(NEW YORK) MintPress — In the wake of the Quran burnings at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, winning the hearts and minds of that country’s people could become even more difficult for U.S.-led NATO forces. The incident is also not helping dissipate growing opposition to the war among active-duty troops themselves. Just this week, 21-year-old […]
(NEW YORK) MintPress — In the wake of the Quran burnings at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, winning the hearts and minds of that country’s people could become even more difficult for U.S.-led NATO forces. The incident is also not helping dissipate growing opposition to the war among active-duty troops themselves.
Just this week, 21-year-old Army Specialist Daniel Birmingham, who was stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington, received an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector (CO). Birmingham, who served in Iraq in 2009-10, says he developed a strong moral opposition to the wars in the Middle East and believed he therefore had the right not to take part in them.
Birmingham also averted orders to deploy to Afghanistan while his application for conscientious objector status was being considered. His success is seen as a victory for other service members who might want to follow suit.
The Department of Defense defines a CO as someone with “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 directive also says “The term ‘religious training and/or belief’ may include solely moral or ethical beliefs even though the applicant may not characterize these beliefs as ‘’religious’ in the traditional sense.”
In a statement he made while his applications was being considered, Birmingham said “My beliefs are not based on religion; they are based on personal morals. I cannot kill a person who has a harder life than I do, who has never done anything to affect myself or my family. I cannot be morally happy with myself being a part of this organization. I had a conscience long before religion was ever introduced to me.”
By approving Birmingham’s application for CO, the military acknowledged that any active-duty member who disagrees with the war in Afghanistan has the legal right to refuse to take part.
Polls show that more than 70 percent of active-duty service members are not in favor of the war, while advocates for military personnel believe that the number of active duty troops with “moral dilemmas” about the war is much higher than the relatively small number of service members who apply for conscientious objector each year.
According to a report (pdf) by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in 2007, 425 service members sought CO status between 2002 and 2006; about half were approved.
Earlier this week, several hundred current and former troops and their supporters staged a rally outside the White House in support of libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, the only former serviceman in the race, who opposes the war in Afghanistan.
Each second of silence was for every military suicide since President Obama took office, while a second moment of quiet was for each soldier to die abroad under the current commander in chief. One protester held a sign reading “Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America to be a policeman of the whole world.”
Taking CO status one step further
In November, 2010, a coalition of some 60 veterans, anti-war and religious groups, the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, issued a report calling on Congress to expand the definition of CO. One of the main goals: To allow service members who oppose certain wars to remain in the military, serving either in noncombat roles or in conflicts they support.
“We want to make it easier for them to follow their moral conscience and serve in the military,” said Rita N. Brock, one of the main organizers of the commission “We want to forestall moral injury, which is a Veterans Administration category of treatment.”
The commission’s report asserts that “moral dilemmas” have contributed to the rising number of suicides among service members, and new research now supports that claim.
Moral injury and PTSD
Preliminary findings of a study of active duty Marines, released at the end of last year, show that the leading cause of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the guilt that troops experience because of moral dilemmas faced in combat. The conflicts that service members feel may include “survivor’s guilt,” from living through an attack in which other service members died, and witnessing or participating in the unintentional killing of women or children.
Traditionally, the disorder has been linked to combat violence, fear of being killed or loss of friends.
Half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs have been diagnosed with mental health issues and the most common is PTSD, which is experienced by nearly 200,000 of these veterans, according to the VA. PTSD caused by moral injury can lead to more severe reactions such as family violence or even suicide, said Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who has worked on military mental health policies.
The Truth Commissions plans to forge ahead, trying to recruit members of Congress to sponsor legislation to change the current rules. But they acknowledge that changes of it passing in a Republican-controlled House are slim. Many Democrats have also opposed expanding the definition of CO because they say it would allow service members to avoid deployment for political reasons.
Specialist Birmingham meanwhile hopes to inspire other troops who object to the current war.
Upon receiving his honorable discharge, he said, “This isn’t the end. We will continue to inform other soldiers of their rights and the options they have, that they will never be informed of otherwise. The outcome of an informed military can be the end of these meaningless wars.”