Atheism and conscientious objection
Apparently, about a year ago I took a call from an Army recruiter, and told him to call back when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed.
He called today. I’m genuinely impressed.
DADT was the first and foremost objection I gave to recruiters, with my queer friends in the military (past, present, would-be) in mind. The fact is that I’m a die-hard pacifist (get it?). Wars are fought by pawns, wielded by the kings and presidents who disagree with each other, and they last until one side runs out of pawns, not until the disagreement is resolved. I have nothing against my fellow man who is deluded or unfortunate enough to become someone else’s pawn; why should I kill him?
Although I admit that it’s sometimes necessary and moral to do things like kill in self-defense, war between nations is a broken system I can’t support or participate in. I just wish my friends and their “enemies” both the best, and look forward to the day that the actual parties in conflict settle things either at the bargaining table, or at least by themselves in Thunderdome.
I’ve decidedly been a pacifist since I was told I needed to register with the Selective Service System after my 18th birthday. The looming registration deadline inspired a lot of soul-searching, which only solidified my objection to war. But I decided that dodging the registration system wasn’t worth the risk, so I made an effort to establish a paper trail as a conscientious objector.
There’s really no obvious process, since a draft hasn’t been called since Vietnam. Successful conscientious objectors — when the draft comes up, they are granted that status by the draft board, not sent to fight despite their protests — have typically had religion on their side. Until 1971, religious belief was the only way out of the draft; among others, active Mennonites and Quakers could be exempted for belonging to “peace churches,” where pacifism is a long-established central doctrine. Selective Service now says:
Beliefs which qualify a registrant for CO status may be religious in nature, but don’t have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man’s reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man’s lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.
But being religious, particularly Christian, still helps a lot. Agustin Aguayo — not an atheist, but “an agnostic who believed in a higher power,” was imprisoned and given a bad conduct discharge in 2007 after going AWOL, following multiple attempts to file for CO status since enlisting in 2003. The chaplain evaluating him said “it is difficult to assess the depths of his beliefs because they rest solely within his own thinking and personal values without the support of background, family, or faith group.”
I don’t know any atheists (or agnostics) who have been granted CO status, either after enlisting or when called up for the draft. If successful, though, depending on your convictions, you’re given a noncombatant assignment in the military, or alternative community service at home. Hopefully it’s not a situation that I and other pacifist non-Christians will have to confront; presently, at least, we’re getting along with the other big world powers, and the military’s recruiting and volunteer pool just got a bit bigger.