The Duty of the Selective Conscientious Objector in A Values Based Army


CH (MAJ) Tim Rietkerk

Ethics Instructor


Ft. Bliss, TX


So you see my religion and my experience...told me not to go to war, and the memory of my ancestors...told me to get my gun and go fight. I didn't know what to do. I'm telling you there was a war going on inside me, and I didn't know which side to lean to. I was a heap bothered. It is a most awful thing when the wishes of your God and your country...get mixed up and go against each other. One moment I would make up my mind to follow God, and the next I would hesitate and almost make up my mind to follow Uncle Sam. Then I wouldn't know which to follow or what to do. I wanted to follow both but I couldn't. They were opposite. I wanted to be a good Christian and a good American too.[1]


In articulating a troubled conscience, “I was a heap bothered,” PVT Alvin C. York presented to his battalion commander, MAJ George E. Buxton, a leadership challenge; what DA PAM 600-75 Accommodating Religious Practices describes when “conflicts can arise between mission accomplishment and a soldier's religious practices.”[2]

Alvin C.York of Fentress County, Tennessee, belonged to the Church of Christ in Christian Union which advocated pacifism.  On his enrollment for the draft, he wrote on the bottom of the card in answer to the question, “Do you claim exemption from draft?”  York wrote, “Yes, Don’t Want to Fight.”[3]  The draft board went ahead and selected York for the Army which was undergoing rapid expansion for deployment to Europe.  PVT York reported to Company G, 328th Infantry, 82nd Division, still not convinced that taking another man’s life is what God wanted him to do.  

FM 6-22 Army Leadership describes how MAJ Buxton handled the troubled conscience of PVT York.

PVT York, a devout Christian, told his commander, CPT E. C. B. Danforth, that he would bear arms against the enemy—but did not believe in killing. Recognizing PVT York as a good Soldier and potential leader but unable to sway him from his convictions, CPT Danforth consulted his battalion commander, MAJ George E. Buxton, on how to handle the situation. MAJ Buxton, a religious man with excellent knowledge of the Bible, had CPT Danforth bring PVT York to him. The major and PVT York talked at length about the Scriptures, God’s teachings, about right and wrong, and just wars. Then MAJ Buxton sent PVT York home on leave to ponder and pray over the dilemma. The battalion commander had promised to release York from the Army if he decided that he could not serve his country without sacrificing his integrity.

After two weeks of reflection and soul-searching, PVT York returned to his unit. He had reconciled his personal values with those of the Army.[4]


In giving PVT York time to reflect on his decision with the promise to support PVT York in his choice, MAJ Buxton created an ethical climate that allowed room for a troubled conscience.  His knowledge of Scripture and Just War helped provide PVT York with further guidance in how to deal with a “heap bothered” conscience.  On his leave, “York’s honesty forced him to analyze the major’s ideas even though his mother, Pastor Pile, and the congregation all urged him to accept Burton’s offer.  Finally, he fled again to the mountains where he spent all of one day, that night, and part of the next day praying for divine guidance.”[5]  York came down the mountain convinced that God wanted him to fight.  The vignette goes on to describe York’s feat in France for which he received the Medal of Honor and offered this conclusion of how the leadership worked with CPL York:

From a simply disciplinary perspective, Captain Danforth and Major Buxton could easily have ordered Private York to do his duty under threat of courts martial, or they might even have assigned him a duty away from the fighting. Instead, these two leaders appropriately addressed the Soldier’s ethical concerns. Major Buxton, in particular, established the appropriate ethical climate when he showed that he, too, had wrestled with the very questions that troubled Private York. The climate the leaders created demonstrated that every person’s beliefs were important and would be considered. Major Buxton established that a Soldier’s duties could be consistent with the ethical framework established by his spiritual beliefs.


