Skip to main content Accessibility help

Military refusers and the invocation of conscience: Relational subjectivities and the legitimation of liberal war

  • Maja Zehfuss (a1)


During the Iraq War, some US soldiers refused (re)deployment. While liberal states appear to protect individuals’ right not to fight against their moral convictions by allowing the right to conscientious objection, those whose objections do not align with the regulations have to break the law in order to follow their convictions. This article explores how the legitimation of liberal war is challenged when we listen to the stories such refusers tell. Focusing on the United States, it briefly sets out the normative context such soldiers faced, highlighting the distinction between permissible conscientious objectors and contemptible deserters. Drawing on Judith Butler, it then focuses on two refusers by reading their own accounts of themselves in their memoirs. Despite not being eligible under the regulations, both invoke their conscience to make their refusal intelligible. By listening to their detailed accounts, the article traces the production and disruption of their subjectivities in relation to the prevailing moral order. Although invoking conscience appears to provide the chance to embrace an authentic self in a bid to resist the problematic moral order, subjectivity remains fractured due to relationality. Put differently, the sovereign subjectivity required by liberal war is simultaneously undermined by it.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author. Email:


Hide All

1 ‘Soldiers’ refers to military service personnel in all branches here.

2 Jamail, Dahr, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), pp. 85–7; Laufer, Peter, The Soldiers Who Say No: True Stories of Soldiers Who Refuse to Serve in Iraq (London: John Blake, 2007), pp. 56–8 and XVI; Glen, Patrick J., ‘Judicial judgement of the Iraq War: United States armed forces deserters and the issue of refugee status’, Wisconsin International Law Journal, 26 (2009), pp. 983–95.

3 Laufer, The Soldiers Who Say No, p. 71.

4 Jamail, The Will to Resist, p. 193; Gutmann, Matthew and Lutz, Catherine, Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak Out Against the War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 164.

5 Zehfuss, Maja, War and the Politics of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018).

6 Moskos, Charles C. and Whiteclay, John Chambers II, ‘The secularization of conscience’, in Moskos, Charles C. and Whiteclay, John Chambers II (eds), The New Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 3.

7 Zehfuss, War and the Politics of Ethics, pp. 135–78.

8 Howell, Alison, ‘Resilience as enhancement: Governmentality and political economy beyond “responsibilisation”’, Politics, 35:1 (2015), pp. 6771.

9 The significant exception is Gutmann and Lutz, Breaking Ranks. Some of the research on military dissent and anti-war activism touches on refusers. See Flores, David, ‘From prowar soldier to antiwar activist: Change and continuity in the narratives of political conversion among Iraq War veterans’, Symbolic Interaction, 39:2 (2016), pp. 196212; Flores, David, ‘Politicization beyond politics: Narratives and mechanisms of Iraq War veterans’ activism’, Armed Forces and Society, 43:1 (2017), pp. 164–82; Leitz, Lisa, Fighting for Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Managhan, Tina, ‘Grieving dead soldiers, disavowing loss: Cindy Sheehan and the im/possibility of the American antiwar movement’, Geopolitics, 16:2 (2011), pp. 438–66; Rowe, Cami, The Politics of Protest and US Foreign Policy: Performative Construction of the War on Terror (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013); Benjamin Schrader, ‘The affect of veteran activism’, Critical Military Studies, Online (2017), pp. 1–15; Tidy, Joanna, ‘Gender, dissenting subjectivity and the contemporary military peace movement in body of war’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17:3 (2015), pp. 454–72; Tidy, Joanna, ‘The gender politics of “ground truth” in the military dissent movement the power and limits of authenticity claims regarding war’, International Political Sociology, 10:2 (2016), pp. 99114; Tidy, Joanna, ‘The operation and subversion of gendered war discourses: Soldierhood, motherhood and military dissent in the public production of Kimberly Rivera’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 19:4 (2017), pp. 426–40.

10 See especially Christopher Coker, Humane Warfare (London: Routledge 2001).

11 For an overview of the right to conscientious objection across countries, see Takemura, Hitomi, International Human Right to Conscientious Objection to Military Service and Individual Duties to Disobey Manifestly Illegal Orders (Berlin: Springer, 2009).

12 Moskos and Chambers, ‘The secularization of conscience’, p. 14.

13 Department of Defense (DoD), Instruction 1300.06 (31 May 2007), section 3.1, available at: {} accessed 17 April 2013.

14 Ibid., section 3.2.

15 Moskos and Chambers, ‘The secularization of conscience’, p. 15.

16 Alberto Giubilini, ‘Conscience’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (winter 2016), ed. Edward N. Zalta, available at: {}.

17 Peter Worthington and Rush Limbaugh, Toronto Sun (28 March 2005), quoted in Laufer, The Soldiers Who Say No, pp. 58, 153.

