A Few in Military Refuse to Fight 'Wrong War'


By Deborah Sharp

USA Today
March 24, 2003

When Travis Clark joined the U.S. military at age 19, it seemed like a good way to travel and pay for college. It was 1996, the country was at peace, and Clark signed on for an eight-year hitch. Now, with a year left on his contract, the Marine reservist from Plantation, Fla., says he won't go if his unit is called to serve in a war against Iraq. He is adding his voice to a small chorus of like-minded military personnel who say they will not fight for a cause they do not support.

''This war is the wrong war,'' says Clark, 25. ''I can't put myself into the position of going into another country and forcing them to defend themselves against me.'' Unlike during the Vietnam War era, when hundreds of thousands of men dodged the draft or sought the status of conscientious objector, today's military is composed solely of volunteers. About 2.7 million men and women serve in active-duty and reserve forces. It's uncertain how many say their conscience won't allow them to fight in Iraq. Last year, 29 people were discharged from the military as conscientious objectors.

But peace groups say a hotline that counsels members of the military against war logged more than 3,500 calls in January, double its usual monthly average. ''I don't think there is anything cowardly about standing up and saying, 'I won't be a part of this,' '' says Bill Galvin of the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, D.C.

Critics say a person who volunteers for the military and discovers an aversion to war on the brink of invading Iraq is being disingenuous at best and cowardly at worst. ''Anyone in the military who has signed up to protect our country and now doesn't want to do so is doing a grave disservice to this country and to their fellow soldiers,'' says Jason Crawford, founder of Patriots for the Defense of America, an Internet-based group that supports attacking Iraq. The government does recognize that views can change over the course of military service. Those who can prove a religious, ethical or moral opposition to all wars may apply for a discharge or transfer to a non-combat job as a conscientious objector. But the criteria for such cases are difficult. For example, the Air Force's policy governing application and approval runs to 20 pages. Those who don't receive such status but refuse to fight can face court-martial and penalties from dishonorable discharge to prison.

Pro- and anti-war sentiment divided the USA during the Vietnam War. From 1965 to 1973, 2.15 million people served in Vietnam. About 170,000 people earned status as conscientious objectors. Many thousands of others burned their draft cards. At least 40,000 fled the country, and others served time in prison. In 1977, President Carter granted amnesty to many war resisters. Opposition to a war in Iraq is a trickle compared with the Vietnam War era. Peace activists from the '60s are among those advising current military members how to follow their conscience and avoid war. ''I have no sympathy for Saddam Hussein. He's a blight on his people. But this war makes no sense,'' says Michael Simmons, 57, of the American Friends Service Committee, part of the Quaker religion.

Simmons was imprisoned in 1969 for 2 years for refusing to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. He says most servicemembers now wrestling with the possibility of killing Iraqis had joined the military for travel, self-improvement and other benefits promised by recruiters. ''I see these young kids who are going to be suffering from this for years to come -- if they're lucky enough to come out alive. And that's not even to mention the effect on the Iraqi people,'' says Simmons, whose older brother, Reginald, served in Vietnam. ''It pains my heart.'' Few hotline callers are willing to speak out about avoiding a war in Iraq. But Clark has some company in his public stance for peace:

* Michael Sudbury, 27, a former Army Reserve staff sergeant, called a news conference last month in Salt Lake City to say he wouldn't go when his unit deployed to a war in Iraq. Sudbury's military discharge, delayed because of the pending conflict, came through a day before his planned announcement.

* Travis Burnham, 24, an Army photojournalist at Fort Drum in Upstate New York, applied in January for conscientious objector status. The Army is considering his application. The process, which includes a psychiatric interview, can take up to six months. Burnham's older brother, Taylor, is an Army combat engineer in Kuwait. Their mother keeps a yellow ribbon on her door for Taylor and a protest sign on her wall for Travis.

Dave Wiggins, 40, a physician and father of two who lives in High Point, N.C., has also counseled military personnel on avoiding war. A graduate of West Point who served as an Army captain and flight surgeon, he wound up with a dishonorable discharge and a $25,000 fine after he refused to take part in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. After his conscientious objector application was denied, Wiggins staged a hunger strike, endured death threats and finally stripped off his uniform and stopped military traffic heading to the front lines. ''It had become obvious to me that the military was more a political tool than white knights in shining armor going off to save democracy,'' Wiggins says. His father told him he had brought such shame to the family that he didn't feel right hanging the American flag outside their home.

About 500 servicemembers filed for conscientious objector status during the Persian Gulf War, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Peace groups say as many as three times that number refused to fight, and many served prison sentences up to 18 months. There have been conscientious objectors as long as there have been wars. In the Civil War, 4,000 soldiers whose religious beliefs prohibited killing for any reason served in unarmed positions. During World War II, 42,000 conscientious objectors refused to fight. Many went to prison, but 25,000 served in non-combat jobs, and 12,000 were placed in work camps. They volunteered to help in mental institutions and to serve in experiments on contracting pneumonia and the flu.

Some in today's all-volunteer force question those who enlisted but now don't want to go. Says Navy Lt. Cmdr. Pauline Storum: ''When you sign up and raise your right hand to serve your country, you don't really get the option of rolling over one morning and saying, 'I'm not going to go to work today,' ''

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