Conscientious Objector: Definition & Status

Instructor: Ashley Miller

Ashley works in Higher Education and holds a Masters degree in Organizational Leadership

Is it possible to serve in the US Armed forces while being morally and wholeheartedly against war? It is indeed! We'll discuss what exactly a conscientious objector is, how one gains that status, and some statistics on conscientious objectors throughout history.

Conscientious Objector: Definition

According to the United Stated Department of Defense, a conscientious objector is someone who disagrees with the entire principle of war. This includes carrying guns, using guns, fighting, or war of any kind. Usually, conscientious objectors are influenced by unwavering religious teachings and religious beliefs. However, in order to be designated a conscientious objector, the government must approve a formal application. Just being a member of a religious organization who objects to the idea or execution of war doesn't cut it. An applicant has to have a long standing history of living and representing those beliefs in public and private.

The Vietnam War, fought between North Vietnam and its supporters and South Vietnam and its supporters (including the United States) from roughly 1955 to 1975 was very controversial. Many Americans did not believe it was morally right, and they did not want to fight. As a result, the US Supreme Court ruled in, Gillette v. United States in 1971 that the criteria for being labeled a conscientious objector must be expanded. The court further defined which religious teachings could gain a person status, but were careful not to allow specific war causes as grounds. This means that a person cannot object to a single war based on political ideals. He or she must exhibit a lifelong objection to any war based on deeply held religious values.

There is a process to achieve this type of designation from the military, though it has changed over the years. Let's look at what it means to be given conscientious objector status through the eyes of the US's first unarmed combat medic to receive the Medal of Honor, Private First Class Desmond T. Doss.

Conscientious Objector: Status

Private Fist Class Desmond T. Doss was drafted into the Army during WWII in 1942. He had always been guided by a poster of the Ten Commandments his father bought for him as a child that clearly stated 'Thou shall not kill,' and 'Honor the Sabbath'. As a member of the religious group Seven Day Adventist, Doss wholeheartedly believed in these principles and was unwavering in his faith long before he was drafted. How could he honor his service to the Army and his faith? Doss became an unarmed medic. Medics did not need to carry weapons and Doss felt that since Jesus healed people on the Sabbath (Saturday in the Seven Day Adventist Church) he could both serve in the army and honor his beliefs.

Since the times of WWII the process for gaining status as a conscientious objector isn't done as quickly. Doss would have completed a ten-question application that would have covered his background and history of opposition towards various military actions. Now though, under the Department of Defense Military Code, there is (1) a written application, and (2) a three-step interview process with a psychiatrist, military Chaplin and investigating officer. Finally, a conscientious objector review board makes the final decision.

Conscientious Objector: Statistics

The Swathmore College Library reported that there were 3,989 conscientious objectors in WWI.

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