In offering this conclusion of the role of leadership in building a strong ethical climate, there are those whose spiritual beliefs have historically provided an ethical framework to support a Soldier’s duties to his or her country but whose beliefs/religious practices are not currently recognized by the Department of Defense, the selective conscientious objector. 

AR 600-43 describes the administrative process of when a Soldier feels he or she can no longer carry out their duties because of conflict with a moral or spiritual belief that all use of force is wrong and that he or she can no longer serve due to conscience.  Selective conscientious objection, the objection against a given war, however, is not included.  Much of the regulations and procedures concerning the application for conscientious objection came during the time of conscription by draft, as in the case of PVT York. Under current Department of Defense policy, those who would object to a particular war are not recognized.

The Catholic Church has long advocated the recognition of selective conscientious objection.  The Catholic Peace Fellowship quotes James Turner Johnson in his assessment of a subject’s duty toward service in an unjust war as framed by Suarez and Vitoria:

When the prince’s cause is manifestly unjust, subjects may not serve in his war. . . Suarez even pushes the issue back one step: when arguments have been advanced that raise some doubt in the consciences of the subjects, they must inquire into their prince’s cause. If they discover that the cause is unjust, they may not serve. . .Suarez and Vitoria offer a clear justification for individual conscientious objection to particular wars….It is emphatically the subject’s responsibility to dispel any doubt…and if doing so results in certainty on his part that the war is unjust, he must in conscience refuse.[6]


In addition to the Catholic Church, several protestant denominations have also requested recognition of selective conscientious objection.  A small reformed denomination influenced by John Calvin, the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC)[7], sent the following correspondence to the President and the Department of Defense (DOD) Secretary this past July and asked that the DOD “provide a process and establish procedures wherein those who object to selective conflicts on the basis of just-war criteria are honorably discharged.”[8]  The letter also conveyed concern about the 2002 National Security Strategy as not reflecting Just War Theory principles. 

Preventive military actions, actions initiated by a government against an adversary who may pose a serious threat at some future date, is inconsistent with the moral standards expressed in the just-war criteria of just cause and last resort.

Preemptive military actions, actions initiated by a government against an adversary who will pose a serious threat at some future date, need to be justified under the moral standards expressed in the just-war criterion of the right to resort to force.[9]


Though this correspondence comes during the time of a controversial war, the CRC has been firmly in line with the Just War theory tradition and supports the duty of government to protect its citizens and calls upon its church members to obey the government and serve in its armed forces.  In this way the CRC supports the earlier conclusion that “Soldier’s duties could be consistent with the ethical framework established by his spiritual beliefs.”[10]

 In 1936, the 2nd Englewood CRC of Chicago sent an overture to the deliberative body of the Christian Reformed Church, the Synod, requesting guidance concerning the participation of Christians in war.  The 1939 Synod met in Grand Rapids, MI and issued a statement addressing the participation of Christians in war. 

The Act of Synod articulated first the Christian duty to “promote mutual understanding and peace wherever possible between individuals as well as groups and nations for both citizens and governments.” The Synod warned against the evils of present-day pacifism as the “conviction and attitude of those who condemn every war and hence refuse to bear arms under any conditions.  This type of pacifism is incompatible with Christian duty and is becoming alarmingly prevalent in our country.”[11]

In defining duty for the Christian, the Act states:

The solemn duty which the Christian has to exert him­self to the utmost in behalf of peace and the peaceful settlement of conflicts and disputes, should at no time be used to cancel his equally solemn duty to defend his country against the attack of the aggressor, to protect the weak in the international family from the wanton assault of the strong, and in general to promote justice and fair dealings between the nations of the world. However much nations and individuals may and should stand committed to the prevention and suppression of war whenever and wherever possible, in a sinful world sooner or later situa­tions will arise in which one nation resorts to aggression and attack upon another. And when in such a situation honest efforts to come to a just and peaceful adjustment of differences with the aggressor have failed, the moral right—if not duty—of the assaulted nation to defend itself against the aggressor is beyond dispute.[12]


