The Pentagon Quietly Cracks Down on Conscientious Objectors
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The Pentagon Quietly Cracks Down on Conscientious Objectors

Defense Department Makes It Harder for Military Personnel Opposed to Fighting to Claim Special Status

New guidelines by the Department of Defense for applicants seeking conscientious-objector status suggest the military wants to strip the evidence from an already murky process.

At first glance, the guidelines, compared side by side with the previous ones from 2007, appear largely the same. But the DoD has removed just a few key sentences in the 15-page policy that are essential to applicants’ core cases and could significantly tip the scale in favor of the military.

In World War I, objectors were sent to prison-like camps. This is a postcard of men at Conscientious Objector War Prison Camp, Fort Douglas, Utah on Thanksgiving, 1919. Photo Credit: Arthur Dunham Papers/Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan (via History by Zim)

This time around, the DoD eliminated three questions known as the “evidence questions,” the areas where applicants share their real-life experiences demonstrating how they came to be conscientious objectors.

And that’s what’s really troubling about this whole system. The process itself boils down to the military making a judgment call about a person’s sincerity. It’s possible these evidence questions would come up in the interview process, but not having them on the formal application doesn’t lend credence to a fair method for something as nebulous as rooting out someone’s sincerity about anything.

“The policy makes it clear the burden of proof is on the conscientious objector,” explained Bill Galvin, counseling coordinator for the Center on Conscience & War (CCW), a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for conscientious objectors.  “And unless a conscientious objector knows to include evidence in his or her answers to the questions, it will be absent from their written application.”

Action Box/What You Can Do About It

Contact the Department of Defense to demand a more transparent and fair process for CO applicants. Call 703-571-3343, or reach out on Twitter or Facebook. Call the White House and demand the same from our Commander in Chief at 202-456-1111 or reach out to the President on Twitter.

The military divides conscientious objectors into two categories: Class 1-0: A person whose prior beliefs or a crystallizing moment in their military service has rendered them incapable of morally or ethically remaining in the armed forces. If approved, these applicants are fully discharged from the military. And often they receive honorable discharges. Depending on the length and nature of their service, the Department of Veterans Affairs determines if they keep their benefits after discharge.

The second classification, Class 1-A-0, is for those who are noncombatant but willing to stay in the service if reassigned to a position where they won’t be required to take up arms. These applicants are rare, said James Feldman, Jr., an attorney based outside of Philadelphia, who specializes in conscientious objector cases. But there’s another telling omission within this designation.

The guidelines from 2007 stated that if a Class 1-0 objector were denied their application, they would not be given Class 1-A-0 status as a compromise. The new guidelines have removed that sentence. “It looks like the military might just do that”—give military desk duty to a conscientious objector—and reclassify people, Feldman said.

The military does not release data on conscientious objectors, so it’s hard to get a handle on trends. All four branches of the military have their own guidelines for the application process but implement the larger guidelines set forth by the DoD, which did not respond to an inquiry by press time.

The Air Force has the most stringent application process for conscientious objectors. Earlier this year, the Air Force released its own refurbished guidelines, with its own troubling updates. The most disturbing, said Maria Santelli, executive director of CCW, was the removal of the applicant’s right to see and therefore dispute any adverse information collected about him or her.

Featured Photo: Peace protest, 1973 (

August 2, 2017