

Working with the Army first hand and training troops who have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan I know that a vast majority support the mission. Unfortunately, those that dissent and seek to opt out of their duty are a vocal minority. CO does not carry as much weight as it once did because today's military is all-volunteer. Exceptions should be made for those who have a religious conversion. Any other stated reason smacks of cowardice.

mark safranski - 2/28/2005

What illegal war Chris ?

chris l pettit - 2/28/2005

as well as a supporter of the illegal war...

hypocrisy knows no bounds...nuff said


John H. Lederer - 2/28/2005

"And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible."

History of the Peloponnesian War, I, Thucydides (Crawley Trans.)