A conscientious objector | Aeon

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters


A conscientious objector

Jacob Bridge is a popular lieutenant in the US Marines who woke up one day with an urgent need to leave the military. Why?

by Lyle Jeremy Rubin + BIO

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

First Lieutenant Jacob Bridge is stationed in Hawaii as a logistics officer. He started Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2007, received his commission in 2011, and was assigned to the Fleet Marine Force in Honolulu in 2013, after graduating in the top 10 per cent at The Basic School for newly commissioned Marines. Bridge originally signed a binding commitment to serve in the Marines for four years. His official “end of active service” date is in September of this year, but he is currently in the process of conscientiously objecting from military service.

Conscientious objectors (COs) have existed informally at least as far back as the Vikings. The United States has granted CO status since the Revolutionary War, under conditions that have varied widely. Today, American law allows for active-duty personnel in the all-volunteer military to conscientiously object on either secular or religious grounds, provided they are opposed to war in general rather than invested in ‘selective’ objections to individual conflicts or means of combat. It is surprisingly difficult to determine how many CO applications have been submitted or approved in the past decade and a half, but it is clear that these figures are in the hundreds. Applications spiked during the peak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but have since dwindled, making cases such as Lieutenant Bridge’s unusual.

Having spent five years in the Marines myself, I was curious about Lieutenant Bridge’s case. In late December, I spoke with him at length about why he wants to leave the military, and what it’s like to become a conscientious objector. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Why did you join the Marines?

BRIDGE: It was a cop-out. I joined while I was still in high school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. I was always trying to fit into the macho, American mold but it wasn’t a good fit for me. I was always sensitive. But still, I was taken with the honourable military ideal. This was in 2004, when everyone wanted to ‘go get the terrorists’. What could be cooler than being a Marine officer? I was scared that I would be killed, but I figured I’d rather be an honourable dude who didn’t know what he wanted than just float around. I didn’t take the oath itself that seriously. It was more like: ‘I’m protecting America and our freedom. And my mom and my dad. And I’m going to die for this country.’ It wasn’t: ‘I love the Constitution.’

The University of Colorado Boulder is a pretty liberal place. What was it like doing Reserve Officers’ Training Corps there?

BRIDGE: At the time, CU-Boulder had almost 200 people in its Naval ROTC programme. I think it was one of the biggest in the nation. So it was this conservative little nook in an incredibly liberal area. There were times when we would do formation runs in the morning and some hippie would ride by on his bike and shout: ‘Mur-der-ers! Mur-der-ers!’ If anything, Boulder made me more conservative.

And yet now you’re in the process of conscientiously objecting. What happened?

BRIDGE: All through my training, all the older enlisted dudes were like: ‘The Fleet. The Fleet is the best. The Fleet. The Fleet.’ It’s this fairy-tale magical land that you hear about. But when you finally end up here you realise it’s worse than the training because people care even less about the standards. A lot of the officers were content to scrape by with mediocre PFT [Physical Fitness Test] scores. They didn’t care to set examples, morally or otherwise. Some would get prostitutes on their off-hours. Another captain declared that all useless people should be killed. That was just the start of it.

Jake Bridge on the day he became a commissioned officer of the USMC. Photo courtesy Jake Bridge

I start thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got some bad leaders.’ But, really, they had bad ideas. Everyone seemed to have bad ideas. I saw this at the level of captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, and up and up and up. If everyone has these bad ideas, and it doesn’t stop no matter how high the rank, maybe what we’re doing is a bad idea. So in 2010, I started seeing a therapist, to try and talk some of these thoughts through.

It’s great to hear a Marine officer so open about seeing a therapist.

