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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Breaking Ranks with the Gulf War

Michael Marsh

Over 2500 US soldiers filed for Conscientious Objector discharges during the Gulf War the fastest rise in CO applications in US history. The government reacted harshly to these applications. The Army, for a time, refused to accept many applications. The Marine Corps ignored their own CO processing regulations. All branches of the military imprisoned some Conscientious Objectors. In the end, nearly 100 COs were imprisoned. A couple of dozen are still there now.

Who they are...

Unlike the stereotype (white, middle-class, hippie), Gulf War Conscientious Objectors came from all walks of life. Most of the applicants were young enlisted personnel, 20 to 24 years old. A number were officers with ten or more years of military service. Ninety percent of the applicants were men, though there were a number of vocal and resourceful female resisters. African-American resisters comprised the largest ethnic group, but there were many white, Latino and Asian resisters also. Many CO applications were based on secular beliefs. Also represented were applications based on Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and other faiths.

Most of the COs had joined the military out of high school, drafted by the need for a job and financial aid for college. Encouraged by their recruiters, war was not something to worry about; the military was there to provide them with a job, training, travel, adventure and money for college. Many reservists were wrongly told that reservists were not sent to war. This isn't to say that young people enlisting were oblivious to the fact that soldiers carry guns. They knew this. Most, however, had never considered whether they could kill another human or not. Faced with combat training in boot camp, many realized that they had made a mistake by enlisting, but by then it was too late. The military had their signature, their agreement to take orders, for eight years each.

There were two things all resisters had in common. First, they all refused to take part in the slaughter of Iraqi children, women and men. Second, they had all survived a boot camp experience devised to brainwash them to kill or to support killing when ordered to do so.

Conscientious Objector laws in the USA

While enlistment contracts in the USA contain a provision barring conscientious objectors from joining, the military recognizes that some individuals' beliefs change after they sign a contract. As a result, each branch of the military has a regulation which offers discharges or reassignment to "noncombatant duty" to individuals who are morally, ethically or religiously opposed to all war. An individual's beliefs must have changed since their enlistment and their opposition must be to all war.

While the regulations appear straight-forward, there are many loopholes advantageous to the military. First, the interpretation of CO is a narrow one not recognizing objection to particular wars or types of war. Second, the processing of applications rests within an individual's command structure. Some commands refused to accept applications, some have taken a year or longer to process applications, and some have denied CO applications without legal justification. Third, all regulations allow the military to send most COs into combat situations, (just without arms), while their applications are being processed.

The resistance

Beginning with Marine Jeff Patterson's August refusal to board a plane bound for Saudi Arabia (Jeff sat on the tarmac and refused to get up), the military saw resistance within its ranks grow at a rate never seen before. Charges against Jeff were dropped and he was given an other-than-honorable (OTH) discharge, but not before a 20 October press conference where seven more soldiers publicly stated their refusal to fight in the Gulf.

By early December over 1,000 soldiers had filed CO discharge applications. The Marine Corps was hit especially hard by the number of resisters. In the Bronx, NY, first five and later seven members of a single Company of 150 soldiers filed for CO discharges. By the end of December, the Army was experiencing problems of its own. In Germany over 40 US soldiers applied for CO status. Pressed for troops and striking back at the resisters, on 28 December the Army handcuffed and forcibly deployed Specialist David Carson. David and at least seven other Army soldiers, all with pending CO discharge applications, were forcibly deployed from Germany to Saudi Arabia. Due to public pressure, charges were never filed against them.

With the arrival of call-up notices at the homes of 30,000 Individual Ready Reservists in mid-January, a whole new wave of military resisters was born. Dozens of churches declared themselves sanctuary for COs. University Baptist Church in Seattle, University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley and the Riverside Church in New York City took leading roles in harboring COs. Joining the effort to protect military COs, Amnesty International recognized Sgt George Morse at Ft Riley, Kansas, as a "prisoner of conscience" their first recognition of a prisoner in the USA since 1987. AI now recognizes 28 imprisoned COs as individuals whose human rights the US government has infringed.

At the time of writing in November, we are only a few weeks away from the introduction of some legislation in Congress to protect conscientious objectors. The first piece of legislation would establish a review process for COs who were unjustly treated during the Gulf War. The second would significantly revise the CO regulations to allow for selective objection and establish strict timelines by which the military would have to process CO applications. While this is an uphill battle, many organizations are pushing for it to become law.

We all are deeply indebted to the COs in the military. Often with little hope of avoiding jail, they spoke out against US military intervention and set a positive example for other soldiers to follow. Our task is to fight for their release from prison and to work to ensure that US military forces are never used offensively again.

Michael Marsh, War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette St, New York NY 10012 USA (tel +1 212 228 0450; fax 228 6193), email: wrl@igc.apc.org. Reprinted from Peace News, December 1991, 55 Dawes St, London SE17 1EL tel +44 71 703 7189. FAX +44 71 708 2545.

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