CO is only half the word

A logical implication of my rights-based approach to justifying war is that selective conscientious objection (CO) must be permitted. The challenge of this, though, is determining when a soldier is a legitimate conscientious objector and when he is just afraid and selfish.

In my limited experience, I’ve found that “CO” is only half the word. The other half is –“WARD”. As in coward. How do we distinguish CO’s who are legitimate (those with real, well thought-out moral convictions against the war) from those who are mere cowards?

My former unit in the 82nd found one way to address this challenge during the Gulf War in 1991. In the days of the air campaign before the ground campaign began, a soldier in an infantry battalion declared that he “could not kill his Muslim brothers” and fully expected to be sent to the rear or sent home. His battalion leadership, however, distrusted the soldier’s motive, and put him to a test. The commander took the soldier’s weapon away (so he wouldn’t run the risk of killing his Muslim brothers) and assigned him to the unit’s forward-most unit, the scout platoon. He told the soldier that he could help with radio watch and medical care—tasks that wouldn’t involve him in killing. Well, to make a long story short, when it came time to initiate the attack into Kuwait, that soldier was BEGGING for his weapon. Once he saw that his cowardly attempt to avoid the risk of combat wasn’t going to work, he was ready to kill rather than be killed.

This worked for one unit, but it’s obviously not an approach that could be used on a large scale. Still, it makes clear the challenge of permitting selective CO, a challenge that I’m still trying to think through.

Anyone have any ideas?


Anonymous said...


My favorite topic!
I am becoming more and more convinced that selective CO is required if we are to take the Just War Tradition seriously, and if we believe that soldiers are truly moral agents capable of moral discernment.

The challenge, of course, is weeding out those who are cowards (at worst) or merely opportunists, looking for an easy way out of a difficult situation, from those who have serious convictions regarding a particular war. In my role as a chaplain I have run across all of the above.

I understand the Pandora's Box it opens, for both a volunteer army and one filled by draft. But if we take seriously the just warrior's moral right to refrain from certain TYPES of fighting (in bello), must we not also take seriously his right to refrain from the operation entirely (ad bellum)?

I don't have the answers yet as to how, but I'm convinced it's the morally correct policy to adopt.

Israel said...


I'm a graduate student in journalism and I am writing my final grad. stories on COs in the military since September 11, 2001. I find your blog intriguing and have a couple questions about the issue you are raising here.

Is it not the express purpose of DOD Directive 1300.06 to separate sincere COs from those applying for other reasons? Would these regulations not suffice for a situation in which selective objection was sanctioned by DOD policy? If not, what would need to change?

I'd enjoy a chat about these issues!

Israel Tockman

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