Conscientious Objection

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Conscientious Objection

A sincere belief that participation in war is wrong. This objection may apply to all forms or to particular aspects of war. Such a conviction is said to be known in the conscience, the center of moral awareness; thus, to compel conscientious objectors (COs) to serve in the military would violate their human rights.

Generally, conscientious objection has pertained to principled objection to all wars. Some understandings of conscientious objection have focused on the use or threat of lethal force, others stress the collective organization of violence. Conscientious objection to particular wars and forms of warfare has received very limited recognition.

From the seventeenth century until World War II, the grounds for conscientious objection were communally held religious beliefs. In the late twentieth century, however, the narrow scope of permitted grounds has been greatly broadened. The reasons for conscientious objection now range beyond religious and moral ethical beliefs to philosophical, sociological, and political grounds. In some countries, the mere fact of a personal objection to participation in war is treated as an instance of conscientious objection.

Conscientious objection is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. As of 1994 the right to conscientious objection has become recognized in twenty-three countries, including states in the former Soviet Union and in the Southern Hemisphere. Other states may make informal provision by reassigning COs to other duties, such as work battalions. Government provision for conscientious objection is correlated with democratic regimes. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has asserted it as a human right, and international law has begun to incorporate it, as, for example, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Generally, there are five variations of conscientious objection, each with different implications for action.

  1. Conscientious objectors who will accept no service in the military: These persons, if drafted, are assigned to alternative service under civilian direction. If serving in the military when their beliefs "crystallize," they may be discharged.

  2. Conscientious objectors who will accept service in the military: These persons, if conscripted, are assigned to noncombatant service, usually in the medical corps. If serving in the military when their beliefs "crystallize," they will be assigned to noncombatant duties.

  3. Absolutist conscientious objectors. These are persons who will not cooperate in any way with the military, the war system, and preparations for war or organized violence. They will not register for conscription, and in some cases, when brought to trial will not participate in their own defense.

  4. Objectors to a particular war or form of armed conflict. Often called “selective conscientious objectors,” these are persons who are sincerely opposed to participation in what they believe to be an "unjust" war, but would participate in a "just war." For example, some people were opposed to the Vietnam War, but would have participated in World War II. These objectors, who make discriminate judgments about the justifiableness of conflicts and weapons, may seek exemption from military service during a period of conscription, and may request discharge or reassignment if in the armed forces.

    Nuclear pacifists are a subset of just war objectors. Their consciences would not allow them to participate in a nuclear war, or what they believe would become a nuclear war. Some nuclear pacifists are opposed to participation in all war because of their belief that any war fought today could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

  5. Conscientious objectors to paying taxes for war. These are persons whose consciences forbid them to pay the military portion of their taxes because of religious and moral beliefs about participation in war. A few such objectors refuse to pay any federal tax since their taxes are commingled in the general treasury and will be used to pay for war and preparations for war.
The Early History of Conscientious Objection

Martin of Tours, cutting his cloak in two for a gentleman in need, triggering his fabled conversion to Christianity and subsequent refusal to take part in war.The early Christians are now understood to have refused to participate in war and in the military, not only on the basis of teachings against killing, but also on the grounds of abhorrence of idolatrous worship in the Roman legions. Theologians from Tertullian to Origen supported conscientious objection. St. Martin of Tours is celebrated today for his decision to leave the military after his conversion and for his refusal to oppose the barbarian siege of the city. There is a direct line from this tradition through the medieval prohibitions on the clergy and members of religious orders, who comprised the church, from direct participation in violence and the shedding of blood, to the redefinition of the church in the radical Reformation to include the entire community of believers who share the same duty to refrain from warfare.

