Following Conscience

In the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, reports the Army Officers Guide, the emperor or empress had a medal that was awarded to officers who, by disobeying orders, turned the tide and won important battles. In the U.S. Army, it continues, of course, there is no such medal: this sort of judgment, wrapped within a full, disciplined understanding of the legal and moral impact of decisions, is expected.

Elizabeth D. Samet reflects on this passage in her recently published account of teaching literature at West Point, Soldiers Heart (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Principled disobedience to orders has always been difficult, even when it is not just permitted, but required by law. The logic of battle, and so of military discipline, weighs heavily in favor of obedience to command. After the Vietnam War and atrocities like My Lai, the Army and Marine Corps took pains to train their personnel in responsible obedience. By the early 1990s, however, senior officers were already troubled that a new generation did not share their commitment to military honor. The so-called war on terror, shaped by the belief that terrorism changed all the rules, and then the protracted war in Iraq, with the uncertainties of counterinsurgency warfare along with the battle fatigue that comes with repeated rotations of the same people into combat, have made conscientious objection even more difficult. In our day, judgment within a full, disciplined understanding of the legal and moral impact of decisions has become more difficult to realize and still harder to implement.


Much of the difficulty has been created by civilians at the top of the chain of command. Assertions that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the war on terror paved the way for atrocities like Abu Ghraib. Talk that asymmetrical warfare demands relaxing established constraints on what might be done in combat and that new forms of unconventional warfare require new, undefined responses contributed to a climate of permissiveness. Some in the military, especially military lawyers, to their credit, did their best to hold the line for observance of the laws of armed conflict. But against the White House, the Justice Department and the office of the Secretary of Defense, it was an uphill battle. It fell, as it inevitably does in all wars, to conscientious officers and enlistees to stand up for the rules of war. With a volunteer military in need of men and women to fight in Iraq, however, the military has grown increasingly resistant to granting conscientious objector status to soldiers and marines. (See A Soldiers Decision, America, 1/29.)

Pleas for C.O. status, dissenting from all war, often emerge from repugnance at the repeated horrors of battle. It is understandable that the experience might turn some individuals against war altogether. For Catholics, however, the issues are more complex. Catholic teaching requires disobedience to immoral orders. In their recent statement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops not only affirmed the duty of Catholics to oppose torture [and] unjust war; they went further, affirming the right of citizens not just to reject participation in all war, but also to resist serving in a particular war, or a military procedure by what is known as selective conscientious objection. While the law and military regulation make allowance for conscientious objection, neither law nor judicial decision permit it to be selective. Over the years, the U.S. bishops have repeatedly urged legalization of selective conscientious objection.

The moral confusion and ethical dilemmas brought on by the U.S. war in Iraq point to the need for legalization of S.C.O. For as the Catholic Peace Fellowship advises potential objectors already serving in the military, Somebody might refuse to fight in Iraq, believing it to be an unjust or immoral war, but would not be opposed to fighting in a war of defense. [Such selective] conscientious objection is NOT legal, and an S.C.O. would face jail time.

Logically, the case for S.C.O. should be stronger than the argument on behalf of a dispensation for consistent pacifists, since S.C.O. is a corollary of the just war tradition. If it is permissible to wage a just war, then it is forbidden to wage an unjust war or execute an immoral order. S.C.O. can be said, in fact, to uphold the system; it guarantees the integrity of the military. And the claim that S.C.O. endangers the national defense and the good order of the military is obviously fallacious, for it argues in effect that to support just wars, one must support unjust wars and immoral uses of force as well. Indeed, legalization of selective conscientious objection may add to the pressures that prevent political and military leaders from prosecuting unjust wars of choice, such as the Iraq war was at its inception.

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11 years ago
As a person who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1976 as a conscientious objector, after five years of active duty and following a number of very moving visits to Nagasaki, I most certainly agree that our Catholic teaching supports selective conscientious objection and that it would be wonderful if our laws permitted this option. However, the sad fact is that the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon are not likely to make this possible anytime soon. What, then, are the options for a Catholic who follows his/her conscience regarding an unjust war? Our Church provided an answer to this dilemma just weeks ago, when Franz Jaegerstaetter, the Austrian farmer, husband and father, who was executed by the Nazis for refusing to join Hitler's army in 1943, was declared "Blessed" for his heroic witness of faith and his acceptance of martyrdom. Bishop Ludwig Schwarz of Linz and Bishop Manfred Scheuer of Innsbruck, the postulator of Franz's cause, in a commemorative biography issued for the beatification, put it this way: "[Blessed] Franz Jaegerstaetter does not allow himself to be merely looked up to, without at the same time posing a question about one's own life: and what about you?.. What part does sacrifice play in your own life? How seriously do you take the question of whether there's something in your life so big that you would, if necessary, be willing to die for it?" Would that our government honored conscience and create laws that would respect it! But in the meantime, we are challenged to follow that other great saint of conscience, St. Thomas More, when he declared "I am the King's good servant -- but God's first." (from Robert Bolt's play, "A Man for All Seasons")
10 years 12 months ago
As an American, I can identify with the message of this article as it relates to our military personnel and their committment to fight in a war. Your article suggests that in situations where the war is unjust therefore, immoral and unethical, military personnel should have the option to declare themselves "Selective Conscientious Objectors". While I'm not sure how the appellation of "unjust, immoral and unethical" should be determined, the idea is good assuming the determination has solid ground upon which it is declared and judged. The concern, as your article notes, is the difficulty created by the top of the chain of command and their assertions that new demands reqire relaxing disciplined legal and moral decisions. Your article goes on to note that the duty of Catholics requires disobedience to immoral orders and participation in unjust actions and therefore, justifies and declares the right of individuals to declare themselves, "Selective Conscienctious Objectors". These are very demanding expectations for our military personnel who were sworn to follow "Their Leadership" but, your reasoning makes good sense. It would be interesting for you to write the same article with the same reasoning as it would relate to the Catholic Church, the clergy and the "Top of the Chain of Command". In particular, the focus should be on two very significant issues in our Church and how both the clergy and the "Chain of Command" are responding to two immoral, unjust and unethical actions perpetrated within our church; Clergy Child Molestation and Contraception. Relative to Clergy Child Molestation, the "Chain of Command" has deceived, enabled, funded misappropriately and peptuated this horrible activity yet few in "The Chain" or the "Rank and File" of the Clergy have publicly proclaimed/demanded that justice be served. Regarding Contraception, millions are dying from diseases that could be prevented IF there were public policies providing safe sex rules and capabilities ie, Contraception. Additionally, millions of families face economic and social blight by having to support large families who adhere to Church Policy on Contraception as demanded by "The Chain of Command" Where is the public declaration of "Selective Conscientious Objections" from both "The Chain of Command" and "Rank and File"?? Why is it that the silence if deaffening? Probably because the few that have demanded justice have been sent to Golgatha as a reward for exercising thier moral and righteous duty as Catholics. I fully understand and expect America to continue to produce articles on world affairs and to challenge and demand moral and just actions by all, particularly Catholics. I again submit that we consider the moral and just actions that must be alive within our Catholic community. Even though there is a vow of allegiance, silence within "The Chain of Command" and "The Rank and File" of the Clergy suggests support for those guilty of unjust and immoral acts. The closing lines of a "Letter to the Editor", "War No More", ends with the comment, "Unconditional support could be another unintended anthem for sending our 'youth' to a disastrous fate". I submit, the the lack of conscientious objection by all the Clergy will have similar consequences.
9 years 2 months ago
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