Civilian federal judge sides with Marine objector

By Aaron Glantz, posted on April 6, 2007

University of California Santa Cruz student Robert Zabala joined the Marine Corps thinking it would be a "place where he could find security" after the death of his grandmother in 2003.

But when he began boot camp in June 2003, Zabala said he had an ethical awakening that would not allow him to kill other people. He was particularly appalled by the boot camp’s attempts to desensitize the recruits to violence.

"The response that all the recruits are supposed to say is ‘kill,’" he told San Francisco’s KGO-TV. "So in unison you have maybe 400 recruits chanting ‘kill, kill, kill,’ and after a while that word becomes almost nothing to you. What does it mean? You say it so often you really don’t think of the consequences of what it means to say ‘kill’ over and over again as you’re performing this deadly technique, a knife to the throat."

When Zabala realized he couldn’t kill another human being, he submitted an application for conscientious objector status to the Marine Corps reserves. He saw two chaplains and a clinical psychologist, who all agreed his moral objections were legitimate and that he should be discharged from the military. Hundreds of such applications have been granted in recent years.

But his platoon commander, Major R.D. Doherty, called Zabala "insincere" because he did not request discharge as a conscientious objector until nearly a year after basic training.

"What did you think you were joining, the Peace Corps?" court documents quote Major Doherty as saying. "I don’t know how anyone who joins the Marine Corps cannot know that it involves killing."

Zabala sued and on Mar. 29, a federal judge in Northern California overruled the military justice system, ordering the Marine Corps to discharge Zabala as a conscientious objector within 15 days.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge James Ware noted Zabala’s experiences with his first commander Captain Sanchez. During basic training, Sanchez repeatedly gave speeches about "blowing s*** up" or "kicking some f***ing ass." In 2003, when a fellow recruit committed suicide on the shooting range, Sanchez commented in front of the recruits, "f*** him, f*** his parents for raising him, and f*** the girl who dumped him."

Another boot camp instructor showed recruits a "motivational clip" displaying Iraqi corpses, explosions, gun fights and rockets set to a heavy metal song that included the lyrics, "Let the bodies hit the floor," the petition said. Zabala said he cried, while other recruits nodded their heads in time with the beat. In court, Zabala he abhorred the bloodlust his drill instructors seemed to possess.

Aaron Hughes served six years in the Illinois National Guard, including one tour as a military truck driver in occupied Iraq. He says Robert Zabala’s experiences are typical of basic training.

"It’s a lot of competition and a lot of learning how to not be like yourself as a person or see others as human beings," he told IPS. "You’re a piece of property that should respond to commands. It’s a real simple lifestyle when you’re under complete orders."

Hughes said at the time he believed basic training helped foster a sense of manhood he felt he lacked after being raised by his mother.

But after being sent to Iraq, he changed his mind. An artist by trade, Hughes went back over the photos he took while deployed in Iraq and altered them in an "attempt to interpret the posture assumed as a soldier/tourist in the surreal space of Iraq." Hughes’ work is currently on display at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.

"I think it’s wrong, looking back at it," he said. "How can you not perceive it as a step away from your humanity? They automatically start isolating you. They tell you your girlfriend or your husband is not going to be there. They tell you not to trust anyone but the military and they really start fostering that as your sole relationship in life."

It’s extremely rare for civilian courts to overrule military courts, but Zabala’s attorney says it’s at least the second time this has happened during the Iraq war.

Geoff Millard, the Washington representative for Iraq Veterans Against the War, says Judge James Ware’s decision to force the military to discharge Zabala will encourage other soldiers who are "sitting back and thinking about CO (conscientious objection) who are really very sincere and they’re not sure that their claim will make it."

Millard noted that the military is having difficulty reaching its recruiting goals to continue fighting the Iraq war and as a result has been more cautious than usual in releasing people who say they have moral objections to war.

Zabala’s lawyer, Steve Collier, told IPS, "It’s a good case because the armed services will have to think twice about denying to conscientious objectors a discharge simply to meet their retention troop standards."

The Marine Corps has yet say whether it will appeal Judge Ware’s decision.