By Valerie Elverton Dixon
When is it justice for a member of the military to refuse orders? Is selective conscientious objection -the objection to a particular war and not to all war–acceptable in the military? What is the role of faith in shaping the moral values of military service members that crystallize into an act or a declaration of conscientious objection? A group of activists, clergy and scholars will hear testimony at a Truth Commission on Conscience in War at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 21, at the Riverside Church in New York City. I am one of the commissioners.
Killing another human being is not an automatic or easy thing. Warriors are nor mindless, heartless, soulless, cogs in a military machines. While they are trained to kill, many encounter a moment that causes them to question the righteousness of their involvement in war and the morality of war itself. The 2007 documentary Soldiers of Conscience tells the story of eight soldiers, four of whom became conscientious objectors.
Joshua Casteel, a veteran of the Iraq war, was profiled in the documentary and will testify before the commission. An evangelical Christian, and a young Republican, he was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He interviewed ordinary people – school boys, young fathers, and Imams. He also interviewed a jihadist who asked him if he was at peace with his faith and his role in the war. He was not. He became a conscientious objector.
Another soldier profiled in the movie, Camilo Mejia, will testify. The confusion of war, the reality of not knowing for certain if he was responsible for the death of a young Iraqi man, a noncombatant, changed him. His experiences in the war led him to the conclusion that the war in Iraq was not a just war. He considers his conscientious objection an assertion of his freedom.
What is the proper balance between freedom of conscience and the duty to keep a contract to obey orders? What is the psychological toll on warriors and their families? Is there a philosophy, a theory of war and peace that can get us to some understanding of what we ought to expect from the human beings we ask to kill and to die for the sake of the nation? A reporter, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Gold Star Mother are among those who will testify before the commission as we seek answers to these questions.
The commissioners are an interreligious group of some 80 people who represent pacifist, just peace and just war traditions. Each of these traditions grows from theological and moral reflection on the obligations of faith. Faith is a force that can help us to see beyond the moment, that helps us to see beyond the categories of identity that divide us, and , if we are not careful, trap us in a cul-de-sac of zero- sum self preservation. My group wins. Your group loses. Faith as in-group identity can cause us to see the Other as a dangerous enemy who is outside the arc of God’s beneficence. Faith can also help us to see the Other as a brother or sister, a child of the same Creator God.
Faith can become the tie that binds us to God and country, and faith can be the tie that binds us to all of humanity and to a moral universe that requires us to do unto others as we would have them do to us, a moral universe that says that what is good for all of humanity is what is good for us. Faith can give us the determination to overcome evil with good.
Nation states exist through the use of coercive power. They keep their own citizens in check and enemies at bay through the threat of violence. The state can take away one’s property, liberty or life. This is why the rule of law is so important. International law is important because it governs relationships between and among nations to regulate the use of violence. Warriors volunteer to put their lives on the line, to kill or to be killed when their civilian and military leaders command it. The state needs a reliable police force and military.
At the same time, service members think and feel. With a volunteer army, wars do not affect everyone. They have a disproportionate impact upon military personnel and their families. In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, service members have been deployed over and over and over again. They suffer physical and psychological injury. Family relations are strained and some suffer financially. When is it right, just, acceptable, even noble for a service member to refuse orders, to object to a particular command, a particular war, or to war itself?
These are not easy questions. I do not know what the testimony will be, and I have not reached any conclusions. We will wrestle with these questions in public on Sunday at Riverside and in closed session on Monday at Union Theological Seminary. The Truth Commission plans to issue a written report this November.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder JustPeaceTheory.com. She taught Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.