Kathryn Knapp


“I am not a conscientious objector. I am a conscientious cooperator.”

PFC Desmond T. Doss

Recipient of the Medal of Honor


From my corner of Baghdad in the winter of 2005, I sent an e-mail message to an Army nurse back in the United States.  I told her I was shocked at how foreign workers were being treated by our soldiers and the civilian contractors hired by our government. I also said that the Army seemed to be deficient in decency and professionalism. I felt we were misusing the taxpayer's hard-earned money and resources (including human beings) and I did not foresee any promising outcome.


In her response, she told me that I was not allowed to disagree with nor comment about our military’s conduct or policy--I was a soldier and had to keep quiet. Remarkable! She was telling me that I was part of an effort to bring peace and freedom to another country and yet I was no longer allowed these same liberties. Had I given up this right? I had signed all types of documents in my fifteen years of reserve service but I never remember having agreed to anything of the kind. Surely it was better to care and voice objection than to look the other way out of fear of being labeled "disloyal"? What was the greater good?


Two years later, as part of a graduate seminary pilgrimage to Israel, I wondered if there were any Israeli soldiers who were bothered by their government’s policies and the roles they were called to play. Were those who were compelled to serve more likely to speak out than the all-volunteer United States Army?


No one leaves their conscience at home when they enlist, swear in, or get forced into military service.  Some hide under the protective covering “I was only following orders", some have a less-developed conscience to begin with, and some value obedience and patriotism more than “doing the right thing". Those with a greater stake (closer to retirement and higher in rank) tend to be more cautious in their remarks and actions. What do loyalty and obedience demand?


This paper will discuss military oaths and their implications; dissenting service members; and selective conscientious objection/selective participation. I will hopefully present a strong case for the view that dissent is not harmful but helpful because:1) the number of dissenters is relatively small; 2) the armed forces of the United States and Israel are primarily responsible for the defense of their respective nations and it is nearly always the actions that are beyond this scope that are objected to; and 3) allowing dissent produces the desired end state of a "morally cohesive force”.




“The military officer’s oath is a combination of constitutional requirement, historical influence, and centuries-old custom. (At first), Roman soldiers pledged loyalty to a specific general for a specific campaign. By 100 B.C., the oath became effective for the soldier’s full term of service” (Keskel, 2002, p. 48).




From approximately 1790 until 1850, enlisted and officer military personnel swore the same oath. As you can see from Table 1, the oaths changed over time in response to internal challenges such as the Civil War and to administrative/judicial modifications. Importantly, the officers’ oath requires supporting and defending the Constitution–“not the president, not the country, not the flag, and not a particular military service” (Keskel,2002. p. 51).


Table 1: Key Variations of U.S. Military Oaths





1 June 1789
1st Cong., 1st sess.,
statute 1, chap. 1

Officer Oath: I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.

The very first law of the United States identified the requirement for government officials to take an oath or affirmation according to Article 6 of the Constitution.

29 September 1789
1st Cong., 1st sess.,
statute 1, chap. 25

Enlisted Oath: I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true  faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the president of the United States of America, and the orders of officers appointed over me.

This statute separated the military oath from the oath for other public officials. It also created an oath for enlisted personnel distinct from the officer’s oath, with an allegiance to the United States rather than the Constitution and a requirement to obey the orders of their chain of command. The officer’s oath mirrored the oath specified in statute 1, sec. 1 for members of Congress.

30 April 1790 1st
Cong., 2d sess.,
statute 2, chap. 10

Officer and Enlisted Oath: I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the president of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the articles of war.

 This statute, passed as the means to con tinue the military establishment, required both officers and enlisted personnel to take the same oath. On 3 March 1795, the last phrase changed to “according to the rules and arti cles of war.” Each new Congress would re peal the previous Congress’s act and pass a new statute creating the military establishment, including a section on the oath. In 1815 (13th Cong., 3d sess.), Congress no longer duplicated the previous military- establishment act and identified changes only to previous law establishing the military.

