A Soldier's Decision

Since the war in Iraq began, we at the Catholic Peace Fellowship have heard from more than 1,000 soldiers. And wea group that supports conscientious objectors through education, counseling and advocacyhandle just 6 percent of the calls on the national GI Rights Hotline. In answering the phone each day, we find that the typical caller is a soldier asking for a way out of the military. Increasingly, the calls come from soldiers who have finished tours in Iraq and are facing redeployment. Some callers seek help with post traumatic stress disorder; some have financial problems, family problems, medical problems.

Others, however, call us because of moral qualms: they are convinced that the war in Iraq is not just. Among these callers, some are terrified at what their own consciences revealed to them while at war. Others, bold and confident, tell us that they would rather spend months or years in prison than one more day in Iraq. Such soldiers are known as selective conscientious objectors. In contrast to conscientious objectors, who refuse to participate in war in any form, selective conscientious objectors (S.C.O.’s) refuse to participate in a specific war they deem unjust. Many who contact us do not object to being a part of the militarythey enlisted in it themselvesbut rather to fighting in the Iraq war.

How does a soldier come to such a difficult and changed view of the war in which he or she is engaged? The two following cases illustrate the kind of progression that sometimes takes place in wartime service.


Private Anderson

Before being injured by a roadside bomb, Darrell Anderson served a seven-month tour in Iraq as an Army gunner. A 24-year-old Kentucky native, Anderson had deployed to Iraq ready to serve. I am willing to die for my country, he told us on the phone. The tougher question for him, though, was under what conditions he would kill for it.

One day while Anderson was on duty at a Baghdad checkpoint, a car approached. Anderson sensed no danger, but if the car crossed a certain line at the checkpoint, he knew he would be ordered to open fire. As the car continued coming, Anderson noticed two children inside. The car did not stop; the order to open fire came. He refused. The car slowed to a stop, the occupants were forced out and checked. A family. No bombs, no weaponsjust two young parents and their daughters.

Still, Anderson was upbraided by his commander for not firing and told that next time, regardless of whom he saw inside, his duty was to shoot. Anderson’s response was, and still is, a battlefield articulation of an ancient moral principle. If I doubt that someone is attacking me, he says, I cannot kill them. When Anderson realized that this wisdom was incompatible with military procedures, he grew greatly troubled.

Then came the roadside bomb. Anderson’s wounds brought a Purple Heart and a reprieve from combat duty. He was sent to Germany for convalescence, then home for Christmas. But by then, he realized his biggest wounds were not physical; he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. The disorder is not uncommon. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2004 found that one in six Iraq war vets was suffering from it.

Another finding of the report confirms a key concern for Anderson (and countless others who have called us): one in five Iraq vets reported being responsible for civilian deaths. If I return to Iraq, Anderson told us, I know I will have to kill innocent people. In hostile situations at checkpoints or when enemy fire is spotted, he said, standard procedure was to open fire in return, no matter the setting. Once a firefight has begun, one of Anderson’s commanders told him, no one is innocent. But is that true? Anderson thinks it is not.

He resolved that he would not return to Iraq, insisting, I consider it my human right to choose not to kill innocent people. When his unit ordered him to report for redeployment, he pondered a choice made by an estimated 300 others: flight to Canada. He told us that he would have chosen the military brig at that point, but he suffered from P.T.S.D. panic attacks and nightmares and did not think he could take it.

Now, however, he has come back to face the music. Anderson turned himself in to authorities at Fort Knox, Ky., on Oct. 3, 2006. He received an other than honorable discharge, which was much better than the other possibility: five years in prison. Anderson says that he could imagine fighting in a war of pure self-defense, but not if it involves the killing of civilians.

Other Iraq vets report to us the same dilemma. A Marine I talked with said most Americans have no idea about the massive numbers of noncombatant deaths in Iraq. Most people accept that civilian deaths are simply a part of war, but to soldiers like Darrell Anderson such acceptance is not easy. In fact it is intolerable, when you are the one who must do the killing.

Lieutenant Watada

Last summer Ehren Watada became the first commissioned officer publicly to refuse to go to Iraq. When I learned that I was going to be deployedI thought it was my responsibility as an officer to learn everything I could, why we were there, what was occurring at that time, what had occurred in the pastin order to get a better understanding, he said. As he learned, Watada grew troubled about the legality of the war. He examined the president’s actions against the U.N. Charter and Geneva Conventions, as well as the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Act, and came to the conclusion that the war and what we’re doing over there is illegal, he said. I felt it was my moral duty to refuse any orders to participate in this war. Watada also spoke with Iraq war vets who felt caught up not in a war of defense but in politics.

For his refusal to deploy, Lieutenant Watada is being charged with conduct unbecoming an officer, missing movement and contempt toward President Bush. The Army has added a charge for comments he made last summer at a Veterans for Peace conference. Watada said, To stop an illegal and unjust war, soldiers can choose to stop fighting it. He faces over eight years in prison.

U.S. Law

Under U.S. law, soldiers can be honorably discharged as conscientious objectors, but only if they can demonstrate that after they enlisted they underwent a crystallization of conscience that resulted in an opposition to war in any form. That is, they must have become conscientious objectors. After the First World War, U.S. law was changed to allow conscientious objectors, including members of small pacifist religious groups like Quakers and Mennonites, to perform a term of alternative service in pre-approved community organizations.

