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The Bergdahl case raises a number of questions about the rights of military personnel. What can members of the military do when they face a crisis of conscience? How should laws and regulations be changed?

As a volunteer with the GI Rights Hotline (, it's important to remember that the US military, unfortunately, does not yet recognize selective conscientious objection. As a result, as pierre9045 pointed out in a useful diary yesterday, members of the military who face crises of conscience are still caught in a Catch-22.

GI Rights volunteer and lawyer James Branum (who is a colleague of mine on the GI Rights Hotline) was interviewed on Democracy Now yesterday about these issues regarding Bergdahl.

Currently, when someone signs up for a branch of the US military, they sign a form saying they are not a conscientious objector. So, for a member of the military to successfully claim conscientious objection, they need to first prove that their beliefs about war have changed since they signed up, and then they have to prove that since signing up, they have become morally, ethically, or religiously against participating in all war. I could say a lot more about the philosophical and procedural challenges of meeting this definition, but I'll spare you that for now.

This definition obviously limits the legal options available to those who develop conscientious objections to the particular war(s) the country is fighting but are not necessarily opposed to all wars. Sgt. Bergdahl, from what I've heard, might have been in this situation. Also, though the GI Rights Hotline receives tens of thousands of calls every year, many members of the military still don't know about conscientious objection as an option and don't know there is free, confidential help available from GI Rights counselors about a range of discharge options.

It would be an important human rights advance to push the military, the Congress, and/or the courts to recognize the rights of selective conscientious objectors. This was one of the conclusions of the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, as written about in a diary by diamondheart a couple of years ago (see also links to the commission itself, and the Commission's Final Report (pdf)). Most religions admit that conscientious objection to all wars is at least possible under their theology, but almost all religions recognize, at a minimum, that not all wars are just, and thus in theory should be willing to promote the right to selective objection. The recognition of this right would also help spur GI resistance and thus perform as a check on Executive power from below, especially to wars considered particularly unjust. 

Even better would be to recognize the right of anyone to quit their jobs and to leave the military without having to prove they are doing it for a particular reason of conscience. After all, the 13th Amendment abolished "involuntary servitude" (unfortunately with the criminality "loophole" tacked on, but that's another topic for another time). To force people to stay in the military under pain of military criminal prosecution is to enforce a condition of involuntary servitude and is one of the factors that gives the lie to the advertised "all volunteer" force. 

Originally posted to samdiener on Thu Jun 05, 2014 at 08:08 AM PDT.

Also republished by Group W: Resisting War.


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