The Wrong Stuff

Once a Marine, Always a Marine … Maybe: J.E. McNeil on Conscientious Objectors and Wrongness

“When you join the military,” says J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience on War , “one of the hundreds of forms you sign says, ‘I didn’t apply to be a conscientious objector for the draft, I’ve never been a conscientious objector, and I’m not a conscientious objector now.’ ” That requirement makes sense, McNeil says: “You don’t want a military made up of conscientious objectors. They’re not very useful in combat.”

Fair enough, but what happens when members of the Armed Services realize that they no longer believe in the war they are fighting, or in fighting at all? In another installment in this series , 22-year-old Iraq War veteran Josh Stieber tells the story of changing his mind about military service. In the below interview, we get a bird’s-eye view of the situation facing conscientious objectors from McNeil, whose faith-based nonprofit organization has been defending the rights of conscientious objectors since WWII.


How hard is it to obtain CO status once you’re in the military?

There’s a Department of Defense regulation that provides that if a person has a change of heart and for moral, ethical, or religious beliefs comes to conscientiously oppose their own participation in war in any form, they can either ask to be discharged or ask to be a non-combatant.  

But it’s not easy, and it takes time. You have to file an application form with many questions: What do you believe that leads you to file this application? How did you come by those beliefs? When did those beliefs change so that you no longer could be in the military? What do you believe about the use of force? What in your life shows that your beliefs have changed?

Then what?

You submit that form to your commanding officer, who appoints an investigating officer. Then you meet with a psychiatrist, who determines whether or not there are mental health issues that would cause you to leave the military. Then you meet with a chaplain who may or may not be of the same religious faith as you who determines whether or not you are sincere. Then the IO [investigating officer] has a hearing, to which you can bring witnesses to say, “Yes, he used to be gung ho about the military and now he hates everything to do with it.”

After the hearing, the investigating officer makes a recommendation and the commanding officer makes a decision. In every other decision except for medical discharges, a commanding officer is not second-guessed. But under military regulations, these [CO decisions] go up the chain of command to the Pentagon, and any one of the people along the way can say, “No, he’s not a CO,” even though they’ve never met the guy.

How many conscientious objector application are approved each year?

It depends on the branch, but it ranges between 75 to 50 percent. And it also depends on where we are in a war. At the beginning of the Vietnam War, something like 90 percent of application were denied. At the end, 90 percent were granted. The same thing is happening now with Iraq and Afghanistan; more are being granted, and faster, than they were at the beginning.

Do you find any common denominator among conscientious objectors, in terms of characteristics, background, outlook, or anything else?

Only this: I find that almost everyone who comes to us tends to be very conscientious across the board. Whatever they do, they do it well. I think that’s one reason that people get annoyed with them when they seek a discharge: because they were good at what they were doing. They often excel; they’re often award-winning. One of these guys kept getting awards in the Navy while his CO application was pending, because he was going to be conscientious in his job right up until the moment when he could walk away from it.

But other than that, no. We’ve got a guy who was a conservative Christian, and it was becoming an atheist and a libertarian that caused his change of heart. Other times we get guys who were atheists and become Christian. There really isn’t one story.

What kinds of factors do people cite as triggering their reversal on the military?

It really varies, although there are some patterns. When people have a change of heart in boot camp, it’s often because of the cadences: “Kill, Kill, Kill” or “What makes the grass grow green? Blood, blood, blood, brains and guts, blood makes the grass grow green.” You can go on YouTube and hear some lovely cadences about napalm. There you are doing double time about the granny who turned into a torch. For some people, that’s enough.

I remember one CO application where the woman was being hazed because she wouldn’t say “Kill, kill, kill” but she felt that if she said it, God would strike her dead on the spot and she’d go to hell. She said, “I realized: This is not something I can say, this is not something I can do, and this is not someone I can be.”

What about people who change their minds later in the process?

Other people kind of bop along until they get a deployment order and have to face what it is that they’re going to go do. Especially with national guards and reserves, you can go down to Guatemala and build a road and feel like you’re doing good stuff, and then you get a deployment order and you know you’re going to be asked to shoot people. And you go, “You know, I joined the national guard to build levees, not to blow people’s heads off.” There’s an internal confrontation at that point, and it can become very difficult.

