Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Way of the Conscientious Objector

It was a book of Buddhist parables that put Michael Rasmussen over the edge. In March 2017, Mr. Rasmussen was living near a naval base in Japan, six years into training as a Marine pilot, reading and experimenting with meditation.

One morning as he prepared for a supply flight to Hawaii, Mr. Rasmussen kept returning to the story he’d read in bed the night before in “Path of Compassion,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, in which the Buddha was out begging when he was nearly mugged by a notorious criminal. Instead of robbing the Buddha, the mugger confessed to a life of murder and mayhem and asked him for advice: “What good act could I possibly do?”

“Stop traveling the road of hatred and violence,” the Buddha said. “That would be the greatest act of all.”

Mr. Rasmussen got in his car to drive to the hangar, overwhelmed with what he called an “immense feeling of dread.” The story haunted him: “Am I on the road of hatred and violence?” he wondered. He decided then and there to leave the Marines.

But there was a catch: He still had six years left on his contract. In the weeks to come he would embark on the path to becoming a conscientious objector, a status that allows soldiers to leave the military early because of a change in their beliefs about war.

Some 2.7 million American service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of our “forever wars” in 2001. Tens of thousands have gone AWOL. Countless others have finished out their service disenchanted and depressed, or turned to drugs and alcohol to ease re-entry into a society that would rather ignore war’s moral injuries, often losing their benefits in the process. After seeing the horrors of war and the contradictions of American foreign policy up close, many enlisted men and women are compelled to re-examine the ideals that first drew them to military service.

Very few soldiers, however, take the path that Mr. Rasmussen eventually did.

The military has been reluctant to publish official figures on conscientious objection. The most recent numbers available are from a Government Accountability Office report published in 2007, which found that on average fewer than 100 applicants a year from 2002 to 2006 — roughly half of them were approved. After that, the data is hard to find. The Center on Conscience and War advises only a subset of applicants for conscientious objector status, but as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, the caseload of the center doubled, its executive director, Maria Santelli, told me. She believes the actual number of annual applicants in recent years is closer to 200.

Though the act of conscientious objection arose historically in response to conscription — a mandatory draft — both Mr. Rasmussen’s story, and the vanishing scarcity of conscientious objectors overall today, raise an important question about the notion of our ostensibly all-volunteer military: How many American soldiers would become conscientious objectors if the process was more transparent, if they were more aware it was actually an option?

Military contracts require 18-year-olds with little knowledge of war to make commitments that sometimes last more than a decade. At the height of the Iraq war, the Pentagon offered signing bonuses as high as $50,000, and enacted a “stop loss” policy to extend service for tens of thousands of troops, prolonging their deployments just as their contracts were set to end.

Are these the hallmarks of a voluntary commitment? Allowing soldiers more leeway to vote with their feet would be one way to impose accountability on political leaders who have kept us at war longer than some recruits have been alive.

The rules governing conscientious objection present a narrow target: Soldiers can’t argue that they disagree with a particular war, or don’t want to fight under a certain general. The core requirement is opposition to “war in any form,” a belief that is firm, fixed and sincerely held. And that belief has to have been arrived at after your enlistment.

The first formal protections for conscientious objectors emerged with the military draft during the Civil War. During World War I, Mennonites, Quakers and members of other “peace churches” were allowed to work as army medics or cooks rather than soldiers. Those who objected altogether were subject to trial at military tribunals; thousands were imprisoned and many were tortured — shackled in solitary confinement, hung by their thumbs, or stripped of their clothes and sprayed with cold water if they declined to wear military uniforms.

It wasn’t until 1962 that the Department of Defense initiated an administrative process to allow conscientious objectors to leave the military after enlistment. By 1970, the Vietnam-era Supreme Court case, Welsh v. United States, allowed service members to claim conscientious objector status on secular grounds as well.

The most famous cases of conscientious objection were initially seen as illegitimate. In 1967, Muhammad Ali was convicted of draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison; it took four years for his case to be overturned by the Supreme Court. Nearly a half-century later, Stephen Funk, a Marine Corps reservist and the first soldier to publicly claim conscientious objector status in the Iraq war, spent five months in military detention for failing to report to his unit in the lead-up to the invasion.

