Soldiers of Conscience

I wanted to do something different tonight, and so plopped myself down in front of the TV and began flipping channels.  I have been feeling tired of many things and in need of time off – something I know the importance of – the Sabbath rest which God had built into His week, but which I ignore.  I rarely watch TV as it usually causes me to fall asleep.  But tonight I wanted to do something mindless, to kill time.

I flipped through the channels and came to the PBS station which was airing the POV show Soldiers of Conscience.  I was immediately drawn into the show.  I was watching soldiers talk about their own conscience – some who remained faithful to their sworn oath of duty to the military and defending our country and some who became conscientious objectors to war while serving in the Iraq war.

I have since high school found the military to be terrifying.  I have not thought myself able to kill.  During the Vietnam War I was sickened by the thought of going to war and found strength in the anti-war movement.  My draft number was 13 at a time when deferrals had become a thing of the past.  But then stunningly Nixon stopped the draft and I didn’t have to report to the Cleveland induction center.  I never had to face what I was going to do if put into the military.

Watching SOLDIERS OF CONSCIENCE brought back all those memories, and why I find war so horrifying.  I realized from watching the show that I would not be good soldier material.  I don’t know that I could ever have become the reflex shooter that the military now trains people to be.  The one West Point professor explains how studies in WWII showed how few soldiers were willing to pull the trigger in combat and kill the enemy.  The modern army has virtually perfected their training to make sure that the soldiers don’t think, that they just act on reflex and training.  The military today wants to make sure that the soldier’s conscience is only awakened after the battle, but then the military instructor admitted they never train the soldiers for what to do when the conscience awakens – after you have killed the enemy, or a civilian.   Shoot first, reflect on it later. 

The West Point instructor has specialized in studying the morality of war.  He asked the most difficult question about the Christ’s Parable of the Good Samaritan.    What if you are walking by the victim, not after he has been beaten to a pulp, but while he is being beaten?   Is it “Christian” to wait until the robbery and beating is over and then come to his aid?   Do you have a moral obligation as a Christian to try to intervene and risk your life and stop the beating?  What if lethal force is the only way to stop the beating and robbery?  What is your moral duty?

His take was that the military is not the Good Samaritan who arrives on the scene after the felonious assault takes place, but the military is simply those who walk the path while the assault occurs or while it it being threatened.  The military takes the moral viewpoint that it is better to stop the beating than to be a Good Samaritan.

Then there was the soldier who in his court martial was found guilty and sent to prison for refusing to serve another tour of duty in Iraq because he could no longer bring himself to kill anyone.  He commented that humanity had figured out that human sacrifice was unacceptable and had outlawed the practice.  And humans had figured out that slavery was inhumane and banned the practice.  Maybe the time has come for humans to figure out that war is no more moral than human sacrifice and slavery.

I do not know that this documentary can change anyone’s mind about the morality of war, or of the goodness of the war in Iraq, but I did find it most engaging and challenging.  Not at all the mindless TV that I had begun flipping the channels to find.  Think TV would not give me the peace I wanted for the evening.

Killing time turned into facing up to killing people.  And my pacifist nature was challenged by the realities of the world.  “There is no peace for the wicked,” says the Lord (Isaiah 48:22, 57:21).

If you want to think hard about the morality of war, and the effects of war on some men who served in Iraq, I would recommend watching POV’s  SOLDIERS OF CONSCIENCE.  For each, whether continuing to obey orders and fight, or choosing to lay down their arms and not kill again, was using the conscience God has given us as human beings.

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2 thoughts on “Soldiers of Conscience

  1. Fr Ted,

    First, it was a good to met you at diocesan assembly. Thank you as well for your blog–it is always a good read.

    Second, I want to say how much I admire your willingness to give serious consideration to the potential value of the military.

    While I am not a pacifist–I am also not an advocate for war. Often in my conversations with people who are pacifists, however, I find that the very point made by the West Point instructor is often minimized, if not out rejected. That said, I am also painfully aware that in recent US foreign policy the defensive nature of war is often minimized if not outright rejected.

    The thing that many overlook in Augustine’s just war teaching is his attempt not to justify the use of military force, but to limit it use. In this he offers what I would argue (in a paper I am struggling to finish!) is an asceticism for the State and its use of power.

    Third, I think Augustine has much to teach not only the modern world, but also the Orthodox Church in the right, and limited, use of power . Let me explain.

