The Common Good

The Contentious Issue of 'Selective Conscientious Objection'

As I have been talking about the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, there have been some recurring themes that have surfaced. For the most part, the folks I have been in conversation about it with by and large have been enormously supportive of the event and its broader work, including exploring the issue of selective conscientious objection (SCO). SCO is not the only focus of the TCCW, but it is often the most contentious. It is no surprise, then, that the concept of choice and contractual obligation plays a key role.

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In class the other day I was speaking to another student who was having difficulty imagining the legitimacy of SCO in light of a person's agreement to an enlistment contract. I reminded her of some important context that often gets left out of such a 'gut-check' reaction:

  • Many enlistees are entering when they are only 18 years old, sometimes even younger. It is not unreasonable to extend the benefit of the doubt if they develop a moral objection to their participation in war or a particular war as a result of their service. I certainly applaud those who have, by 17, determined that military service contradicts their principles, but we cannot expect uniform foresight from young adults who, in 2008, were targeted by a $7.7 billion recruiting budget.
  • A disproportionate number of enlistees enter from economically depressed, rural regions. This constitutes less of an informed, voluntary choice than it does the election of a lesser evil (than that of joining a gang, living in abject poverty, or check-to-check on minimum wage, etc.).
  • The only party that is bound by the terms of the Enlistment Contract is the enlistee. The government reserves the right to terminate "any guarantees contained in [the] agreement" without notice and at the discretion of a third party (I would provide a link, but I just read this off my own DA3286-59 [Statement for Enlistment]). If that sounds like an equitable contract, call me, I'll give you $7.7 billion if you just sign some papers
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