U.S. Army Specialist Daniel Birmingham, a March Forward! member stationed at Ft. Lewis, Wash. who did an infantry deployment in Iraq, won a major victory for service members’ rights this week after successfully receiving an early honorable discharge as a conscientious objector.
Over the course of applying for conscientious objector status, Spc. Birmingham’s unit received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, which he also successfully averted.
Spc. Birmingham’s basis for applying as a conscientious objector (CO) was not a religious one, but based on the fact that he did not agree with the wars that the U.S. military is engaged in, and therefore had the right to not take part in them.
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His approval as a CO sets an important precedent for all U.S. service members, as polls show that a large majority also oppose the war.
Becoming a war resister
Daniel Birmingham is a 21-year-old from a working-class upbringing in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he grew up living in his grandparents’ two-bedroom house with over 10 family members, with not enough beds to go around. His mother has been a factory worker in an auto parts plant his entire life, and his father has spent most of that time unemployed after becoming disabled on the job as a union painter. At 18 years old, Birmingham, with few options for college and in a state with high unemployment, enlisted in the U.S. Army.
During his 2009-10 tour in Basrah, Iraq, Spc. Birmingham’s first-hand experience as an occupying soldier—in a country that had just been decimated by a war that took the lives of upwards of 1.3 million Iraqis—made him question the morality of his participation in the occupation.
Upon returning home in 2010, Spc. Birmingham wrestled with the moral conflict of having participated in an occupation that he no longer agreed with and considered a crime against the Iraqi people. He knew that he would inevitably have to deploy to the other unpopular war the U.S. military was engaged in, the other occupation that was taking the lives of countless innocent civilians, the other war that he didn’t agree with.
So Spc. Birmingham did what every U.S. service member has the right under military law to do: file for honorable discharge as a conscientious objector, for moral opposition to participation in U.S. foreign policy.
Taking a stand
As Spc. Birmingham was waiting for his CO paperwork to be processed, he didn’t stay quiet. He was instructed to keep quiet to other soldiers about what he was doing, and pleasing his command was important to get a favorable decision on his CO application.
But he knew there were others in uniform experiencing similar moral dilemmas, and wanted to reach them with the message that they, too, had the right to refuse their orders to Afghanistan. Spc. Birmingham wrote a public statement, “I will not go to war again,” explaining why he exercised his legal right to be honorably discharged, and called on all other soldiers who agreed to do the same. March Forward! worked to make his message heard throughout the military, and circulated a petition in support of his stand to rally public support, which was signed by thousands across the country (including many members of the active-duty military).
And in fact, soldiers responded – soldiers who were deployed in Iraq. On a base in Baghdad, several (anonymous) soldiers not only decided to become COs, but started refusing to pull guard shifts, and began distributing anti-war leaflets on their base with information on becoming a CO. Service members elsewhere in the country began contacting us saying that they, too, wanted to exercise their rights as Spc. Birmingham had. Several of them have already averted deployments to Afghanistan.
Spc. Birmingham also took his message to the streets. To mark the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan this past October, Spc. Birmingham joined other March Forward! members in Washington, D.C., and marched in uniform as an active-duty soldier in the mass anti-war demonstrations. He told his story to thousands gathered to establish Occupy Freedom Plaza, took part in the first General Assemblies at Occupy DC, and was even pepper-sprayed as he was on the front-lines of a protest against the drone propaganda exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum.
Spc. Birmingham not only took a stand for his own life, but put himself at great risk of disciplinary action and other repercussions by taking such public action—he put his own interests on the line to reach out to others questioning the war, and put his body into the gears of the war machine as a physical participant in protests that rocked the capital on a historic anniversary. As a result of his courageous stand, several other active-duty soldiers have successfully refused to deploy to Afghanistan, become COs, disrupted the war machine on the front lines, and become anti-war activists.
A victory for all service members
While Spc. Birmingham’s CO paperwork was being processed, his unit received orders to deploy to Afghanistan. He successfully exercised his right to not go. Then, after months of waiting for a decision, his CO status was approved. Last week, Spc. Birmingham terminated his contract early and was honorably discharged, retaining full veterans benefits.
Spc. Birmingham’s successful stand as a CO sets an important precedent for U.S. service members. There is the generalization that CO status is reserved for service members with a religious or spiritual opposition to war. But Spc. Birmingham’s CO status was explicitly non-religious.
His rationale was simple: If he believed the wars were wrong, then being a participant in them conflicted with his personal morals, and therefore he had the right to the legal separation from the Army afforded under military law.
The approval of his CO paperwork is an extremely significant acknowledgement by the U.S. military that the legal right does exist for any service member who disagrees with the war in Afghanistan to refuse to participate.
Polls show that more than 70 percent of active-duty service members oppose the war in Afghanistan. All of them have the right to refuse deployment to Afghanistan as conscientious objectors, as proven by the approval of Spc. Birmingham’s CO status.
And Spc. Birmingham wants them all to know that fact. Upon receiving his honorable discharge, he said, “This isn’t the end. We will continue to inform other soldiers of their rights and the options they have, that they will never be informed of otherwise. The outcome of an informed military can be the end of these meaningless wars.”
Any service member who is one of the thousand who doesn’t agree with the war in Afghanistan, and is considering exercising the same rights that Spc. Birmingham did, can click here for information, assistance and support.