The date was June 5, 1917, the first day of the draft. Sousa’s Band struck up “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the 6,000 in attendance at the American Medical Association Convention in New York City rose to their feet as former president Theodore Roosevelt walked across the stage.
The United States had tried to avoid war, but the German U-boats kept a relentless attack on American interests at sea. In a complicated scenario the British were fearful that the anticolonialist Americans would enter on the side of the Central Powers, and there were rumors that Germany would enlist Mexico to join Japan in fighting the United States in return for Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
President Wilson, who won the presidency on the promise of keeping America out of the war, quietly began arming some American merchant ships, and Germany sunk several, an act that former president Roosevelt denounced as piracy. Roosevelt insisted on war, and on April 6, 1917, Congress declared war.
Once at the podium, Roosevelt ripped into those who did not support the draft for moral reasons. “The conscientious objector,” he said, “curtains his cowardice behind the statement that he objects to placing himself in a position where he might take part in killing someone. I’d guard his conscience. I’d send him to the front, but I wouldn’t give him a gun. I’d put him to digging kitchen sinks and trenches so that good men could rest until the time came for them to kill someone. Then I’d watch his conscience to see what it would do.”
In war, the conscientious objector is both praised and vilified. Some admire the morality of the noncombatant stance, while others view objectors as slackers unworthy of the freedom bought by the blood of others. History has drawn distinctions between those who served in noncombatant roles and those who refused to serve in the military at all.
The pronounced reasons for war in the Western world have changed over the centuries from financial contests for resources and land at the behest of an all-powerful king to fights for national righteousness and personal freedom in democracies. Motivating people who enjoy freedom to join a larger fight is more difficult than simply forcing them to do so at the tip of a sword. The loyalty of subjects has been replaced by patriotism and nationalism, and there is an expectation that citizens will take up the fight against the Other.
There is a formula for this rhetoric. The Other has made plans to harm our interests and will carry them out unless these plans are stopped and the Other is symbolically decapitated politically, militarily, or financially. The Other has an evil philosophy that runs counter to the American civil religion. We must join the fight, God is on our side, and because we are right we will prevail. Failure to raise up arms against the Other is an offense to your fellow citizens, your history, and God, who has already secured our victory.
In 1917 Roosevelt wrote a brief message in a “Pocket Testament” Bible distributed to the troops. Based loosely around Micah 6:8, Roosevelt called on the troops to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Under “Do justice,” Roosevelt wrote, “and therefore fight valiantly against the armies of Germany and Turkey, for these nations in this crisis stand for the reign of Moloch and Beelzebub on this earth.”
Superimposing a divine mandate on a military action while demonizing the enemy (in Roosevelt’s case quite literally) can convince millions to pick up arms when they would otherwise feel revulsion toward slaughtering an enemy.
The history of those who refused to bear arms, not because of political disagreements or cowardice, but because of a philosophical, ethical, or faith-based objection to taking human life goes back millennia.
Many early Christians, in what historian Edward Gibbon considered an “excess of virtue” because they “exposed themselves to the reproaches of the pagans, by their obstinate refusal to take an active part in the . . . military defense of the empire,”1 conscientiously objected to warfare. These Christians were adherents to an apocalyptic faith, living in anticipation of the day of the Lord, and they felt that temporal warfare was a distraction from the higher transcendent causes of evangelism and preparation.
On March 12, 295, the Roman army drafted 21-year-old Maximilian of Tebessa. He refused the badge, claiming that he already wore the badge of Christ. The proconsul told him, “Then I will send you to your Christ,” and ordered his execution.
On October 29, 298, Marcellus of Tangiers, a Roman centurion who was also a Christian, likewise found himself at the wrong end of a sword after he threw down his weapons and insignia at a party in honor of the emperor’s birthday and proclaimed that he would worship only Jesus Christ. He was executed for deserting the military.
Both Maximilian and Marcellus were later canonized by the church. Although they are regarded as conscientious objectors, others would argue that they simply disagreed with the religious implications of service to Roman armies that fought under the banner of pagan deities. Yet, the religious fervor of civil religion still plays a central role in much of today’s warfare.
Christian conscientious objection goes back to Jesus’ own admonishment to Peter. When Peter drew his sword in defense, slicing off the ear of the servant of the high priest, Jesus reattached the ear and warned Peter that those who fight by the sword will perish by the sword.2 The healing of a hostile individual represented the spiritual embodiment of the teaching to “turn the other cheek.” This spiritual kingdom was one of peace, not of war, and it would operate on a different level.
But changes in Christian attitudes toward military service were on the way. Just before he consolidated his rule over the Roman Empire by beating his brother-in-law, Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, Constantine ordered his soldiers to mark their shields with a symbol he said he had seen in a dream of a cross and the sun. Under this sign, they would conquer.
He then converted his army to Christianity, and although this conversion was presumably predicated upon a solar talisman rather than a theological transformation, this did not bother the majority of Christians, who were weary of centuries of persecution and longing for official recognition and toleration. Under Constantine, Christians enjoyed new freedoms, and the church rode on to unrivaled primacy in 391 under Theodosius the Great.
Pagan wars, which under the Romans had to be justified but unrestrained once initiated, now needed to be Christianized. In 426 Augustine of Hippo, writing in The City of God, muted the cognitive dissonance between the peacefulness of Christ and the Holy Roman Empire’s need to suppress military enemies when he proposed the “just war theory.”
