By Bob Meola, Courage to Resist. June 25, 2013. Reprinted from The Broken Rifle.

The most powerful weapon we have against war is the refusal of the individual to become a soldier and the refusal of the individual soldier to fight. It is his or her ability to say “No” that could stop armies and end wars. With more soldiers willing to desert and more soldiers willing to stand in solidarity with them doing so, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not have been waged. Mass desertion by military personnel backed by solidarity strikes in the military and in civilian society could stop many illegal wars as well as spread the message that all war is a crime against humanity.

When even drone operators resist illegitimate orders to fight illegal wars, we will end these wars. The list of U.S. and international laws violated by George Bush is long, as is the list of laws broken, so far, by Barack Obama. A list of Bush’s crimes can be read here. Much of the law is on our side. But it is misinterpreted, misused, and largely ignored. With grass roots education of soldiers, GI [soldier] resistance can grow.

More than 200 “GIs have publicly refused service and spoken out against the wars, all risking prison and some serving long sentences. An estimated 250 U.S. war resisters are currently taking refuge in Canada. Countless others leave quietly, disappearing from the ranks, unrecorded by the military.” [From the introduction to the 2011 Courage to Resist book, About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War]

A 2012 publication from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: Conscientious Objection to Military Service is available in print and online here: It covers many relevant issues related to conscientious objection in many nation states. Regardless of how states define which terms – i.e. conscientious objection, alternative service, noncombatant service, civilian service, etc – what is needed is a worldwide grass roots movement to demand the right of the individual war resister to be respected for his/her individual definitions and limits of what their consciences will allow them to do and not do.

‘A moral sense of what is right and wrong’

Conscience is an individual’s personal moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. It was innately apparent to Bradley Manning that the murders, by his government’s military, that he witnessed on video, were wrong. It was clear to him that Iraqi’s being handed over to be tortured for having exercised their right to petition was wrong. Real existing U.S. law and international law was on his side. But it has not backed up his actions.

Soldiers like Ethan McCord and Josh Stieber have testified that the murders revealed by Bradley Manning with the leak of the Collateral Murder video, and the Iraq War Logs, and the Afghan War Diaries were not aberrations or isolated incidents. Rather, they were routine, everyday occurrences.

In the international legal framework, “Conscientious Objection to military service is based on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” [from Conscientious Objection to Military Service, page 7] From that is derived the concept of conscientious objection being based on religion or belief. We must no longer let any state decide what “belief” is acceptable for an individual or a soldier to hold before they are exempt from soldiering or further soldiering. Presently, a distinction is made between a pacifist and a conscientious objector. A CO may be opposed to all war and still believe in the use of personal, physical violence in response to a physical attack on one’s person or family. It follows that we must now demand that individuals need the freedom to decide for themselves that even if they would defend their nation’s shores from attack in a military capacity, that they still have the right, in every nation, to decide for themselves to refuse to participate in, or be complicit in any way with, illegal wars of aggression like the imperialist wars waged by the United States in Iraq and in Afghanistan and so many other countries. We must demand the right of Selective Conscientious Objection and support those struggling for that right.

No government ought to be able to discriminate against any conscientious objector (CO) to military service based on the nature of that CO’s beliefs. Selective conscientious objection – allowing an individual to accept the legitimacy of some military action and still refuse to fight in what his/her own conscience tells him/her is an illegal and immoral war – must be respected and legitimized by all states. Opposition to Apartheid in South Africa was recognized as a legitimate reason to be granted CO status and exemption from military service in South Africa. Political opposition to wars of aggression must also be accepted reasons to grant individuals CO status.

Educate for conscientious objection

There needs to be CO curriculum taught in high schools, if not also from kindergarten up. There is a need to have the definition of a CO communicated clearly to soldiers upon their enlistment. And there needs to be an ongoing educational campaign directed toward military officers that it is normal for individuals to evolve and develop and change their beliefs – and that they have the right to change their beliefs without fear of penalty, retribution, or retaliation for doing so.
U.S. Iraq war resister Andre Shepherd is still in Germany appealing the denial of his asylum application by the German Federal Office. Andre has been very vocal with his opposition to the illegal war policies of the United States.

Attorney James Branum, who has represented many COs and war resisters has pointed out the fact that resisters, including deserters, who have spoken publicly of their opposition to the illegal U.S. wars of aggression have received longer prison sentences than those who have been silent, many of whom have been discharged without prison time. Many U.S. COs and War Resisters are still in Canada and face/ing the fear of being deported if they are not granted political asylum by the Canadian government. Kimberly Rivera, whom Canada did deport, is one of those U.S. soldiers who did speak up against the war and did receive a harsher sentence for doing so. She was also not given the information she needed to file a CO application when she declared her CO beliefs to a U.S. Army chaplain. Kimberly is a pregnant mother of four other children who has just started serving her sentence for desertion.

There must be nondiscrimination between those who have performed military service and COs. Benefits granted by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, such as healthcare for veterans, housing and education loans, etc., should be granted to COs whether or not they have served in the military or performed noncombat service or alternative civilian service if a military draft should return.

Today, there are C0s in hiding, in open sanctuary, and in prison. Tomorrow COs must be honored and celebrated.

In Berkeley, California, I have written resolutions that have been passed, first by the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission [which advises the city council and the school district on matters of peace and justice] and later by the Berkeley City Council. One of those resolutions was passed in 2007 and proclaimed May 15th, International Conscientious Objectors Day, as Berkeley CO and War Resisters’ Day, every year. It designated and recognized that day as “the day on which Berkeley acknowledges, honors, and celebrates COs and war resisters, civilian and military, past, present, and future.” Every year since, COs and War Resisters from WWll to the present have spoken, sung songs, and raised peace flags on city flag poles.

By resolution, Berkeley is also a sanctuary city, and also in 2007, the city council passed a resolution extending its sanctuary status for COs to draft registration resisters, draft resisters, if a military draft should be reinstituted, and to military resisters who might be classified as AWOL or as deserters, even if they are not traditional COs, but are only opposed to the illegal and immoral Bush/Cheney/Obama wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. Finally, in 2010, the city council passed a resolution entitled, “Universal and Unconditional Amnesty for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan War Military Resisters and Veterans Who Acted in Opposition to the War for Matters of Conscience.” These are the possibilities for more of tomorrow’s conscientious objectors and war resisters.

Bob Meola serves as a member of the War Resisters League National Committee, a member of the Courage to Resist Organizing Collective, a Steering Committee member of the Bradley Manning Support Network and a Commissioner on the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. He was also a Vietnam War Conscientious Objector and resister.