18 United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), ‘Military Personnel: Number of Formally Reported Applications for Conscientious Objectors Is Small Relative to the Total Size of the Armed Forces’, GAO-07-1196 (2007). For a discussion of what the numbers mean, see Minear, Larry, ‘Conscience and carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq: US veterans ponder the experience’, Journal of Military Ethics, 13:2 (2014), pp. 142–3.

19 GAO, ‘Military Personnel’.

20 Moskos and Chambers, ‘The secularization of conscience’, pp. 4–5.

21 See fn. 9.

22 On CO applicants not being treated as required by policy, see Minear, ‘Conscience and carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq’, pp. 141–2.

23 DoD, Instruction 1300.06, section 3.2.

24 Ibid., section 3.5.1.

25 Minear, ‘Conscience and carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq’, p. 138. See also Cohn, Marjorie and Gilberd, Kathleen, Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent (Sausalito, CA: PoliPointPress, 2009), pp. 2344.

26 Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Glantz, Aaron, Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), p. 201.

27 Jamail, The Will to Resist, pp. 17, 78.

28 Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Article 85, available at: {}.

29 Unauthorised Absence in the Navy.

30 Laufer, The Soldiers Who Say No, pp. 148–9.

31 UCMJ, Article 85.

32 Cortright, David, ‘Conscience and war’, Peace and Change, 35:3 (2010), p. 506; Cortright, David, ‘Economic conscription’, Society, 12:4 (1975), pp. 43–7.

33 Cortright, ‘Conscience and war’ , p. 506.

34 González, Roberto J., Militarizing Culture: Essays on the Warfare State (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press 2010).

35 O'Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried (London: Fourth Estate 2015), p. 42.

36 Ibid., p. 48.

37 Ibid., pp. 55, 54.

38 See, for example, Schrader, ‘The affect of veteran activism’.

39 Cohen, Carl, ‘Conscientious objection’, Ethics, 78:4 (1968), p. 269. The question of the extent to which claims with which we disagree should gain protection has been resolved in different ways over time. See Strohm, Paul, Conscience: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011), p. 77.

40 For a summary of this argument, see Robinson, Paul, ‘Integrity and selective conscientious objection’, Journal of Military Ethics, 8:1 (2009), pp. 43–4.

41 Veterans suffering from PTSD face some of the same challenges. See, for example, Gallagher, Brianne P., ‘Burdens of proof: Veteran frauds, PTSD pussies, and the spectre of the welfare queen’, Critical Military Studies, 2:3 (2016), pp. 139–54.

42 Wehrmacht deserters remained stigmatized in the Federal Republic of Germany for a long time and were only legally rehabilitated as a group in 2002.

43 Butler, Judith, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), p. 19.

44 Ibid., p. 7.

45 Adorno, Theodor, Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. Livingstone, Rodney (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001) quoted in Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 3.

46 Gary Younge, ‘We shall not be moved’, The Guardian Weekend (26 August 2006).

47 Gutmann and Lutz, Breaking Ranks, p. 2.

48 See Jenkings, K. Neil and Woodward, Rachel, ‘Communicating war through the contemporary British military memoir: the censorships of genre, state, and self’, Journal of War and Culture Studies, 7:1 (2014), pp. 517; Woodward, Rachel and Jenkings, K. Neil, ‘“This place isn't worth the left boot of one of our boys”: Geopolitics, militarism and memoirs of the Afghanistan War’, Political Geography, 31 (2012), pp. 495508; and Dyvik, Synne L., ‘Of bats and bodies: Methods for reading and writing of embodiment’, Critical Military Studies, 2:1–2 (2016), pp. 5669. The issue of veracity is not unique to war memoirs. For a discussion of the significance of having been ‘there’ in war fiction, see Zehfuss, Maja, Wounds of Memory: The Politics of War in Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007), pp. 155–61.

49 Jenkings and Woodward, ‘Communicating war through the contemporary British military memoir’, pp. 13–16.

50 As noted below, in one of the cases that voice is expressed by a journalist.

51 Back, Les, The Art of Listening (London: Bloomsbury 2013), p. 12.

52 See Zehfuss, Wounds of Memory, pp. 20–6.

53 Mejía, Camilo, Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía – An Iraq War Memoir (Chicago: Haymarket Books 2008).

54 Ibid., p. xvii.

55 Ibid., p. xviii.

56 Ibid., p. 1.

57 The US enlistment document states: ‘If this is my initial enlistment, I must serve a total of eight (8) years.’ ‘Enlistment/Reenlistment Document Armed Forces of the United States’, DD form 4/1 (August 1998), available at: {}.

58 Mejía, Road from ar Ramadi, p. 16. Mejía erroneously calls it the ‘Inactive’ Ready Reserve.

59 Ibid., p. 17.

60 Ibid., p. 18.

61 Henning, Charles A., U.S. Military Stop Loss Program: Key Questions and Answers (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2009), p. 1.