2 July 1862
37th Cong., 2d sess.,
chap. 128

Officer Oath: I, A.B., do solemnly swear  (or affirm) that I have never voluntarily borne arms against the United States since I have been a citizen thereof; that I have voluntarily given no aid, countenance, counsel, or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility thereto; that I have neither sought nor accepted nor attempted to exercise the functions of any officers whatever, under any authority or pretended authority in hostility to the United States; that I have not yielded a voluntary support to any pretended government, authority, power or constitution within the United States, hostile or inimical thereto. And I do further swear (or affirm) that, to the best of my knowledge and ability, I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God. 

The intent of this Civil War statute was to ensure that government officials were not supporting, or had not supported, the Confederacy. This “Ironclad Test Oath” greatly expanded and contained more detail than previous oaths. The statute also separated the officer oath from the enlisted oath, once again making the officer oath consistent with the oath of public officials.

11 July 1868 
40th Cong., 2d sess.,
chap. 139 

Officer Oath: I, A.B., do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God. 

This statute was the first post–Civil War change to the oath. The new oath deleted the “background check” of the 1862 version and established the exact wording of the current officer’s oath. Future legislative changes addressed the application of the oath but not the wording.

5 May 1950
81st Cong., 2d sess., 
chap. 169 (Public
Law 506)

Enlisted Oath: I, ___, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America; that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies whomsoever; and that I will obey the orders of the president of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

This statute was the first post–World War II  legislation on the oath, establishing the Uniform Code of Military Justice to unify, consolidate, revise, and codify the Articles of War, the Articles of Government of the Navy, and the Disciplinary Laws of the Coast Guard. Section 8 identified a standard oath for all enlisted personnel.

5 October 1962
87th Cong., 2d sess.
(Public Law 87-751) 

Enlisted Oath: I, ___, do solemnly swear  (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;  and that I will obey the orders of the president of the United States and the orders of  the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God. 

This legislation was enacted to make the enlisted oath more consistent with the officer oath, using the phrase “support and defend the Constitution” and adding “So help me God” at the end. This was the last legislative change to the wording of either oath. Subsequent legislation on the oath addressed administrative issues.


Each branch of military service has its own set of regulations that officers must respect and enforce.  Some unwritten conventions exist as well, and young officers quickly learn where the boundaries lie.  Enlisted soldiers are bound by their oath to obey the officers in charge of them and by doing so have some confidence that they are also supporting and defending the Constitution.


There is still a lot of room for reasoned (and hopefully moral and ethical) decision-making in the daily lives of service members. “Officers must develop the skills to make the appropriate leadership decisions when guidance may be vague on how best to support and defend the Constitution” (Keskel, 2002, p. 55). On the battlefield, it is individuals who choose to use deadly force and whom to apply it against.


The “big” decisions such as committing the military to a particular engagement or area of the globe are reserved for the few (Congress and the President). Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States states that it is Congress who calls forth the militia to execute the laws of the Nation, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions. Nothing in the Constitution mandates that the members of the militia have an obligation to help topple regimes, prevent acts of terrorism, or intervene in the affairs of other sovereign powers.




“I swear and obligate myself on my word of honor to remain loyal to the State of Israel, its laws and its legitimate administration and to devote all of my strength, and even to sacrifice my life, in the defence of the homeland and the freedom of Israel.” The one Israeli oath is taken by both officer and enlisted personnel. The Israeli oath appears to be geared to service in defense of the nation.  When four conscripts wrote to the defense minister registering their unwillingness to serve in an “army of occupation” (in reference to serving in the Jewish settlements on land that used to belong to the Arab population), they were basing their refusal on the grounds that “occupation means foreign rule” (Tilsen, paragraph 15.  “Foreign rule” is neither written nor implied in the IDF Oath.




