Podcast (GW-E05): “Well, You’re a Conscientious Objector” – Dan Fahey
Dan Fahey is a former US Naval officer who was discharged as a conscientious objector in 1991 after deploying to the Persian Gulf. After graduating Notre Dame ROTC as an officer and during the run up to the Gulf War, he began to attend peace and anti-war protests in opposition to the developing conflict. Dan is an activist, advocate and scholar of International Relations.
“I have to tell you a little bit about what happened in ROTC, because that was actually very formative for what happened, once I went on active duty. During the course of my four years at Notre Dame, I grew a lot as a person. I ended up being a political science major. As part of a class I took, I learned about the wars in Central America. And I had this epiphany, where, when I was studying about the war in El Salvador in the mid-1980s, I couldn’t understand why the US government was supporting the Salvadorian government, and not supporting the FMLN rebel group. I couldn’t wrap my head around this, because I thought, ‘We promote democracy, yet we’re supporting a dictatorship’.”
Gulf War @ 30
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced to mark 30 years since the U.S. aimed its imperial sights squarely on the Middle East. These are the voices of veterans who’s lives were transformed by that ongoing war. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Production assistance by Stephanie Atkinson. Executive producer: Jeff Paterson.
“While I was in school, Operation Desert Storm began with, in part, the launching of hundreds of Tomahawk Cruise missiles, from ships in the Persian Gulf, into Iraq…. This was January, February, 1991. I’m also now learning how to shoot nuclear missiles. I was literally going to Tomahawk school during the day, and coming home and drinking until I passed out, because I didn’t want to think anymore, and I didn’t want to think about what I was learning to do. And it was really a low moment for me.”
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Being a conscientious objector in 1991 was the most difficult way to get out of the military. If you had said you were gay, or you tested positive for drugs, you were immediately kicked out. Having a moral crisis over what you’ve been trained to do, you are subjected to this very long process that trips many people up.
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to obedient and unjust orders, counter-recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire. This episode features a guest with 30 years of current U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
Dan Fahey is our guest today. Dan served as a missiles officer in the Navy during the first Gulf War. He applied to become a conscientious objector, but was deployed to the Persian Gulf before his application was approved.
Over the years, Dan has also served in several veterans organizations and peace movements. Dan, welcome to the podcast. We are excited to hear your story of being a conscientious objector during the Gulf War.
Like all of the guests we have, can you give us background information about how you ended up finding yourself in the US military, in your case, the Navy. Why don’t you get us started by telling us a little bit about your growing up years, and what that looked like?
Sure, thanks for having me on. So I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. As I started getting into my teen years and looking to what was next, kind of anticipated mainly going to college.
One of the things that got me interested in joining the military was I went to what’s called Boys State, I think, my sophomore year in high school. That’s a big event that’s organized by the American Legion. They pick a couple of people from each school that a post sponsors, and they send you, in my case, up to Albany for a week, and you learn about democratic processes and you’ll have an election.
But the whole thing is largely run by Marine Corps recruiters. It was an indoctrination/recruitment effort, actually, the Boys State, in addition to learning about democracy. When you’re 14, 15, and you’ve got a Marine standing in front of you, and looking good and telling you how great it is, it has an impact on you as a young person.
There were a few things, I would say, that attracted me to the military. One was kind of on a personal level, that my parents had a rocky marriage. They were in the process of getting divorced towards the end of my high school. And I just wanted to get away from home. That was definitely one motivation.
Then there was a practical element to it, as well, because I ended up getting, applying for, and receiving a Navy ROTC scholarship. So, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which was going to pay for me to go to school for four years. That was obviously a big thing that was attractive to me.
There was also a patriotic element, of my history and my family of military service, and wanting to be part of that tradition in my family, and also having not very well formed ideas about what the United States stood for, what it meant to be patriotic, having the traditional notion of flag, and that the United States is always doing the right thing. That’s what led me at age 17 to join the Navy ROTC program at the University of Notre Dame in August of 1986.
So you end up going to the university. What was your early experiences there?
I have to tell you a little bit about what happened in ROTC, because that was actually very formative for what happened, once I went on active duty. During the course of my four years at Notre Dame, I grew a lot as a person. I ended up being a political science major.
As part of a class I took, I learned about the wars in Central America. And I had this epiphany, where, when I was studying about the war in El Salvador in the mid-1980s, I couldn’t understand why the US government was supporting the Salvadorian government, and not supporting the FMLN rebel group.
