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Moral Conscience in War: A Father's Story from Vietnam

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by Megan Dowdell (cross-posted from Tikkun Daily)

Founder of Faith Voices for the Common Good and long-time anti-war activist, Rev. Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock has dedicated much of her scholarship and activism to inter-religious education. As chair of the planning team for the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, to be launched this Sunday, March 21 in New York City, she has turned her attention to Conscientious Objection regulations and the realities of military service during times of war.

To create the Truth Commission, Brock has worked with the filmmakers behind "Soldiers of Conscience," an Emmy-winning documentary film that follows several soldiers through their moral decision-making on whether to fight in the war in Iraq or apply to be Conscientious Objectors. In her piece, "Moral Conscience in War: Small Acts of Repair," Brock tells the stories of her father's US Army service, including two tours in Vietnam. She explains how her father's stories and the influence of veterans she has grown to respect have shown her how opportunities for repair and healing during war can come in many sizes.

Moral Conscience In War:
Small Acts Of Repair

By Rita Nakashima Brock

My father Roy, from rural Mississippi, was barely 18 and had an eighth grade education when he joined the U.S. Army in 1941. He was captured in North Africa and spent the rest of the war as a POW. A career enlisted man, he served two tours in Vietnam as a medic who ran a battlefield aide station.

In the days before cell phones and email, my father sent us cassette tapes and letters. As the oldest child of three, I received my own tape. My father instructed me to listen to them and then to record over his message with mine and return it. At the time I did not think to wonder what my messages back might have meant to him: stories about cheerleading at basketball games, theater productions (I was Mi Lai the spy in "The Ugly American"), church youth group, and the senior prom. I wonder now what my father felt on a battlefield listening to them. Occasionally, the tapes from my father had a layer from the round before, and my mother's voice would suddenly intrude after my father's message, a few words or sentences as she said goodbye at the end of the tape. Those stray echoes told me how much she missed him, and, once, I was astonished to hear her telling him about me, the swim team I'd joined the summer before my senior year and how tanned and thin I'd become.

My father often began his stories with, "Don't tell your mother; I don't want to worry her." I kept silent and worried on her behalf. He told me had refused to carry a gun. Once, he described how he had to run through a minefield to rescue his wounded commanding officer and carry him out. The point of the story was not, however, his heroism, it was to explain how he got away with not carrying his gun. His commander stopped reprimanding him and left him alone after the minefield rescue.

I heard many stories about a young bi-lingual Vietnamese girl of 17 named Vann, I think, though my memory is hazy about her name. I was the same age. She was short, strong, and had a braid all the way down below her waist. She had a gun and knew how to use it. My father hired her as a guide to take him into the hills where the villagers lived. On calm days with little to do, he left the medics who worked for him in charge of the aide station, loaded a military pack with penicillin, sutures, aspirin, and other medical supplies, and followed Vann into the hills. He said she was smart and knew the territory as if she carried a map in her head. She took him to the wounded and sick, and he spent the day treating people with his supplies. He always emptied his pack and left the medicines and supplies behind.

Perhaps he did what he could to offer a little repair for all the terrible harm the war was causing. When he returned from his second tour of duty, he decided to retire from the Army. If he'd stayed the 30 year maximum, he would have received full pay and benefits, but he could not stand to stay and retired after just under 29 years. He said it was not the Army he joined and it was not the Army he wanted to serve.

I never knew what to do with my father's stories. I had no idea how to talk about them, so I never spoke of them to anyone. They were not my stories, only ones told to me, and I did not really understand the war. It was so remote and distant from my ordinary life. He and I never discussed them when he came home. They disappeared into some remote memory bank in my head.

I have not thought much about my father's stories since I heard them. I had no way to take them in or understand them. In the past few months, I've thought about them many times.

Since late 2008, I have been working with three people in Berkeley, envisioning and implementing a Truth Commission on Conscience in War. Two of the three are filmmakers who created the Emmy nominated documentary, "Soldiers of Conscience." This powerful, moving film follows eight soldiers in Iraq, half of whom become Conscientious Objectors and half of whom choose to fight. Each goes through a serious moral reasoning process. Their conclusions differ, but the film makes clear that every soldier is a soldier of conscience.