The oaths that military personnel in our country take do not state "for defense only", even though the Preamble to the Constitution specifies that the purpose of the militia is to "provide for the common defense".  According to General Order #100 (also known as the Lieber Code), which was promulgated in 1863, the objective of war is a "renewed state of peace".  Five years later, our country agreed that "the only legitimate object which States should endeavor to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy" (Henry Durant Institute, 1988).  Less than a century later, we heard generals exhorting the troops to "total victory".  Some years after my entry into the Army, the Warrior Ethos went into effect (a "creed" of sorts with its own particular set of values and vows such  as, "I will  never give up" and "I will never accept defeat").Wars are "Long" and "Persistent" now that the object no longer appears to be "peace".


There is a long tradition in the West that if a war is found to be “unjust”, then those citizens whose conscience will not allow them to serve may be more bound by theirconscience than by an oath or the dictates of the nation/state in which they reside. In theUnited States, conscientious objection may be claimed at any point during a soldier'sterm of service--but the soldier must be opposed to "all wars", not just some of them.


What makes for a “just” or “unjust” war is not cut-and-dried. Beginning over two millenia ago with the great Roman thinker Cicero, three conditions had to be met: just cause (to right a wrong such as an invasion), formal declaration of war (to allow theother side time to try to resolve the situation peaceably before the war commenced), andjust conduct (no attacking non-combatants).


Christian philosophers and theologians and specialists in international law added more conditions over the next 1800 years. The seven most notable of these are: Augustine, Aquinas, Gratian, Vitoria, Grotius, Suarez, and Gitelli. Wester (2004/2005, p. 26) nicely sums up the six modern criteria for a just war:


The war must be declared by a legitimate authority, e.g. the ruling body of a nation state. The intention to go to war must be declared publicly. The declarer must state terms for avoiding or ending the conflict. Just intent must be shown, e.g. self-defense, to right a wrong, or to come to the aid of the innocent. Proportionality--if more suffering is produced by going to war then there is insufficient cause for war.  If the enemy has only small arms weapons, it is wrong to drop megaton bombs on them in return. There must be a reasonable hope for success. Last resort: the parties to the conflict must have tried and failed to end their grievances amongst themselves and the only option left is to fight until ones ubmits to the other. The final outcome ought to be a restoration of or the attainment of peace.


Thomas Aquinas felt that, in general, citizens should obey their rulers.  However, blindly following one’s leaders when one is convinced that the act of war or the conduct in a particular war is indefensible. Grotius puts it this way: “Disobedience in things of this kind, by its very nature, is a lesser evil than manslaughter, especially in the slaughter of so many men” (Walters, 1973, p. 206).  He and Vitoria were in agreement that “a citizen’s sincere conviction that a particular war was unjust obligated him to abstain from it" (Walters, p. 209).


Those citizens of states who have taken a military oath such as the examples previously mentioned clearly have a tougher decision to make than those in the general population who may or may not have an actual choice. To obey one’s conscience might entail breaking one’s oath. The professional soldier (be he or she a conscript or a volunteer) has received training in such virtues as integrity, loyalty, courage, and commitment (to name a few). Integrity may demand refusal in circumstances where loyalty demands obedience. Robinson (2008, p. 22) maintains that “courage, loyalty, and obedience do not ‘trump’ integrity”. Those three virtues “are essentially functional--that is to say that they are promoted primarily because they are important for the effective functioning of military organizations, rather than because they are valuable in themselves” (p. 9).


Most western nations allow some citizens to openly refuse to serve in their nation’s military. The Department of Defense in the United States recognizes religious, moral, and ethical beliefs which are “sincerely held” (DODI 1300.06, May 5, 2007, in AR 600-43) in determining conscientious objector status.  A service member may petition for conscientious objector status at any point during their time in service. An investigation will be undertaken to substantiate the claim. The service member will provide evidence for his/her "crystallization of belief" in objecting to all wars.




