PICTURED: Demonstrators for amnesty for COs, circ. 1946, unknown source. Photo credit: Swarthmore.
“War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today,” — John F. Kennedy.
Halfway through the month of May, a national day unlike any other arrives and departs with 99% of Americans remaining completely unaware. It is the national day of the conscientious objector (CO), a figure who withholds his body and property from military service, support, or financing, on protest grounds.
The term was described through cases of jurisprudence by the United Nations as “objection to military service, based on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.
In the United States, it was the Mexican-American War that brought famous author Henry David Thoreau to withhold paying his poll tax, landing him in prison for one night. The experience informed the words laid out thereafter in his work Civil Disobedience.
There’s been a long history of conscientious objection in the United States, and the western world, going all the way back to Emperor Constantine. In the U.S., the Civil War, the war with Spain, and both World Wars were all protested by COs. South African COs refused to join the army during apartheid, and Australia and the UK have a long history of refusing military service on religious and secular grounds as well.
During the Vietnam War, conscientious objectors were also called “Draft Dodgers,” and the account of one Vietnam-era CO written in Huff Post describes the process — something which resembled a thesis defense, conducted before a draft review board. Non-religious arguments rarely succeeded, and many young men fled to Canada through an underground railroad network of antiwar activists to avoid draft service, or the 2 years in prison that came with it.
Conscription in the U.S. formally ended in 1973, but as the decades brought the U.S. further and further to the forefront of world influencers through military might, COs took to a different kind of protesting: the refusal to pay taxes, reasoning that their money went to wars they did not support, rather than to the social good for which they could possible be diverted.
Conscientious Tax Objection (CTO)
Today, according to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (the Committee), there are between 10,000 and 20,000 Americans every tax season who write formal letters to the Internal Revenue Service explaining that “this is income tax I owe, and this is how much I am withholding in protest of the military budget”.
An interview with a professor of social medicine, Howard Waitzkin, in Truthout details how this form of protest could succeed where 20 years of both grassroots and Congressional antiwar activism has largely failed to end or prevent, even illegal wars from being initiated.
…there’s nothing illegal about saying to the IRS, “I conscientiously do not believe in paying taxes for war, and I’m not going to do it. Here’s what I earned as income. Here’s what I’m paying as income tax, which is half of my calculated income tax, as required. This money that I am paying as income tax is not for war but rather for the other half of taxes that I hope goes into the good things that are done for people by governments rather than killing people.”
Waitzkin, who has withheld the percentage of the military budget from his income taxes for around four decades, is a doctor who uses the difference to support private assistance programs of all shades, in what he sees as the true purpose of tax money.
He explains it’s not illegal, and subsequent audits are not the Sword of Damocles they’re sometimes portrayed as because it’s not the avoiding of a tax which you know you must pay, but one you calculate and don’t believe is legal. Waitzkin has had to defend his status as a CTO in court, for which he paid very little, at the time around an extra $500 in taxes which he otherwise protested, whereas he imagined the IRS fronted at least fifty-grand in legal fees.
Indeed CTOs are audited or harassed at a shockingly-low rate, around 10-20 over the last 60 years. Youth activists speaking with Waging Non-Violence have admitted that while scary, the IRS must take several steps before anything serious like arrest is threatened, giving the CTO time to consider their options.
“It encourages you to question how you’re relating to other people and society,” says Catholic Reverend Jerry Maynard, Committee board member and 8-year CTO. “It makes you aware that you aren’t just a fleeting reality in this giant, expansive world, but you’re really a cog in the machine; you’re conscious, so you can decide whether you want to turn this way or that way or if you don’t want to turn at all”.
PICTURED: One of America’s first and most famous modern COs, Henry David Thoreau, pictured in 1856. Photo credit: Daniel Hass. CC 4.0.
The slice of blood pudding
Different organizations have different estimates on how much of overall tax revenue goes to fund the military. For example, some taxes that contribute a lot to the total gross taxes go directly to trust funds delegated for specific purposes.
“The funds generated by most taxes are mixed into a general fund — perhaps purposely, so as to disguise spending details and confuse the taxpayer,” detail the Committee on their website. “The largest and most important war tax is the individual income tax. It makes up almost three-quarters of revenue for the general fund.
Corporate income tax, gift and estate taxes, as well as import duties all go to the general fund, and therefore to war as well. Former-President Trump requested a final military budget of at least $740 billion, with $550 billion bankrolled for wish list spending or additional programs, not all of which would be guaranteed financing.
Despite running on a “foreign policy for the middle-class” Biden has requested an increase of the annual defense budget by 1.5%, drawing ire from progressive Democrats who thought Biden might roll back the military to address societal concerns. Instead, Biden has already proposed/past spending amounting to far more than they are projected to take in in taxes.
“Hundreds of billions of dollars now directed to the military would have greater return if invested in diplomacy, humanitarian aid, global public health, sustainability initiatives, and basic research,” a group of 50 House Democrats led by Reps. Barbara Lee (D – CA) and Mark Pocan (D – WI) wrote in a letter to Biden last month.
Different groups have different estimates about what percentage of the general tax fund is hoovered up by military and intelligence spending. The War Resisters League and Waitzkin object to 47%, which they account to current spending, and the percentage of the national debt that was taken up by military spending. War Resisters recognizes that some organizations estimate 80% of the income tax goes to the military.
On the Committee’s website is a collection of letters to the IRS that were enclosed with income tax forms. Written by CTOs, and they are surprisingly human, with little in the way of legal speak. They cite religious beliefs, anxiety about the climate crisis, but universally mention the stirrings within Washington about a complete modernization of the nuclear arsenal, which several CTOs described in their letters as “insanity”.
The nuclear point was the same used years ago by atheist COs attempting to avoid Vietnam, and the logic persists along with the weapons.
COs and CTOs have difficult relationships with their governments. Many, like Muhammed Ali, were hated during their time. But the words of Kennedy are important to remember, even as war has become ever more remote and obscured.