Application for Conscientious Objection Discharge Writing Tool
by the Center on Conscience & War
Stating YOUR beliefs
“A description of the nature of the belief which requires the applicant to seek separation from the Military Service or assignment to non‐combatant training and duty for reasons of conscience.”
This question is the heart of your application. This is the primary place where you explain what you believe and why you can’t participate in war.
Military policy requires that you be “opposed to participation in war in any form.” [DoDI par 5.1.1 and 50 USC App 456.j.]
Notice that an important part of the requirement is “participation.” This is not an abstract question about whether or not you think there should be wars, or how the United States could defend itself without going to war.
Rather it asks whether or not you can take part in war. So you need to think about what you believe, and what your conscience will or will not permit you to do in view of these values.
Some COs acknowledge that the civil authority has a right to conduct war, but they have come to the realization that their beliefs, rooted in a religious or moral authority, will not allow them to take part.
Other COs may even sympathize with wars against oppressors or some other wars, but they cannot in good conscience participate in violent conflicts.
Since you have come to your convictions in the context of your current military service or experience in a war zone, you need to be careful that your statement does not focus too much on the current conflict or your recent military experiences.
You need to describe the fundamental values or religious beliefs that influence your life and why they lead you to say that you can’t continue your current role in the military. Describe the values that guide your life, what you believe about war, and how those two are connected.
You should explain why you cannot, in good conscience, continue to serve in the military in a combatant or a non‐ combatant capacity.
If your beliefs are closely related to your own religious bodyʹs statements, you will want to consult them. You should be clear about where you agree and where you do not agree with them. You may want to include the statements from your religious tradition, if you are going to rely on them, when you submit your claim. You should consult your pastor or religious counselor to get that information, or consult CCWʹs collection of religious statements on conscientious objection.
Remember to focus on what you believe ‐ not what you don’t believe!
Explain HOW your beliefs changed or developed
“An explanation as to how his beliefs changed or developed, to include an explanation as to what factors (how, when, and from whom or from what source training received and belief acquired) caused the change in or development of conscientious objection beliefs.”
You may not remember this, but when you joined the military you were asked a series of questions about your beliefs:
a. Are you now or have you ever been a conscientious objector? (That is, do you have, or have you ever had, a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or to the bearing of arms because of religious belief or training?)
b. Have you ever been discharged by any branch of the Armed Forces of the United States for reasons pertaining to being a conscientious objector?
c. Is there anything which would preclude you from performing military duties or participating in military activities whenever necessary (i.e., do you have any personal restrictions or religious practices which would restrict your availability)?
You answered no to these questions. So you are going to have to explain what changed since you joined.
Most people seeking CO classification can identify events or experiences that caused them to begin to rethink their own participation in war. You should think about what events caused you to rethink your beliefs about war. While you probably won’t have too much difficulty describing these events, you may not have a clear “ah-ha” moment that you can identify–a very clear moment when your beliefs crystallized. That’s okay, because it doesn’t happen that way for everyone, but your Investigating Officer or others you encounter may assume it does. In any case, you will have to give a very clear explanation about how your beliefs changed since joining.
Your answer may include such information as your personal experiences, activities with organizations you may belong to, or books and movies which influenced you. This is different for everybody, so think about the things that influenced you. Sometimes it is a religious conversion. Sometimes it’s a new experience in your life—perhaps something you were exposed to because of your military service. Sometimes it is seeing or reflecting upon something you’ve seen or experienced a thousand times before, but you saw it differently this time because of changes that have occurred in you. Sometimes it is a renewed commitment to religious beliefs or values you were taught as a child.
Negative experiences can be particularly telling. Quite often it is a negative reaction to military experiences that causes people re-think their values. We often hear from those who reacted negatively to things like weapons training–or some experiences participating in combat–that caused them to reject war as a way of resolving conflict. Maybe it was the dehumanization of the “enemy” in your training. Maybe in target practice you thought about the real targets you would be shooting. Maybe it was pointing your weapon at a live human being, and coming to the realization that you could not pull the trigger.