I couldn’t wrap my head around this, because I thought, “We promote democracy, yet we’re supporting a dictatorship.” And I hadn’t been aware of that before. It was an awakening for me. But I also got involved, early on at Notre Dame, in what’s called the Center for Social Concerns.
So I started to work at a homeless shelter. I later tutored in schools, worked at a soup kitchen, I worked at a women’s shelter in Chicago over a Thanksgiving break. Through all of these activities, I really saw, very starkly, the social problems that exist within the United States, the racism, the poverty, the history of neglect.
That was also an eye-opener for me, because I grew up in the suburbs, in a relatively comfortable environment, and had not really been aware of what was happening just 30 miles away in the Bronx. So, those two things during Notre Dame, kind of a political awakening, and also a moral awakening, were very key to what happened once I went on active duty.
The other things that happened were that, within the ROTC program … Basically, every summer in ROTC, you go for a month, and you do training, in some form or another. So I was down in Southern California at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base. For a week, we trained with the Marines.
We would get lectures before we would do some type of exercise, and there were about 120 of us, maybe 100 guys. This Marine Corps officer said, “I want you to motivate me to give you this lecture. I want you to chant, ‘Kill.'” And everyone started chanting, “Kill, kill, kill.” And I was, “Where am I? And what’s going on?” And I didn’t chant it.
I was shocked that he got, very quickly, a whole group of guys to chant, “Kill.” But after that, it made me see, I don’t want to be a Marine, but also, I don’t really want to kill anyone. Then what started to lead to a new set of questioning internally of, “What am I really doing?”
It was the combination of experiences I had within the ROTC, and getting some military training during that process, plus being a political science major, and learning about US foreign policy, plus working in a homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and developing a moral awareness and desire for public service in a different way, that, by the time I graduated from Notre Dame, I was really having serious doubts about joining. But I had no choice, because I had accepted a four-year scholarship, and I had committed to four years in the Navy.
Because I had done well in ROTC, and also academically, I was able to get my first choice when you pick what you want to do, and I got assigned to a warship in the San Francisco area. That’s where I was in May of 1990, when I graduated.
Did you pick that assignment, because you felt that you maybe wouldn’t see any military action in that position, or were you not quite at that point yet in your thinking?
I picked a warship as my first choice, because that’s kind of where the glory is in the Navy, and the excitement. One of the things I discovered through ROTC was that I actually liked being out at sea, and I enjoyed doing navigation, and driving ships.
I chose a warship, because I knew we’ll be going out to sea, and we’ll be doing the exciting stuff. That was May of 1990, and the Cold War was ending. Things were looking relatively calm at that point, and I couldn’t foresee what was coming right around the corner.
Obviously, the Gulf War is right around the corner, if it’s May 1990. What began to transpire, that’s really started to solidify your thinking to become a conscientious objector?
After I graduated from Notre Dame, I reported to San Diego, and I started what’s called Surface Warfare Officers School, which is a three-month school where you are prepared to go on a ship, and be an officer on a ship. While I was in that school, Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2nd of 1990, and then, obviously, the drumbeat to head to war just continued.
I was in San Diego. I was on Coronado. There were a lot of people who had doubts about, “Should we be doing this? Is this about oil?” But I found it harder and harder to put those doubts to the side and focus on the job I had to do. So during the fall of 1990, I actually started going to anti-war protests in San Diego.
I was having doubts and I needed to go be with other people who had the same views that I did, or same concerns, at least. Then I reported to my ship in December of 1990, and my ship was not scheduled to go over there.
They assigned to me to be the missiles officer, and that was about a dozen guys. We had two missile launchers at the front and back of the ship, fore and aft, for surface to air missiles. But on the back of our ship, we also had two, what were called box launchers, filled with Tomahawk Cruise missiles, could carry eight tomahawks.
After I’d been on the ship for about six weeks, actually right around the time that the Gulf war started, I was sent back to San Diego, and I went to Tomahawk Cruise missile school.
That was a three-week school to learn how to shoot the Tomahawk. While I was in school, Operation Desert Storm began with, in part, the launching of hundreds of Tomahawk Cruise missiles, from ships in the Persian Gulf, into Iraq. So I was literally in class during the day learning how to shoot Tomahawks, and then at night, on CNN, watching Tomahawks exploding in Baghdad.