The Anabaptist sects in the Reformation of the sixteenth century took upon themselves the duty to be the church, shared belief in obeying the teaching of Jesus, and accepted suffering with him on behalf of others. Central to their belief is a rejection of participation in war. Persecuted in Europe they fled to America, where provisions in colonial charters gave them freedom of religion, or those rights developed subsequently. Among these groups were the closely related Mennonites and Amish. Smaller groups such as the Moravians and Schwenkfelders followed in the eighteenth century. The German Baptists, Dunkers, who combined pietist and Anabaptist distinctives, prospered in America, coming as a small band following their organization in 1708 at Swarztenau in the Rhineland. The followers of George Fox, the Society of Friends (Quakers), who grew out of the religious ferment in seventeenth-century England, came in numbers to the proprietary colony of William Penn, but they immigrated to the other colonies, also, so that they were one of the five most numerous denominations in America at the end of the eighteenth century. Other millenarian sects from England, such as the Christadelphians, Shakers, and Plymouth Brethren, also migrated to America during the Colonial period.

The current provisions for conscientious objection stem from the American Colonial-era exemptions given members of religious bodies, primarily the "historic peace churches," Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers, who held beliefs that opposed participation in war. The exemptions were therefore intended to apply only to those persons opposed to all wars because of their religion. They were exempted in statutes that date from 1657 (Massachusetts) and 1662 (Rhode Island). Because the Quaker establishment in Pennsylvania was not willing to prosecute the wars against the Indians nor implement a militia, their principles led to their loss of political control in the Commonwealth at the time of the French and Indian Wars.

During the American Revolution when his troops attempted to force Quakers to bear arms at Valley Forge, George Washington directed that they be set free to return home. At the time of the Civil War, there was no federal policy about conscientious objection in the United States. When conscription was initiated in 1862 in the Confederacy, there were exemptions for Quakers, Mennonites, Dunkards, and Moravians. When conscription was instituted in 1863 by the Union, conscientious objection was not allowed at first, but was soon provided for somewhat sporadically. With the availability of the open frontier, many Brethren moved to the West to escape conscription and thus to protect the conscientious objector men among them from military service. The provisions for COs echoed those of the Colonial era: a CO had to find a substitute or pay a commutation fee, often nearly a year's wages.

Conscientious Objection during World War I

Objectionable anti-CO propaganda during the first world warIn Britain at World War I, when conscription was instituted in 1916, sixteen thousand registered as conscientious objectors. Petitioners for CO status were regularly rejected by the hostile local tribunals and sent to jail. Thirty were sentenced to death, though secretly the sentences were countermanded. Fifty were sent to France in an effort to put them into combat and make them subject to a firing squad for disobeying orders. Harsh measures, such as isolation in prison, bread and water, "crucifixion" - being tied up, arms spread, tilted forward for hours at a time - failed to stop the movement of COs. Fourteen New Zealand COs were shipped to England and then to France, in an unsuccessful effort to force them into submission. One of them, Mark Briggs, was tied with a cable and dragged a mile until his clothes were torn off and his body was bleeding. Every founding member of the No-Conscription Fellowship was imprisoned, as was every editor of their newsletter, The Tribunal. The campaign of abuse was mitigated and over four thousand served in "work of national importance." "Conchies," some of whom had been imprisoned and released several times in a "cat and mouse" pattern, worked at various tasks, including moving granite stones for no clear purpose.

In the United States during World War I, the Selective Draft Act of 1917 mimicked some elements of the just-enacted law in Britain. The lobbying of the National Service Association, which in 1913 had established training camps for prospective officers, sought a tough law without consideration for COs.

Efforts to stem the recognition of conscientious objectors were widespread. The Molokans, a pacifist sect that fled Russia to the western United States, were particularly subject to persecution, for they were not willing to participate in conscription, holding worship services outside the places of registration. They were among the five hundred men imprisoned for their beliefs in opposition to participation in war. The Hutterites, like the Mennonites, an Anabaptist sect dating from 1524, were also subject to persecution. Prejudice against their German speech and their communal lifestyle were contributing factors and led many colonies to flee from the Dakotas and Montana to safety in Canada. Two Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf were imprisoned at Alcatraz. They refused to wear a military uniform and were denied other clothing. Hosed down in freezing weather, they contracted pneumonia, and they were shipped to Ft. Leavenworth. The two Hofers died. Their bodies were returned to their families, and when the coffin of one was opened he was dressed in the uniform that he had refused to wear in life.

