Should a Soldier Who Changes His Mind About War Have a Right to Status as a Conscientious Objector?

Everybody 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," or handgun.

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 objection.

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 as well?

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 unit obeyed.

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.

Numbers

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

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 him completely.

Returning 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.

Benderman

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.

On 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.

Note. 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.

March 3, 2005

Staughton. 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.

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