Do most people contact you before deployment, then?

No. For many people, the change of heart doesn’t happen until they’re in combat or have come back from combat. I’ll never forget that right as we were invading Iraq, I got a call from a guy who was an Army ranger. He’d been at it for seven and a half years, all of it active duty. He said, “When I was in Afghanistan, I had a child in my sights, and I just realized that I couldn’t do this anymore. I only had six more months on my contract, so I figured I’d come back from Afghanistan and wouldn’t re-up. But they stop-lossed me in and they’re deploying me to Iraq. And I just can’t do it.”

I can tell you lots of horrible stories of what it is that turned people away in battle people who killed a kid who was walking toward them with a grenade, only then they realized it wasn’t a grenade. Things like that. Things worse than that.

For people who change their minds during active duty, do you find that incidents like those where it becomes difficult to continue to think of yourself as the good guy are the most frequent trigger?

That’s a common one, but it’s not the only one. There are more mundane causes as well. For some people, it’s having children. Or there’s the story of Josh Casteel , who was interrogating someone and the person he was questioning said, “Your God tells you to love your enemy. How do you reconcile that with what you are doing?” Josh suddenly realized that he couldn’t, and that was that.

To what extent does youth play a role in these changes of heart? Many people get involved with the military when they’re quite young, and most of us don’t have fully formed belief systems at 17 or 18.

That’s right, and the military is well aware of it. That’s why they’re happy to recruit you when you’re 17 and 18, because hopefully they can shape your worldview to the one they want. It’s also why the United States government rejected signing the child soldier protocol of the U.N. for so long: because we can recruit 17-years-old with a parent’s signature.

You definitely see some of these kids growing up and starting to think it through and coming to a crisis. It’s not uncommon for us to get guys who start their time in the military drinking and partying, and then as they get older and more mature, they start doing more reading and thinking and studying, and they conclude that this is not a life they feel they can live.

It seems to me that one of the things that must be hardest about realizing you can no longer serve in the military is that being a member of the Armed Services is very much about identity

Once a marine, always a marine.

Exactly. So when you decide you can’t be involved anymore, you’re really concluding not only that you were wrong about a choice you made, but also about an identity you’d adopted. What’s that like for people?

I’ve heard from a lot of guys who feel completely isolated in their units, sometimes deliberately so. And sometimes they are rejected not just by their unit but by their family. I can think of several people whose families have said, “If you’re a CO, you’re a coward and you’re not my son or not my daughter.” 

One of the reasons we started posting photographs of successful CO applicants on our Web site is to try to show people that there’s another community out there, that COs represent a broad range of people and you can find a place among them. We try as hard as we can to provide emotional support, because the experience is very isolating. A lot of guys are just so grateful that there’s anybody who at all understands what they’re talking about. Last week we had a guy who had felt isolated and miserable and was virtually suicidal until somebody said the words “conscientious objector” to him, and he was just so excited that he wasn’t going crazy that there was a name for how he felt and other people who feel that way.

In talking to people who’ve undergone radical shifts in their belief systems, I’ve heard some stories where the shift was very gradual and others where there was a sudden epiphany. Do you tend hear one kind more than the other?

They can be either, or even both. Sometimes it’s just a long, slow process. Other times, there’s a long buildup followed by a flash: a moment where it’s, “No, this is the breaking point, this is the end.” And sometimes the whole thing seems to happen in a flash, like the guy who was doing the interrogation.

We call the flashes “Road to Damascus moments.” What’s interesting is that Army regulations provide for the ability to have a Road to Damascus religious conversion but not a nonreligious one. We tried to take that to the Supreme Court and got pretty close, but it didn’t happen. That’s one of the unfairnesses in the system.

Wait, what? You’re saying that according to Army regulations, you can have a religious epiphany but not an ethical one? You can come to God in a moment, but all nonreligious moral change has to be gradual?

Right. In a couple of Korean War-era cases, the Supreme Court ruled that because the First Amendment says we don’t have an established church, conscientious objector status can be based on moral or ethical grounds, not just religion, and the regulations in all the [military] branches reflect that.

