The Conscientious Objector
America finally entered this world war, because its issue became that of democracy, democracy defined as the right of peoples to self-government, the right of a people to determine the foreign policy of its government, the right of the small nations to existence because they are nations, and the right of the whole western world to be free from the threat of imperialistic militarism. We are fighting for the larger world society which democratic attitudes and principles make possible. In such a fight for the inviolability of peoples, for the right of a people to determine itself and its life in self-respecting intercourse with other nations, in this contest for a higher individualism among nations, are we transgressing the rights of the individual at home? In a war for democracy what should be our attitude toward the conscientious objector and how should we proceed with reference to his refusal to fight at the call of his country?
The conscientious objector has no recognition in the legislation which is mobilizing our new army, except as a member of a religious sect whose tenets forbid fighting. Membership in a political or other social organization with such tenets conveys no immunity from military service, nor does the fact that a man himself entertains conscientious objections to military service grant the individual freedom from service in the army. If the conscientious objector's number is called and he is not a bona fide member of such a religious organization, he will be certified to the army and there, if he refuses to serve in accordance with the orders given him by the officers of the army, he becomes subject to military discipline, and will undergo such penalties as any private suffers who refuses to obey orders. These penalties are or may be severe, for obedience to orders is the foundation of all army organization and the first condition of all military achievement. The position of the conscientious objector is also prejudiced by another circumstance. When he has suffered the penalty which a court martial has laid upon him, he returns automatically to the service, and if he remains a conscientious objector, he will again refuse to obey the military orders which direct him to do what runs contrary to his judgment of right conduct, and again he will find himself subject to court martial and again serving another sentence for what is in fact
(2) only the same offence, though in point of martial law it is a new offence. Thus a conscientious objector in the army cannot escape from the round of sentences which succeed each other automatically. He can never satisfy the law under which he finds himself placed. A consistent and logical application of the statute and the customary military criminal procedure will keep a conscientious objector under penalty for the rest of his life.
It is this feature of the situation of the conscientious objector which has called out perhaps the most serious reflections in England upon this manner of dealing with his offence. In civil procedure, a man may be punished but once for the same offence. While the continuance of the attitude of the conscientious objector, on the part of the drafted man who finds himself unwillingly in the army, involves a continuance of offences each of which subjects him to penalty, the real offence is not in the separate refusal of the conscientious objector, but in the attitude from which these refusals arise. A single uniform punishment should be inflicted for the offence. When this sentence has been served, the individual should be again returned to society as any other offender who has committed an offence and suffered the penalty prescribed by law. It is to be hoped and expected that this particular injustice in the treatment of the conscientious objector which characterizes the English procedure will be avoided here, if the war lasts so long that this automatic repetition of the technical offence arises under the operation of army discipline. This is however only a subsidiary matter, one of procedure. It may lead to serious injustice. This can be readily avoided by the recognition of the real as distinguished from the technical position of the offender.
The more fundamental matter is that of punishment for acting in accordance with the dictates of one's own moral judgment. The recognition of conscientious objection to fighting appears definitely in the exemption given to those whose religious tenets forbid army service. This exemption not only recognizes the objection but admits that it constitutes a valid ground for not accepting the draft. Why
(3) then should not the exemption extend to all those who have such conscientious objection, but who for other reasons do not belong to these non-resistant religious sects? Our government has sedulously avoided all ecclesiastical association. It recognizes religious bodies only in so far as it proclaims its complete toleration. Why then should the government extend this freedom from military service to those belonging to a particular sect, refusing it to others ? The answer is found in the supposition that the government is ready to recognize the legitimacy of the claim of the conscientious objector, but is at a loss when it seeks to determine the genuineness of the objection. Actual membership in a church which forbids bearing arms is at least prima facie evidence of the reality of the scruple, and the government has accepted it as such. The long and honorable history of the Quakers in this matter lends weight to the evidence which the individual member of the denomination presents in regard to his scruples against fighting. If there existed any acid test by which it could be determined that the assertion of conscientious objections by others was in fact correct, we must assume that the government would exempt them also from its draft. No such test exists.
