Pfc. Naser Abdo, a Muslim soldier from Texas, is a 20-year-old infantryman assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. He filed for conscientious objector status in June because he believes that his faith and the military simply don't mix. The Army has deferred his scheduled deployment to Afghanistan, and he awaits an answer from the army as to the status of his request.
Not surprisingly, this story is stirring up lots of emotion on issues ranging from freedom of religious expression to Islam in America to Islam in general, to the morality of war. One way to think about at least some of those issues is through the idea of conscientious objection -- what does it mean, and does Naser Abdo deserve to be granted that status?
The idea that one can be a conscientious objector, even in an all-volunteer army, is something which should make Americans proud. The fact that the United States military doesn't simply tell Pfc. Naser Abdo that he is stuck because he signed a contract demonstrates respect for precisely the kind of freedom of conscience which our servicemen and servicewomen fight to protect.
Whether such status should be extended to Pfc. Abdo should, as his own legal counsel admits, depend on his particular reasons for seeking C.O. status. If it is because he now finds himself opposed to all war, then it seems appropriate and likely that he will be granted the status he seeks and allowed to separate from the military. If however, he refuses to serve because he objects to this particular deployment, that's another matter altogether.
While no soldier should be forced to fight a battle which he or she deems to be immoral, soldiers cannot make such decisions for themselves independent of some real consequences.
In fact, in cases I know more intimately which have to do with the Israeli military, when soldiers refuse specific orders or deployments, be it on religious, political or other ethical grounds (generally, it's soldiers on the left who refuse to serve in the territories, and soldiers on the right who refuse to evacuate illegal settlements), they spend time in jail, as I think they should.
It may be that such civil disobedience will be judged, in the passage of time, to have been heroic. But in the short term, it must, in the context of a democracy, carry real consequences.
I do not believe that such soldiers should be treated as evil, seen as cowardly, or even necessarily thought of as unpatriotic, and I do not believe that it is likely Pfc. Abdo is any of those. But soldiers serving in democratic systems, especially volunteers, cannot make their own rules without threatening the governments they serve. Picking and choosing of that sort turns each serviceman or servicewoman into an army of one -- hardly what a nation needs in order to maintain its national security.