But in the Army, the regulations say that if the petition for CO status comes from a nonreligious basis, it has to come from “study and meditation.” “Study and meditation” does not allow for a Road to Damascus conversion.

Wow. Fascinating. Other than this issue, are there aspects of the conscientious objector regulations you regard as unfair and have tried or are trying to change?

One major issue is selective objection. Lieutenant Watada was the classic example: He was willing to fight in Afghanistan, but he was not willing to fight in Iraq. He felt that his religious beliefs forbade him to fight an unjust war, and he felt that the invasion of Iraq was unjust. That’s not recognized. What that means is that we have a law that tracks to the religious beliefs of a very, very narrow sector of society. Because let’s face it: Quakers, Mennonites,and Brethrens even when you throw in Seventh Day Adventists and a few other churches these people do not make up a significant percentage of the population of the United States.

Most churches, including Catholics, Methodists, and Episcopalians, recognize the “just war” concept: Some wars are just, and some wars are unjust. So we feel the statute has established a narrow faith litmus test, and that it should be possible for someone who is a conscientious objector to an unjust war to receive a discharge. That was the law in Great Britain. It’s not the law in Israel, but it’s sort of de facto: Many members of the Israeli military refuse to fight in the Occupied Territories and aren’t punished for it. So it’s not an undoable thing, and it would more accurately reflect the beliefs of a much larger number of people.

Someone who was less than sympathetic to your work would say that most COs aren’t experiencing sincere belief change that they’re fine as long as military life is all about training and ROTC and hanging out in the United States, but as soon as they get into combat they freak out and just want a ticket out of there. What would you say to that?

I would like them to explain to me why so many of these guys don’t realize that they’re COs when they’re in Afghanistan and Iraq; they realize it when they come home. If it was just about “I want to get out of here,” they would do it overseas, not two months after they get back, three months after they get back, a year after they get back. I would be getting calls from Fallujah every day, instead of from Omaha.

Some people are going to be cynical; fine, they can be cynical. I think the reality is that we ignore the possibility that people can experience real change, on this issue or any other, at our own peril.  

I’ve been talking mainly about people concluding that they themselves were wrong about war. But I’m curious about whether deception or misinformation also play a role? Do you find that many people feel they were deliberately misled about the realities of military life?

There’s a joke about military recruiters: “How can you tell when they’re lying? When their mouth is moving.” I’ve used that line in front of military audiences and had people in the military come up to me afterward and tell me that I’m way too nice on recruiters. That’s true. I am nice to them, because I think they have the worst job in the military. For a while it was not uncommon for the military to send guy with PTSD to recruit. Recruiters have a higher suicide rate than the general population stateside, and they have terrifically stressful jobs; for a recruiter to get one recruit, they have to make something like 300 contacts.

But you know, they get great training. The military has done millions and millions of dollars in marketing research about who to target and how and what to say, and they’re extremely good at it. They know that in one neighborhood you promise this and in a different neighborhood you promise that. One of my favorite stories is about this kid who called me up and said, “A friend of mine was very happily joining the Marines and I took him down to sign the papers and I don’t know how it happened, but after I left, I had joined the Marines. I’ve never wanted to join the Marines. I can’t understand how I joined the Marines. But I joined the Marines, and I need your help.”

So that tells you how persuasive they are. And they are not fighting fair. They are not giving these kids the real information information about things like rates of suicides, rates of sexual assault, the reality about the educational and job training opportunities, the reality for minorities in the military.

One last question: if you could hear anyone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?

I’ve seen The Fog of War , and it was intriguing, but [Robert McNamara] never once said, “I was wrong.” He’s a classic “mistakes were made” guy. That would be who I really want to hear from [if he were still alive]. I suppose that reflects my age, and how long I’ve been doing this work.


Kathryn Schulz  is the author of  Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at . You can follow her on Facebook  here , and on Twitter  here .

This blog features Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with former Watergate felon turned evangelical leader Chuck Colson , sex critic and educator Susie Bright , Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall , Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld , marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director  Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder  Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru  James Bagian , hedge-fund manager  Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer  Ed Viesturs This American Life  host  Ira Glass , celebrity chef  Anthony Bourdain Sports Illustrated  senior writer  Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist  Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit  Alan Dershowitz .