On International Conscientious Objectors’ Day, four men explain the very different reasons why they refused to fight in four very different conflicts.
The army said I saved 100 men during one battle on Okinawa. I said it couldn’t be more than 50, so the citation on my Congressional Medal of Honor says 75. When President Truman pinned it on me he said: ‘It is a greater honour than being president.’
President Truman said I really deserved this’
Before I was born my father bought a illustration of the 10 Commandments. I looked at that picture hundreds of times as I grew up. The Sixth Commandment showed Cain killing Abel, and I wondered how a brother could do such a thing. It gave me such a horror of killing that I never wanted to kill or even hurt anyone.
When the US went to war against Japan and Germany, my boss at the shipyard offered me a deferment as an essential worker. I did not want to be known as a draft dodger. I felt it was an honour to serve God and country, but I wanted to do it as a medic, by saving life instead of taking life.
When I registered for the draft at 18, I said I wanted to be a non-combatant. But I was told there was no such classification and that I would have to be a conscientious objector. If I did not take that classification and – as a Seventh-day Adventist – wanted to keep the Saturday as the Sabbath or not carry a weapon, I would most likely be court-martialled. So there was nothing else I could do.
The reaction of the other soldiers and officers was pretty bad, having me around was not to their liking. I was not the kind of conscientious objector that so many were in those times, who would not salute the flag, wear the uniform or cooperate with the army in any way. But my comrades classed me with them. I did not try to tell them different, because they would not have believed me.
The bullets were going near enough that I could practically feel them
One of my majors tried to have me discharged from the army, saying I was mentally off. I felt I would be a poor Christian if I would accept a discharge because of my religion.
After we went overseas, my comrades began to realise that I would always be there to help them if they got wounded, their attitude changed. They knew I would come to their aid if I possibly could. From then on we had a very good relationship.
Some of my men felt I should carry a weapon for protection, but I told them that would put my trust in God. They could do the fighting and I would do the patching.
In May 1945, we were sent up on the top of a 400-foot-high cliff to fight the Japanese. I suggested to the lieutenant that we should have prayer, because we knew how many people had been killed on this escarpment.
‘We knew how many people had been killed on this escarpment’
One day we were given what we thought would be an easy mop-up job. Everything seemed to go wrong and we were finally told to retreat. But about 75 men were wounded and could not move. I was the only medic and I would not leave my men.
I stayed on top and let them down one by one over the escarpment, to where they could be taken on down to the aid station.
I kept praying: ‘Lord, help me to get one more.’ And He did help me. I got all the men down safely and I did not get a scratch from the bullets that were going near enough that I could practically feel them.
Going into battle helped me to realise how tragic wars, bloodshed and killing are. When anyone is killed it is a tragic thing.
I have nothing against those who kill people in battle. It seems to be a necessary part of living. Soldiers must decide for themselves what it is right to do. But for me, it was wrong to kill and I felt I could not do it. I put my trust in God and made my decision to keep commandments.
Hitler had a theory that Germany would be defended to the last drop of blood, so I was among a group of boys taken for military training in 1945 and then lined up and asked to fight. I said: ‘Hitler is an evil man and I won’t volunteer.’
‘The other boys were sent to the front as cannon fodder’
Of the 600 boys – mostly 15 year olds – about 10 of us didn’t agree to join the Hitler Youth division going to the front. We were interrogated by army officers, and the boys said that their parents would not like them volunteering. I was the only one who said: ‘I don’t want to volunteer.’
Looking back it was an extraordinarily brave act for a 16-year-old. If I had been 18, I probably would have been shot.
My father had already been forced into fighting for the Nazis, but he never shot at people. He would aim over the heads of Allied soldiers, and that was his way of being a conscientious objector without being executed.
He was formerly a musician, but had been forced out of his orchestra in Cologne because he would not say ‘Heil Hitler’. Many of his fellow musicians were Jews and had disappeared. That gave us the clue that something was fishy.
By the time I ordered to report for training in 1945, more information had percolated through about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Anyone who had ears knew about the extermination camps. I decided I would not fight to defend such evil.
‘Hitler wanted Germany to be defended to the last drop of blood’
I was immediately ostracised by the other boys. I was taken from our camp and spent that night in the officers’ quarters.
The next day, when the boys gathered for the flag raising, an announcement was made that I was being sent home. I was not allowed to see anyone. I was poison.
Ironically, my stand saved my life. The other boys were sent to the front as cannon fodder – we had only had a few days of training. Those who turned back from the fighting were shot by their own officers. It was a great tragedy of those final days of the war.
I did not refuse to fight because I was concerned that my life might be in danger. It was a matter of conscientious objection, and looking back that day had a profound effect on my life. Throughout my life I have stood up for my views. Today, I campaign against genetically modified crops.
You’re 18 and a paratrooper. You’re learning new things and meeting interesting people. You’re an officer, commanding others. It’s an adventure. You think that what you are doing is defending Israel, but soon find what you are really doing is occupying another country.
‘I was in an elite unit … and had no contact with the Palestinians’
I was called up to fight in the invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s. I was naive and believed it was a war of defence. It was easy for me, since as I was in an elite unit, I had very little to do with daily life of the occupation.
