Pacifism - Conscription and conscientious objection

There is one possible exception to this observation: the contribution made by pacifist pressure groups to the administration of conscription and the treatment of conscientious objectors. In this case pacifist pressure groups acted directly upon government agencies and substantially affected policy formation.

Efforts on behalf of conscientious objectors have taken essentially three forms. First, pacifists representing the peace churches—the ecumenical Fellowship of Reconciliation and, prior to World War II, the secular War Resisters' League—lobbied to broaden the basis of exemption. At the outset of World War I objectors were exempted only if they belonged to churches with doctrinal positions against military service, and even then they were legally exempted only from fighting. Provisions were broadened administratively during the war to include all religious objectors. Subsequently, exemption was expanded by court decision to include philosophical authority embodying a universal principle, and leading churchmen and church bodies later endorsed the principle of selective objection to war on political grounds.

Second, pacifists have lobbied in support of administrative agencies that would remove objectors from military jurisdiction, in recognition of those who object to conscription per se. The Civilian Public Service of World War II was the result of such pressure, although it proved to be an unsatisfactory solution. Various forms of exemption for civilian jobs since that time represent attempts to accommodate pressure from pacifists, buttressed as it often is by church bodies and liberals who recognize conscientious objection as an authentic ethical choice even when they do not endorse it as a preferred one.

Third, pacifists lobbied for amnesty for conscientious objectors following each war of the twentieth century. The basic rationale for amnesty has been that objectors are really political prisoners, although the laws of the United States do not recognize political crimes and treat objectors as criminals. During the Vietnam War the number of men who publicly deserted from the military or fled the country to escape the draft created a situation in which pacifists found themselves joined in their demand for amnesty by nonpacifists interested in political and social reconciliation. Insofar as conscientious objection has become recognized as a legitimate ethical option and a form of protest, it has ceased to become the exclusive concern of pacifists.

Even with regard to conscientious objection, therefore, the influence of pacifists must now be evaluated in relation to that of the general peace movements. Indeed, as John Chambers and Charles Moskos have shown, the recognition of conscientious objection is integral to the modern character of military service.

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