Huet-Vaughn, Yolanda

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18: Yolanda Huet-Vaughn

Excerpt from "Statement Refusing to Serve in the 1991 Gulf War"

    Issued as a press release on January 9, 1991.

    Reprinted from Voices of a People's History of the United States, 2004.

Aperson whose personal beliefs keep him or her from participating in military service or military action is called a conscientious objector. Historically, conscientious objectors have cited religious, political, or personal reasons for refusing military action. Some religious groups, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers) or Jehovah's Witnesses, are pacifists, or against violence of any kind. Political convictions among conscientious objectors are often directed at military conscription, periods of time when eligible citizens are required by the government to serve in the military. Many conscientious objectors in the United States took this stance during World War I (1914–18) and the Vietnam War (1954–75).

Some conscientious objectors refused to participate in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War (1991), and the war in Iraq that began in 2003 because they believed those wars were illegal. For example, under the U.S. Constitution, the president can initiate military action, but it is the role of the U.S. Congress to declare war. In those wars, Congress voted to authorize the president to use military force, but did not officially declare war.

"Do we as Americans want the responsibility of going ahead with offensive maneuvers that could easily be the start of World War III? And I ask you, what is worth all of this death and destruction? What do we have after Vietnam except the tears and the pain and the loss?"

The Selective Service Act, passed by Congress in 1948 and amended in 1951, required that conscientious objection be based on religious belief. In 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court removed the religious requirement and allowed objection based on a deeply held and describable set of moral values or ethics. A 1971 Supreme Court ruling added that one's personal ethics must apply to war in general, and not simply to a specific war or military action.

The lead up to the Gulf War was a tense period. Dr. Yolanda Huet-Vaughn became a conscientious objector for professional and political reasons. After having served in the military from 1977 to 1982, Huet-Vaughn enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves as a medical reserve officer in 1989. Those serving in the reserves train in military operations, but live as civilians, or people outside the military. When necessary, reserves can be called for service to help supplement the regular U.S. armed forces.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia, which borders both Iraq and the much smaller independent nation of Kuwait, agreed to allow a base for troops, equipment, and medical support for nations that were working together to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The military activity was called Operation Desert Shield, and Huet-Vaughn was called to report to Saudi Arabia in December 1990. She officially announced her refusal to serve on January 9, 1991. Three weeks later, the Gulf War began.

Things to remember while reading "Statement Refusing to Serve in the 1991 Gulf War":

  • Huet-Vaughn objects to Operation Desert Shield as "an immoral, inhumane, and unconstitutional act." She gives several reasons: 1) She believes the military action violates the Constitution; 2) she maintains that the medical oath she took when becoming a physician is to preserve life and prevent disease; and 3) she believes that as a human she needs to protect the planet. By participating in Operation Desert Shield, she would be violating both of those beliefs. She cites potential dangers to civilians and the environment to back her position.
  • During the Gulf War, there was great concern around the world that Iraq possessed and would use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Huet-Vaughn emphasizes that this would result in a medical disaster.
  • Those who supported Huet-Vaughn's refusal to serve in the Gulf War argued that the Nuremberg Charter (1950) applied to her case. The Nuremberg Charter is an international agreement that defines the principles under which an individual can be tried for war crimes, or crimes against humanity. The charter stemmed from the Nuremberg Trials following World War II (1939–45) in which Nazis accused of committing atrocities such as genocide—the intentional harming and killing of a particular group of people—were put on trial. Under Principle IV of the Nuremberg Charter, a military person has an obligation to not obey illegal orders. Similarly, American military manuals state that U.S. soldiers are under no obligation to involve themselves in criminal activities. As Huet-Vaughn notes, war plans against Iraq were likely to include the bombing of Iraqi cities. The bombing raids would likely result in civilian deaths (she notes that 57 percent of people in Iraq and Kuwait live in cities). Planned bombing raids that kill civilians are a crime under the Nuremberg Charter. Therefore, argued Huet-Vaughn's supporters, her refusal to serve was covered by Principle IV, which reads: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order [under orders] of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

Questioning the War in Iraq

Tim Predmore was on active duty with the 101st Airborne Division near Mosul, Iraq, during the war in Iraq that began in March 2003. In May of that year, President George W. Bush announced that major combat operations had ended. The speech was delivered beneath a sign that read "Mission Accomplished."

In August of 2003, American troops continued to face hostile fire. Predmore felt compelled to write a letter to his hometown newspaper, the Peoria Journal Star, to question the ongoing war and why it was started. On August 24, 2003, the newspaper printed Predmore's piece under the title "Death Here without Reason or Justification." The essay was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times on September 17, 2003, and on many Web sites.

