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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of April 17 - 23, 2002

  Opinion Column

The courage of the conscientious objector

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

The law requires only that a person be conscientiously opposed to the planned and organized killing of combatant and non-combatant alike that takes place in warfare.

Tom was never a close friend and I had not seen him in many years, but he was a friend I admired and enjoyed. I learned this morning that he had died after a brief illness. While his passing saddens, Tom lived a long and rich life of his own choosing. I mean, he was his own man. Tom was the first conscientious objector I ever knew. Actually, he was the first CO or "conscie" I ever knew of; that is, before him I had not heard the term or realized that one could honorably oppose the majority’s viewpoint of the day or maintain personal integrity by standing one’s ground against the sycophantic if passionate flow of social conformity.

Tom had been a CO during World War II, a time and war when that status was accorded even less merit and social respectability than now. During World War II more than 5000 people went to prison for their CO beliefs, though Tom served in a non-combative role. I first met him when I was a high school student in Reno, Nevada, in the mid 1950s, a time of Eisenhower blandness, McCarthyinsm, atomic bombs being detonated in the Nevada desert, uniformity, conformity, consumerism, and a national fear of communism not too unlike the current fear of terrorism. It was a time, like now, when questioning authority was unlikely to result in rational discourse. Tom was older, an artist by nature, an English teacher in my high school by trade, and a fellow skier. He never talked with me about being a CO, but we all knew he had served in a non-combative role during WWII, and we knew he wasn’t afraid of authority, unpopularity, non-conformity or the dictates of his own conscience, which, it always seemed to me, was both clean and courageous.

Since the time of the Colonies, before there was a Constitution, the conscientious objector has had rights in this country. Subsequent U.S. law does not "require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the armed forces of the U.S. who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form." However, the law states that "the term ‘religious training and belief’ does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views, or a merely personal moral code." But in 1965 and in 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the words "religious training and belief" must now be interpreted to include personal moral and ethical beliefs that have the same force in people’s lives as traditional religious beliefs. That is, sincere personal moral and ethical beliefs in opposition to personal participation in war has the same legal standing as does believing in the authority and teachings of an organized and established religion. The operative word in the last sentence is "sincere," and for a CO to establish such sincerity is not an always easy task.

During the Vietnam War, the two best known of thousands of American conscientious objectors were Muhammad Ali, the boxer, and David Harris, the political and environmental activist and writer. Harris, who was married to Joan Baez at the time, went to jail for his beliefs. Ali, who was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title because of his beliefs, fought in the courts for five years until he won in the U.S. Supreme Court. After this victory, Ali returned to the ring and won back his heavyweight title. His 1966 explanation for refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military has been much quoted and said it all: "I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." He also said, "No Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger.’" While Harris and Ali were well known and received a great deal of publicity in the mainstream media (most of it negative), the courage they exhibited and the price they paid for living according to their beliefs was no greater (and certainly no less) than that of many others. No one who ever saw him fight (much less those who got in the ring with him) could justify questioning Ali’s courage or calling him a coward, the usual knee-jerk reaction to the conscience in action of a conscientious objector.

Some believe they should and would fight in a war for a just cause, but insist that they be allowed to refuse to fight wars they think are wrong. These people are called "selective conscientious objectors," but under U.S. law one cannot pick and choose between the "just" and "unjust" war. The current statute states that CO claimants must object to "participation in war in any form." How to differentiate or define a "just" and an "unjust" war is an interesting if probably unanswerable problem, but some selective COs believe that the conditions for a "just war" cannot be met in modern times.

A CO need not believe in the principle of nonviolence or to be opposed to all forms of violence, the use of force, police powers or even the taking of human life. The law requires only that a person be conscientiously opposed to the planned and organized killing of combatant and non-combatant alike that takes place in warfare. One can be a CO and still be willing to use violence against another individual in order to protect yourself or your friends.

People don’t, and don’t like to, talk about the CO. The topic raises a myriad of uncomfortable issues—most notably for Christians, the fifth commandment—but also such tangential issues as whether the state exists for the sake of the people or the people for the sake of the state (or, even, whether they both exist for the sake of the corporation), the influence of the military-industrial-complex on American economic and foreign policy, and individual responsibility for personal conscience.

He was hardly the first, but Tom was the first person I knew who confronted these issues, stood against the impetus to war, and had the courage to abide by his conscience and his conviction that there has to be a better way.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.