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Case for Conscientious Objection
is a senior history major at Kentucky Wesleyan College in
Owensboro, Kentucky, where he won the Powell Peace Award in 2004.
In George W. Bush's
America, few are willing to call themselves conscientious objectors.
Often, when I tell someone I am one, they ask how I could oppose any
resort to war. The answer is less complex than one might think. In fact,
my objection to war rests mostly on principles upon which most Americans
agree. Americans who believe in the sanctity of human life and that
it should only be taken when the full reason has been disclosed should
tolerate, if not adopt, conscientious objection.
Unlike most, I
reject just war doctrine. War kills civilians and forces young men who
might be friends under normal circumstances to kill each other. I think
most of us can agree that, for these reasons and others, war is an atrocity.
I would venture to say that most would also agree that, if war must
be undertaken, the public and those who fight must know exactly why
they are killing.
But this is never
the case. Governments lie about reasons for war. For example, George
W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld claimed to be invading Iraq
to liberate the Iraqi people, but a review of their careers suggests
they cared little about human rights. In a 2000
debate with Al Gore, George W. Bush praised the Clinton administration
for not pursuing a humanitarian intervention in Rwanda. During the 1990s,
while CEO of Halliburton, Dick Cheney lobbied
against sanctions on countries that violate human rights. Not surprisingly,
Halliburton wanted to do business with these nations. A
Project for a New American Century, a document Cheney helped write
in 2000 argues that America should attack Iraq to begin a "Pax
Americana," in which America will maintain hegemony by controlling
oil supplies. Curiously, the Bush administration never told Americans
about this motive for war. After September 11, Donald Rumsfeld supported
an attack on Iraq not because he believed Saddam Hussein was involved
in the 9/11 attacks, but because there were "more targets"
in Iraq than Afghanistan.
Most consider World
War II the very definition of a just war, but America's entry into it
involved lies as well. Franklin Roosevelt wanted us involved, but the
American people did not, so he resorted to manipulation to bring us
into the war. Even Henry Kissinger, a fan of FDR, concedes this in his
Kissinger writes that FDR's methods were "devious in tactic,"
and, most importantly, "less than frank in explaining the intricacies
of particular events."
If we agree that
war is only justified when the people and participants know exactly
why they are killing, then we must also agree that there is no such
thing as a just war. A thorough look at history proves that governments
never tell their people exactly why they must kill; the rhetoric never
matches the record. I believe, and I think most people do as well, that
forcing one man to take another's life without telling him the whole
story is unjust.
Some have asked
me how I could oppose a war to topple a brutal dictator who gassed his
own people. First, as already mentioned, wars have little to do with
liberation; those who championed human rights in the run-up to the Iraq
War did so out of convenience, not sincerity. Second, even if we give
government the benefit of the doubt, how "humanitarian" is
war? The civilians and conscripted soldiers killed during intervention
will certainly not be "liberated," nor will the soldiers who
will have to live with the fact that they killed them. And wars produce
significant numbers of civilian casualties. The "liberation"
of Iraq has killed at least 15,000.
[Ed. Note: this is a very conservative estimate,
based on incidents reported in international newspapers. Other studies
put the figure over 100,000.]
believe in the sanctity of human life. Many evangelical Christians,
for example, voted for George W. Bush because he promotes a "culture
of life," opposing abortion, assisted-suicide laws, and government
funding of research on new stem-cell lines. However, Americans enthusiastically
support presidents who lead them to war, which denies the sanctity of
human life by dehumanizing the enemy. During Vietnam, for example, soldiers
killed "Charlies," not people. In the war on terrorism, "Charlies"
have been replaced by "terrorists" and "evildoers."
Before one of my friends went to Iraq, another friend told him to "kill
some towelheads for me." In war, the human beings on the other
side are not seen as human; they are given labels that deny their humanity
so that soldiers can justify killing them. It is ironic that those who
preach about the importance of protecting life are often the most vociferous
advocates of a system that denigrates and destroys human life. If Americans
truly believe in the sanctity of human life, they should oppose war.
War also denies
the sanctity of human life because wartime leaders, determined to win
at all costs, show little respect for the lives of their own citizens.
Napoleon led his armies on a futile march through Russia that killed
hundreds of thousands; Hitler followed a similar path during World War
II. And, despite uninformed arguments to the contrary, American leaders
have also wasted the lives of their own citizens. For example, two American
presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, continued the Vietnam
War even when they knew it could not be won; they wanted an "honorable"
exit, so they allowed thousands of their own citizens to die for a lost
cause. Some offer similar arguments for staying in Iraq, saying it would
be "humiliating" for the United States to "cut and run."
Apparently, they would rather let young men die for a lost cause than
suffer the embarrassment of admitting a mistake.
In recent wars,
American leaders have decided on "acceptable" casualty figures
for specific wars, believing they will lose public support if casualties
reach a certain point. I doubt the families of killed soldiers view
their losses as "acceptable." This practice treats human life
as an expendable asset. Leaders care little about the individual lives
lost; they only fear that Americans will eventually stop allowing the
government to utilize their children as cannon fodder.
At home, our government
takes pains to avoid executing innocent people; Americans would expect
no less. Many states, for example, have mandatory appeals for death
penalty cases and have reviewed old cases using DNA technology. However,
the US government does not apply these standards when deciding to go
to war, which kills far more innocent people than capital punishment.
For example, numerous experts have shown that the Bush administration
manipulated the intelligence it used to make the case for war in Iraq.
A thorough examination of history, which I encourage, will show that
American presidents decide on war, then search for evidence to justify
it. Therefore, even those who support capital punishment should oppose
war, since war kills far more innocents, often with little evidence
to justify it.
War violates principles
most Americans hold dearly. It forces people to kill under false pretenses
and denies the sanctity of human life. Governments, ours included, show
reckless and wanton disregard for the lives of their own citizens during
war, even though they always claim that war serves the public interest.
It never does. Americans should oppose war at every opportunity and
vow never to participate in it.
Of all the positions
for which I have argued, conscientious objection has been the most controversial.
Most dismiss the idea as unpatriotic, but it is rational if one thinks
deeply about war. Unfortunately, few Americans are willing to do that.
Instead, they ignore the history of America's wars. Until Americans
reconsider their views on war, as George Santayana would say, history
will repeat itself.