Conscientious objectors

Although it seems unlikely that the United States will reinstate compulsory military service any time soon, there are people who are so opposed to any form of military service that they may want to establish themselves as a conscientious objectors for personal and/or moral reasons rather than for practical reasons. Then too, the political climate in the United States could change very quickly, all young men are required by law to register with Selective Service at age 18, and it is not unreasonable to want to establish conscientious objector (CO) status now just in case you need it later.

When I had to register for the draft upon turning 18, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) provided counseling and resources that helped me, but the CCCO died in 2010. And the big concern for most organizations in the present political climate is supporting people already in the military who discover that they are COs.

However, I have found some good online resources for non-military COs. Most important is the Center on Conscience and War (CCW) Web page titled “Advice to Youth Facing Selective Service Registration” which offers three main suggestions:

Print in legible black ink on the face of all Forms sent to Selective Service (not on the edges): I am a conscientious objector.

Make a photocopy all forms for your own records before you submit it to the postal clerk for date stamp and initials. Send all mail return-receipt requested.

Prepare a statement of your beliefs. Get it on file with your church or a reputable peace organization such as CCW. Such a statement could be helpful in getting the government to recognize your CO beliefs.

You can read the full article here. You can find a PDF of “Basic Draft and Registration Information,” a more comprehensive article, here.

What about Unitarian Universalists and conscientious objection? The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) offers a brochure titled “Conscientious Objectors and the Draft,” available online here. Unfortunately, this brochure is somewhat dated, but it’s still worth reading. According to this brochure, the UUA maintains a registry of conscientious objectors; with the demise of the CCCO registry, this is good news for UU COs.

All this makes me think back to how I documented my own conscientious objection to war as a Unitarian Universalist youth. The first thing I did was talk with Rev. Pat Green, the associate minister at my Unitarian Universalist church, about my religious objections to war and the military; he helped me sharpen my arguments in favor of pacifism, and find a religious basis for them. Pat also helped me to understand that although Unitarian Universalism does not have a specific peace witness (unlike, e.g., Quakerism), our religion nevertheless calls on us to follow our conscience in the face of difficult moral and ethical decisions. Thus I learned that as a Unitarian Universalist I could remain firmly opposed to participation in war on religious grounds, and other Unitarian Universalists could remain firmly committed to a career in the military on religious grounds. And Pat also pointed out that because of this, it was much harder for a Unitarian Universalist to convince a draft board that he was a CO than a Quaker (and yes, I do mean to use the word “he” here, since women have yet to be subject to compulsory military service in the United States).

I also registered with the CCCO — if I were doing this today, I would register with the UUA, my local congregation, and the Center on Conscience and War (CCW). I have vague memories of writing out a statement of my pacifism, but I don’t remember what I did with this. I got involved in the peace movement, specifically in campaigns to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal, attending demonstrations in Washington, etc. Before I turned 18, I found a qualified counselor who could give me advice about registering with Selective Service — the man I saw was trained by the CCCO, but as I understand it the CCW still trains such counselors. I also knew my Unitarian Universalist church would back me up if I ever needed to establish a claim, and I suppose that’s one thing that kept me involved in Unitarian Universalism.

If I were to give advice to a Unitarian Universalist youth today on how to establish CO status (and one recently asked me for just such advice), I might refer them to the Web page “How To Compile a CO Claim,” which suggests the following:

  • State that you are a CO when you register with Selective Service
  • Write a statement of your CO beliefs
  • Get three people who know you well to write a letter supporting your CO claim
  • Get active in peace work, and document your activity
  • Document other ways in which your pacifism has affected the way you live your life (at the very least, give money to CCW!)
  • Collect all these documents, and get them notarized
  • File copies of these documents with the UUA, your local UU congregation, and find out if the CCW will keep them on fiel as well
  • Keep the originals in a safe place

If you have any other suggestions or resources for UU youth who want to establish their conscientious objection to war, I’d love to hear them — leave them in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “Conscientious objectors”

  1. You might want to look up the oath for US citizenship and consider what it means for a pacifist legal resident applying for citizenship.

  2. I’m a UU and have been a Board member for my local Selective Service Board for almost ten years. Yes, there are still local boards who meet annually for training, so that should the call go out we can respond to CO (and other) requests promptly. From our training, I can tell you that a person doesn’t have to belong to any church in order to be a CO. What’s needed is a conscience that cannot bear war. I’m troubled by your article because it reads much more on the mechanics of how to avoid service for avoidance sake, than how to convincingly articulate an authentic objection to war. It is not about “registering” with your church or peace organizations. It is about articulating where this conscience began within you, how it grew, how it manifested itself, what people you can present as witnesses that have seen this outlook grow in you. The Board that is deciding this is looking at the person and if they are sincere. It won’t matter a whit what the documents say if it appears that someone else has primed them in how to avoid the draft. And by the way, no one gets out of service. A CO would be assigned “alternative service” which might be at home in his community, but he would under the purview of Uncle Sam. The idea is that at a time of national emergency we all (and a movement is afoot to bring women into any potential draft out of necessity and changing social attitudes) will answer the call. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. By the way, I encourage anyone interested to volunteer for their local Selective Service Board. It takes a broad cross section of citizens in order to do the job properly, and just as well to have a few more UU’s on them.