"An officer's ultimate commanding loyalty at all times is to his country and not to his service or his superiors"--General George C. Marshall (Gabriel, p. 196)


The amount of dissent within the United States military is surprisingly (or perhaps not) limited. Reason would tell us that individuals and groups would be reluctant to 1) jeopardize their own best interests (e.g., their lives); 2) submit to persons of higher rank who can and do make flawed decisions; 3) remain tight-lipped even though their consciences tell them that following an order is inherently wrong; 4) protect incompetent leaders and peers when the outcome of doing so is detrimental to the individual, group, or country as a whole; 5) volunteer for or remain in an organization that either occasionallyor consistently worsens rather than improves their lot in life.


So why are there so few who question policy? In the United States, approximately thirty percent of the military force lists “Roman Catholic” as their religious affiliation.  The Archbishop for the Military Services cautions that “any individual who judges an action on his or her part to be in violation of the moral law is bound to avoid that action” (O'Brien, 1998). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (1971, paragraph 15) wrote that “we should regard conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection as positive indicators within the Church of a sound moral awareness and respect for human life”. Clearly the Roman Catholics have support behind them should they decide to speak out--and yet so few take that step.


While the Roman Catholic Church recognizes both conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection, the Christian Reformed Churches only accept the latter:


“The only conscientious objection whose claim the Church cannot repudiate is he who, recognizing his duty to obey his government and to defend his country to its call to arms, has intelligent and adequate grounds to be convinced that the war to which he is summoned is an unjust war” (CRCNA, 2008).


In Israel, citizens who are very religious and the Beduoins and the Palestinians are exempt from military service.  Conscientious objection is not recognized on any grounds for the service-eligible population. Even when one’s religious tradition supports objection, very few of their flock actually object even if the war at hand is blatantly “unjust”. What are some of the reasons for this lack of protest?   Does it boil down to what one is willing to risk? “...even when a soldier’s doubts and anxieties are widely shared, they are still the subject of private brooding, not of public discussion.  And when he (she) acts, he(she) acts alone, with no assurance that his(her) comrades will support him (her)" (Walzer, 2000, p. 285).




As the saying goes: you can only fall on your sword once. Playing the Devil’s Advocate is somewhat encouraged in private industry, but it is a “CLG” (career-limiting gesture) in the military: “Perhaps it is too much to ask of morally good people that they risk a career to uphold a standard, even one they believe in” (Wakin, Wenker, & Kempf, p. 89). “In Vietnam, the officers who most often refused to obey orders were the reserve officers who were not career-minded” (Charles C. Hudlin, as above, p. 88). The supremacy of careerism “provokes the worst type of disloyalty under the guise of loyalty, namely, a marked failure to question policy or practices which either do not work or else extract too high a moral price for their success” (Richard Gabriel, as above, p. 115). The "knights" (to use Timothy Challans' descriptive category) that do speak out usually are rewarded with disaffection or censure (p. 22) and they quickly fall off the radar screen. Occasionally some recover, notably now General Eric Shinseki.




"Loyalty is a noble quality, so long as it does not blind and does not excludethe high loyalty to truth and decency."--- Liddell Hart (Why Don't We Learn..p. 30-31)


General Shinseki told a congressional committee in 2003 that he felt it would take several hundred thousand troops to stabilize post-invasion Iraq.  He was then publicly humiliated by the Deputy Secretary and the Secretary of Defense, replaced before his retirement, and marginalized in his remaining months of service (Newbold, p.188). The announcement that the U.S. President-Elect has selected Shinseki to assume the post of Secretary for Veterans Affairs is a real coup for soldiers who "serve the truth". In 2006, the "revolt of the Generals" involved several retired senior officers who spoke out against some the military policies in Iraq and the civilian leaders most involved in those policies.  They did not risk too much (their pensions being secure), but many of their peers and countrymen sharply criticized their action. John Silber maintains: "The general should fear the dishonor of denying the Commander-in-Chief his best professional judgment.  Morally, such a failure would be indistinguishable from abandoning one's post under fire. “The soldier should be prepared not only to die for his country, but to be fired for it” (Toner, p. 72).