Among the absolutists, 142 were sentenced to life imprisonment, and 17 to death, though their sentences were commuted. Seventeen died in prison from other causes. The last CO from World War I was released in 1934. When COs refused to cooperate in compulsory work programs in prison, during the times that other prisoners were at work they were hung by their thumbs until their toes barely touched the floor.

Mennonite leaders trustingly discussed with the secretary of war, Newton B. Baker, plans to conscript Mennonite men into the military and then grant them CO status, while his deputy, Judge Advocate General Crowder, was planning ways to force them to abandon their beliefs to get them to serve in the regular military.

Crowder had been the principal author of the Selective Service Act, with encouragement from the National Service Association. The act provided that members "of any well-recognized religious sects or organization whose existing creed or religious principles forbid its members to participate in war in any form" shall not be compelled to serve in any of the forces herein, except none shall be "exempted from service in any capacity the President shall declare to be noncombatant." Several denominations made special efforts to assert conscientious objector beliefs in order to protect the COs in their midst.

COs serving hard labor at Dyce Camp near Aberdeen, Scotland, 1916.  From the collection of Conscientious Objector Howard Marten.Of the 56,830 conscientious objector claims approved by local boards, only 3,989 persisted in their beliefs so that their CO status was sustained by the military after induction. About half were found unfit for service, but 16,000 were pressured into abandoning their position after induction. The FBI framed the leaders of the Church of God in Christ, a black denomination then mostly confined to the deep South and southern California. The church taught a form of pacifism on biblical grounds that would have allowed adherents to claim conscientious objector status under the Selective Service Act. The government, claiming they were agents of the kaiser, prosecuted and jailed the leaders. In the South, the draft board authority gave local leaders new and federal powers to control blacks in their community through manipulating their deferment.

After much delay, provisions for assignment of COs in "work of national importance" were determined by President Wilson. Some thirteen hundred were furloughed to farm work. Only in the last four months of the war were one hundred men allowed to work in Quaker war relief work in France. When the American Friends Service Committee was founded to provide service opportunities for COs, Quakers had hoped it would provide a principal vehicle for civilian service for COs. At World War II the pattern of alternative service "under civilian direction" "in lieu of military service" was put in place at last, and it has become the recognized international standard.

Conscientious Objection during World War II

In Great Britain, the government became much more tolerant of COs during World War II. Over 60,000 men and women claimed CO status. Only 1,050 were court martialed. Some were court martialed several times, however. Isolated instances of brutality still occurred. But, in the midst of a war for survival, even selective objectors were allowed by some tribunals. COs did relief work, and even a few absolutists did not do anything officially to aid in the war.

An American CO performs Civilian Public Service during World War II. Photograph courtesy of Wallace Kirkland / Time-Life Pictures / Getty ImagesIn 1940, the U.S. government enacted conscription under the Burke-Wadsworth Act, which provided for civilian-controlled alternative service in Civilian Public Service camps and eventually, in detached service in mental hospitals and schools for the mentally disabled. After three years of lobbying, the statute was considerably modified from the World War I version. The qualification for conscientious objection was changed to a general definition of religious objection to participation in all wars. Against the testimony of religious leaders who favored a broad conscience-based test as existed in Britain, the Senate committee added the compromise requirement worked out by leading Friends that conscientious objection must be based on "religious training and belief." Thus the Congress believed it had continued the World War I restrictions on conscientious objectors without the constitutional infirmities of an establishment of particular religions.

The number of COs in the United States during World War II is not accurately determinable. Perhaps 25,000 to 50,000 were noncombatants in the military. Over 12,000 served in the civilian public service camps. The number of claims made is not determinable, since Selective Service did not keep centralized records. (The same records problem persisted through the Vietnam era.) Perhaps as many as 100,000 claimed CO status. Six thousand went to prison as COs, 5,000 of whom were Jehovah's Witnesses. Nine seminarians out of twenty-one who had declared their opposition to registration on October 16, 1940, publicly refused and within a month were in Danbury prison for a year.