Today, requesting 1-O status, as becoming a conscientious objector is known in the military, kicks off a demanding process. Applicants outline their beliefs in essays, and an investigating officer, of higher rank but not in the chain of command, asks peers to weigh in on their character. There’s a psychiatric evaluation and an interview with a military chaplain. Mindful of the hazing and ridicule that plagued conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, Michael Rasmussen decided that until he actually finished his application, he wouldn’t even tell his own family.

I met Mr. Rasmussen in 2018 through my father — a conscientious objector to the draft himself — who knew his parents. My father had filed his own request for conscientious objector status as a fervent Catholic during the Vietnam War, months before his 18th birthday.

By the time his number came up in the lottery, he’d lost his faith and led antiwar protests in college. He submitted a revised letter to the draft board as an earnest first-year law student, primed to debate whether the conflict in Vietnam constituted a just war. Opposition to unjust wars wasn’t considered a legitimate objection, but it hardly mattered: The man at the draft board knew my father’s father, and he seemed impressed that one of his references came from my dad’s future father-in-law, a bishop in the Episcopal Church.

I’ve never been able to imagine what my father might have been like if he’d gone to Vietnam. To me, his opposition to war seemed utterly fixed. So I was intrigued by my father’s description of Michael Rasmussen: someone who’d enlisted in the Marines, only to become a pacifist by reading philosophy.

When we met for breakfast, I worried Mr. Rasmussen wouldn’t want to share his story so publicly, but by the time I got home, he’d emailed me his entire 47-page conscientious objector file, which he’d submitted in 2017. On Marine Corps letterhead, Mr. Rasmussen’s short essays of conscience followed clinical prompts, and were bundled with character references and interviews with fellow officers.

“After countless sleepless nights and hours in thought, I am no longer able to reconcile my personal idea of what it means to live a good life with that of being part of an organization whose goal it is to end human life,” Mr. Rasmussen wrote. “Who are we to decide who must live and who must die?”

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Michael Rasmussen signed up for the Marines while he was still in high school, out of a vague sense of duty and a burning desire to become a pilot, with a contract that gave him a free ride to college and firm commitments for the next 15 years of his life. His first extended military training came in 2011, between his junior and senior years at Villanova, at the Marine Corps officer candidate school in Quantico, Va.

Mr. Rasmussen, 30, has the slight, muscular build of a jockey or the long-distance runner he is. He’s direct and unfailingly polite, with a disarming manner that blends earnestness and sharp wit. When we met, he recalled officer candidate school as an exercise in willpower and sleep deprivation, often presented in the form of games. Recruits raced to pack and unpack their gear 10 times in a row. Told to “touch the fence, again,” they sprinted through muddy fields in the dark until they collapsed. Mr. Rasmussen enjoyed the camaraderie of shared exhaustion.

He returned to Quantico after college for the Basic School, where newly commissioned officers are trained, and he was pleased to find that the Marine Corps also prided itself on its intellectual tradition. The future defense secretary Jim Mattis, who was then the highest-ranking Marine, famously embodied the view of soldiers as “warrior-scholars.” When a commander suggested every Marine should read “Meditations” by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Mr. Rasmussen started right away.

Written as a journal while Marcus Aurelius was away on military campaigns, the core lesson of “Meditations” is of the power of self-reflection — “for the soul is dyed by the thoughts,” he wrote. Mr. Rasmussen had tried keeping a journal before, but he was amazed that the man at the head of an empire grappled with “all the same doubts we have” — the opinions of others, the soundness of our daily habits — and the insight inspired him to try again.

In his conscientious objector file, Mr. Rasmussen wrote that the Basic School amounted to six months of being “inundated with training on how to kill,” from hand-to-hand martial arts exercises to lectures on deploying violence against an entire platoon. But it was also the period when he began to think deeply about the commitments underlying his military service.