Therefore, pacifism “is fundamentally to be condemned because it is in irreconcilable conflict with the teaching of Scripture and of our Creed or the duty of the govern­ment in the matter of war and the corresponding duty of the Christian citizen.”[13]

Synod further notes that Soldiers refusing “to bear arms at the call of his government not only is disloyal to his country, but in so doing fails to discharge his solemn God-given duty to obey his government and to defend his country. The Church should bear witness against this pacifism, point out its unscriptural character, and warn its members against its subtle, religiously garbed propaganda.”[14]  Synod warns against conscientious objectors in that “he who denies the right and the duty of the government to wage war on just occasions is not in harmony but in conflict with the Word of God.  His conscience is seriously in error.”[15]

If one struggles with determining whether or not the occasion is just in waging war, the Act acknowledges this ethical struggle: “with the frequent complexity of the causes of modern wars and the difficulty of the average citizen to be adequately informed on this complexity of causes at the time the war breaks out,”[16] but warns that “uncertainty as to the justice of the given war can be no justifiable ground for refusing obedience to his government.”[17]

 In an uncertain situation “the prior duty of each citizen to obey the government must have the right of way.  This type of conscientious objector does not face the moral alternative: to fight or to do nothing; but: to fight or to disobey his government.”[18]

Therefore, in times of uncertainty, the obligation of the service member is to obey the government because “a state in which the citizen only obeys the gov­ernment when it pleases him is no state and that govern­ment is no government. This is true in days of peace, and the principle gains intensified force in days of war, when the national safety is at stake.”[19]

Is this an unconditional obedience or are there limits to the obligation of obeying the government?  Synod answers this question:

Both Scripture and our Confession place a restriction upon our duty to obey the government. Peter at one time refused to obey the civil authorities and appealed to a higher loyalty, to God in doing so. And our Creed restricts the duty of the citizen to the State to “all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God.” From this it is clear that the Church must not only recognize the right of Christians but even their duty under certain definite circumstances to refuse obedience to the civil magistrate.”[20]


The only time a service member can refuse obedience “is he who, recognizing his duty to obey his government and to defend his country in response to its call to arms, has intelligent and adequate grounds to be convinced that the given war to which he is summoned is an unjust war. When he is absolutely certain in the light of the principles of the Word of God that his country is fighting for a wrong cause, he cannot morally justify his participation in the given war.[21]  The report concluded by urging prayer, careful reflection of the revealed word, and “to obey all lawfully con­stituted authorities for God’s sake; and, if a serious con­flict of duty should occur, to obey God rather than men.”[22] 

Though the 1939 Act of Synod did not detail the “intelligent and adequate grounds” necessary to make the determination of participation or refusal in a given war, the Synod of 1977 presented the Guidelines for Justifiable Warfare.  The guidelines stated that at any time when one’s nation “has or is about to become involved in war or in any military action against another nation, Christians, as morally responsible citizens of the nation and of God’s kingdom, should evaluate their nation’s involvement by diligently seeking the answers to the following, drawing on the counsel of fellow-members with special qualifications as well as pastors and the assemblies of the church.”[23]

The guidelines included the following questions to use in the evaluation:

a. Is our nation the unjust aggressor?

b. Is our nation intentionally involved for economic advantage?

c. Is our nation intentionally involved for imperialistic ends, such as the acquisition of land, natural resources, or political power in international relations?

d. Has our nation in good faith observed all relevant treaties and other international agreements?

e. Has our nation exhausted all peaceful means to resolve the matters in dispute?

f. Is the evil or aggression represented by the opposing force of such overwhelming magnitude and gravity as to warrant the horrors and brutality of military opposition to it?

g. Has the decision to engage in war been taken legally by a legitimate government?

h. Are the means of warfare employed or likely to be employed by our nation in fair proportion to the evil or aggression of the opposing forces? Is our nation resolved to employ minimum necessary force?

i. In the course of the war has our nation been proposing and encouraging negotiations for peace or has it spurned such moves by the opposing forces or by neutral or international organizations?[24]


The Synod also advised:

The members of the church, out of reverence for the righteousness and justice of God, should be willing always to test the policies and practices of all governments by the teachings of Holy Scripture, and never assume a blind and proud nationalistic spirit that regards one’s own nation as always above criticism. Moreover, they should consider it their duty under God to give discreet expression to their conscientious views in whatever manner is open to them.