That was a very difficult time for me. Because by that point, I was really having serious doubts about what I was part of, and what we were doing over there. This was January, February, 1991. I’m also now learning how to shoot nuclear missiles.
I was literally going to Tomahawk school during the day, and coming home and drinking until I passed out, because I didn’t want to think anymore, and I didn’t want to think about what I was learning to do. And it was really a low moment for me.
I was at an anti-war rally in San Diego, but someone came up and handed me a piece of paper and a flyer. It said, “If you’re in the military and you have concerns about the war, there’s counseling, someone you can talk to, you might be a conscientious objector.” I actually met with those folks in San Diego, and I told them my story, and they said, “Well, you’re a conscientious objector.”
I said, “But I’m not religious,” and they said, “No, it doesn’t matter,” and so, they explained it to me. But I was only down there for a few weeks, and then I had to come back up to San Francisco. My ship was in Alameda. When I came back up, they connected me to groups in the Bay Area that were doing outreach and counseling for military service members.
The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors took my case on, and I worked very closely with them. Then they also connected me to a lawyer, a guy named John Murko. He had helped a lot of Vietnam-era resisters.
At the end of February 1991, I showed up at the ship one day in Alameda, with my application, and went first to the chaplain and asked for his assistance. And then I handed it to a very shocked chain of command in my ship.
Because I was being groomed to take over the Missiles Division, they acted professionally. They did what they were supposed to do. Fortunately for me, everyone said that my beliefs were sincere and that they recommended advancing my case for conscientious objector application.
Now in the meantime, while this is happening, the ship that you’re on ends up being dispatched to the Persian Gulf, that’s correct?
At the end of February, I applied for conscientious objector status, and then I was still on the ship for a couple of weeks. And they had really very little for me to do. So I said, “Look, please take me off the ship, because it’s uncomfortable.”
Being a conscientious objector in 1991 was the most difficult way to get out of the military. If you had said you were gay, or you tested positive for drugs, you were immediately kicked out. But if you say you have a moral crisis over what you’ve been trained to do, you are subjected to this very long process that trips many people up.
I applied for conscience objector status, I was on the ship. At my request, they took me off the ship, put me at a repair facility on the same base, and so, I worked there, helping the legal officer.
Then the ship was scheduled to go to the Persian Gulf at the end of May, 1991. The chaplain, who was my contact on the on ship, he told me, “No, they’re not going to take you, your case is advancing, and we’re going to leave you here.” But then two weeks before the ship left, they contacted me and said, “You’re coming with us, get ready.”
They were short-handed. They weren’t trying to screw me over, necessarily, I think. So I had two weeks to kind of get my life in order, and then report to the ship again, and deploy to the Persian Gulf.
We left at the end of May, and arrived at the beginning of July in the Persian Gulf. I was assigned as an assistant to the executive officer of the ship, who gave me a variety of work.
But my operational role was on the bridge as what’s called a junior officer of the deck. I was up on the bridge with another officer doing navigation, watching for shipping, and basically driving the ship, as part of a rotation from here to the Persian Gulf.
I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to slip up and do something that would get me kicked out and dishonorably discharged, so I deployed.
How long were you over in the Persian Gulf area?
About three weeks. I was actually on the way to the Persian Gulf, and I found out that my conscientious objector application had been approved. I found out I’d been approved, but then, I still was on the ship.
We arrived in the Gulf, I expected to get off the ship. I didn’t. We went back, we were out on patrol, up in the Northern Arabian Gulf, Northern Persian Gulf. And then the order came through. I flew back at the end of July 1991.
I understand, because you are an officer, you had to resign your commission. Walk us through some of the implications of that.
When I came back from the Gulf, and had the paperwork there for what was next, I had two choices. I could stay in the Navy in a non-combat role. Or I could choose to be discharged, and I would receive an honorable discharge, but I would have extremely limited veteran’s benefits, and I had to repay my Navy ROTC scholarship.
At that point, I did have the option to stay in, but I chose to get out. That was my desire at that point. So I got out in late September 1991, and facing what, according to the repayment schedule, was about a $38,000 debt, and no job, and just the money in the bank that had been accumulating when I deployed.
When I got out too, I very quickly hooked up with the peace community, the veterans for peace community in the Bay Area, and they were very supportive, a lot of Vietnam vets. It was really great to have that community when I came out of the Navy, and my head was, of course spinning.
