Conscientious objection to taking part in or supporting war has for a long time been associated in the west with particular religious beliefs. Since the Reformation protestant groups such as the Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonites and Dukhobors have consistently refused military service. In past centuries some emigrated from Europe or Russia to North America to avoid conscription.
In the 20th century, although religious objectors to military service, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, have played a heroic role in resisting enforced military service in dictatorships, and a small but significant Catholic pacifist movement has also developed, there has been a growth of individual conscientious objection based on humanist beliefs. There have also been significant movements based on socialist or anarchist objections to capitalist wars, and major campaigns against participation in wars viewed as imperialist, racist, aggressive, illegal under international law or in any other way unjust. Many western states, especially since the end of the cold war, no longer require general conscription, but reservists or serving soldiers have also sometimes refused to take part in a particular war – as for example in the 1991 Gulf War.
Liberal democratic states have increasingly recognized the right to be a conscientious objector (CO) – and this has been reflected by many intergovernmental bodies, including the UN Human Rights Commission – and gradually extended the definition of conscience beyond religious beliefs. But militant resisters have rejected recognition of the state’s right to demand alternative civilian service, and have committed themselves to total resistance. Open draft resistance has often occurred alongside draft evasion – many young US citizens crossed the border into Canada during the Vietnam War – and desertion from the forces. One important role for organized peace groups, nationally and transnationally, has been to provide legal information, advice and support.
Refusing military service is limited to those of military age and until very recently has been limited to young men, but some have also seen conscientious refusal to pay taxes for war as a relevant form of protest. Moreover, in national campaigns against particular wars, prominent individuals have encouraged defiance of the draft or even desertion by signing subversive manifestoes, or have taken direct action at recruitment offices. Some examples of conscientious objection and draft resistance in SouthAfrica and Israel have been covered in Volume I of this Guide (E.I.1.c.), but a few reference are listed under 2.b. See also Section E for resistance to specific wars, in particular Vietnam.
There is a large literature on pacifism, much of it not directly relevant here. Selective references dealing with pacifist beliefs, with transnational and national organizations and campaigns against conscription, with the experiences of COs and draft resisters, and analyses of the legal position are listed below. We also include a couple of references to just war theory, influential in opposition to many wars, but critical of pure pacifism.