Conscientious objection: a U.S. veteran’s perspective

Since the U.S. military moved away from a policy of conscription, several generations of Mennonite pacifists have become somewhat apathetic on questions of conscientious objection and military service. The issue of conscience in war—once a key ethical matter central to the Mennonite faith—has lately been labeled as political, a marginal and somewhat irrelevant distraction from the other pressing needs of an active congregational life.

The challenges of war and conscience in war, however, are still very real to many Americans. Many soldiers are struggling and suffering for their new-found beliefs against war and military service. The Mennonite community should not be indifferent to their struggles. Not only does the pacifist church have an opportunity to unmask the ideology of militarism by standing with recent COs, but in helping to secure the rights of supposedly-volunteer soldiers in the present day, Mennonites will be securing those same rights for a time when the draft once again comes knocking to take their children off to the army camp.

The plight of the Iraq War CO

In late 2006, my friend Amy was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. army. She was a sensitive and educated person, but she was also a good soldier and a professional linguist. While in Iraq, Amy experienced the soul-crushing violence of military occupation and war. Like many thousands of fellow soldiers in the supposedly “all volunteer” U.S. military, she began reading in her spare time, and she knew deep down that the occupation she was participating in was wrong. In 2007, Amy wrote an essay on why she was considering herself a conscientious objector to war, and turned it in to her commander in an attempt to be recognized for what she was: a CO.

Because Amy had never once loaded her weapon in the war, and because it was a prop required for passage on the base, she did not immediately turn her rifle in to the commander, who then used this fact to deny Amy her conscientious objector status. In effect, the military told Amy that her deep convictions against war and militarism were just passing feelings. She was then punished for daring to waste the army’s time with her frivolous feelings. The day Amy’s unit returned from the war, she was told that she would be re-deploying in six months for another year-and-a-half in the occupation. Soon Amy showed up at the peace center where I was working, AWOL: a fugitive from the military. Based on my own assessment as a soldier in the war, the vast majority of the soldiers who applied for conscientious objector status between 2004 and 2008 were turned down like Amy.

Pacifist appraisal of modern conscientious objection

So what does it mean for Mennonites that during the middle stages of the occupation of Iraq, hundreds or even thousands of American soldiers were ready to jettison their careers and explore the nuances of conscientious objection? A lesson to religious pacifists who want to monopolize conscientious objection: that someone like Amy should come to a world-altering conclusion about violence and militarism without a traditional religious conversion demonstrates the universality of nonviolent truth. The nonviolent God moves in a theodicy of grace through the experience of brokenness, war and violence to renew the covenant of wholeness. By failing to engage those soldiers who struggle in a conceptual language different from ours with the transcendent truth of God’s nonviolent way, Christian pacifists share in the guilt and sin of the world that forces young people to do violence against their will and better judgment. War is, after all, really a failure of human imagination. Human violence is a demonstration of humanity’s unwillingness to trust the will of God the Creator, to suffer-with and to love enemies.

Comfortable Mennonites, whose children go unthreatened by conscription and war, sometimes talk of peace as if it were some distant eschatological fairy-tale, and not an urgent, vital need. To people like my friend Amy, peace is tangible and present, what some pacifist theologians have called the “moral grain” of the universe. My deep and abiding hope is that Mennonites will embrace veterans and military personnel in the spirit of Christian love and peacemaking, partnering with us to explore the realities of the God of peace. Together, let us worship the Lamb who reigns nonviolently, and let us proclaim God’s peace.

Evan K.M. Knappenberger is an Iraq war veteran and a Philosophy and Theology major at Eastern Mennonite University

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

For a timeline of peace church and broader efforts to obtain provisions for conscientious objector discharges from the U.S. military, see: http://civilianpublicservice.org/storycontinues/hotline/advocacy

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Lettini, Gabriella. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

Center on Conscience & War: http://centeronconscience.org

GI Rights Hotline: http://girightshotline.org

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