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Just War Theory: Are We Protecting the Moral Conscience of Soldiers?

The limitation of conscientious objector status to those who object to all wars flies in the face of what the military itself teaches. Those who are told that in war, especially, keeping a moral inner compass is crucial. Yet, if they believe a war is unjust, they are trapped between having to face prison for refusing to deploy or sacrificing that moral compass to fight.
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In his new book on President Obama's struggle to create a viable Afghanistan policy, Bob Woodward notes Pentagon opposition to the President's desire to de-escalate the conflict and withdraw. Among those opposed was Defense Secretary Gates, who's beginning to resemble Robert McNamara of Vietnam.

We've seen what escalating an unconventional war did in Vietnam, when we had a draft. No one knows what a similar protracted war would mean in the time of an all-volunteer military, but we doubt it will be better.

On Sept. 29, Gates gave a speech at Duke University about the dilemmas, achievements and consequences of an all-volunteer military. In the question session afterward, Iraq War Veteran and founder of the Centurion's Guild, Logan Mehl-Laituri, asked how Christian service members could be denied their constitutional right to religious expression because military regulations fail to recognize religions that use principles of just war to evaluate conflicts. Right now, only those whose faith teaches objection to "war in any form" can become a conscientious objector (CO).

One does undertake a contractual obligation when enlisting, but there is certainly no obligation to reenlist. And one should know, anyone who has joined the military since 2002 has known that they would be going into war, with all of the moral challenges that that can face people with. So I think ultimately it has to be the choice of the individual.

This was a blatant and misleading nonanswer.

Gates ignored the fact that thousands of persons in the military who enlisted before 2002 were forced to stay, even when their contracts were done, a policy called "stop loss." Forcing people to stay in service means the military abrogated their contracts and made the question of whether or not they volunteered moot. Gates referred to them as "seasoned professionals who chose to serve," who have made an all-volunteer force a success.

Mehl-Laituri, who enlisted before 2002, did not ask about whether or not someone should join the military if a war is on. He asked about the right of moral conscience in war for those who are ordered to serve, regardless. At the point that many originally signed up, the U.S. was not engaged in any wars, which rendered questions related to "a just war" a theoretical exercise. That theoretical question became real and urgent in 2002.

A serious national debate erupted over whether invading Iraq, called a "preemptive" war, was just and legal. This raging debate was poorly covered in the media, which also underreported demonstrations opposing a move to war, not just in the U.S. but also all over the world. Instead, the mainstream media repeated -- without fact checking, comment or discussions of ethical questions -- bogus rationales based on false evidence promulgated by the Bush administration. The first principle of a just war, just cause, was a moving shell game, and a war has to meet all the criteria to be just.

While many religious leaders and ethicists concluded that the case for a just war against Iraq was never made, this was of no consequence for military action. However, it has been of supreme consequence for those who carry in their bodies, minds and spirits the crushing burden of wounds, suffered and inflicted, and who are haunted by the specters of thousands of slain Iraqi people.

The limitation of CO status to those who object to all wars flies in the face of what the military itself teaches. Those who enlist receive instruction in principles of just war both in basic training and in the war colleges. They are told that in war, especially, keeping a moral inner compass is crucial. Yet, if they believe a war is unjust, they are trapped between having to face prison for refusing to deploy or sacrificing that moral compass to fight.

So significant and far-reaching has been this compromise of moral conscience that the VA psychiatric community now recognizes "moral injury" as a clinically identifiable condition in urgent need of treatment. An article last December, by a group of VA clinicians, defined it as psychological harm caused by "perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations" (Clinical Psychological Review, v. 29. n.8).

We, as a decent society, must answer the question Secretary Gates failed to answer. Currently, we protect in law only the right of conscientious objection for someone who "because of principles of religious training and moral belief, is opposed to all war regardless of its cause." The uniform code of military justice grants this exemption -- albeit a difficult and unevenly administered process -- to persons in the military. Even those who volunteered after 2002 can gain it by proving that they had a "crystallization of conscience" leading to an absolute refusal to participate in war.

However, the majority of religious and nonreligious persons alike use some form of just war theory to guide moral conscience. Just war establishes minimum moral conditions for the taking up of arms to kill another soldier. Such a code emerged among the ancient Greek philosophers and entered Christianity in the late fourth century, once Christians were able to serve in the imperial army. A version of it is what the U.S. military teaches.

Despite this long precedent and the military's own instructions, the right of selective conscientious objection (objection to a particular war) lacks legal protection in the U. S. Despite the fact that we have signed international laws that have been used to convict soldiers in other nations of war crimes, we ignore in our military the right of soldiers to disobey an order to prosecute a war they believe is immoral. And despite the fact that we instruct our soldiers in principles of just war, we punish them if they refuse to deploy in a such a war.

We must stop joining Secretary Gates in failing to answer the question. Members of our military forces must have the right of selective conscientious objection. As moral citizens of a democracy, we must not tolerate policies that injure our own sons and daughters. We ask a great deal of those we call upon to take life on our behalf. We should not ask them to commit moral suicide.

Since Mr. Gates cannot answer the question, we must.

I've co-authored this piece with Rev. Dr. David B. Miller, Associate Professor at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN, who, like myself, is a Commissioner on the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, which will be issuing a Report on Nov. 11.