Through them, I also got a job with a group called Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, which is a community-based veterans group. I worked in the legal department for almost six years, helping veterans to file disability claims for benefits and healthcare. That was my first professional job after leaving the Navy, was working, helping veterans.
Dan, what’s some of the other activism that you’ve been able to participate in, in the years since the Gulf War?
Well, when I was working at Swords to Plowshares, we started to have veterans contacting us who were having health problems from the Gulf War. Very soon, I became linked up with other veterans in different parts of the country who were really just asking questions at that point, saying, “Hey, there’s there’s veterans who are sick, and we don’t know what is causing it.”
So I got involved with a group called the National Gulf War Resource Center, which formed in 1995, as really a coalition of community groups that were helping Gulf War vets who were having health problems. Through that work, I developed an expertise on use of depleted uranium weapons. So I did research on that, and was advocating for expanded healthcare, better testing, more scientific research.
I worked on the depleted uranium issue from 1995, until really, about 2008 was the last time I testified to the Institute of Medicine. I was working, both helping veterans to get disability claims, at Swords to Plowshares, and researching Gulf war veterans’ illnesses as part of Swords, but also on the side.
I worked some other jobs. I worked for an environmental NGO, but I went back and got a master’s degree in international relations at Tufts. There I did my thesis on the environmental effects of war, and the emergence of international responses to address it.
But it was during my studies that I started reading about Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, and I got very interested in the environment conflict connections in that country. In 2004, I went back to graduate school at Berkeley and started a PhD. And I studied the role of natural resources in armed conflict, in an area of Northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thinking back to the Gulf War era, do you believe that there’s been any progress in the peace movement? Are we any closer to having a country or a society or a culture that values peace over militarism?
It was when I started going to Congo in 2005, that I started to actually understand what war was about. For me, it’s only crystallized further my opposition to war. It’s difficult for a lot of Americans to wrap their head around armed conflict. Very few people have experienced it, and we get a pretty sanitized version of why wars happen, and what happens during war.
I think that’s one of the things about that the peace movement has not been able to do, is to de-romanticize war in our country. I think we’re still clinging to these notions of World War II and fighting the good fight. The peace movement has made progress, in that a lot of people are paying attention to foreign policy issues.
Because also, with social media, we have a lot more awareness now of conflicts in other parts of the world, and can see it on the nightly news, or on through social media. I think back to 1991, when I’m hanging back at anti-war protests, and all of the war that’s that’s happened since then, with the huge death toll on the other side.
I mean, of course we’ve had thousands of Americans die, but we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people in other parts of the world that have died at our hands, and in our name. And it’s hard for me to see that we’ve really made substantial progress. I don’t want to sound too negative, but I think it just takes other forms.
Maybe this is the encouraging message I would say is that peace activism is part of a broader array of activism to make the world a better place, of social activism. Although we were not having active demonstrations against US foreign policy and the wars we’re fighting or supporting, we are having demonstrations against racial injustice and structural racism in this country, and a lot more attention and activism about the misogynistic aspects of our society, too.
I think peace activism has played a role, in the past, in refining methods and calling attention, asking the right questions, creating a noble history of activism. And all of that feeds into the current generation. We’re trying to deal with our own demons right now, and our own history, and continuing to advance the social justice struggle.
We can’t lose sight of US foreign policy. We need to reckon with what we’ve just done to the people of Afghanistan. At some point, we need to turn our attention back to looking at the foreign policy aspects, too.
Okay. Thank you, Dan so much for taking the time to speak on the podcast today, and sharing your story of activism during the Gulf War. Thank you so much.
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production, recorded and edited by Matthew Breems, with special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org, for more information and to offer your support.
Thanks for sharing your inspiring story, Dan!
And also thanks to Matthew Breems. Stephanie Atkinson. and Jeff Paterson. for another good interview.
I was in ROTC, back in 1964, at the University of Illinois – Navy Pier, in Chicago, and I actually flunked out of ROTC; and then the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred in the summer of 1964, and I was told I could continue in ROTC after I had flunked out. That made me think that we were going to get involved in Vietnam because I could see no other reason why they would want to keep me in there after I had flunked out. I didn’t need to think a lot about it. I refused their offer to continue, and from that moment on my only thoughts were to stay out of the army.