The honorable discharge, however, does not apply to selective conscientious objectors. Soldiers who deem that a particular war is unjustwhile still maintaining a willingness to fight in a just warhave no legal recourse. If they refuse to deploy or to follow orders, they are subject to prosecution, court-martial, dishonorable discharge and even prison. Alternative service is not an option.

Although some individual Catholics are pacifists, the church itself has not consistently taught pacifism as the only Christian response to war. Instead, Catholic teaching developed the just war doctrine, which outlines a set of principles by which an individual, group or nation can determine morally whether a specific war is or would be just. Catholic teaching also insists that that military service does not entail turning over one’s conscience to the state. The issue of selective conscientious objection and Catholic teaching has been argued as a legal case. The case came up during the Vietnam War and eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court

Louis Negre, a Catholic drafted in 1967, objected to serving in Vietnam on grounds that it violated just war principles. His case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 9, 1970. Negre had applied for conscientious objector status. Since he was not a pacifist, he was denied and forcibly deployed.

John T. Noonan, now a U.S. Appeals Court Judge, was known for his extensive research on the development of church doctrine. When he heard that Louis Negre’s objection was rooted in Catholic principle, Noonan joined the team representing him. Their reasoning was simple: to deny Negre’s claim was essentially to deny him religious freedom, since part of his practice of Catholicism included evaluating morally any killing he would be asked to carry out. This excerpt is taken from Richard Harrington’s oral argument before the court:

It’s an equal protection position that if the Quaker on my right hand says I’m not going to fight in the Vietnam War, you say Why not? Because of my religion. If you compel the Quaker, you would be violating the statute, certainly. Now the Catholic on my left hand is not going to go. You say Why not? He says, Because of my religion. They’re both acting as taught by their religion, but you say [to the Catholic] Well, you’re a felon and to the Quaker Well, you may stay home.

In an 8-to-1 decision, the court ruled against Negre. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the opinion. Its repeated reference to the manpower needs of the military still makes Judge Noonan bristle. It was a very pragmatic, even insensitive, approach to the Catholic conscience, Noonan said. They wanted to avoid giving such a large group of people an out. But selective conscientious objection is part of what religious liberty means. (With 375,000 Catholics on active duty in the Armed Forces today, it is no wonder that S.C.O. is still illegal.)

Justice William O. Douglas penned the lone dissent. In response to the contention that S.C.O. is merely political, Douglas noted the scriptural mandate to obey God rather than men and that the duty has not changed.

The case is closed, but has the issue itself been decided? Not according to Judge Noonan, who later said he saw this as something that could be brought up again to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the repeated efforts of religious groups to gain legislative protection for S.C.O. have failed (see Charles Reid’s treatment of Negre v. Larsen in the Notre Dame Law Review, April 2001).

Catholic Teaching on Conscience

Conscientious objection is not a common Catholic position, but neither is it rare. A Catholic soldier’s legal claim has been rejected (Negre claimed that he was practicing his religion by refusing to serve in an unjust war); Catholic chaplains do not always support conscientious objection; historically, U.S. Catholics have not wanted to appear as less than patriotic, especially in wartime. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I met with Auxiliary Bishop John Kaising of the Archdiocese of the Military Services USA to address the dilemma of Catholic soldiers wholike the popeopposed the war. Once the commander-in-chief has called us to war, Bishop Kaising told me, the time for conscientious objection is over.

Still, the church does teach the primacy of conscience: Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths (Gaudium et Spes, No. 16). And in The Challenge of Peace (No. 233), the U.S. Catholic bishops supported selective conscientious objection, which can be invoked either because of the ends being pursued (as Watada reasons) or the means being used (as Anderson saw it).

The Catholic Peace Fellowship believes that no one should be forced to commit what they think is murder. Soldiers, many of them quite young, bear the burden of analyzing when their killing is just and when it violates their own conscience. In making such decisions the stakes are highfor themselves and others.

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12 years 1 month ago
We cannot have a military service in which people, once they don the uniform, can decide for themselves what battles they shall fight. Military success depends on a concept of interdependency and support.

Lt. Watanaba's statements are nonsense. The military action in Iraq was authorized by the Congress and aupported by its funding.

I too have a grandson who will be ccommissioned in the Marince Corps in May and then deployed. Before he entered his Ivy League school, I talked with him about his goal of military service. He wanted to serve his country and felt that was the best way.

I am grateful for the overthrowing of the vicious Iraqi dictator and the attempt to bring another democracy to the Middle East. I hope it will not be nescessary for our military to defend Mr. Griffin from still another enemy.

12 years 1 month ago
This article brought tears to my eyes. I had a grandson serving as a Marine in Iraq but he's home safe now.

Yesterday I was at a Bible study in our church and we spoke of love for everyone including our enemy. This is right, but if you want to get into deep trouble tell your friends here the war is wrong and you must love even the Muslims and others. Do you want to be considered a traitor?

I read an article out of Sojourners at another meeting and it was not well recieved. I guess when I want to feel I did the right thing I read Dietrich Bonnhoefer and it gives me courage. I wish I could get this from my church.

Sincerely, Mary A. O'Donnell


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