A hundred reasons may make a man unwilling to fight, ranging all the way from physical timidity or business losses to disbelief in the justification for this war or, for that matter, for any but a defensive war, not to mention the profound influence of racial sympathies. A man moved by any of these reasons could cover them up under the dishonest plea of a conscientious objection if this claim were accepted by the exemption board whenever presented. The excuse would be the more readily offered because it is easy to construe one's objection to fighting a particular war, with a specific enemy, at the risk of one's own life and the loss of one's own business, into a conscientious objection to fighting at all. The group that bulks the largest among those that could use the plea of conscientious objection is the socialist party — that is that portion of the party
(4) which is orthodox, if there is still any orthodoxy in socialism — for the orthodox doctrine, according to the socialist economic interpretation of society and its history, condemns every war as a capitalists' war, except the last battle in which the proletariat is to dispossess the bourgoisie in the control of the state. A convinced Marxian socialist, who devoutly believed that in this, as in any other war except the ultimate revolution, he would be fighting inevitably in the service of an economic system which was exploiting the mass of the community in the interest of an inconsiderable fraction, and that, whether he fought on one side or the other, such a devout socialist might well claim to the complete satisfaction of his own conscience that he was a conscientious objector. But this is not the conscientious objection that the government contemplates in its exemption version. The conscientious objection, which the present law allows, has nothing to do with the causes of the war nor its beneficiaries; it concerns the very act of fighting. As theft, treachery, perjury or any other heinous crime could not be laid as a duty upon an honorable man even by an act of Congress, so an act of Congress ought not to compel that man to fight who conscientiously objects to fighting as inherently wrong. Perhaps the most pertinent comparison is that to be made with those who refused to obey the runaway slave laws, and in defiance of Congress and the interpretation of the Supreme Court helped runaway slaves on the way to Canada via the underground railway.
Whenever and wherever an act runs so counter to man's moral nature that he cannot carry it out and still keep house with himself, his refusal in the face of any and all authority commands our instant respect. If such men could be certified to the exemption board beyond a doubt, any thinking, self-respecting community would demand their exemption. If they cannot be so isolated that their real spiritual lineaments can be clearly discerned they will still refuse to serve and will accept this penalty which a community which could not identify them has laid upon them, because it could not distinguish them. It must be recognized on the other hand that there are not many conscientious objectors in the sense in which they have been defined.
Most men do not regard fighting as immoral in itself. Even most of those who regard warfare as an evil which must be removed and therefore immoral are willing to fight to bring this about. The conscientious objector, if he is logical, is a non-resistant, and most human nature is not non-resistant. One may realize to the full the fatuity of war, its hideous wastefulness, its debasing influence; one may conceivably believe that any peace is better than any war and still not be a conscientious objector. For the man who resents war because of its uselessness and its wastefulness of the values which we esteem most in the community is still weighing values against each other, and may reluctantly accept a war that the community wills as he accepts a corrupt and pernicious government, while he allies himself with the forces that will make for better conditions. The community may legitimately conscript such a citizen in its wars. It is the man to whom fighting for any cause, good, bad or indifferent, is uniformly evil, to whom any act of fighting would be a sacrifice of his personality, who is the conscientious objector. And there are not many of them. The Quakers have always been a small sect, and a considerable proportion of the Quakers have been willing to fight in certain wars, such as those of self-defence. If we simply consider the fundamental impulses out of which human nature is made up, and the large part which the hostile impulse takes in this material, one will realize that there cannot be many in whom so dominant a human trait can be absent or sufficiently suppressed or sublimated to make the exercise of force under any conditions abhorrent.