62 Ibid., p. 5.

63 Mejía, Road from ar Ramadi, p. 50.

64 Ibid., p. 56.

65 Ibid., p. 179.

66 Ibid., p. 172.

67 Ibid., p. 160.

68 Ibid., p. 161.

69 Ibid., p. 173.

70 Ibid., pp. 173–4.

71 Ibid., p. 174.

72 Ibid., p. 206.

73 Ibid., p. 77.

75 Ibid., p. 213.

76 Ibid., p. 220.

77 Joshua Key as told to Hill, Lawrence, The Deserter's Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), pp. 1223.

78 Ibid., p. 1.

79 Ibid., p. 33.

80 Ibid., p. 4.

81 Ibid., p. 33

82 Ibid., p. 35.

83 Ibid., p. 40.

84 Ibid., p. 48.

85 Ibid., pp. 56–7.

86 Ibid., p. 134.

87 Ibid., pp. 69–70.

88 Ibid., p. 71.

89 Ibid., p. 75.

90 Ibid., p. 7.

91 Ibid., p. 66.

92 Ibid., p. 134.

93 Ibid., p. 98.

94 Ibid., p. 105.

95 Ibid., p. 108.

96 Ibid., p. 108.

97 Ibid., p. 109.

98 Ibid., p. 110.

99 Ibid., pp. 187–8.

100 Ibid., p. 189.

101 Ibid., p. 190.

102 Ibid., p. 193.

103 Ibid., p. 44.

104 Ibid., p. 205.

105 Ibid., p. 1.

106 Ibid., p. 2.

107 Ibid., p. 1.

108 Ibid quoted in Laufer, The Soldiers Who Say No, p. 4.

109 Sciarrino, Alfred J. and Deutsch, Kenneth L., ‘Conscientious objection to war: Heroes to human shields’, Brigham Young University Journal of Public Law, 18 (2003), p. 75, emphasis added.

110 Ojakangas, Mika, The Voice of Conscience: A Political Genealogy of Western Ethical Experience (New York: Bloomsbury 2013), p. 2.

111 Mejía, Road from ar Ramadi, p. 222.

112 Ibid., p. 242.

113 IVAW and Glantz, Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan.

114 Coy, Patrick G., Woehrle, Lynne M., and Maney, Gregory M., ‘Discursive legacies: the U.S. Peace Movement and “Support the Troops”’, Social Problems, 55:2 (2008), p. 180.

115 Camilo Mejía, ‘Regaining My Humanity’ (17 February 2005), available at: {} accessed 9 February 2018.

116 Peter Rothberg, ‘Courageous resisters’, The Nation (23 August 2004), available at: {} accessed 9 February 2018; Amnesty International USA, ‘Prisoner of Conscience, Camilo Mejía Castillo, Released!’ (27 April 2011), available at: {} accessed 9 February 2018.

117 Giubilini, ‘Conscience’.

118 Mejía, Road from ar Ramadi, p. xix.

119 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, pp. 19–20.

120 Mejía, Road from ar Ramadi, p. 222.

121 Key, The Deserter's Tale, p. 8.

122 Ibid., p. 8.

123 Ibid., p. 222.

124 Ibid., pp. 31, 206.

125 See, for example, Cohen, ‘Conscientious objection’, pp. 276–9; Robinson, ‘Integrity and selective conscientious objection’; Minear, ‘Conscience and carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq’, p. 150. For a detailed discussion of selective objection, see Kent Greenawalt, ‘All or nothing at all: the defeat of selective conscientious objection’, The Supreme Court Review (1971), pp. 31–94.

126 DoD, Instruction 1300.06, section 3.2.

127 Key, The Deserter's Tale, p. 191.

128 Robinson, ‘Integrity and selective conscientious objection’, p. 34, reports this common view with which he disagrees.

129 Mejía, Road from ar Ramadi, p. 213.

130 Key, The Deserter's Tale, p. 183.

131 Ibid., p. 205.

132 Ibid., p. 191.

133 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 21.

134 Zehfuss, War and the Politics of Ethics; see also Fagan, Madeleine, Ethics and Politics after Poststructuralism: Levinas, Derrida and Nancy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

135 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 136.

136 Mejía, ‘Regaining My Humanity’.

137 Mejía, Road from ar Ramadi, p. 294.

138 Key, The Deserter's Tale, p. 110.

139 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 7.

140 Ibid., p. 12.

141 Ojakangas, The Voice of Conscience, p. 2.

142 Ibid., p. 211.

143 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 7.

144 MacLeish, Kenneth T., Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 7.

145 Crawford, Neta C., Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America's Post-9/11 Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

146 Osiel, Mark J., Obeying Orders: Atrocity, Military Discipline and the Law of War (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999).

147 Zehfuss, War and the Politics of Ethics; Brigadier General McMaster, H. R., ‘Remaining true to our values: Reflections on military ethics training in trying times’, Journal of Military Ethics, 9:3 (2010), pp. 183–94.

148 Ojakangas, The Voice of Conscience, p. 2.

149 MacLeish, Making War at Fort Hood, p. 13.

150 Ibid., p. 13.

151 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, pp. 19–20.

152 Ibid., p. 12.

153 Ibid., p. 136.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed