The Trials of Following One’s Conscience

July-August 2013By Thom Nickels

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist and poet, and the author of nine books, including Philadelphia Architecture, Manayunk, and the forthcoming Legendary Philadelphians. He is the City Beat editor at ICON Magazine, a weekly columnist for Philadelphia’s Spirit Community Newspapers, and a Contributing Editor at Philadelphia’s Weekly Press. This article has been adapted from another forthcoming book, Harvard Square, about his experiences as a conscientious objector.

“Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.” — St. Cyprian (A.D. 200-258)

When I chose to apply for conscientious-objector status in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War, I was 18 years old and in a quandary: How was I to prove my objection to conscription based on non-religious grounds? Although raised Catholic, at age 17 I threw the baby out with the bath water and began calling myself existentialist-agnostic. Years later I would reclaim a Christian identification, but that year the challenge was to prove my objections to war based on philosophical-humanitarian principles. The law of the land in 1969 provided little hope for pacifists who did not belong to religious denominations with a marked anti-war theology.

Before 1971, the year the Supreme Court permitted conscientious-objector (CO) status for men whose pacifism was not based on specific religious beliefs, the odds were stacked against receiving the CO designation on humanitarian grounds. The road to this sea change was long and arduous, beginning about the time of the American Revolution, when pacifists were able to obtain exemptions from fighting on a state-by-state basis. In Pennsylvania, for in­stance, a pacifist was required to pay a fine equal to the amount of time he would have spent in military drill operations. When Quakers refused to pay this tax, they had their property confiscated.

Conscription became a fact of life during the Civil War; conscientious objection was not a part of the draft law. A pacifist, or someone unwilling to fight, could provide an able-bodied substitute or pay $300 to hire one. In the Confederate states there was no uniform rule for pacifists: Exceptions were rarely made for religious groups like the Mennonites, Quakers, or members of the Church of the Brethren, but overall it was an uneven patchwork; many non-combatants fled with their families into parts unknown to escape persecution.

During the Civil War, 3,989 men refused to serve. During World War I, 56,380 men either served as non-combatants or chose jail for refusing to register because they were CO absolutes, men who refused to cooperate with the conscription process at all, since alternative or civilian work service in lieu of a non-combatant status was not a viable option during “the Great War.” During World War II, 43,000 men registered as COs. Vietnam saw a marked increase: Some 173,000 men, nine percent of those inducted, registered as COs.

You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.

Back to July-August 2013 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Well, I could agree with Nickels if his CO status included GOING TO WAR as a medic, unarmed to help his wounded confreres. As for Catholic Churches flying NAZI flags--I cringe. My uncle, a Catholic in northern Italy, spent 19 months in Mathausen for hiding Jews and for being a partisan.
I rankle that the author of this dares to compare U.S. military actions with NAZI Germany.
To quote saints and martyrs to serve his own rationale should embarrass him. I do not understand the point of this article in the NOR. I would hope Nickels would NEVER see veterans' benefits for his CO status. To me, men like Nickels will always be branded as cowards. NO DICE is all he should hear.
Posted by: Lucia1944
July 18, 2013 03:51 PM EDT
Nickels is a US citizen and enjoys the fruit of US citizenship! This all comes at a cost for as long as this country has endured. If he feels too privileged to bear the cost of citizenship he should have followed one of his options and fled to Canada renouncing his citizenship. As a physician, I was somewhat privileged in having draft deferral, but after graduation proudly enlisted to serve as a combat triage surgeon with the US Marines. I'd do it again if I had to. I'm not complaining about my health slowly succumbing to the effects of agent Orange. To Mr. Nickels I say, look at all the media pictures of our troops who have suffered various amputations as a result of volunteering service in Afghanistan and Iraq and these vets are not begging for life limiting experience compensation. And Mr. Nickels is not to proud to beg for compensation, for what? Try explaining your story to The Lord at the "pearly gates"

John P Vincent, MD
Mesa, AZ
Posted by: jvin40
August 02, 2013 01:05 PM EDT
Add a comment