The dirty world of military recruiting (FCN, 07-21-2004)

( – Resistance to war became a major issue in America during World War I and II. The United States permitted members of “recognized pacifistic religious groups” to be excluded from combat in exchange for noncombatant military service, nonmilitary activity related to the war effort, or activity considered socially valuable.

Those without a “recognized claim to exemption” were subjected to punishment and about 5,000 conscientious objectors were imprisoned in the United States between 1940 and 1945. In 1948, the postwar Selective Service Act was passed and then amended in 1951. It “required that conscientious objection be based on religious belief and training that included belief in a Supreme Being.”


In 1970, the Supreme Court removed the religious requirement and allowed objection based on a deeply held and coherent ethical system, with no reference to a Supreme Being.

In 1971, the court refused to allow objection to a particular war; objectors had to be against all wars. This decision affected thousands of objectors to the Vietnam War. Some 50,000-100,000 men are estimated to have left the United States to avoid being drafted to serve in that war.

In 1962, the Defense Department made it a policy to allow conscientious objectors to be discharged or transferred to noncombatant duties. Department of Defense (DoD) Directive 1300.6, Conscientious Objectors [August 20, 1971], is based on conscientious objector provisions in the Military Selective Service Act (draft law) and Supreme Court decisions on conscientious objection. Each Service (including the Coast Guard) has regulations based on this directive.

DoD 1300.6 defines a conscientious objector as a person who has “a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and belief.” People who object to war “solely upon considerations of policy, pragmatism, expediency, or political views” do not qualify for discharge or transfer under DoD 1300.6.

According to, in order to qualify as a conscientious objector, you have to object to participating in “war in any form.” Although the DoD says that your belief has to be “firm [and] fixed,” this doesn’t mean you have to be sure what you would do in every situation, or that you can’t reserve the right to change your mind. But you do have to object to all wars now. You must feel so strongly that war is wrong that you can’t be a part of it; your conscience won’t let you remain in the military or it won’t let you use weapons.

According to §III (a) of DoD 1300.6, your objection has to be based on “religious training and belief.” But later on, in §III (B), the directive states that this means: “Belief in an external power or being or deeply held moral or ethical belief, to which all else is subordinate or upon which all else is ultimately dependent, and which has the power or force to affect moral well-being.”

In other words, to qualify as a conscientious objector, you must have “religious training and belief,” but this does not mean religion as we usually use the word. You don’t have to be a member of a church, or believe in a God, or follow any particular religion’s teachings. If your belief is deeply held and central to your life, it qualifies under the law.

Many people, with many different beliefs, have qualified for conscientious objector status. The two most important cases for understanding the legal definition of conscientious objection were brought by Daniel Seeger and Elliot Welsh.

Mr. Seeger didn’t know whether he believed in a God, but he did believe in moral forces like “good” and “beauty.” In 1965, the Supreme Court held that his belief was “religious” for purposes of the law. It held the same place in Mr. Seeger’s life as a more traditional religious belief might in someone else’s life.

Mr. Welsh told his draft board that his belief wasn’t religious. But in 1970, in Welsh v. U.S., the Supreme Court said that he qualified for CO status because the Court said that a moral objector could qualify for CO status as long as his or her belief was central to his or her life.

The courts have held that “religious training” isn’t any special kind of school or indoctrination. Your training is the process that led you to the belief you have–whatever that process may have been.

If you were raised in a religious group, went to religious school, and still follow the teachings of your religion, that’s part of your training. If you’re not particularly religious, but have talked with people who were against war, or seen anti-war movies, that’s part of your training.

“The significance of the 1971 Supreme Court decision of Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) v. U.S.A. was that the Supreme Court recognized that the Nation of Islam was a valid religion in America. Further, the court recognized that our religious views–we do not take part in wars that take human lives–qualifies us as conscientious objectors as a matter of law,” said Abdul Arif Muhammad, General Counsel to the Nation of Islam.