Come meet Mike Izbicki at Pacifist Fight Club | Round 4 on Saturday, March 15 at BIOLA University.
NEW LONDON, Conn. — The question that changed Michael Izbicki’s life appeared on a psychological exam he took not long after graduating in 2008 near the top of his class at theUnited States Naval Academy: If given the order, would he launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead?
Ensign Izbicki said he would not — and his reply set in motion a two-year personal journey and legal battle that ended on Tuesday, when the Navy confirmed that he had been discharged from the service as a conscientious objector.
In the process, Mr. Izbicki, 25, went from Navy midshipman in the nuclear submarine fleet here, studying kill ratios, to resident of a small peace community a few blocks from the Thames River, where he prays several times a day, studies Hebrew and helps with the organic garden.
He is one of only a few graduates of the nation’s military academies to be granted conscientious objector status in recent years. And while every case is deeply personal, his long struggle for an honorable discharge offers a glimpse of a rarely viewed side of military experience in the post-draft, all-volunteer era: the steep challenge facing any service member — and especially a graduate of a service academy — who signs up as a teenager to become a warrior and then changes his mind in adulthood about his willingness to kill.
The Navy fought his request hard, in much the same way that the Army contested the conscientious objector application of Capt. Peter D. Brown, aWest Point graduate and an Iraq war veteran who was discharged in 2007 after a protracted court battle.
Academy graduates accounted for only a dozen of the roughly 600 applicants for the special status between 2002 and 2010, spokesmen for the service branches said. Of those requests, fewer than half were approved. And like many of the other academy applicants, according to lawyers who handle such cases, Mr. Izbicki won his discharge only by taking his petition to federal court.
The Navy rejected Mr. Izbicki’s application twice, questioning the sincerity of his beliefs despite the support of several Navy chaplains and the testimony of twoYale Divinity School faculty members who said his religious convictions seemed to be mature and sincere.
One Navy commander suggested that the pacifist strain of Christianity that Mr. Izbicki embraced was inconsistent with mainstream Christian faith. The same commander likened the Quakers, who supported Mr. Izbicki, to the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, a suicide cult.
J. E. McNeil, executive director of theCenter on Conscience and War, a nonprofit group in Washington that helps service members navigate the conscientious objector process, said that a case like Mr. Izbicki’s posed a profound challenge to the military. “You were someone they thought was going to be a leader,” Ms. McNeil said. “They spent four years training you. Now you want nothing to do with that world.”
Mr. Izbicki, a National Merit Scholarship finalist in high school, chose the naval academy at Annapolis, Md., over a bevy of colleges, including theCalifornia Institute of Technology, that offered him four-year scholarships, because he felt an obligation to serve his country during wartime, he told investigators in his application for discharge.
He grew up attending nondenominational Christian services in San Clemente, Calif., and remained a regular churchgoer during his four years at the academy, where Christianity is the dominant faith. Cadets are required in their junior year to study the “just war” theory, a doctrine justifying military action, based largely on the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Not until his senior year did Mr. Izbicki register a sense of unease over what he would refer to in his application as “the frankness with which people talked about killing.” He wrote: “The training did not live up to the ideals of the just war as I envisioned them. I saw formulas for calculating the number and types of casualties that would result from using each of our weapons systems. We calculated the extent of civilian casualties and whether these numbers were politically acceptable.”
But Mr. Izbicki said he also began exploring his commitment to Christianity. He studied the Gospels, read widely about the early history of the church, took up Hebrew so he could read the Old Testament in the original, and started to measure his faith according to the evangelical touchstone “What would Jesus do?”
It was in that light that he encountered the exam question about launching a nuclear missile in early 2009, shortly after he was assigned to submariner school at the Nuclear Power Training Command in Charleston, S.C. Seeing the question spelled out like that, he said, made it impossible to hide his emerging pacifism any longer.
“I realized that I could not be responsible for killing anyone,” he later explained.
His answer flagged him for psychological testing, and a consultation with a Navy chaplain, who was the first to suggest that Mr. Izbicki consider applying for discharge as a conscientious objector.
“I had never really heard of it,” Mr. Izbicki, a reserved, soft-spoken man, said in an interview last week atSt. Francis House, where he resides. “It was one of those things people did in the ’60s.”