Should a Soldier Who Changes His Mind About War Have a Right to
Status as a Conscientious Objector?
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,"
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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: Benderman
Defense.org. Contributions are needed in order to hire outside
counsel should a court martial be ordered.
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). Reprinted from the History News
Network with permission.
© 2005 History News Network