Maybe it had nothing to do with your military service at all. Maybe a traumatic event like being in a car crash shook you to the core of your being and caused a change in your attitudes about violence or the sanctity of life. Or maybe it was witnessing the destructiveness of gang violence in your neighborhood. Whatever it was for you, talk about it here.
If it’s relevant, try to show how your present beliefs were influenced by earlier experiences–even religious training or other experiences you had before you joined the military. Just make sure your description shows that your beliefs crystallized after you joined. The more detailed your descriptions, the better!
Explain WHEN these beliefs became incompatible
“An explanation as to when these beliefs became incompatible with military service and why.”
The difference between this question and the previous one is that the first one is a more general question about the series of events that caused changes in you that led to your change in heart, and this one is asking you to describe that moment when you realized that you could no longer be a part of the military. It is asking about that “ah-ha” moment–when things suddenly became clear to you. That is called your moment of “crystallization”.
Many conscientious objectors can identify a particular event or experience that was so significant that it changed how they view everything. They can say that at that moment, their CO beliefs became clear to them. But not everyone can. For some people, their beliefs evolved gradually over time.
If your beliefs evolved gradually, you probably went from an acceptance of war, to perhaps tolerating it, to eventually feeling that you could no longer participate in it. At some point the tide turned–you could no longer tolerate your participation in the war machine. Try to identify that point at which your conscience said, “No more.”
Ideally, you’re applying for CO status shortly after that moment of crystallization. But if not, explain why you’re applying now instead of at that point.
The “trick question” on the use of force
“An explanation as to the circumstances, if any, under which the applicant believes in the use of force, and to what extent, under any foreseeable circumstances.”
Your objection must be to “war,” as was mentioned above, and not just any fighting or violence. War is an organized activity for social or political ends. Your use of force or violence to defend yourself or another victim is different from government decisions to go to war. The use of police force, your own willingness to use force, what you would do if attacked, and whether or not you would defend another person, while important questions, are relevant only if you seek CO classification as a pacifist (someone who believes that no violence is morally justified). You do not have to be a pacifist to be a conscientious objector!
Be careful how you answer this question.
This question is inviting you to say something that contradicts what you may have said elsewhere in your application. Or it may encourage you to make a broad statement that you don’t really believe, such as, you wouldn’t protect your sister if she was attacked because you think that is what you have to say to be recognized as a CO.
Generally, focus your written and oral statements on “war in any form.” Give a thoughtful answer to this question about the use of force. Do you believe in a police force? How is that different from war or military force?
If you have said earlier in the application that you are a pacifist (someone who believes that all violence is wrong) saying you believe it’s okay to use violence (even as a last resort) to defend someone would be an inconsistency and could be grounds for turning down your CO application. These issues are why this question is a problem.
While many people think of violence when they hear the word force, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines it as, “a : strength or energy exerted or brought to bear : cause of motion or change : active power < the motivating force in her life>. . . b : moral or mental strength c : capacity to persuade or convince <the force of the argument>”
Military strength comes after that, and violence is further down the list!
So if you understand the definition of force, you have lots of room to talk positively about things you believe when you answer this question.
But keep in mind that regardless of how you answer this question in your written application, it is likely that during your interviews and hearings, military officers will be curious about the degree to which you do believe in using violence or military force in response to various situations. So do give these questions some thought, so you can give a thoughtful answer when the question is asked. And while a question may be irrelevant or inappropriate, and you could point that out to the questioner, you should not respond in a way that appears to be evasive or flip.
Explain how your daily lifestyle has changed (and future plans)
“An explanation as to how the applicant’s daily lifestyle has changed as a result of his beliefs and what future actions he plans to continue to support his beliefs.”
This question is very important. Since your beliefs are something inside your head and heart, they cannot be examined directly or proven or disproven. The fact that you really believe what you claim to believe is not easy to prove. But choices you make every day may show evidence of your beliefs. If you are on active duty, you may have very little control over your daily routine, so showing how your life has changed because of your change in values may seem at first to be impossible.
