Conscience in War

As the savage harvest of World War I was underway in Europe, Sigmund Freud offered this less than prescient comment in an essay entitled “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”:

When the frenzied conflict of this war shall have been decided, every one of the victorious will joyfully return to his home, his wife and his children, undelayed and undisturbed by any thought of the enemy he has slain either at close quarters or by distant weapons of destruction.

What would assure so untroubled a homecoming for veterans of the Great War, as Freud saw it, was the happy fact that they, like all “civilized” men, had lost their “ethical sensitiveness.” Savage men, he explained, lived in fear of the men they murdered—of their lingering vengeful spirits, that is—whereas modern men knew better than to allow the past to haunt them.

To their credit and to their agony, Freud underestimated the consciences of the men and women who returned from the trenches and the killing fields of the Great War and of every war since. What they saw and suffered and especially what they did in war came home with them and darkened the remainder of their days. Now we find ourselves once again mired in war, two wars in fact, of longer duration than either of the world wars of the twentieth century. While it is all too easy for civilians to lose track of the passage of time, the loss of life, and the devastation of spirit and soul in our current conflicts, those who fight them for us cannot but keep a precise, inner tally of their cost. Perhaps the most invisible and silent cost is the one dismissed by Freud—the violated conscience—invisible because hidden, silent because silenced. “Truth,” wrote Heraklitos millennia ago that might as well be days, “likes to hide.”

The truth is that, no matter how “just” or “necessary” we may declare it to be, war requires those who wage it to witness and take part in slaughter, slaughter that is increasingly blind to the difference between the civilian and the combatant, the innocent and the guilty, the bystander and the enemy, the child and the killer. At great remove from that slaughter, President Obama, in his recent Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, conceded as fact that “in today’s wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers,” and the Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team report (MHAT-V) for Operation Iraqi Freedom 06–08 and Operation Enduring Freedom 8: Afghanistan reported that 27% of their surveyed soldiers acknowledged ethical concerns with the orders they had been given. That number, against less official but perhaps more frank accounts of returning veterans, seems quite low. Civilian deaths are, admittedly, only one of the inescapable “atrocities” or moral casualties of contemporary warfare. The Winter Soldiers hearings of 2008 made this clear. The truth may like to hide but it eventually comes out, to confront and to be confronted.

This task—facing the truth of war—is the chosen work of the National Truth Commission on Conscience in War (, whose first plenary hearings and deliberations were held last month in New York at the historic Riverside Church, one of America’s epicenters of seismic social change. The Commission’s mission statement and call to action are to be found in the documentary film Soldiers of Conscience, which seeded the ground for this new ongoing national endeavor, whose report is scheduled to be released on November 10, 2010. As one of the roughly 80 appointed commissioners from across the country, I listened to the wrenching testimony of veterans as well as the wise commentary of expert witnesses and then deliberated with my fellow commissioners regarding the next best steps to be taken to provoke national awareness, discussion, and action regarding the violation of conscience and consequent moral injury that many of our veterans bring home, lodged deep within them like shrapnel deemed too dangerous or too evasive to remove.

It may seem that honoring and preserving intact the “consciences” of our servicemen and servicewomen is a matter of less urgency and import than saving the dignity and lives of those whose violation troubles them. In an impartial triage of victims do our veterans merit our first attention? Yes, because they are here and now in our midst, home from where we and no one else sent them, and unless we hear and heed them the worst atrocities of war will likely never cease.

The Truth Commission on Conscience in War, it should be noted, is focused on conscience in war, in other words on the conscience of combatants. In the language of traditional just war theory, the focus here is on ius in bello (right conduct in war) not on ius ad bellum (going to war with just cause and right intention) or ius post bellum (right conduct after the conflict is over). Currently, the United States acknowledges only one form of conscientious objection regarding war—the right of citizens to refuse military service on the grounds that taking part in any conceivable war would violate their religious (or its personal equivalent) convictions and freedom. In a nation like ours (and like most European nations) without military conscription, conscientious objection is a moot point for citizens opposed to all war or, for that matter, to specific wars. Conscientious objection, after the abolition of the military draft, is primarily a matter of concern to those already in military service. Presumably, on the day when servicemen/women take their oath to defend the nation against all its enemies, foreign and domestic, there is not a pacifist among them; but that can change. Very few if anyone can know what combat training and, far more significantly, combat itself are like until they are experienced. War is simply not imaginable, at least not in advance. The military, in extremis, recognizes this and allows for the exceptional case in which a soldier or marine undergoes, under the catalyst of combat, a “crystallization of conscience,” realizing that this—war—violates his or her conscience to its core. Not this war but all war in any form at any time. Such a person in such a moment of realization is permitted to file as a conscientious objector. Each of the Services has its own forms and its own procedures—not an easy road to go down, but it is there. Many of those who file are denied conscientious objector status and serve prison time instead. Note here that no member of the military is allowed to refuse service in a specific war on the grounds that it is unjust or immoral. Selective conscientious objection is not on the table, not in the United States military, though it is in some other nations. It is all wars or no war, and the voices for no war will not any day soon win the day.

More common than those who—faced with the reality of war—declare themselves permanent pacifists, are those who find themselves ordered to commit an act or carry out a specific mission that they judge to be immoral. It is not all war or even this war that they find morally unacceptable, but rather this immediate command. While in theory it is possible to refuse an order on moral grounds, in practice, in theater, it is all but unthinkable. No one with whom I have consulted about this, from privates to generals, have said otherwise. What is at stake here, of course, is better grasped on ground level. The devil, as everyone is tired of saying, is in the details. On the first day of the Truth Commission one of the testifiers told how one of his friends and fellow Army interrogators was given such an order and, when she realized she had no option but to obey, simply left the room with her gun and put it to her head. Another clarifying account belongs to Hart Viges, an OIF veteran who served with the Army 82nd Airborne Division:

One time they said to fire on all taxicabs because the enemy was using them for transportation.… One of the snipers replied back, “Excuse me? Did I hear right? Fire on all taxicabs?” The lieutenant colonel responded, “You heard me, trooper, fire on all taxicabs.” After that, the town lit up, with all the units firing on the cars.

Here, the order was questioned but then obeyed without further ado, because there is nothing else to be done, not once an order is given. The simple and alarming fact is that such stories, and far more alarming ones, are commonplace. They are the daily stuff of war. Every combat veteran has his or her own memories and they carry the invisible weight and wounds to prove it. Conscience in war—an oxymoron or a challenge to be met? For the Truth Commission, it is the latter. What is at stake is the moral agency of the warrior and so of the nation. When our men and women in uniform can never say “no”, it means that we as a nation say “yes” in advance to whatever they do in our name. The chain of command ultimately hangs from our necks.

It is, no doubt, difficult to imagine how individual soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and airwomen can ever be allowed to weigh each command they are given and to decide for themselves whether they in conscience can obey it. That is, in the extreme, what honoring and preserving the moral agency of the armed services—to the man and to the woman—means. The only thing more difficult to imagine is how we can expect men and women, no better and no worse than ourselves, to surrender their moral agency and their consciences to become unthinking instruments of destruction. Our government, like many across the globe, are in a race to produce armies of lethal robots, eventually making their own decisions according to a cold calculus programmed into them. Already we have a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft, and a future unmanned infantry is well beyond the realm of nightmare. But for now we still have men and women in the air and on the ground, and conscience in war, the consciences of our flesh and blood, free and soulful warriors, remain at stake and in our hands.

Author: Bob Meagher

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