What will be the attitude of the real conscientious objector who, standing outside the church which could guarantee his scruple, still maintains his conscience against the prescription of the government? Inevitably he must consider the ordinance, which seeks to compel him to do what he regards as wrong, as entirely unjust. He will however also recognize that such changes as his doctrine calls for in human nature must be slow in their development and that his quarrel is not so much with the government whose laws he refuses to obey as with the society
(6) of which the government is but an expression. If he can give any impartial study to his propaganda, he must realize that, while within the not too distant future wars are likely to be relegated to the outworn devices whose upkeep and cost are too hideously expensive to be longer endured, the revolution in human nature which would be called for in rendering all forms of fighting under all conditions evil is not likely to be secured in the future that we can foresee. The conscientious objector must realize that, so long as there is no acid test for sincerity of his attitude, his is a doctrine that renders martyrdom almost inevitable, when his country is involved in a war that seriously threatens its existence or whatever values the country insists on fighting for.
So far we have been considering the conscientious objector contemplated by the exemption provision of the draft law. A more serious question is the justification for enlisting by force citizens who oppose the war, perhaps regard it as utterly wrong, who are thus compelled to surrender everything up to life itself for an undertaking which may run entirely counter to their profoundest inclinations and most unquestioned judgments. These may be men who are quite willing to fight for causes they consider worthy of the sacrifice. Can they be legitimately called upon for the supreme sacrifice for a cause which in their minds is utterly unworthy? Where does the right of a state to conscript its citizens find its limit? There seems to be no limit to the sacrifices which the state may call upon its citizens to make, if the community decisively demands them in the interest of the community. Even the limits set upon the action of the government by the constitution may be set aside by a procedure which the constitution itself lays down. Ethically there seems to be no limit except that which is found in the conscience of the individual, and as we have seen where this cannot be evidenced in a conclusive manner the individual may still be legitimately subjected to penalties for failing to obey the direction of the state. We recognize this quite definitely in the laying of taxes. However unworthy the uses
(7) to which the state may put the money it raises by taxation, the individual may not refuse to pay them unless again he is willing to undergo the penalty which accompanies the compulsory distraint of his goods. The individual's remedy in a democratic community lies in his ability to arouse a public sentiment which condemns and leads to the repeal of the law. Here indeed the individual may in answer to his own conscience suffer the penalty rather than transgress his own conscience, and he may find in the publicity which this brings with it assistance in arousing the public sentiment he is seeking to create. Instances of such conduct have been frequent in the history of modern communities, but they do not indicate that the state is proceeding in an unethical manner in laying the taxes which the community authorizes.
If there is a type of conduct which a citizen may not under any circumstances undertake without transgressing his own conscience, it is unjust that the state should compel him to suffer a penalty because he will not act contrary to his conscience at the command of the law. None the less the state, in its inability to determine whether the man is really presenting his own convictions or merely simulating them, is still justified in laying a penalty to prevent the evil which would arise from illegitimate use of conscientious objection as an excuse to avoid public duties and burdens.
Where however the action prescribed by the law is not itself at variance with a man's conscience — as for example the payment of taxes — then the fact that the law prescribes the use of the tax funds for purposes which the man disapproves does not absolve him from the obligation of paying the tax levied upon him. His remedy must lie in changing the governing body or its policies or its manner of administration. Otherwise a democratic government would be clearly impossible.
Rights of Minority
The man then who admits that under some conditions fighting is moral and that conditions may arise under which the community may call upon him to fight, cannot claim that his objection to the issues of the actual war can
(8) be made an excuse for his not registering and responding to the draft. The logic of such conduct would free every man in a defeated party from the duty of obeying the laws which were enacted by the party whose policies he disapproves, when they may have won a victory at the polls.
Here, as in other cases of governmental compulsion that run counter to individual judgment, the remedy lies in the freedom to influence public opinion so as to change what the judgment of the individual condemns. The minority's right is the right of propaganda, not the right of refusal to obey the ordinances which have the authority of the state behind them. Such propaganda was undertaken and vigorously pushed during the Boer War by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and the present English premier, Mr. Lloyd George, and in the end met with such success that the peace which was made after that war was quite opposite in spirit from that in which the war was undertaken and fought. A similar propaganda was embodied in the Bigelow Papers by James Russell Lowell, during the Mexican War in this country.
