Conscientious Objection

Allan Bostelmann writes about

Conscientious Objection

If I told you that heroin is no more dangerous than candy, I would be deceiving you,

If I told you joining the military will not affect your soul, your psyche and your relationships with those you love I would be deceiving you.

In my own experience, I have come to see that joining the military is neither noble or Christ-like as I had been taught.

I was drafted and became an army combat trained infantryman – after nearly 10 years of formal Lutheran parochial education and college. No one from my Lutheran community or schools warned or advised ‘you might want to consider not serving’. No one indicated that I was doing anything but noble and God like service. Conscientious Objection was a non thought in Lutheran Nebraska; it never entered my mind.

In fact earlier, during WW2 my father  had volunteered for over 3 years active duty as an army chaplain. He landed on D-Day – his unit was attacked at the Battle of the Bulge – two chaplains in his unit were killed. He came back as a hero in our community. However he came back changed.

During my two years in the infantry (1953-55) almost daily we were trained to kill, slit throats, torture, maim, incinerate other human beings. We were taught techniques prohibited by the Geneva Convention. Most of my time was spent in Panama preparing for combat in Vietnam. In 1954 Vietnamese officers came showing our officers how to train us to fight in the jungle. We learned guerilla warfare, including how to kill with our bare hands.

Today I wonder how it could be that with 10 years of Lutheran education I did not question nor did my Christian community question whether or not joining the military was something Jesus would do – or want me to do. It was a wake-up call  when some of the Roman Catholic Puerto Ricans draftees training with me said, “We’re training to kill! They’re making killers of us!” I didn’t know how to reply.

Over the past decades I have become more and more aware that God hadn’t brought me to earth to create hell on earth for other people; even if my government had defined other people as “enemies”.

When I left the army I took some of my combat training into my work and family life. My first employment as a civilian and camp counselor I utilized some mild forms of intimidation I had learned in the military as I worked with young boys from Chicago spending two weeks at a summer camp. Once they became frightened I had few discipline problems. To other camp staff observing me it appeared I was really good with children. Years later when I got married and had children my family suffered from my earlier military orientation.

You should know that reports indicate that military families are up to five more times more likely to experience domestic abuse than the general public.**  Routinely our local domestic abuse program inquires whether an applicant has been in the military when an offender goes to get help.

Jesus taught his followers the way of nonviolence. He affirms the sanctity of all human life. Now I wonder how could I have missed that when it’s so obvious from reading of the four Gospels in the New Testament!

On the basis of his life and teaching there are some information and principals which I think young Lutheran Christians need to be aware:

* A person going in the military wanting to take Jesus seriously just can’t kill other human beings! It is clear from the teaching of Jesus that we are to love friends and enemies. There is no credible way anyone can picture the Jesus of the Gospels kicking someone in the groin, stabbing them in the kidney, burning their faces or bombing them into nothingness. The deity that encourages those activities is Mars, the god of war, not the Father of mercy and compassion Jesus served and calls us to serve.

*Since WW2 the military has significantly changed its training so that it can more effectively ‘get men and women to kill’. That’s because psychological researchers found during WW2 that 80 – 85% percent of the men in face to face combat refused to kill. Their research concluded “there is an innate resistance in the vast majority of humans to kill other fellow humans”. They discovered this was also true in previous wars. So the military began changing combat training to ‘over-ride’ our aversion to kill fellow humans. (see Col Grossman’s On Killing and General SLA Marshalls Men Under Fire)

*As a result of this change in training, during the Korean War 50% of the troops were predisposed to kill. In the Vietnam War 90 – 95% of the men shot to kill. Perhaps it was an unanticipated consequence, but as the military succeeded in getting men to kill, the suicide rate increased dramatically among returning soldiers. Two to 3 times more Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than were killed in combat and they are continuing to die by suicide.

*Another result is increasing levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Moral Injury. What’s more Veterans represent a large percentage of today’s homeless population. The same pattern is true for men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s unrealistic to expect soldiers trained to kill to return home to live peacefully.

Since my infantry experience I’ve attempted to learn more about Christianity and it’s relation to the military. Here is a list of some of the things that I wasn’t aware of when I went into the army:

*All religions have some kind of ‘Just War’ belief but it is clear that Original Christianity rejected ‘Just War’ and did not participate in it. For 300 years Christians believed they were to imitate their Savior and not to use homicide or violence to conduct their affairs.

*In the New Testament, the most obvious understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching is ‘nonviolent love of friends and enemies’ and ‘returning good for evil’ . Nonviolence is the clearest of His teaching. Even non-Christians see that in Jesus.

*From 65AD to 260AD, Christians were at times outlawed, persecuted and sometimes killed with more or less intensity. Yet they did not retaliate or kill to defend themselves against their persecutors. In fact during the first 300 years there was no Church Father of Mother that does anything but speak out against all forms of violence.

*In the first 300 years after the death and rising of Jesus, Christians couldn’t be a part of the Roman fighting army. Soldiers wishing to take instructions in order to become a Christian were to inform their commanders that they wouldn’t kill. If a commander explained that killing was required , the candidate was to resign. Whoever stayed in the military and killed was dismissed from the Christian community. (Canon of Hypolytus, about 215 AD)

*However after Christianity became legal , established and began acquiring wealth and temples from the Roman Empire, Christians began serving in the fighting Roman army. This was a complete reversal of early Christian teaching; one that continues into our day.

*As a result, during the 1,700 years since Emperor Constantine officially legitimatized Christianity, no identifiable group has slaughtered more people in wars than the group identified as ‘Christian’.

Jesus taught us a practical way to overcome evil. But during the last 1700 years, Christians – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – have treated Jesus’ way as unrealistic, utopian and naive. I lament that Christians have adopted the pagan ethics of Just War and no longer have any significant impact in bringing about peace or in communicating the Mercy of God to the world

The damage and destruction of war, justified by Christian teaching and the suffering of returning veterans, are powerful arguments for Conscientious Objection. I’ve spent 50 years trying to unlearn what the military taught me in order to be a better person and to follow Jesus. That is why I want you to know my truth.


**The War on Violence: Improving the Response to Domestic Violence in the Military, Judge Peter MacDonald and Debra D. Tucker, Fall 2003 Juvenile and Family Court Journal

“When Strains on Military Families turns Deadly” NY Times, February 15, 2008

“Domestic Violence in the Military” CBS News, January 28,2009

Al Bostelmann was drafted during the Korean War. He became a social worker and is now retired after decades of helping people live better lives.