BRIDGE: Marines are so slow to get help because therapy is so stigmatised in military culture. I try to de-stigmatise it with my platoon. I am always very open about the fact that every Tuesday morning I was with my therapist. In 2013, I also started talking to our chaplain about how I was thinking about conscientious objection. In September of that year, I was put in charge of a platoon. So the chaplain and I were like: ‘OK, we’re going to let this idea sit, and maybe we’ll revisit and maybe we won’t.’ I didn’t think about it between September of 2013 and May of 2014. I was so involved in the platoon, and helping mentor the kids, and just looking out for them. It was great. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it.

Was this a Christian chaplain? Were you religious at this point?

BRIDGE: No. She’s Unitarian. I attended a Baptist church when I was younger, in a New Jersey suburb. You can imagine what that was like. I never really liked it, but I was forced to go.

So what happened next?

BRIDGE: In March of 2014 my unit went to South Korea for an exercise with several other countries. The experience helped me realise the kinds of problems I was having with my leadership. It wasn’t just my battalion. It was every battalion I worked with. Marine officers were upset that Koreans didn’t do things the way we do things. And these were our allies. If we don’t even try to understand our allies, imagine how we approach the people we intend to bomb and kill. If you’re going to take other peoples’ lives – civilian especially – you better know who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. You better understand their culture. But we don’t. That whole experience amplified my discomfort.

What was your relationship with your Marines?

BRIDGE: I’m big into informal leadership. The formal variety is like: ‘You listen to me because I outrank you and that’s why.’ And the informal variety is like: ‘You listen to me because I’m explaining it in a way that makes you want to listen to me.’ I made sure when I got my platoon that I sat down with each and every one of them. They all had their own personal page in my notebook. They told me who they were, what they liked, why they joined. They told me about their wife, their husband, their family, their children. I think they trusted me because I always listened to them, no matter what rank they were. And I did my best to look out for them and keep the nonsense at my level from getting to theirs.

What happened when you returned from Korea?

BRIDGE: When I returned from Korea, I thought: ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ A couple days after returning from leave in New Jersey, I had this dream, or maybe a deep meditation. When I snapped out of it, the first thing I thought was: ‘I’m going to file for CO.’ As I wrote in the CO application:

At midnight on 20 May 2014, I woke with a start from a dream that I was floating in the nothingness of space. I was left with a lingering thought from my dream: someday I’m going to be dead. The whole next day I could not shake the feeling of being nothing, that one day my consciousness would disappear. That my existence was incredibly finite. That was the day I decided once and for all that I would file for CO. My life will soon be over, and I can’t spend another second of it pretending to be someone I’m not. I need to spend every remaining moment of my life being authentic.

That almost sounds like an epiphany.

BRIDGE: It was. When I was making breakfast the next morning, I had this quote that kept going through my head, and I wrote it on my white board: ‘Going to be stardust soon. No time to waste.’ That day I saw the chaplain. I said: ‘Ma’am, it’s not a question of “if”, it’s a question of “when”. I’m going to start writing my application.’

What did the application consist of?

BRIDGE: I wrote about killing and how it destroys both the killer and the killed. No one finds happiness in war except the war-profiteers. I talked about civilian casualties. I mentioned [former US Vice President Dick] Cheney’s stake in Halliburton. I talked about the futility of war. Here we are, 13 years into an engagement with nothing to show for it. I wrote about that Sun Tzu quote: ‘There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.’

You’re not making a strictly constitutional argument for why we shouldn’t be in these wars. You’re making a moral or ethical or spiritual argument. Has that made your situation more difficult?

BRIDGE: In some ways it has made my case easier. The Old Testament is about as bloody and nasty as it gets. People who take Christianity as their basis for conscientious objection are likely to come up against a lot more resistance in the chain of command. Someone in that chain is surely using Christianity to justify what we’re doing, but the conscientious objector is using Christianity to justify the exact opposite. As for me, I’m not just pulling from one set of doctrines. I’m pulling from bits and pieces from all over. My views are incredibly personal.

Do you self-identify as a Buddhist at this point?

BRIDGE: No. I think every religion or philosophy has its own merits and faults. I have identified with what Buddhism has to say more than others. But I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.