It is important that we should realize that what constitutes the freedom in a democracy is not absence of restraint upon action through laws and ordinances, but the presence of the ideas and interests of all groups and even individuals in making the laws and ordinances. It is not conscription of bodies that threatens democracy but the conscription of ideas. Acceptance by the people from a power above itself of the policies and objectives of the state stamps the peoples as subject, whether the policies come from an autocrat or an aristocratic group of landholders, or imperialistic financiers and entrepreneurs, or from a political boss. Obedience to a law has never constituted a man a slave, while his ideas and those of the other citizens go to make and remake the laws; nor does the acceptance of policies and regulations by the community make them free if their ideas have not gone into the making of the policies and the regulation of life that follows from them, nor yet is a community free because within wide limits there is no regulation of life, provided the final ordering of the conduct of the community is determined by others than the community itself.
The right of the minority is the right to be heard. Given this right and any
(9) regulation by the community may be enforced without invading the rights of the individual under the limitations to which reference has already been made. It should be added that as the right of the minority does not include disobedience to laws of which they disapprove so it does not include the right to undertake organized effort to keep others from obeying the laws. Not only is the man who is out of sympathy with his country's position in this war still subject to conscription, he is also bound to take no steps to induce others to disobey the conscription act. His right is to work for the change of the law not against its enforcement.
Right to Discussion
Furthermore war brings about exceptional conditions. For a war may involve the very existence of the country itself. Questions of policy which are debatable and must be debated under a democracy, if they involve the war itself and its successful conduct, cannot be debated while it is going on. Such discussion may very well involve a serious weakening of the country in its fight and even lead to its defeat, and the loss of the very institutions of democracy itself. No government in war time can suffer a movement at home against the armies of the country and their conduct, any more than it will give way willingly before the enemy in the field.
It is perhaps impossible to lay down any fixed rules of practice to cover governmental conduct in this field. If the struggle is one in which the very existence of the nation is seriously imperiled, the action of a minority in opposing the war becomes a veritable attack upon the nation itself, while such a struggle as that between England and the Boers in South Africa may be one that involves governmental policies rather than the integrity of the nation, nor would any intelligent man regard the Bigelow Papers as a monument of disloyalty. But while it is probably impossible to lay down any procedure with reference to minorities in war time that would not be subject to numerous exceptions, it is possible to indicate the principle that should underlie any procedure. That principle is that of clear definition in each case of the field that is open to discussion and that which is with-
(10)-drawn from discussion in the public interest, and in case of procedure by the government through its departments against an individual there should be an appeal to a court or commission whose public sense and impartiality would command the respect of the whole community. No man should be in doubt as to what he may do and say without transgressing the government's exceptional provisions, nor should he feel that his final judge is to be an administrative officer who is likely to be narrowly interested in the exercise of his departmental authority. Secondly, it would be obviously a most serious detriment to the country if suppression of supposedly unpatriotic speech and publication should suppress that criticism which is essential to efficient public action in a democracy. Efficiency is never attained even in the techniques of exact science by the following merely of rigid rules, but by a continual checking up of results. In a community governed by the expression of public sentiment, the necessity of the continual checking up by a criticism that is free but not hostile has been so often evidenced by the results both of its presence and its absence that it requires no demonstration.
Conservation of Ideas
And finally, intelligence in war time should reach the point of recognizing the value of that stimulation to individual thought and interest which the war brings with it and not be willing to suppress the individual response because it is different — even from current formulae. The conservation of ideas is as essential as a conservation of foodstuffs. It behooves a government even in setting aside the customary rights and privileges of citizens in a democratic country to show solicitude for the rights of minorities, for the protection of which the very war is being fought. Such solicitude is demanded not only by the sense of honor of those chosen to govern the whole people and not a majority alone, but it is demanded by the good sense of the statesmen, who must know that it is most serious to run counter to profound political habits and attitudes of the community, especially those upon which men depend when they assert the right that belongs to them as free members of a democratic community.