The Conscientious Objectors

Conscientious objectors were a diverse group of young men whose pacifist beliefs did not permit to serve in the military. Some were prepared to serve in a non-combatant role.

An analysis of a large sample of applicants who were successful in being registered as conscientious objectors reveals the following.

The demographic is early 20s. This is to be expected as selective conscription was directed at 20 year old males. A few were older as some men had been a regular army volunteer for a number of years. 

The highest numbers were from the states of New South Wales and Victoria. This is not surprising as these were the most populous states. In the largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne there was better communication and information about rights and better organisation for the practice of dissent

The grounds of conscientious beliefs were predominantly religious. The Christian religion was the most common. Adherents of the Church of England and protestant churches were the most numerous who sought exemption. Adherents of the historic peace churches which included the Quakers, Brethren and Jehovah Witnesses were well-represented. The latter are not strictly a peace church but remain steadfast neutrality during conflicts and wars.

Most Christian conscientious objectors argued that their application was based on the immorality of killing another human being. A major reference was the injunction of the commandment Thou shalt not kill and the claim that the life and teaching of Jesus was non-violent.

There are instances of applicants who based their conscientious beliefs on other religions including Buddhism and Judaism.

Humanism was the next important ground for conscientious beliefs. It shared a similar rationale to that based on religious. Killing of human beings was immoral and a response of non-violence was to be followed. 

There were other grounds on which conscientious beliefs were based. The immorality of a particular conflict, for example the Vietnam War and of conscription are two common examples. The NSA did not permit such views to be used in court as a reason for obtaining exemption from national service. Young men who held these views were referred to as conscientious non-compliers or draft resisters

Conscientious non-compliers shared similar beliefs with conscientious objectors. A few held an anarchic argument of opposition to government per se and all its laws. Some based their conscientious non-compliance on the virtue of internationalism or opposition to capitalism.

For those who applied for total exemption from military service on the grounds of conscientious objection during the five years 1966 to 1970, on average a quarter were refused any exemption. Of the 75% which were granted exemption about a quarter of these applicants was successful in being granted exemption from non-combatant duties only. 

Historically conscientious objectors and conscientious non-compliers have been characterized as coward, shirkers, spivs and even traitors. Such a view charged them with contributing little service to society. In fact these young men of principle were brave in the face of a majority who viewed them this way. Some were jailed and some were badly treated whilst incarcerated. Most of the young men of conscience were gainfully employed or were undertaking education and training. Some lost their jobs and had their careers ruined. There are many examples of these men who gave extraordinary service to society and continue to do so today.

Another charge, often made by those on the conservative side of politics, was that these objectors and draft resisters were under the influence of the communists. During the Vietnam War the fear of communism was strong in the community. Yet the communists were, and always had been, a tiny minority in Australia. While some objectors and non-compliers held communist beliefs, the majority were guided by strong religious and/or humanist principles with a firm belief in democracy, personal rights and liberty and community service.