SOC

The four of us created the Truth Commission to address problems with current regulations for Conscientious Objection, which require objection to "war in any form." CO status is supposed to protect religious freedom, but it only protects pacifists, religious or not. Though the majority of religious traditions follow some form of just war (to be moral a war has to be defensive, winnable, done to right a wrong and further justice, not kill civilians, and not seek to annihilate others but to be proportionate to the attack suffered), current CO regulations do not respect the moral consciences of those who believe in just war.

Rev. Herman Keizer, Jr., is the Commission's Honorary Host. Keizer, a retired Army Chaplain (COL), Vietnam veteran, and former chair of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, is an outspoken leader in a growing movement for "selective conscientious objection," the right to object morally to a particular war. Current military regulations only recognize objections to "war in any form." In a recent letter to President Obama, Rev. Keizer argued: "The conscience of the selective objector deserves the same respect as the conscience of the pacifist."

This lack of respect for adherents to just war creates a Catch-22 because the military teaches its recruits about just war and tells them maintaining moral conscience in war is crucial. In fact, even President Bush told those deploying to Iraq that "I was only following orders" was no excuse for war crimes (though his idea of a war crime was destroying oil fields). However, if a service member decides a particular war is wrong and refuses to deploy, he or she faces sanctions, court martial, and prison. Soldiers who exercise moral conscience are damned if they fight and damned if they refuse to fight.

On Sunday March 21, 4-8 pm in Riverside Church, veterans at the Truth Commission will testify about what they felt, witnessed, and came to understand about fighting in wars they have come to understand were wrong. Two have recently returned as civilians to the countries where they fought. Expert witnesses will testify about the moral, psychological, and legal dilemmas imposed by current policies governing moral conscience in war.

"Soldiers of Conscience" begins with a startling statistic: even when they felt in danger, only one fourth of all soldiers in World War II ever fired their weapons at the enemy. This core of resistance to killing, even after a human being is trained to do it and is thrown into conditions of great stress and threat, puts the lie, I think, to theories of human nature that insists we are violent and hopelessly sinful. Killing is not instinct or nature, but is a decision and an act, perhaps sometimes necessary, that also requires courage. Killing in war involves inner conflict and, often, has lasting negative consequences.

Working on this Truth Commission has had an enormous impact on me. I have spent my entire adult life as an anti-war activist. In fact, my opposition to the Vietnam war in college was a major conflict between me and my father. But through the Truth Commission, I have come to respect the people who choose military service and have worked with some amazing veterans, some of whom will testify at the hearing. One, Joshua Casteel, featured in the film, was a very conservative Republican evangelical who went to West Point, learned Arabic, and was assigned to be an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. A terrorist asked him about his being a so-called Christian. Joshua decided if he was a serious Christian, he had to become a pacifist. He is now a Catholic CO, and he will tell his story at the public hearing.

In working with so many great vets, I have learned my father was not unique or extraordinary. He was like a lot of good people who do their best under terrible circumstances, including having fought in a war, WW II, that he believed was just. I know that there are a lot of good people in the world who, when faced with terrible choices and circumstances, do their best to follow their moral consciences, have the courage to fight when they must, and the courage to repair harm in the face of war wherever they can. I volunteered my time to create the Truth Commission because I want to make that courage and that repair more possible.

The Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph.D., born in Fukuoka, Japan, is a Visiting Professor at the Starr King School for Ministry, Berkeley, California, and Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good ( www.faithvoices.org). She was a college professor of religion for twenty years. From 1997 to 2001, she directed the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellowship Program, Harvard University. From 2001-2002, she was a Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School Center for Values in Public Life. Since 2002, she has been an independent scholar, in addition to her nonprofit volunteer work.Her book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, co-authored with Rebecca Parker (Beacon, 2008), was chosen as one of PublishersWeekly's best books of 2008.