Conscientious Objectors: Heroes Or Cowards?

It is one of those subjects that people do not want to discuss.

For many years, conscientious objectors were kept in a closet in a similar way to:

  • Unwed Mothers
  • Homosexuals
  • People that cannot read
  • Etc…

And then the movie Hacksaw Ridge directed by Mel Gibson was released.

The movie was about a World War II hero… Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist who would not agree to carry a weapon to kill other human beings.

Being drafted into the U.S. armed forces, Doss was given a job in the medic area so he would not break his non-violent vows to his religion.

Doss was a conscientious objector who saved many lives in Okinawa and he was given the nation’s highest award for valor… The Medal Of Honor.

In today’s post, I may start an extreme debate.

I want to force you to really think.

First, do you think conscientious objectors are cowards? Heroes? Or possibly somewhere in between?

Second, I am going to confront you in a deep way…

Could you possibly be a “secret” conscientious objector?

Do not try to answer that question just yet; you do not necessarily know where I am going with that.

I can just feel some of you “gung-ho” soldiers screaming at the computer screen already.

If you are one of those people, let me ask you:

  • Have you been deployed to a combat zone yet?
  • Have you fired your rifle at another human being?
  • And, have you killed?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, you could be a secret conscientious objector. Now I know I have your attention! I will go into this area further on in this post.

The History of Conscientious Objection


In days of old, if you refused to serve in your nation’s military with a conscientious objector attitude, you would probably be imprisoned or even executed.

The conscientious objector was considered a traitor.

One of the first known of cases where conscientious objectors were granted their wish was with William of Orange in 1575 in the Netherlands.

The Dutch Mennonites could refuse to join the military as long as they paid hefty sums of money.

Great Britain has always had issues with conscientious objectors.

In the 1700’s the Quakers did not want to join.

They have had many others who were treated as traitors in areas such as South Africa.

The United States federal government has always allowed conscientious objection, but it was also given more power at State levels.

In 1948, the United Nations made a ruling that said:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Other posts you may want to read:

  1. The Top 19 Desmond Doss Facts: The Hero Of Hacksaw Ridge
  2. Army JROTC: What it is and How it Works

The Issue

One of the biggest issues at hand is when a person claims conscientious objector status against one certain engagement but not war in general.

One good example of this was the great boxer Muhammad Ali who objected to Vietnam saying that they had never called him a nigger. He had a great point.

World War I had its share of conscientious objectors and they were put into jobs that did not require carrying arms or killing.

But there were many who would not serve at all and they were sentenced to prison for up to 25 years. Through World War II, a person could only claim conscientious objector status via a religion. That somewhat changed with the U.N. ruling in 1948.

Where Do You Stand On This Issue?

Do you think someone who refuses to serve in his country’s military is a coward? What about the soldier who is in a position to kill another human being and cannot pull the trigger?

It happens all the time, and there are statistics that say that it happened in both Korea and Vietnam a lot. It probably has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan too. Is a soldier going to admit it? I doubt it.

Bosnia and Serbia

Here was a place where brother, friend, neighbor was fighting each other.

So put yourself in their shoes.

You have to kill the enemy and suddenly standing in front of you is your cousin on your Mother’s side.

Would you pull that trigger?

Think very deep before answering that question.

I would go so far to say that even soldiers who have killed many enemy soldiers may have that moment when they see the face of an enemy combatant, and they have thoughts of guilt.

The trigger cannot be squeezed.

Why I Am Saying This

Please consider your words before you state that a conscientious objector is a coward.

I actually have great respect for a person who stands tall and brave on their beliefs even if I disagree with them.

Yes, I believe war is in some cases necessary, but I will not jump into a debate with a person completely opposed to war.

It is called respect and wouldn’t it be great if humans WOULD stop killing each other?

Besides, if you are the person who is calling these people cowards, I would like to see the statistics on how many enemies you have killed in combat.

The majority of soldiers who have had to kill will not bow to the level of calling a person that wants not to kill a coward.

You may disagree and you have that right. As a matter of fact, I would love to hear all points of view on this subject.

You can do that in the comment section at the end of this post.

Before I sign off though, I want to recognize some of the conscientious objectors that have helped change views of this stance.

Well Known Conscientious Objectors

  • Leo Tolstoy – The great Russian author of War and Peace fought in the Crimean War. In the late 1800’s, he had a change of opinion and quoted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as his reasoning of opposing war.
  • George Bernard Shaw – Another great writer, the Irish Shaw was quite political in his talk and actions. He took many verbal shots against any armed forces involved in war.
  • Mahatma Ghandi – How could anyone call this great Indian pacifist a coward? He led peaceful revolts against British occupation.
  • Bertrand Russell – He was even thrown in a British jail for his views on conscientious objection. Bertrand Russell was a major influence on the U.N.’s rulings.
  • Aldous Huxley – This great writer was even denied U.S. citizenship because he refused to bear arms.

These are just a few.

“In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.” Leo Tolstoy

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Mahatma Ghandi

“A democracy which makes or even effectively prepares for modern, scientific war must necessarily cease to be democratic. No country can be really well prepared for modern war unless it is governed by a tyrant, at the head of a highly trained and perfectly obedient bureaucracy.” Aldous Huxley

Now Your Thoughts

We want to hear your thoughts and opinions on this subject. Please be respectful.

You can post them in the comment area below.

Thank you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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