If one is brave enough to lay one’s career on the line by dissenting, what are the legitimate avenues of protest in the United States?  Gabriel (p.110) lists four: 1) resignation; 2) request for relief in protest; 3) appealing orders to higher command; and 4) refusal to execute an order.  I would add 5) claim to be a conscientious objector (since selective conscientious objection is not recognized) and 6) Appeal for Redress (see Department of Defense Directive 1325.6).  Unfortunately, these are actions that will not impact a great number of people and, as Walzer stated above, the dissenter acts alone. Even the impact of the "revolting generals" was fleeting.




My nurse friend accused me not only of disobedience, but a lack of patriotism. Much of what passes for patriotism in the United States (and elsewhere) is actually nationalism–the view that one’s country is superior to others (or all others). After the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001, flags waved everywhere. Reasoned discourse all but disappeared for a period of time. It was pointless and somewhat dangerous to suggest that perhaps some of our nation’s policies could be part of the impetus for the wrath of other nations or groups of individuals.




There are other factors, to be sure. In times of economic distress, financial stability may be at the head of the list. Today’s citizen-soldier in the United States does very well when deployed in a combat zone (especially the officers). I know many who have volunteered for deployments in order to provide a more comfortable lifestyle for their families. Re-enlistment bonuses and other incentives border on the ridiculous (in my opinion). I have said this more than once: The United States military may actually be overwhelmingly comprised of mercenaries. If most were patriots, we wouldn’t have to pay so much to keep them on duty.


It almost pains me to mention that some of our service members are serving for the sheer adventure of it. War has been glorified in both the United States and in Israel. Some view the current wars in Iraq and Israel/Palestine as fights sanctioned by God, angels against devils, good versus evil. Others are trying to “prove themselves” by serving in a time of danger. I know one senior officer who volunteered for a combat tour so he could get away from his wife. More than a few officers want to be deployed so they are more “promotable”. Suffice it to say that the motivations for continuing to serve in the military are not always pure and not even primarily moral. This makes a real case for not summarily dismissing those whose conscience IS troubled.




From what was said earlier, we could assume that conscripts will likely be more vocal than those who volunteered because: 1) they have less to lose as reservists (they will return to their civilian jobs after a call-up) and 2) they are taken from an eligible pool so they will likely be a diverse group with already-formed opinions on the justice/injustice of a war.


When one brigade commander refused to lead his troops into Beirut in 1982, his quiet resignation did not set off any sparks.  But a public letter of 86 reservists caught on and set off a firestorm. By June, 1983, there were 1700 reservists in an organization called ‘Yesh Gevul’, which means “there is a limit or a border” (reference is to political or moral borders).


Treatment of “selective conscientious objectors” in Israel has not been consistent.  Some have been allowed to do “other work”, some have had to go to prison for short periods of time, and some were “harassed” by having their passports confiscated and their food rations stamps denied (Tilsen, 2008).


Israeli writer Ari Shavat published an article about his reserve duty experience as a guard at a Palestinian detention facility.  He wrote that this duty reminded him and his fellow soldiers of the stories they’d heard about the Nazi guards at the concentration camps. He himself heard screams from the interrogation section of the camp.  His article was touted as the “unguarded response of the citizen soldier, not the hardened intensity of the career warrior” (Temes, 2003, pp. 142-143).


In 2003, a group of Israeli air force reserve pilots signed a letter “refusing to carry out targeted killings or other operations in the West Bank and Gaza because they considered them ‘immoral and illegal’(BBC News, 2003).  The pilots were not opposed to compulsory military service per se, just to compulsory service in this particular conflict.  The government said that the matter will “be dealt with appropriately by the defence establishment” (BBC News).