If one can articulate intelligent and adequate grounds to conclude that a given war is unjust, the Christian should refuse to participate.  This refusal “must be within the framework of law. He must expose himself to the due process and even the penalty of the state whose laws he has knowingly, publicly, and conscientiously broken. He should not "go underground" or flee the country except under conditions of extraordinary oppression or intolerably brutal tyranny.”[25]

The 1977 report also acknowledges the difficulty of coming to an unequivocal decision on the justness of a given war. “The complexity of international politics and economics and the secrecy and deception ordinarily employed in international relations make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the pertinent facts that must be known in order to judge the morality of participation in any given war.”

In summary, the CRC calls upon its members to obey the government unless there are adequate and intelligent grounds, specifically, the Just War Theory principles, which guide in determining the justness of a given war. If the given war because of its complexity cannot be clearly identified as just or unjust, the Christian must continue to serve.  If, however, the given war is unjust, one’s duty is to obey God rather than man and submit oneself to the process of law.  In calling for a change in the current DOD policy, the CRC calls upon the government to recognize selective conscientious objection and change the current process of law.

Under the current process, anyone who tries to claim selective conscientious objection instead of conscientious objection will experience the court martial process. On February 5, 2007, the court martial proceeding begins for 1LT Ehren Watada of Ft. Lewis, WA.  He is trying to argue that his refusal to deploy to Iraq stems from a war which is illegal under international law.  Therefore, the order to deploy to Iraq is an illegal order and he is morally responsible to disobey illegal orders.[26] 

Without examining the specific merits of his argument due to brevity, 1LT Watada, as part of his training, was taught that a leader is expected to disobey illegal orders. “There is a risk when a leader disobeys what may be an illegal order, and it may be the most difficult decision that Soldier ever makes. Nonetheless, that is what competent, confident, and ethical leaders should do.”[27]  To guide in this refusal of an order, the Soldier is asked to “make the best judgment possible based on the Army Values, personal experience, critical thinking, and previous study and reflection.”[28] 

As part of the critical thinking component to assist in this decision making process, Just War Theory and the Law of Land Warfare is taught at all levels of the Officer Education System.  Some, like Michael Walzer, have argued that Soldiers are morally responsible for their conduct and actions but not for the decision to go to war.  However, Christians in the Just War Theory tradition cannot accept this reasoning.  Just War Theory guides in their decision to participate in the given war and the principles provide an ethical framework which the Army espouses.  The clear expectation in FM 6-22 is for leaders “to make value-based, ethical choices for the good of the Army and the Nation.”[29] 

MAJ Danforth is heralded for establishing “that a Soldier’s duties could be consistent with the ethical framework established by his spiritual beliefs.”    He guided PVT York through his spiritual and moral dilemma in such a way that PVT York resolved his “heap bothered conscience.”  When PVT York was later given an opportunity to sign paperwork to declare himself as a conscientious objector, he refused to do so because he believed his duty was to serve his nation in war.  In describing York as a conscientious objector, a better case could be made for York being a selective conscientious objector. 

After returning to his community and starting a school, York, as an advisor to the film made about his life, became concerned about the rearming of Germany and the rise of the Nazi power and in a 1941 Memorial Day address at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier spoke these words:

There are those in this country today who ask me and other veterans of World War Number One, ‘What did it get you?’. . . The thing they forget is that liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them and stop.  You do not do that.  Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them![30]


York tried to reenlist in the Army after the start of World War II but was turned down due to age and other health issues.  Therefore, on two separate occasions, York determined the right thing to do and the Christian duty was to take up arms on behalf of his nation because he was convinced of the just cause.  This is the definition of a selective conscientious objector, one who examines the given war and decides on participation based on principles such as Just War Theory.

