This past Fourth of July, my grandfather, 94 years old, finally had his high-school graduation. Drafted in the winter of 1945 after his 18th birthday, he was at basic training in Camp Fannin, Texas, when his class graduated. His mother ascended the stage and was awarded the diploma in his stead.
Out on my parents’ lawn we erected a stage, installed a ramp for his wheelchair, and tied red, white, and blue balloons to every surface available, celebrating his scholastic achievement as well as his sacrifices all those many years ago. The extended family gathered to cheer the snowy-white-haired graduate as he motored onto the platform
My grandfather was a conscientious objector, something he rarely discusses, and only self-consciously if he does. He was willing to see combat as a medic, but the war was coming to a close, and so my grandpa was instead posted stateside in the supply corps. There he helped process the troops and their gear as they returned from Europe.
He is a deeply moral man — flawed, as all sons of Adam are, but truly good. A man who started a successful small business after the war and headed it for 60 years, supporting many people and charities the world over. The extent of his magnanimity will likely never be recognized because he gave then as he continues to give now, quietly and with no attachment.
A conscientious objector is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “person who, for reasons of conscience, objects to complying with a particular requirement, especially serving in the armed forces.” Often these folks were given short shrift, shamed for holding to their convictions in times of war. This shaming is flawed thinking, both as a judgment of individuals and for its national implications. The conscientious objector should be honored both for his contribution and for his knowledge of his moral reservations about inflicting violence — even when it would be better served to force his hand. The possibility of conscientious objection is a triumph of protecting individual conscience rights in the face of the collective’s desires.
The category of conscientious objectors has been with the United States military since the birth of the nation. George Washington called for a draft, to exclude those “with conscientious scruples against the war.” Under the reign of one of 20th century America’s greatest monsters, Woodrow Wilson, objectors were sentenced to long prison terms or beaten in the streets by the “American Protective League,” a fancy name for the president’s thugs.
The draft for the Second World War saw the greatest number of objectors, 72,000, many taking non-combatant roles — such as being a medic — or working for the civil service as fire-jumpers or conservationists. The Vietnam Conflict included the last draft, and consequently the last time conscientious objectors were a major part of the armed forces.
It is not an easy existence for the objector, torn between loyalties to conviction and to his community. The temptation to set aside one’s convictions to please the mob must be nigh on overwhelming in times of heightened tribalism, such as when a country is at war. To proclaim, “No, I will not do what I believe to be evil” is a commendable thing indeed. The conscientious objector does not shirk his duty and run for the border. Instead, knowing full well that social disapproval from his countrymen and his fellows in uniform awaits him, he shows up to the recruiting station. He then bears the spoken and unspoken condemnation of his fellows while contributing to the war effort outside of combat. A liberal democracy such as ours should celebrate this individualism and moral sentiment, not seek to shame it.
But do we not deny such individualistic impulses if they are widely thought wrong or socially harmful? When it comes to, say, avoiding taxation, this is true. But, we understand that there is a fundamental difference between asking someone to kill a fellow human and every other request. It’s a unique category.
A critic of conscientious objectors might say that their unwillingness to engage in combat may be costly to their country and result in a military loss because of decreased manpower. But this claim is objectionable in principle, and the feared outcome is unlikely in practice.
What does it say about a country with highfalutin ideals if every time there is a threat, liberties are tossed out the window for the sake of “the defense of the whole”? It says that it is hardly a country with preserving. Insofar as the practical is concerned, only a tenth of a percent of those drafted in World War I, and less than three-tenths of a percent of those drafted in World War II, applied to be conscientious objectors; battles were not lost or won on those margins.
What is more, the simple fact that he who believes killing is wrong can be forced to hold a rifle does not mean he will accurately fire it. You then have a rifle and ammunition gone to waste, a squadmate of reduced usefulness, and a morale problem in the unit as a whole owing to the rift. Or, worse yet, you have to task a man with threatening the objector’s life if he does not stand and fire — a former Soviet tactic. Better to retain the values we purport to hold dear during peacetime than to toss them away in wartime by forcing a handful of men to betray their morals and do what they cannot.
The conscientious objector’s pacifistic desires should be accommodated even if they come not from moral conviction or higher calling but instead from fear for his own life. As Nietzsche said, “one has to know the size of one’s stomach.” In the crucible of battle, he who is stricken with terror is likely not only to lose his own life but to take actions that imperil his fellows. It would be better for everyone if he stayed stateside and contributed where he was best able to be of use.
Would you want to be next to a fellow in a foxhole who is losing his mind to unmitigated terror? I would not. There is a scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan in which an American soldier cannot handle the pressures of combat and breaks down in a blubbering heap as German soldiers pass by him to shoot his American squadmates. The passivity of this pitiable wreck makes possible the killing of his compatriots. He should never have been in that position. Better to have him building munitions at a factory in Detroit or running to aid the fallen — actively helping the war effort — than have him take the place of a soldier who could handle the strain of war-making and help protect others.
Conscientious objectors should be honored because they are living symbols of the fact that, even in the darkest of times, we are a country strong and moral enough to respect the convictions of the individual over the demands of the collective. They who took the slings and arrows of their peers, shamed for making a stand, should hold themselves up with pride, knowing that what they did was enough and that the country is in their debt.