The treatment of COs during the war was much better than it had been during World War I. Ostracism and vilification were the extent of public reactions. The churches worked together to develop a program for COs that they partially financed. Mennonites contributed over $5 million of the $8 million to finance it. The relative success of the new program of civilian service became a pattern for international standards.

Conscientious Objection since World War II

In 1948, conscription was revived as the Universal Military Training and Service Act, with the addition of a requirement that conscientious objectors had to believe in a Supreme Being. At first there was no service requirement for COs. The act was amended in 1950 to provide that COs classified as 1-Ws would serve in individualized settings in alternative service.

Conscription was delayed during the Korean War, for the Department of Defense relied at first on reservists. When conscription of COs began again, as many COs (12,000) were placed in alternative service as there had been during World War II, out of a much smaller number of registrants. Conscription and CO classification and placement continued at very low levels and with general acceptance until the war in Vietnam.

Muhammad Ali refusing to be inducted into the US Army, 1967.  Flanked by civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy.During the Vietnam era, at least 171,000 claims for conscientious objector classification were made, and more than half were granted. The number of claims may be estimated to have been considerably greater since local board records were kept independently, and the Selective Service did not have a central record-keeping system except as classifications were actually made. From extreme hostility to COs in the early stages of the twelve-year conflict, the public support for COs shifted until in 1972 more CO claims were granted than there were inductees.

Supporters of COs led the way in organizing draft counseling programs, at first through campus ministry centers and then in community-based programs often under church sponsorship. National organizations such as the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (previously known as the National Service Board for Religious Objectors), the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, which was spun off from NSBRO in 1948, and AFSC carried out programs of training and support for local attorneys and counselors. New programs for alternative service were initiated to accommodate the large number of COs that Selective Service was unable to place. A national Interfaith Committee on Draft and Military Counseling coordinated work among the agencies.

A separate organization of National Black Draft Counselors was founded to deal with the special problems of discriminatory treatment, including the allocation of resources. Although individual black COs, such as Bayard Rustin during World War II, are notable in other periods, for the first time African-American COs emerged as a significant group with their own understanding, which included recognition of the racist pattern of war. The leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., in opposing the war in Vietnam was matched among younger COs by the appeal of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

After draft registration was restored in 1980, virtually all of the public resisters were conscientious objectors. Against the backdrop of nuclear war protest in the early 1980s, conscientious objection was a thoughtful position of many participants in that movement. The decade proved to be a time of conscientization for young people all over the world.

When the war in the Persian Gulf developed in late 1990, the CO counseling agencies were overwhelmed with requests for assistance. Despite assurances that a draft was not likely, attorneys and peace activists, many of whom had been active at the end of the Vietnam era, began training programs again. The requests for assistanee from emerging COs in the armed forces were similarly unprecedented. In the short period of three months, as many counseling cases were begun as would previously have been initiated over the course of several years, or in a full year during the Vietnam era. The significant number of cases of racial minority Marines, whose consciences were stimulated by the elements of Third World oppression, showed a shift from the usual pattern of CO claims in the military. Though commanders sought to limit the number of CO claims and sought to block their fair processing, many of the unfair convictions have been reversed. Pentagon officials now recognize a need to develop skilled counseling and a fairer procedure to protect the rights of COs.

L. William Yolton, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Conscientious Objection
  • Boyle, Beth, ed. Words of Conscience: Religious Statements on Conscientious Objection. 10th ed. Washington, D.C.: National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objection, 1982.
  • Keim, Albert N., and Grant M. Stoltzfus. The Politics of Conscience: The Historic Peace Churches and America at War, 1917-1955. Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald, 1988.
  • Moorhead, Caroline. Troublesome People: The Warriors of Pacifism. Bethesda, Md.: Adler and Adler, 1987.
  • Moskos, Charles C., and John Whiteclay Chambers II, eds. The New Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Sibley, Mulford Q., and Philip E. Jacob. Conscription of Conscience: The American State and Conscientious Objector, 1940-1947. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1952.

Related Resources


Read about the concept of Pacifism.


View the April 1968 cover of Esquire magazine, featuring conscientious objector Muhammad Ali.

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