“As I thought more about the act of killing, I was able to explain it away,” Mr. Rasmussen told me — with the idea that being a pilot would keep him close to the cause but far from the action.

Still, when he read “On Killing,” a popular study of the psychology of violence by a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Dave Grossman, which figures on the Marine Corps’ list of required reading, Mr. Rasmussen zeroed in on Colonel Grossman’s argument that much of military training is essentially a means to short-circuit the innate human aversion to killing. For the first time, Mr. Rasmussen wondered not only if he could kill, but in what circumstances he should.

In his downtime during training, Mr. Rasmussen read Kant, Nietzsche, Thoreau and Emerson and gave up alcohol and meat; even as he remained far from combat, military service was drawing his ideals into focus.

After deploying with his squadron to Japan, Mr. Rasmussen returned to the Marine Corps’ foundational text, “Warfighting,” for the first time in five years, and found it impossible to read the book as it was meant to be read. “Warfighting” presented war not as love, hate, revenge and power, but friction, fluidity, uncertainty, disorder. An enemy is “a collection of targets to be engaged and destroyed systematically.”

In a journal he kept at the time, Mr. Rasmussen described his quandary as a “quarter life crisis.” He seemed to be leading parallel lives, each shaped by an ethic of discipline and self-improvement, yet completely at odds with one another. Always a loner, he was becoming more withdrawn from his fellow soldiers by the day. Philosophy seemed to follow him everywhere.

Watching the cartel thriller “Sicario” brought forth a dark meditation on just war: “Would I volunteer to die in Vietnam? No. Iraq? Hell, no. Korea? Possibly, but that is only because of the 20-20 hindsight” about the trajectory of North Korea. Mr. Rasmussen had finally made up his mind. “I no longer want to be in the military,” he wrote. “If they offered me an out tomorrow, I would take it.”

That day in March, Mr. Rasmussen drove to the hangar overtaken by a kind of existential nausea. For months, he’d been looking for a way to end his contract “without getting thrown in jail,” but there didn’t seem to be any good options. Mr. Rasmussen was an atheist raised in an atheist household; he had no idea there was a narrow allowance for secular objections of conscience. Then, as he awaited clearance for takeoff from Hawaii back to Japan, he hit upon the website of the Center on Conscience and War.

Despite his confidence in his decision, submitting the application seemed to leave Mr. Rasmussen disoriented. “I had just finished admitting to myself that everything I knew was wrong,” he told me.

In August, as his application worked its way up the chain of command, Mr. Rasmussen had a dream that he had run over a group of people that included Japanese civilians while taxiing in a C-130, then gotten out of the plane sobbing.

Finally, in October, the news came through: His application was approved.

The triggers that inspire soldiers to pursue conscientious objection are wide-ranging: Some become vegans for health reasons, then find that it affects their entire worldview. New parents gain a different view of the sanctity of life. Specific atrocities sometimes set off an outpouring of new applicants, as when a U.S. airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan in 2015. Two soldiers who fought under Robert Bales, now serving life in prison for the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in 2012, subsequently became conscientious objectors.

Recently, after seeing the heavy-handed federal response to protests over police brutality during the summer of 2020, a Navy officer called Ms. Santelli at the Center on Conscience and War, saying, “I’m not the guy with my knee on George Floyd’s neck, but I am the guy with his back turned on the scene with his hands in his pockets.”

Mr. Rasmussen believes the window for conscientious objection ought to be widened, and the burden of proof relaxed, so that our voluntary service could account for more modest shifts in perspective and circumstance. Before he submitted his application, he worried that it might bring ridicule from his peers. Instead, he said, many quietly approached him to talk about their own misgivings with the way the United States wields military power.

“If, tomorrow, we ended military contracts,” he told me, “I can only imagine the number of people that would voluntarily get out.”

A soldier’s willingness to give life for country is a profound act of trust; we should honor their commitment by trusting enlisted men and women to tell us they’ve changed their minds, and give them a way to act on it.

Rowan Moore Gerety is a freelance reporter and audio producer and the author of “Go Tell the Crocodiles: Chasing Prosperity in Mozambique.”

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