    Augustine helps me me the difficulties currently facing the OCA as the result of people not properly exercising power and authority. By this I don’t simply mean those who behaved poorly, but also those who–in the face of misconduct–failed to act.

    I thinking here of your own summary of the West Point instructor’s position that “the military is not the Good Samaritan who arrives on the scene after the felonious assault takes place.” Rather they are “those who walk the path while the assault occurs or while it it being threatened.” The preference toward passivity of some means that the military’s “moral viewpoint that it is better to stop the beating than to be a Good Samaritan” is simply not a part of their own moral calculus.

    It is, to be sure, always riskier to prevent the assault. Not only do I risk get beaten, I also risk responding with too much force in my defense of others and so committing a crime as well.

    And of course, I might simply be wrong and see a crime where there is none.

    Your post raises the interesting, and important, question of the use of force (military and moral) not only by Caesar but also by Christ’s Holy Church. Power as such is morally neutral. But the use of power isn’t. I can sin not only in how I use (or misuse) power, but also in my refusal to exercise power in the defense of the innocent. It is this last point where I think the Church might learn from Caesar, or at least the West Point instructor to whom you referred.

    Again, it was good to meet you and thank you for your blog.

    In Christ,

    +Fr Gregory

  2. Fr. Ted

    Fr. Gregory,
    Thanks for your insightful comments – I hope one day to be able to read your paper.
    A true story – one of my sons while in high school was incredibly shy, withdrawn, and depressed – due to some very difficult circumstances our family had gone through. I was alarmed by his totaly lack of interest in most anything, and his avoidance of social situations. I challenged him to find something – a sport – or anything that he might be interested in and I promised to get involved in it with him. Like Herod never expecting Herodias’ daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist, I was caught by surprise when he told me instantly that he wanted to try competitive pistol shooting. I owned no guns and knew nothing about the sport, but decided to do my part of the bargain. (And before I go on, I will say this all turned out as a very positive experience for him. He even shot at a national competition, though in recent years college and job have limited his involvement in the sport).
    But because he was under 18, I had to go through all of the training with him – which included completing concealed/carry handgun training. Though I never owned a gun through this, I had to do all that the conceal/carry handgun training required – which included shooting a target at point blank range since, as we were told, most likely if you ever fired a handgun at someone it would be at close range. The idea was to give us the sensation of what it would be like to have to shoot someone. The instructor was very adamant that if we knew we could not actually shoot someone, there was no sense in getting a concealed/carry license. Now I had to complete the course for my son to be able to be in competitive shooting, but I knew that I would not want to or be able to shoot someone at close range. I found the eagerness and willingness of many of the other participants to shoot to kill to be far too wild west for my taste (One would be vigilante told us, “Remember once you pull the trigger you can never take that bullet back – but you can always shoot ’em again.”). I did what I needed to do and successfully completed the course but my own conscience was troubled by how nonchalant and even eager people seemed about having a chance to kill someone – and I would “betcha” these were card carrying pro-lifers.
    What it taught me about my pacifism is that I would have a real hard time actually killing another human being or obeying orders to kill another human. This is not the same question as to the morality of war. Mine is based in a personal aversion to torture, suffering and killing. I always hope that an alternative can be found to war, but I cannot say that all war is avoidable. The military spokesman in SOLDIERS OF CONSCIENCE ask the question to conscientious objectors/pacifists – why is it OK for others to have to take on the burden of having to kill and risk being killed? Why should you be allowed to escape this burden? That is a very good question. But I would also want to point out, that as far as I can tell, it is the Koran that forbids pacifism and offers no blessing to a conscientious objector. On the other hand, the Christian tradition has in its history both forbidding its members to go to war or to kill (as in the pre-Constantinian days) and allowing some to choose a path in which they are not permitted to kill or go to war (clergy and monks for example).
    The Christian tradition does embrace self sacrificing martyrdom in imitation of Christ (but not the murderous pseudo-martyrdom that Islamic terrorists advocate). It has allowed people to refuse military service in response to their own consciences. And so conscientious objectors and pacifists are both well within Christian traditionalism. And whereas some people including Christians understand a moral duty to soldier, some cannot find in their consciences a moral justification for killing others. At least to date America has respected conscientious objection and in doing so does recognize that there does exist a higher moral authority than the state.

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