So think about what has changed. Do you go to religious services more? Read the Bible, Talmud, Koran, or other sacred text more than you used to? Do you go to violent, shoot-em-up movies less than you used to? Play violent video games as much as you used to? What about how you relate to others in your unit? Do you talk about your beliefs? Have you tried to avoid weapons training or other violent exercises? Gone AWOL? Have you become vegetarian? Is that related to your moral values?
Showing a negative belief (not participating in war) is hard. But such a belief really is part of a larger belief system about peace, caring for others, obedience to God, maybe even simplicity and non-violence.
Showing that your other beliefs and actions are consistent with your CO beliefs is a good way to show the sincerity of your beliefs about not participating in war. Doing positive acts of service to others, joining organizations that work for peace and justice, preparing for work that contributes to the highest values in our world are all consistent with being a CO. While consistency is not the same as sincerity, sincerity is reflected in it.
The written application
Legally, these are the issues the military is to look at when reviewing your CO application:
1. Do your beliefs fit within the legal definition of conscientious objection (that you object to participation in war based on your religious, moral or ethical beliefs)?
2. Are you sincere in those beliefs? Do you really believe this?
3. Did your beliefs “crystalize” after you joined the military?
To get ready to write your initial CO application, sometimes it’s good to talk about your beliefs with a good friend who can ask questions and help you clearly state your beliefs. Talking to a counselor who has experience with CO law can also be very helpful–like the counselors at CCW.
If you’re active in a church or religious community, talk with your pastor, imam, rabbi or other spiritual advisor about your beliefs. Get a copy of your religious group’s official teachings about conscience and war. Re-read books or passages that have moved you and helped to shape your values. Here are “Statements from Faith Communities on Conscientious Objection” collected by CCW that many CO applicants have referenced.
There are six essay questions about your beliefs that the regulations require you to answer. It is essential that your statement about your conscientious objection to war be in your own words.
Remember, your answers don’t have to be a perfect essay–especially this first draft. What is important is to speak from the heart.
The questions shown in italics at the top of each page are from the DoD Instruction. The questions are essentially the same in the regulations for each branch of service, but they may differ slightly in wording, which we’ll take care of on the final application.
If you’re not limited to using this online writing tool…
If you get stuck and don’t know what to say next, go on to the next question or go do something else and come back to it.
If you really have trouble writing your answers, get a recorder and say what you believe. You can transcribe the recording to get a written account of your beliefs.
Once you’ve written your statement, set it aside for a couple of days and come back to it. As you re-read it you may discover it doesn’t say exactly what you thought it said. That’s OK! That’s why you do several drafts.
A firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief.
- The term “religious” also includes moral and ethical beliefs which have the same force in a person’s life as traditional religious beliefs.
- The term “religious” does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views.
“Training and/or belief”
- “Training” refers to the source of conviction or, more simply, the experiences that shaped your values. This may come from a lifetime of involvement in an organized religion that teaches active love for the enemy, for example (i.e. not killing), or from books, movies, or TV shows.
- “Training” could also arise from experiences serving in the military or from other life experiences.
- “Belief” refers to the values you hold which do not allow you to participate in military service or the bearing of arms.
- “Participation” highlights the personal nature of the claim. Thus a CO claim is not an abstract critique of war. It is a statement of what you believe, and what you can or cannot do in good conscience.
- “Participation” underscores that this is not about whether you think war is illogical or bad policy, for example.
- The term “In War” means that although a CO must object to war, he or she does not have to object to the use of violence by a police force or for self-defense, although many COs do hold nonviolent convictions.
- It is important to note the difference between force and violence. Punching someone is an example of violent force, while pulling a child away from a moving car is an example of nonviolent force.
“In Any Form”
- “In Any Form” precludes those who are opposed to a particular war. Such persons are called selective conscientious objectors and do not meet the current legal definition of a conscientious objector.
- If one believes in the Just War Theory, which is held by many religious traditions, to they would have to conclude/believe that there are in fact no just wars. Only then would they meet the current legal definition of a conscientious objector.