By Paul Vitello, NY Times. February 22, 2011
The question that changed Michael Izbicki’s life appeared on a psychological exam he took not long after graduating in 2008 near the top of his class at the United States Naval Academy: If given the order, would he launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead? Ensign Izbicki said he would not — and his reply set in motion a two-year personal journey and legal battle that ended on Tuesday, when the Navy confirmed that he had been discharged from the service as a conscientious objector.
In the process, Mr. Izbicki, 25, went from Navy midshipman in the nuclear submarine fleet here, studying kill ratios, to resident of a small Quaker peace community a few blocks from the Thames River, where he prays several times a day, studies Hebrew and helps with the organic garden.
He is one of only a few graduates of the nation’s military academies to be granted conscientious objector status in recent years. And while every case is deeply personal, his long struggle for an honorable discharge offers a glimpse of a rarely viewed side of military experience in the post-draft, all-volunteer era: the steep challenge facing any service member — and especially a graduate of a service academy — who signs up as a teenager to become a warrior and then changes his mind in adulthood about his willingness to kill.
The Navy fought his request hard, in much the same way that the Army contested the conscientious objector application of Capt. Peter D. Brown, a West Point graduate and an Iraq war veteran who was discharged in 2007 after a protracted court battle.
Academy graduates accounted for only a dozen of the roughly 600 applicants for the special status between 2002 and 2010, spokesmen for the service branches said. Of those requests, fewer than half were approved. And like many of the other academy applicants, according to lawyers who handle such cases, Mr. Izbicki won his discharge only by taking his petition to federal court.
The Navy rejected Mr. Izbicki’s application twice, questioning the sincerity of his beliefs despite the support of several Navy chaplains and the testimony of two Yale Divinity School faculty members who said his religious convictions seemed to be mature and sincere.
One Navy commander suggested that the pacifist strain of Christianity that Mr. Izbicki embraced was inconsistent with mainstream Christian faith. The same commander likened the Quakers, who supported Mr. Izbicki, to the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, a suicide cult.
J. E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, a nonprofit group in Washington that helps service members navigate the conscientious objector process, said that a case like Mr. Izbicki’s posed a profound challenge to the military. “You were someone they thought was going to be a leader,” Ms. McNeil said. “They spent four years training you. Now you want nothing to do with that world.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which filed a federal lawsuit on Mr. Izbicki’s behalf in November seeking a reversal of the Navy’s decision, announced on Tuesday that the Navy had granted Mr. Izbicki his discharge. Mr. Izbicki, who has continued to work at a Navy desk job, may have to reimburse the service for all or part of the cost of his education, said his lawyers, Sandra Staub, legal director of the A.C.L.U. of Connecticut, and Deborah H. Karpatkin and Vera M. Scanlon, of New York.
Mike McLellan, a spokesman for the Navy, said Mr. Izbicki had been discharged as a conscientious objector because “the Navy Personnel Command determined there was sufficient evidence to satisfy the requirements for this designation, and determined that it was in the Navy’s best interests to discharge him.”
Mr. Izbicki, a National Merit Scholarship finalist in high school, chose the naval academy at Annapolis, Md., over a bevy of colleges, including the California Institute of Technology, that offered him four-year scholarships, because he felt an obligation to serve his country during wartime, he told investigators in his application for discharge.
He grew up attending nondenominational Christian services in San Clemente, Calif., and remained a regular churchgoer during his four years at the academy, where Christianity is the dominant faith. Cadets are required in their junior year to study the “just war” theory, a doctrine justifying military action, based largely on the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Not until his senior year did Mr. Izbicki register a sense of unease over what he would refer to in his application as “the frankness with which people talked about killing.” He wrote: “The training did not live up to the ideals of the just war as I envisioned them. I saw formulas for calculating the number and types of casualties that would result from using each of our weapons systems. We calculated the extent of civilian casualties and whether these numbers were politically acceptable.”
Still, Mr. Izbicki said, he remained convinced that his Christian beliefs could be reconciled with military culture, and that as an officer he would be able to effect change from within.
After graduating from the academy, he earned a master’s degree in computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University in preparation for what he said he expected to be a career in nuclear submarines.
But Mr. Izbicki said he also began exploring his commitment to Christianity. He studied the Gospels, read widely about the early history of the church, took up Hebrew so he could read the Old Testament in the original, and started to measure his faith according to the evangelical touchstone “What would Jesus do?”
It was in that light that he encountered the exam question about launching a nuclear missile in early 2009, shortly after he was assigned to submariner school at the Nuclear Power Training Command in Charleston, S.C. Seeing the question spelled out like that, he said, made it impossible to hide his emerging pacifism any longer.
“I realized that I could not be responsible for killing anyone,” he later explained.
His answer flagged him for psychological testing, and a consultation with a Navy chaplain, who was the first to suggest that Mr. Izbicki consider applying for discharge as a conscientious objector.
“I had never really heard of it,” Mr. Izbicki, a reserved, soft-spoken man, said in an interview last week at St. Francis House, a Quaker residence. “It was one of those things people did in the ’60s.”
The transcripts of the hearings on his two applications for a discharge — which read partly like a court-martial, partly like oral exams for a doctor of divinity degree — run to more than 700 pages. They include esoteric queries about “just war” theory, the letters of St. Paul and the protocols known as the Six Capabilities of the United States Navy’s Maritime Strategy.
Mr. Izbicki’s beliefs are probed intensely for inconsistencies and deviations from conservative Christian belief.
One investigator, Lt. Cmdr. John A. Price, expresses surprise when Mr. Izbicki says he is not convinced that every word in the Bible is inspired by God. He questions how Mr. Izbicki can be sure, then, that the Sermon on the Mount, on which he bases his claim to know what Jesus would do, is accurate: “You realize that there’s a danger when you start believing that some stuff in the Bible’s not true, because then we might start believing that Jesus is not true.”
At another point, Commander Price asks, “If Jesus was a pacifist, why didn’t he tell all Roman soldiers to leave the army?”
Navy officers tried to persuade Mr. Izbicki to consider alternatives to discharge: Could he become a Navy medical officer or dentist? He replied that his pacifist beliefs were irreconcilable with any effort to prepare troops for battle. “I could not contribute in any way whatsoever,” he said.
Mr. Izbicki said he had made no plans for the future other than a return to his parents’ home in California. His discharge, he said, “has opened the whole world up to me.”