When we went to train in the Occupied Territories – the West Bank or Gaza – we would be off in the mountains or the desert and had no contact with the Palestinians.
That was until I was leading my men on a training mission in the Sinai desert and was ordered into Gaza after a Palestinian grenade attack on an army truck, which had killed two.
Intelligence had tracked the man responsible to a refugee camp and my unit, being the closest, was sent in to capture him.
So there was I, crawling through the mud and sewage of this camp in the middle of the night. We knew he still had grenades, so we had to rush his house fast.
We caught him in bed. His wife sleeping beside him was crying. His children were crying.
The [Palestinian] man knew, like I did, that if he had obeyed the [Israeli officer’s] command run, he would have been shot
We took him outside and handed him over to officers from another unit, so we could begin the search for the hand grenades.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of these officers cock his pistol and tell the prisoner to run in Arabic.
I didn’t know what to do, I was shocked. The man knew, like I did, that if he had obeyed the command run, he would have been shot. He lay down and didn’t get up, even though they kicked him. Israeli military police eventually arrived to arrest him.
We never found the grenades and eventually were told our prisoner was the wrong man – he just happened to share the same name as the grenade attacker.
I don’t know why I didn’t do anything to stop what happened that night. It was so hard to not be a part of such things when you are a soldier in the Occupied Territories.
That incident made me understand occupation and humiliation and showed me exactly what being an occupier was. It still haunts me.
‘I did not refuse to be called up, but I refused to be involved in policing actions’
I began what is now called selective refusal. As a reservist, I did not refuse to be called up, but I refused to be involved in policing actions. Then I refused to cross into Lebanon or the Occupied Territories.
I talked with my soldiers. A small minority said I was doing the right thing. Another minority refused to talk to me because I had gone against our brotherhood. The rest said we’d talk again when I got back from jail.
I was sent to prison for 35 days. It was the beginning of the mass refusals and there were demonstrations in Tel Aviv calling for my release.
Once out, an officer again ordered me to go to Lebanon, and again I refused. I heard him on the phone saying he wanted to send me back to my cell, but he was told to send me to a less elite unit as a punishment.
I felt it was too easy for me just to stop taking part in the occupation, so I set up the group Yesh Gvul [There is a limit] to act as a model for other reservists and to support those who become refuseniks like me.
At Marine boot camp it’s constantly ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ There are contests to see which recruit can shout it the loudest. Every time you do a push-up you shout ‘Kill!’ I thought it was insane, but mouthed the word so as not to get in trouble.
‘I felt disgusted, hypocritical and trapped in a contract to do things I thought were wrong’
My recruiter spotted I wasn’t suited to the Marine Corps, but he sold me on all the valuable things I could learn. I was going to be a reservist, not in the regular infantry, and would learn leadership skills and Boy Scout things like tying knots.
If I had talked to my family and friends before I had enlisted, I would never have joined. Everyone was surprised. It was so against my nature – I’m known as a liberal, non-violent person.
I’d graduated high school, and had left one college and moved to San Francisco to apply to another. Being out of school for the first time and in a strange city, I felt I lacked direction. I was depressed and not thinking clearly.
On the first day of boot camp everyone feels like they have made a big mistake. But as the training progressed I realised the Corps’ only reason for having me there was to teach me to kill people.
They try to deprogram recruits, make them forget things that are common to all people, forget the human aversion to killing.
I’d never even been in a fight before joining. Boot camp made me think about my attitudes to violence. I felt disgusted, hypocritical and trapped in a contract to do things I thought were wrong.
The Corps told my lawyer it would try to court martial me for desertion. I’m not worried. Perhaps I should be
My speciality was landing support – loading fighting troops on and off of helicopters and landing craft. Part of the job was to motivate the Marines to kill, to pump them up for battle.
When we practised it, I’d hide at the back of the group, I couldn’t believe I’d really have to do this crazy thing. When my turn was called, I just couldn’t motivate the people to kill. I thought it was wrong.
I expressed my concerns and raised questions during training, but was never told I could become a conscientious objector. I only found out after I’d gone back to civilian life, and started to work on my application to leave the reserves.
It’s not a simple process, and before I’d even finished the first draft, I was called up to go to Iraq.
A lawyer looked at my form and said it needed more work. So I told my base I wasn’t going to report, that I was a conscientious objector and that I would hand myself in when the form was finished.
‘I just couldn’t motivate the people to kill. I thought it was wrong’
Mine was a small base, and I wasn’t sure they knew what they were doing. I didn’t want to report in case they did something crazy, like detaining me.
I wanted to go public with my story, to warn other young people thinking of joining up. When I got the media involved, the Corps put a warrant out for me for desertion.
I reported back and was transferred to New Orleans with 20 other objectors. We mostly sit around reading, waiting for our application to be processed.
It’s not just the politics of the war on Iraq that I oppose, it’s war in general. I’m a pacifist and opposed to participating in any conflict. They don’t solve anything and just perpetuate a bad situation.
The Corps told my lawyer it would try to court martial me for desertion, but it would have to prove I had no intention of returning. I handed myself in, so I’m not worried. Perhaps I should be.