  3. Abby, I’m surprised you feel troubled by the post, and I’m a little peeved that you think I am so unethical that I would encourage young people to avoid service simply for the sake of avoidance. I assume that anyone thinking about CO status must begin with a well-defined moral objection to war, and therefore the post is aimed both at young people who already know they object to war and need to know about the mechanics of establishing CO status, as well as the older adults (like me) who are advising these young people. Also, I’m well aware that people who don’t belong to a religious organization (whether a church or other type of congregation) can receive CO status — but I’m not writing for them, I’m writing for Unitarian Universalist youth and their supporters.

    That being said, I very much appreciate your service on your local Selective Service board. And of course more Unitarian Universalists should get involved in this, and every other kind of public service. Public service is very much in the tradition of both Unitarianism and Universalism, though it seems to have slipped from our consciousness in recent years. I’d argue that we are in fact required by our Unitarian Universalist values to give back to the world in service (though we will, obviously, argue about what kind of service we should engage in).

  4. Dan. I’m sorry I offended you. It’s much too easy to offend (and take offense) in email and I wish I could have offered my comments in way that did neither. I guess I’m just looking at it from the standpoint of my Board training. I’d frankly be a bit suspicious of notarized documents going back years before there was even a draft. Actual peace activism or study or behavior over a period of time as corroborated by witnesses or written statements from witnesses that were current at the time of the hearing would be much more persuasive. As I said, the Board is looking to know from whence this objection to war arose, what continues to guide the CO in that way, and how does that person live his life now that is consistent with being a CO. He has to be able to convince the Board it is heart-felt, which being a registered member of an organization (whether a church or a peace organization) does not in and of itself do. I’m suspicious of the “counselors” you mention who would help a young man register his CO status. The man needs to be his authentic self (very UU, by the way) and express his own views (not “counseled” views) at the Board hearing. I guess it sounds to me like if someone needs this much help then perhaps the pacifism is not too deep and perhaps there is something else going on. You mention your minister helped you “sharpen your arguments towards pacifism”. If you mean he challenged you to figure out where you would and would not cross the line towards violence, self-defense (personal and large group), etc, then that’s exactly the point. In that case, the minister would be the witness you would want to bring to the Board meeting,no matter how many years ago the conversation was had, and I could see that would be very convincing. But if the minister GAVE you the sharper arguments for pacifism, then no, the Board would still be looking for evidence that you had internalized those arguments and made them your own. A CO does not need advice on how to get that designation. A CO just needs to truly be a CO from deep within. And this does not mean the person has to be the most articulate, intellectual person around. Simple sincerity is no less valid. This is how the Board would be looking at a person who presents himself as a CO.

  5. Abby, thank you for your comments on what what your local selective service board is looking for.

    When I have heard people talk who went through establishing CO status with a local draft board during the Vietnam era, all of them said basically what you’re saying above — that the successful CO will demonstrate deep conviction and great sincerity — but all of them also said that they found it a very stressful process and that they were glad that they had established a CO file for themselves in advance (or wished they had done so). For me, the process of establishing such a file helped me a great deal in understanding my own conscientious objections to war and military service. It’s a both-and, not an either-or, situation.

    I do not know of any counselors whose goal is to help a young person register their CO status. My understanding is that the primary aim of a counselor is to provide pastoral care in what may be a stressful decision-making process, to inform the young person of pertinent regulations and legal issues (or refer the young person to competent legal counsel if needed), and to outline what could happen if the young person makes certain decisions (e.g., what could happen if the young person refuses to register, etc.). When I was deciding what to do about registering for Selective Service, I saw such a counselor, and mostly it was a relief to talk with an older adult who took me seriously as a CO, who gave me straight facts about laws and regulations, and who was a kind listening ear.

    Regarding the fact that COs do not need to be members of historic peace churches, it is worth noting Erp’s comment above. While there is an alternative citizenship oath available for COs, aparently ICE sometimes interprets CO status as only applying to members of historic peace churches or other faiths with a historic opposition to military service (e.g., Buddhism). Thus while your local Selective Service Board may be completely up-to-date on the current understanding that the constitutional protection for COs is afforded to anyone regardless of religion, not all areas of government have caught up with your local board.

    Again, thank you for sharing the perspective of the local Selective Service Board. And for my part, I hope I have been able to provide a little more insight into what it’s like to be a conscientious objector to war.

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