What about people who say: ‘What makes you so special that you get to break your contractual commitment?’

BRIDGE: I think we may have an unhealthy obsession with the contracts that we put our names to. The person who signs a contract is not always the same person who wants to break it. People change, especially in their early to mid-20s. When they say: ‘You signed the oath in the contract,’ I say: ‘Well, when I signed the contract I was borderline alcoholic, pretty homophobic, and a bunch of other things that I’m not now. I’m not the same person who signed that contract.’

What has been the fallout from your spiritual journey and your conscientious objection? How have your Marines and peers reacted?

BRIDGE: The week before I told my Marines about my CO application, I had them read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). We had a brief discussion about the book. What do men need in order to survive in a concentration camp? What is the meaning of life? And the answer is love. So when I told them what I was doing and why I was doing it, they gave me an ‘Oorah Sir!’ Every time I see those guys now they always greet me with a smile. Among my peers, some were like: ‘You did what?’ Once they got over it and saw that I hadn’t dissolved into a pool of toxic radiation, they realised that I was no different than I was previously. If anything, my relationships have improved because I’m less tortured.

How about your family? Loved ones?

BRIDGE: This has been a very selfish process. In order to figure out who I am, I had to tune everyone out for a while. I haven’t dated anyone in about two years. My sister and I are very close. She’s two years younger than me. When I told her about my conscientious objection application, it was: ‘Why? OK. Good luck.’ My mom and I are also very close. She’s the one who got me into therapy because it helped her out. But she reacted pretty horribly at first. It terrified her. Eventually, she came around and now she supports me every step of the way. She volunteers at the VA [US Department of Veterans Affairs] and is trying to get more involved in post-traumatic stress disorder treatment, something I’ve opened her eyes to. One of my biggest victories is she told me she was watching the reports of drone strikes in Syria, and there were maybe five to 10 civilian victims, including women and children. She said she cried and had to turn off the TV. I wish everyone had that response. Imagine if your tiny little daughter got blown up from a missile because it landed on the wrong house. My father, who is more conservative, has also come to accept my decision. He went through his own growing pains and I’m going through mine. Nobody has said: ‘Well, you can stop calling.’ I’ve been very fortunate.

Have your read up on previous conscientious objectors? Have their writings spoken to you? Do you feel like you are part of a specific moral tradition?

BRIDGE: Sort of, but I’m very wary of including myself in another honoured lineage because here I am trying to break out of one.

Have you found a support structure within the conscientious objector community or the anti-war veteran community?

BRIDGE: I’m in Hawaii so it’s difficult. I recently found a group led by Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator who’s done a lot of speaking out about the terrors and the misuse of drones. He started an organisation called Project Red Hand, a group of veterans and concerned citizens who are trying to change things. Most of them are Air Force veterans who dealt with the drone programme. GI Rights Hotline is another great source. They coached me through my conscientious objection application process. That’s an organisation I plan to get heavily involved with once I get out.

I also recently met Jeff Paterson while I was on leave in San Francisco. He runs Courage to Resist and was a Marine conscientious objector on Marine Corps Base Hawaii in the early ’90s during the first Gulf War. Jeff leads the team that represents WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Through him I also met Ann Wright, a retired Army Colonel who resigned from a diplomatic post in 2003 in protest of the Iraq War. She lives in Honolulu and she’s helped me a great deal. Ann’s out on tour right now doing fun things like protesting drones at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and getting arrested for it. She introduced me to the Quaker community, which has been a steady rock of equality and peace for centuries. I’ve been attending meetings with the Honolulu Quakers every Sunday since early January. The peace/nonviolence/antiwar community in Hawaii is about as robust as they come, and they found me in the nick of time.

Biography and memoirValues and beliefsWar and peace

Aeon is not-for-profit and free for everyone

Make a donation

Get Aeon straight to your inbox

Join our newsletter