This theory held that armed conflict is abhorrent but can meet the needs of justice under two criteria—the first, jus ad bellum, being the right to go to war, and the second, jus in bello, added the necessity of proper conduct once war began. Later, in the Middle Ages, Roman Christianity added the tradition of bellum Romanium, which gave Christians justification for holy war waged by God’s people for the “righteous” purpose of expanding Christianity.
That Christianity now recognized the existence of standards of conflict did not so much prevent war as it justified the march of religiously motivated armies, imbued not only with political necessity and military skill, but a spiritual imperative.
There were some theoretical limitations on war. The principle of jus ad bellum required that force can only be used as a last resort to support a just cause, and that it must be proportionate
to the amount of wrongdoing by the other. Augustine’s “just war theory” still holds sway in the West, and is evident as recently as President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address, in which he described the coming war in Iraq: “If war is forced upon us, we will fight in a just cause and by just means, sparing, in every way we can, the innocent.”
Although Augustine’s counsel would seem to have mitigated the ferociousness of war, on the ancient battlefield Christian soldiers fought non-Christians without restraint and only applied the “just war theory” to conflicts with fellow Christians. In the late 700s Charlemagne brutally fought against the pagan Saxons, and massacred, enslaved, and plundered civilians en masse. After 30 years of warfare many Saxons consented to Christian baptism. When the Saxons backslid into paganism, Charlemagne ordered the massacre of 4,500 of the apostates.
In contrast, the emerging Protestant Reformation highlighted the concept of the individual standing before God. Although many Reformers faced the military might of the church and some even instigated their own warfare, the concept of the individual conscience began to replace the power of the national or church prerogative.
Those who opposed participation in warfare regardless of its justification or methodology began to form pacifist groups. The American colonies, which recognized individual rights of conscience, allowed certain exemptions to military participation for members of the Mennonites and Brethren and the Society of Friends. No colony forced religious objectors to bear arms if they were willing to pay for the exemption. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington issued a draft that called for “all young men of suitable age to be drafted, except those with conscientious scruples against war.”
By the time the Bill of Rights was being drafted, this recognition of conscientious objection was so entrenched in the American philosophy that James Madison’s original proposal included the following language: “No person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.” The clause was excluded because the Founders did not foresee the necessity of a standing army.
During the Civil War, individuals from both sides were able to pay a fixed fee to avoid military service.
However, in the ensuing years, the rights of conscience began to retract. By the time of World War I, some people felt that it was too easy to categorize oneself as a conscientious objector and thus avoid conflict. They argued that the nation was going to war to protect the freedom of all, including the objector. A new compromise emerged between the buyout plan of the Civil War and forced combat.
During World War I, conscientious objectors were still conscripted but could serve in noncombatant military roles. Those who refused the draft were imprisoned.
President Harry Truman pins the Medal of Honor on Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the nation's highest honor for bravery. He was a medic serving in Okinawa.
By World War II, a process was developed to screen the sincerity of objectors. The DSS 47 form asked draftees who identified themselves as conscientious objectors to clarify the basis of their belief, how long they had held this belief, and whether they had previously given “public expression, written or oral,” to these views.
Objectors were given the opportunity to serve in noncombatant roles, including as medics. Those who refused to participate in the military were able to serve in the Civilian Public Service (CPS), in which they did forestry work and erosion prevention in remote locations where they could not spread their pacifist viewpoints.
Alternatives to armed service were also available to draftees during the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
In today’s all-volunteer American military, individuals who decide to identify themselves as conscientious objectors must stand before a panel of psychiatrists, military chaplains, and officers who evaluate their sincerity. In Switzerland a similar panel is all civilian, and in Germany a panel meets only if a written request is unconvincing.
In short, it is not easy for a volunteer enlistee to establish bona fides as a conscientious objector. With the United States approaching 10 years of war since 9/11, if the war continues in Afghanistan and Iraq with military human resources being limited and enlistment seeming less attractive, it is not inconceivable that conscription could be reintroduced. If this happens, and draft boards are again called to evaluate the sincerity of conscientious objectors, it would be helpful for them to have evidence of their bona fides in advance of a draft.
In the United States, when a young man registers as required with the Selective Service at the age of 18, or decides to become a conscientious objector, he should be able to submit a declaration of this status to the Selective Service, or perhaps an independent registry, along with other evidence such as a letter from a member of the clergy, a personal statement, and other evidence of a commitment to peace. This documentation could then be available to present to draft boards as prima facie evidence of the sincerity of a conscientious objector.
Because the issue of conscientious objection becomes more controversial during drafts, it is important to plan ahead to repair and protect the rights of America’s conscientious objectors.
1 Edward Gibbon, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esq.: With Memoirs of His Life and Writings (London: B. Blake, 1837), p. 757.
2 Matthew 26:52.
Author: Michael D. Peabody
Michael D. Peabody is an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He has practiced in the fields of workers compensation and employment law, including workplace discrimination and wrongful termination. He is a frequent contributor to Liberty magazine and editsReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent website dedicated to celebrating liberty of conscience. Mr. Peabody is a favorite guest on Liberty’s weekly radio show, “Lifequest Liberty.”