Law, Morality, and Conscience in War
War has been a part of my life virtually for as long as I can remember. First, as a child and adolescent playing and then preparing for war, as a young adult participating in war and then attempting to recover from its effects, and as an old man striving to understand war and to use what I have learned as a means to educate others about differentiating war’s realities from the mythology that dominates, not unintentionally, our media and public perspective on war.
Upon my return from Vietnam, and my discharge from the Marine Corps, I was told by well-meaning family members, friends, and a bit later, by Veterans Administration clinicians, to put the war behind me and get on with my life. It eventually became clear to me, however, that this advice, though well-intentioned, failed to understand and appreciate the extent and severity of the after effects of war. After much soul searching, I realized that the war experience cannot be pushed aside, put out of mind. Rather, it must be confronted, head on. I decided, therefore, that if I am to go on with my life, a critical aspect of healing depended upon coming to grips with the moral gravity of the experience and in so doing, and with some luck, to find a place for it, to integrate it into my being. So since I could not forget about war nor put it behind me, I did the next best thing. I decided to make it my life’s work. I became a philosopher with a focus in ethics and war because I could not live not knowing, not understanding, what I had been part of and what I had done.
I became a philosopher with the hope of making war comprehensible, first to myself in order to survive, and then to others, perhaps as penance. My goal in this undertaking is the hope that as we become more enlightened and informed as individuals and as a nation about war, we will avoid the mistakes of the past. While I am realist enough to accept, at least theoretically, that the realities and complexities of the dangerous world in which we live may, under very specific circumstances, make war necessary – I am not a pacifist – we must understand war’s realities, its horror, its physical, psychological, emotional and moral cost, and to ensure that a parent never again has to grieve the loss of a son or daughter in an unnecessary, immoral, and illegal war.
With this as my life’s work, I was privileged to be invited to participate in the Truth Commission on Conscience in War(1) (TCCW) to take place on March 21st at the Riverside Church in New York City, the site of the historic Beyond Vietnam Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King. The stated purpose of the TCCW is to
". . . begin a six-month campaign in grassroots communities across the country to address the profound moral and legal dilemmas of members of the armed forces and to educate . . . the public and religious communities about the moral criteria of just war and international agreements on the conduct of war, especially the Nuremberg Principles and Geneva Conventions."
At a time when our nation is engaged in wars and occupations in at least four countries, this discussion of the profound moral and legal dilemmas faced not only by members of the military but by all American citizens in whose name these wars are conducted, is both a timely and important undertaking. Though I am not a spokesperson for the TCCW, it is my understanding that Commissioners and members of the public will be presented testimony by sincere and courageous veterans who have confronted and agonized over situations where what was required of them as combatants conflicted with their moral and religious convictions, the dictates of their conscience. In addition, expert witnesses will provide the legal and moral parameters for this dialogue, that is, an explanation of International Law, Treaties, the Geneva Convention, the Nuremburg Principles, as well as Pacifism, Just War Theory and the religious principles and perspectives on war.
Critical to this discussion, of course, will be the issue of Conscientious Objection, the recourse available to members of the military who have realized war’s reality and that their primary function is to wage war and kill other human beings. Some soldiers,(2)pursuant to the dictates of their conscience, are morally troubled by this reality, refuse to fight, and apply for discharge from military service as a Conscientious Objector. That is, following a religious and/or moral "awakening," the soldier determines that war is either always morally wrong and a violation of conscience - General Conscientious Objection - or, if not always wrong, it is wrong and a violation of conscience in the particular circumstance in which the soldier is required to fight and kill - Selective Conscientious Objection. As currently interpreted, Conscientious Objector (CO) status may be granted, however, only to soldiers who are able to demonstrate a "firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms," based upon "religious training and belief," to include strong moral and ethical convictions, that has "crystallized" since enlisting in the military. Consequently, Selective Conscientious Objectors are not eligible for CO status.
This distinction between General and Selective Conscientious Objection and the military's refusal to acknowledge the latter presents the soldier with a crisis of conscience regarding whether to follow orders and participate in what she determines to be an immoral and illegal war or to follow the dictates of her conscience, disobey orders, refuse to fight, and face serious disciplinary action. I have argued elsewhere that the military's position on CO status, distinguishing between General and Selective Conscientious Objection, is morally and legally untenable - inconsistent with the demands both of morality and of law. The TCCW will provide an opportunity, a valuable forum in which veterans, scholars, and religious leaders will explore and discuss these important and complex moral and legal issues.
Not unexpectedly, there have already been those who, whether from a lack of understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a Democracy, or an unfamiliarity with the realities of war and the dictates of law and morality, have criticized the TCCW, not with coherent, rational argument, of course, but with ad hominem attacks against its organizers and participants and by misrepresenting its intent and purpose. It is clear to me and would be to anyone who spends even a few minutes reviewing the TCCW website that the Truth Commission is not a forum from which to “bash” America, or to demean members of the military, or for veterans to vent their guilt or “ease their consciences” for participating in and contributing to the sacrilege of war. Rather, it is just the opposite in my view. It is an expression of love and concern for Country. It is a way of encouraging dialogue, of countering the harmful mythology that leads much too easily to war, and of providing important information regarding law and morality. It is a fulfillment of our responsibility to contribute to creating an informed and aware citizenry (critical to a well functioning and vibrant democracy), and an effort to make America a more just and moral nation. Finally, it is to support the members of the military as they face the inevitable moral and legal crisis of war. Consequently, despite the accusations from those who see any dialogue as acts of treason, I remain unconcerned, for I am convinced that I am as much a patriot today as I prepare to participate in these important hearings, as when I wore the uniform of a United States Marine.
(2) I will use “soldier” to refer to all members of the military, regardless of branch or gender.