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What is a Conscientious Objector?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A conscientious objector is someone who opposes war for religious, moral, or ethical reasons. Many nations recognize conscientious objectors and have enacted measures to deal with them in times of war, by providing alternate ways to serve the national good. In nations which require nationalized registration of service, a conscientious objector must make his or her beliefs clear at the time of registration, so that the case can be reviewed. If the reviewing board determines that the claim of conscientious objection is valid, the individual is excused from military service.

The conscientious objector tradition has existed for hundreds of years. Many Christian sects reject violence and war. The Society of Friends and Mennonites were two such sects which pushed for changes in the 1600s and 1700s. As a result of the conscientious objection of members of these religions, their governments began to recognize the need for a formal processing system. Many national governments include conscientious objectors in their military service systems, and make arrangements to accommodate their beliefs.

There are two types of conscientious objection. The first type of conscientious objector does not want to serve in a combatant position. In this instance, if the individual is required to serve, he or she will be assigned a non-combat support position. In other cases, a conscientious objector rejects any type of military service, because he or she does not want to contribute to warfare, even indirectly. Depending on the nation, this conscientious objector may face prison time as a result of his or her beliefs. However, it is more common to ask these individuals to serve in positions which benefit their communities, such as work crews, assistants to the elderly, and the medical professions.

Absolute pacifism is not necessarily required or expected of a conscientious objector. Many conscientious objectors are perfectly willing to defend themselves in times of need, for example. However, conscientious objectors do believe that war is not an acceptable human behavior, or that war will not solve societal problems.

During a review of the case of a conscientious objector, he or she will typically be asked about religious, social, and political affiliations. The government wants to ensure that the person's claim is valid, and that the request for conscientious objector status is not being made in response to political opposition to a particular war or self interest. The examination will determine whether or not the individual lives a lifestyle which is in line with a claim of conscientious objection to military service.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon299162 — On Oct 23, 2012

I served two years, during the Vietnam era, as a conscientious objector, working as an orderly in an old folks home. Are there any benefits available to me?

By BrickBack — On Jul 11, 2011

@SurfNTurf - I know what you mean. I think that the conscientious objectors that have the most courage are those that live in communist countries. Many of these people that rise up against the government are jailed with long prison terms and in some cases they are executed for their political differences.

We have to appreciate the fact that we are able to protest military action because it is not an option in other countries.

By surfNturf — On Jul 11, 2011

@Mutsy - I understand what you are saying, but some people might get ticked off because they had to serve and did not complain. At least we now have a voluntary military, but we still see a lot of antiwar protests.

I understand people’s need to express themselves but many times our enemies are using these protests to bolster the morale of our enemies. So I think we have to keep that in mind when we protest because we don’t want to give our enemies any ammunition.

By mutsy — On Jul 10, 2011

@Starrynight - I think that if the person has deep seated religious beliefs that go against fighting in a war, they should be respected. Since we have a voluntary military we really don’t have the amount of conscientious objectors that we had during the Vietnam era.

During that time there were a lot of conscientious objectors because they did want to be forced to support a war that they did not believe in.

It is really hard to risk your life when it is a cause you don’t support. I think that it is hard to judge someone that is faced with the prospects of serving in a war and until we put ourselves in their shoes we should not pass judgment.

I read that Muhammad Ali was a famous conscientious objector that was actually jailed for refusing to go to war in Vietnam.

By starrynight — On Jul 09, 2011

@Azuza - I disagree. I think in times of war and especially is there is a draft, no one should be exempt except for medical reasons.

I'm sure there are plenty of people who go to war that don't really want to go. Why should some able-bodied people be able to get out of it just by claiming it's against their beliefs? But yet these same people still want to live in their respective country and reap the benefits of others defending them. Totally unfair!

By Azuza — On Jul 09, 2011

I think being a conscientious objector in a time of war is a perfectly valid viewpoint. I applaud any government that accommodates these objectors by finding another way for the objector to serve.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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