Opting Out: A Small Step for Peace

Let’s discuss conscientious objection. For those who don’t know what it is, conscientious objection is a moral or religious opposition to war. It is essentially the refusal to participate on moral or religious grounds. So I am a conscientious objector. Interestingly enough, before I conscientiously objected, I was an F-15E fighter pilot. I deployed twice to Afghanistan, and I sincerely regret to say that I have killed people. That is a heavy burden for an honest person to carry whether it’s justified or not.

People disagree on this point for obvious reasons: was it self-defense or aggression? It’s difficult to tell for sure. Most of the situations I have experienced are very gray. They could easily be viewed as self-defense (particularly from a tactical "on the battlefield" perspective). That is, when somebody shoots at you or some 18-year-old kid you’re supposed to protect, you shoot back. Pretty simple. Or is it? From a strategic perspective, it’s hard for me to see the world in the same light. Sure, you can make a pretty good case that Osama Bin Laden should have been captured, put on trial, and convicted for his crimes. That’s fairly straightforward. But he’s dead now and none of the countries we’ve invaded since 2001 had anything to do with it. Nor have they attacked the United States. That should be a problem for any sensible person. So I guess my point is that your perspective matters. The tactical perspective is very different than the larger picture.

What I am very proud to say is that when I personally changed my mind about the moral foundation of the American wars of the last century, I had the courage to act on my convictions and quit the military. To actually change your behavior is very difficult, but possible. Now I’m here to make the case for freedom of conscience in hopes of changing a few minds for peace. So what are we to do about all this war? In my view the answer is conscientiousness. The total freedom to act on one’s conscience. Conscientious objection is something that is much less in the American psyche than it was 45 years ago when the draft was still a part of our society. The reasons are obvious: when you’re not being compelled to participate, war affects you less.

So conscientious objection is much less on our minds, but it’s no less important. In fact, I would argue that it’s more important than ever before. It’s so important because conscientious objection represents "dissent." And more important than simply dissent, it is the ultimate form of peaceful non-cooperation. Now that the military is a "voluntary" force, dissent is much less common. That is because the kind of people who voluntarily join all share, at least in some ways, a similar mindset. Compare this to the Vietnam era. Now I wasn’t alive then, but my understanding is that dissent was much more rampant then than it is now. This realization has led many I have spoken with to come to the conclusion that the government should reinstitute the draft. In my view this is exactly the opposite of what is required.

The answer is not the draft. The draft was a huge problem whose elimination was a big step in the right direction. The next big step, in my view, is to legalize "selective objection" and to raise the general consciousness around it. "Selective" objection, not "conscientious" objection. What’s the difference?

Conscientious objection is the concept that all war is wrong while selective objection is the concept that this war is wrong. That’s right. It’s illegal to say "this war is wrong, I don’t want to play anymore." Today you have to say "all war is wrong" and then you have to prove your case. This is a problem. It’s a problem because while we all agree in some measure that all war is wrong, most people also believe that some war is justified. This is a huge barrier to dissent in the present-day military. As it stands, conscientious objection is legal, albeit very difficult, and selective objection is prohibited outright.

The gray area in war is centered on a core belief that most of us share that self-defense is okay while aggression is not. The unsolvable problem, therefore, is that every war involves elements of self-defense and elements of aggression on both sides. It is impossible to aggregate all of the good on one side and all of the bad on the other. And so, for this reason, among others, war is inherently unjust. The concept of a just war and theories to defend it are out of place in the real world. The theoretical possibility of a "just" war, however, is the reason that most people cannot conscientiously object to all war. That is unfortunate because they’re missing the big picture completely.

The next step in the right direction is to legalize selective objection and to increase the general awareness about it. I know a lot of soldiers who think that the American wars of the last fifteen years are wrong. And I know a lot that don’t. Many of those that do (not all) would walk away today if given the freedom to change their minds after they see what war really is. Can you imagine what kind of impact that would have for peace? To see a bunch of soldiers refusing to fight because the war isn’t morally justified. What if they were actually encouraged to do so? Now that would be a powerful voice for peace!

Can you imagine a world where governments only used force in legitimate self-defense? Want to get closer? Selective objection is the answer. Those in the military who are thoughtful – and there are many in the ranks – do not want to fight in bullshit wars. They don’t want to kill innocents. They don’t want to preemptively invade countries that have not attacked the United States. They feel trapped by their so-called "commitment." This is unfortunate because it’s keeping many from acting on their conscience. We need to encourage the people who are closest to the violence to lead the voice of dissent. We need to encourage the trigger pullers, and the airman with their finger on a red button, Airmen like me, to think about what they’re doing. To ask themselves tough questions. "Is this war really just?" And if they come to the conclusion, like I did, that the the particular war is wrong, we need to encourage them to quit.

Justin Pavoni is a former Air Force officer and F-15E evaluator pilot. Pavoni has deployed twice to Afghanistan, served as a Special Operations liaison, and has flown 550 combat hours. Justin and his wife Jessica run a blog at http://www.libertybug.org.