Selective Conscientious Objection


Both the United States and Israel excuse a certain number of individuals from their military service obligation.  In the United States, having an “exceptional family member” (with serious medical concerns) or suffering from stress or psychological illness oneself can qualify a service member for a compassionate assignment for a maximum of twelve months. Conscientious objector status may be requested at any time. Department of Defense Instruction 1300.06 (see above) states the following in regard to those who claim to object to participation in ALL wars: “...the United States Armed Forces conscientious objector policies recognize that service members’ religious, ethical, or moral beliefs can change over time and lead to conscientious objection to war”.


During the Vietnam War, 34,402 persons were registered as conscientious objectors; over 7 million were deferred for other reasons (Robinson, 2008, p. 10). During 2006-2006, conscientious objector status applications totaled 425. If one considers that during those years about 2.3 million men and women served in the armed forces, 425 fewer in uniform does not amount to much. Interestingly enough, 154 of the applicants had served in Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom, or Operation Iraqi Freedom (GAO-07-1196, 2007, pp. 1, 28-29).


According to Gans (paragraph 3), exempting the Orthodox from IDF service amounts to “tens of thousands of potential soldiers”. No one has claimed that this waiver has “jeopardized the IDF’s ability to do its job” (Gans, same paragraph). As a side note, when selective conscientious objection was allowed in Britain during the early years of the war, very few exercised this right (Tramel, p. 208). Michael Harrington was not surprised. He is quoted as saying: “In societies where the political majority supports a war, the number of conscientious objectors will, I am convinced, be small. The basis of this opinion is sociological, not ethical. The emotions of patriotism and conformity are, alas, usually stronger than those of individual defiance on the basis of morality” (in Finn, 1968, p. 226).


If the current exemptions have not adversely impacted those nations’ security, will expanding the list to include those who object to a specific war have grave consequences? Can the military service member who objects to a one military endeavor be assigned to other duties or even to combat areas where the individual’s conscience allows him or her to serve?


The Australian legislature passed an amendment in 1951 which states: “A person whose conscientious beliefs do not allow that person’s participation in a particular armed conflict shall not be required to render military service in that particular conflict so long as those beliefs are held” (Smith, 1989, p. 24).


Up until now, I’ve focused on the argument that allowing dissent does very little “harm”. More importantly, can it be a force for good?  “Selective conscientious objection could even further military goals by drawing attention to questionable undertakings, and thereby helping to reduce injustice. “Far from viewing it as a threat, democratic societies should consider it to be an act of integrity” (Robinson, 2008, p. 13).


Two other "goods" of allowing selective conscientious objection are 1) contractual fairness (nullification of the contract if either party violates the initial terms agreed to) and 2) the separation of selective conscientious objective from religious or quasi-religious belief. Reasoned deliberation, like that used by the IDF dissenters, would suffice, thereby equalizing the civilly-based arguments of those who do not adhere to a particular ideology (Foster, p. 18).


I opened this paper with a quotation from PFC Desmond T. Doss, a combat medic who served in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War. He was a Seventh Day Adventist and refused to carry a weapon. He wanted to serve his country but not as a combatant. He did not like the label of “conscientious objector” because he considered the war to satisfy “just cause” and he wanted to “do his duty as a citizen”. He preferred the term “conscientious cooperator” (Benedict, 2004).  PFC Doss helped save rescue some 75 wounded men when they were pinned down by enemy fire. He received the Medal of Honor for his selfless and courageous actions.


The “whistle blowers” (there are notable others in addition to the generals and the  IDF pilots such as those who could not keep silent about Abu Grahib and My Lai) remind their military of the values and expectations of the nation that they represent and serve. The optimal state is a principled nation with a morally-cohesive force. Thoughtful dissent is not necessarily the crack across the windshield that eventually spreads and renders the glass unusable; it can often be the voice in the wilderness calling us back to our better selves and those promises we made that truly transcend a specific order, mission, or objective. General MacArthur was not correct in saying that there is "no substitute for victory". If this were so, General Robert E. Lee would never have surrendered honorably (Challans, p. 124).  He'd have fought to the last man ... and to what end?





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