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During WWII, Desmond Doss joined the US Army as a combat medic. Due to his religious belief in nonviolence, he refused to carry a weapon and was eventually allowed to do so, going on to win various medals (including the Medal of Honor) for rescuing casualties in various battles of the Pacific Theatre—his story was later made into the film Hacksaw Ridge.

Is it still possible today for somebody to join the armed forces, but to refuse to carry a weapon? Specifically, I am wondering about the US and the UK armed forces, but interesting answers about any other country are welcome.

Initially I thought Doss would have been conscripted which may have changed things, but apparently he chose to enlist so that argument doesn't hold up. I've searched but I haven't found anything about whether this would still be possible now or if military law may have changed to disallow it.

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    The US and the UK currently have non-conscripted, volunteer armed forces. You'd be a weird sort of pacifist who wanted to join the army but didn't want to fight. It would seem like you're trying to prove some kind of a point. So the recruiting officer would probably tell you, "thanks, but no thanks". – Oscar Bravo May 4 at 7:53
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    In Germany, refusing to carry a weapon was the usual excuse to get around the compulsory military service, if you were "mustered" to be healthy enough to do the service. You had to do some compensation instead, either in social or firefighter or other similar unarmed services - or go to jail. The compulsory service is suspended to date, and I don't know if anyone can today enter the military service voluntarily and disagree to carry a weapon, though. – Jessica May 4 at 12:58
  • In switzerland, one can choose to perform the mandatory military service without weapon. I am not sure how exactly that works, so this is only a comment – lucidbrot May 4 at 19:24
  • @OscarBravo isn't the military increasingly dominated by non-combat roles? And consider if we go to a cyber warfare world, why does a hacker need a weapon? – crasic May 5 at 9:58
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    Not sure it rises to the level of an answer (especially since its anecdotal) but I was interested in joining the NROTC as a navy tech when I entered college (20 years ago)... but didn't think I'd be able to wield a gun to shoot someone. Surprising to me at the time, they immediately turned me away. When I asked why, they said that during Vietnam, the US had problems with doctors not being able defend themselves... which resulted in field hospitals that would get massacred. They said since then, they don't allow objectors to occupy any position - even the non-combat ones. – Kevin May 5 at 14:33
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In the UK Armed Forces, conscientious objection is grounds for a refusal at the admission stage and has been since the end of conscription in 1963. Where a person develops an objection to military service during their term of service, they have the option to appeal for an honourable dismissal from the forces.

Interestingly there's no primary legislation to manage this process but there are established military procedures to take care of this when it happens.


Mostly the process seems to be managed informally with the objector simply being shuffled into a non-com role within their regiment and just left there for the foreseeable. Where that's not sufficient for the objector, the process can be made formal, something that appears to invariably result in them being removed from the service with an honourable discharge.

A member of the forces who has a conscientious objection is generally expected to raise the issue informally with his/her commanding officer. The officer’s options include rejecting the objection outright or moving the objector to a different position (such as a non-combatant role).

If the person concerned remains unsatisfied, he/she can make a formal application for discharge due to conscientious objection. After an interview which usually involves a chaplain or other third party, the commanding officer makes a recommendation to the chain of command where the decision for discharge or refusal is made. If turned down at this stage, the applicant can appeal to the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors (ACCO) who hold a hearing and make a recommendation to the Defence Secretary.

Discharges due to conscientious objection are rare, with only six granted between 2001 and 2010.

ForcesWatch briefing: Conscientious Objection in the UK Armed Forces - Parliament UK

That being said, a proportion of objectors are (apparently) removed from service without their conscientious objection being acknowledged.

The forces helpline At Ease reports that at least some who raise a conscientious objection have been discharged on other grounds such as for “service no longer required” or “unfit for further service”.

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Under US Army Regulation 601-210 as of 2016, conscientious objection will normally disqualify someone applying to enlist, but the disqualification can be waived. Under Army Regulation 600-43, if they enlist they’ll typically be assigned to the medical field and will receive modified basic training (as conscientious objectors, they won’t be trained in the use of weapons). As for officers and warrant officers, Army Regulation 601-100 says an applicant is disqualified unless they’re applying to the Army Medical Department or to be a chaplain.

Serving personnel can also apply for conscientious objector status if they develop beliefs during their service, also under Army Regulation 600-43. They can either ask to be discharged or ask to do noncombatant service, and if their application is approved then they’ll get whichever one they asked for. While DOD Instruction 1300.06 (the military-wide conscientious objector regulation) says that the services can discharge someone who just requests noncombatant service, the Army policy is to keep them around. If they do ask to be discharged, they can’t decide to enlist again in the future (unlike conscientious objection in general, this disqualification can’t be waived). Lastly, under Army Regulation 601-280, enlisted personnel who are conscientious objectors generally can’t reenlist unless they’re in the medical field (in which case they can reenlist with a contract that will keep them in the medical field).

Of course, the fact that conscientious objectors are potentially eligible to serve doesn’t mean they’ll be accepted. That depends on the needs of the Army. If the Army has plenty of people, they might not want someone who’s restricted to noncombatant roles. If they’re desperate for people, they’re much more likely to accept applicants.

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By default every male Finnish Citizen is liable for military service.

The relevant law for Finland has a whole Chapter 6 about unarmed service.

Basically, the person who asserts that a serious reason of consience prevents him from handling weapons is releaved of that part of service. However, the minimal service time is increased from 6 months to 9 months.

(Unarmed service is separate option from civil service, which lasts 11 months.)

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As @lucidbrot said in his comment, you can do your service "waffenlos", which means "weaponless". You have to write a letter where you explain why you don't want to carry a weapon. Then, the swiss army accepts or denies your request. If they accept it, you can choose a function like cook or leadership support to do your service.

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