The letter inspired many activists' antiwar sentiments and protests. Predmore soon received an honorable discharge from the military and returned home. In his letter, Predmore observed: "This looks like a modern-day crusade not to free an oppressed people or to rid the world of a demonic dictator relentless in his pursuit of conquest and domination but a crusade to control another nation's natural resources. At least for us here, oil seems to be the reason for our presence." He added: "There is only one truth, and it is that Americans are dying…. How many more must die?"

"Statement Refusing to Serve in the 1991 Gulf War"

I, Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, M.D., am a board-certified family physician, a wife, a mother of three children ages two, five, and eight. I am also a member since 1980 of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S. affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. In 1982 I cofounded the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. I am from Kansas City, Kansas. I am a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps. In connection with the Gulf crisis I was called to active duty service in December 1990.

I am refusing orders to be an accomplice in what I consider an immoral, inhumane, and unconstitutional act, namely an offensive military mobilization in the Middle East. My oath as a citizen-soldier to defend the Constitution, my oath as a physician to preserve life and prevent disease, and my responsibility as a human being to the preservation of this planet, would be violated if I cooperate with Operation Desert Shield.

I had hoped that we as a people had learned the lessons of Vietnam [1954–75]—50,000 Americans dead—hundreds of thousands of civilian dead—and environmental disaster. What we face in the Middle East is death and destruction on a grander scale. Whereas in Vietnam we had 200 casualties per week, it has been projected that war with Iraq could result in 200 casualties per hour….

The majority of casualties will be civilians, as 57 percent of the population of Iraq and Kuwait are concentrated in urban centers. Of this civilian population, 47 percent are children under the age of fifteen.

A bombing raid over Baghdad [Iraq], a city of over four million, will not only target [Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein [1937–] but also the civilian population, of whom two million are children. Are we as Americans, knowing this in advance, knowing that this is not fate but a choice, willing to live with the moral burden of these deaths?…

From a medical point of view, the public has been misled concerning the catastrophic [devastating] nature of wounds and injuries that will befall combatants and civilians. Are we as Americans willing to live through the evening news tallies [counts] of dead and wounded Americans knowing in advance that this war is avoidable?

As a mother I am keenly aware of the long-term medical and environmental consequences that may occur in the Middle East region and which may indeed have a global impact if war breaks out. A Jordan physicist estimates that burning of the oil fields could last six months with over one million barrels of oil burning per day. This burning would generate pyrotoxins [poisons from fires] that could accelerate global warming by two decades.

Perhaps the greatest medical catastrophe awaiting civilian and military personnel is the likely use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Never before have such vast arsenals [stockpiles] of weapons of mass destruction been assembled. There is no guarantee that what may start as a conventional war won't quickly escalate to a war in which weapons designed to incinerate [burn] or irradiate [expose to radiation] massive population centers will be used.

Do we as Americans want the responsibility of going ahead with offensive maneuvers that could easily be the start of World War III? And I ask you, what is worth all of this death and destruction? What do we have after Vietnam except the tears and the pain and the loss?

As a doctor I know that where there can be no medical cure, prevention is the only remedy. I therefore commit my medical knowledge and training to this effort to avert war by refusing orders to participate in Operation Desert Shield. As Albert Einstein remarked with the advent of nuclear weapons, "If civilization is to survive, humankind will require a substantially new manner of thinking." I believe that we must all extend our thinking to a new level, and I urge our political and military leaders to acknowledge the severity of these medical and environmental consequences in committing themselves to diplomatic [negotiating] solutions.

I consider myself a patriot and have taken these actions in support of American troops who have been deployed [positioned for battle] in the Gulf region, in support of the American people, and in support of the children both here and in the Middle East who have no voice. I hope that in some small way my act of conscience will help promote a peaceful resolution of the Gulf crisis.

What happened next …

After being called for active duty in Operation Desert Shield in December 1990, Huet-Vaughn arrived in her civilian clothes and informed a major on duty that she was refusing to go. He told her to report to Fort Riley in Kansas, where military forces are prepared for relocation. Huet-Vaughn went there, signed in, and left for Washington, D.C., to join those demonstrating to convince the United States not to go to war. Huet-Vaughn did not initially ask for conscientious objector status. She explained in Peace Magazine: "The issue was not whether I belonged in the military but whether the military belonged in the Middle East waging war. I did not want to focus on the personal decision. I was trying to focus on the decision for which each and every American would have to be responsible."