MAJ Buxton “promised to release York from the Army if he decided that he could not serve his country without sacrificing his integrity.”  Under the current DOD policy, the refusal to recognize selective conscientious objectors who use Just War Theory Principles to guide in their decisions requires them to sacrifice their integrity in the sense that the only process available to raise their ethical concerns is that of the court martial, a criminal proceeding.

By building a strong ethical climate which takes into account spiritual beliefs, Soldiers perform their duty with willing spirit and as in the case of SPC York, with great courage and conviction.

FM 6-22 further highlights the importance of this ethical climate by noting that:

It is important for subordinates to have confidence in the organization’s ethical environment because much of what is necessary in war goes against the grain of societal values that individuals bring into the Army. A Soldier’s conscience may say it is wrong to take human life while the mission calls for exactly that. A strong ethical climate helps Soldiers define their duty, preventing a conflict of values that may sap a Soldier’s will to fight at tremendous peril to the entire team.[31]


In defining their duty under Just War Principles, selective conscientious objectors can ably serve their country.  If there is a conflict of values and they are called upon to serve in an unjust war, their moral candor needs to be permitted in order to contribute to the Army’s ethical environment.  If it is not permitted, A.J. Coates notes:

Whatever the military handbooks might say about the soldier’s obligations to disobey ‘unlawful orders’, the specific disciplines of military training seem designed to elicit immediate and unquestioning obedience and to suppress the kind of critical reflection that moral assessment and moral conduct entail.[32]



The 1986 Army White Paper on values, The Bedrock of our Profession, DA Pam 600-68 says:

Courage, however, goes beyond the physical dimension. Moral courage, the courage of one’s convictions, is equally important. It takes a different kind of courage to stand up for what you believe is right, particularly when it is contrary to what others around you believe. Each of us must persevere in what we know is right and not make it easy for friends, peers, comrades, or superiors to do the wrong thing. Our moral principles must not be compromised because of the situation or circumstances. This does not mean that every order or policy is to be questioned, but if Soldiers or civilians truly believe that something is not right, they have the responsibility to make their views known.


If we truly are to be a values based Army using the framework of Just War Theory principles, the ethical and moral questions raised about war and duty need to discussed at all levels.  The question to be asked is whether or not leaders like MAJ Buxton are the exception or the norm for the Army.  His leadership supported a young private from the hills of Tennessee during a time of spiritual and moral crisis.  Through his support, PVT York served with great distinction and honor.  His “heap-bothered” conscience became a convicted conscience and he performed his duty to God and Country.




[1] Gladys Williams. Alvin C. York,

[2] Department of the Army. (1993). DA PAM 600-75 Accommodating Religious Practices. Washington, D.C

[3] Lee, D. D. (1985). Sergeant York: An American Hero. Lexington, AL: The University Press of Kentucky.

[4] Department of the Army. (2006). FM 6-22 Army Leadership. Washington, D. C.

[5] Lee, 19.

[6] Catholic Peace Fellowship Staff, Selective Conscientious Objection: History, Theology, and Practice. (2005). Sign of Peace, 4.2 (Spring).

[7] The author is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church since 1995.

[8] July 17 letter, complete letter as appendix or use link

[9] July 17 letter

[10] FM 6-22

[11] Act

[12] Testimony 1939

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Christian Reformed Church (1977) Guidelines for Justifiable Warfare, Grand Rapids, MI

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[27] FM 6-22,

[28] Ibid,

[29] Ibid,

[30] Lee, 109.

[31] FM 6-22,

[32] Coates, A. J. (1997). The Ethics of War. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 30.