By Rowan Moore Gerety
Mr. Moore Gerety is a freelance reporter and audio producer.
It was a book of Buddhist parables that put Michael Rasmussen over the edge. In March 2017, Mr. Rasmussen was living near a naval base in Japan, six years into training as a Marine pilot, reading and experimenting with meditation.
One morning as he prepared for a supply flight to Hawaii, Mr. Rasmussen kept returning to the story he’d read in bed the night before in “Path of Compassion,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, in which the Buddha was out begging when he was nearly mugged by a notorious criminal. Instead of robbing the Buddha, the mugger confessed to a life of murder and mayhem and asked him for advice: “What good act could I possibly do?”
“Stop traveling the road of hatred and violence,” the Buddha said. “That would be the greatest act of all.”
Mr. Rasmussen got in his car to drive to the hangar, overwhelmed with what he called an “immense feeling of dread.” The story haunted him: “Am I on the road of hatred and violence?” he wondered. He decided then and there to leave the Marines.
But there was a catch: He still had six years left on his contract. In the weeks to come he would embark on the path to becoming a conscientious objector, a status that allows soldiers to leave the military early because of a change in their beliefs about war.
Some 2.7 million American service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of our “forever wars” in 2001. Tens of thousands have gone AWOL. Countless others have finished out their service disenchanted and depressed, or turned to drugs and alcohol to ease re-entry into a society that would rather ignore war’s moral injuries, often losing their benefits in the process. After seeing the horrors of war and the contradictions of American foreign policy up close, many enlisted men and women are compelled to re-examine the ideals that first drew them to military service.
Very few soldiers, however, take the path that Mr. Rasmussen eventually did.
The military has been reluctant to publish official figures on conscientious objection. The most recent numbers available are from a Government Accountability Office report published in 2007, which found that on average fewer than 100 applicants a year from 2002 to 2006 — roughly half of them were approved. After that, the data is hard to find. The Center on Conscience and War advises only a subset of applicants for conscientious objector status, but as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, the caseload of the center doubled, its executive director, Maria Santelli, told me. She believes the actual number of annual applicants in recent years is closer to 200.
Though the act of conscientious objection arose historically in response to conscription — a mandatory draft — both Mr. Rasmussen’s story, and the vanishing scarcity of conscientious objectors overall today, raise an important question about the notion of our ostensibly all-volunteer military: How many American soldiers would become conscientious objectors if the process was more transparent, if they were more aware it was actually an option?
Military contracts require 18-year-olds with little knowledge of war to make commitments that sometimes last more than a decade. At the height of the Iraq war, the Pentagon offered signing bonuses as high as $50,000, and enacted a “stop loss” policy to extend service for tens of thousands of troops, prolonging their deployments just as their contracts were set to end.