Huet-Vaughn was identified as a "deserter"—someone absent without leave (AWOL) or permission—and placed under house arrest for four months. Many of the troops that went AWOL during the Gulf War were disciplined under usual terms—punishment or discharge from the service. Huet-Vaughn was among those who claimed and were denied conscientious objector status and faced formal prosecution and lengthy prison terms, if found guilty.

While Huet-Vaughn was in confinement awaiting her trial, the Gulf War began and ended over a period of weeks. Iraqi troops were expelled from Kuwait and the war wound down in February and March of 1991. The Army Reserve announced in its newsletter that hundreds of reservists who never reported during the war could report for duty as late as June with no penalty. Since Huet-Vaughn had reported and refused to serve, some argued that she was being treated differently—as a political prisoner. This view was supported when the prosecuting officer during her trial stated that Huet-Vaughn's crime was not desertion but "repeatedly saying that she was opposed to the war and would take no part in it," as noted in Nation.

The prosecution dismissed Huet-Vaughn's claim that her medical obligation to preserve life was sufficient grounds for refusing service in the Gulf. The prosecutor stated, as noted in The Humanist: "The accused's attitude is that she's a doctor first and a soldier up to the point where it conflicts with her conscience. Such an attitude is self-serving and totally incompatible with any concept of duty." Huet-Vaughn was prohibited during her court-martial (military trial) from discussing the motivation for her absence or from calling expert witnesses to testify regarding war crimes and the connection between her case and the Nuremberg Charter (1950).

The verdict

Huet-Vaughn was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to thirty months of hard labor, the surrender of any pay she had received for serving in the Reserve, and dismissal from the military. Her sentence was reduced to 15 months, and then later to eight months. During this period the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts voted 12 to 2 to consider revoking, or withdrawing, her license to practice medicine on the grounds that she had been convicted of a serious crime. Physicians and other concerned individuals from around the state formed a support group to defend her right to practice. The case was argued and appealed in court, and finally in 1999 it was resolved when Huet-Vaughn voluntarily paid a fine that covered court costs.

Huet-Vaughn, meanwhile, continued working as a doctor. Her son, Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, became an activist while in high school. Arguing that schools were not a place for military recruiting or for training soldiers, he and another student presented a petition, signed by more than one hundred students, asking the local school board to abolish the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) rifle and drill teams. The petition stated that the training was in conflict with school district policy prohibiting guns in the schools. He was later an active protester of the war in Iraq that began in 2003.

Did you know …

  • Among the medical reasons why Huet-Vaughn refused to participate in the Gulf War was her opposition to administering two untested drugs. Because of concern that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons against American troops, military doctors were to provide vaccinations against the poison anthrax and pills that provided a remedy to counteract the effects of nerve gas.
  • The daughter of a medical doctor, Huet-Vaughn was five years old when her family emigrated from Mexico to the United States.
  • There was great concern around the world in 1991 that Iraq possessed and would use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons that would create what Huet-Vaughn described as a "medical catastrophe." Those same weapons of mass destruction were cited twelve years later by the administration of President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) as the reason for the U.S. invasion that began the war in Iraq in 2003.

Consider the following …

  • Huet-Vaughn describes some of the medical and environmental consequences of war. Research the Gulf War for information on death and destruction and write an essay comparing actual events to Huet-Vaughn's warnings. Consider the following question: Since some of the catastrophes Huet-Vaughn mentioned did not occur, does that weaken her argument for refusing to serve?
  • Research the positive and negative results of the Gulf War of 1991 and the war in Iraq that began in 2003. Consider and write about whether the wars were worth the costs to the Iraqi people and to the people of the United States.

For More Information


Huet-Vaughn, Yolanda. "Statement Refusing to Serve in the 1991 Gulf War." Voices of a People's History of the United States, edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. New York City: Seven Stories Press, 2004.


Bishop, Katherine. "Turning against the Military Life They Once Chose." New York Times (January 14, 1991).

"Clemency for Army Doctor Who Refused War Service." New York Times (April 8, 1992).

Predmore, Tim. "Death Here without Reason or Justification." Peoria Journal Star (August 24, 2003); reprinted in Los Angeles Times (September 17, 2003).

Shapiro, Bruce. "The High Price of Conscience." Nation (January 20, 1992).

Spencer, Metta. "What If They Gave a War and Nobody Came?" Peace Magazine (June/July 1993).

Swomley, John M. "An Example of Military Justice." The Humanist (March-April 2002).

Accomplice: An active participant in illegal activity.

Military mobilization: Gathering of troops and military equipment.

Global impact: Affecting the entire world.

Jordan: A nation in the Middle East that borders Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Israel.

Global warming: Rising temperatures on Earth arising from polluting gases in the atmosphere that trap heat.

Albert Einstein: (1879–1955), German-born American physicist.