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Honoring Troops and Veterans Means Honoring Their Consciences

Today is Veterans Day, the tenth Veterans Day since the Afghanistan War began.

The burden of this brutal, futile war falls heaviest on a very small slice of the population: military members and their families. Many of them think that this war is immoral, and that makes fighting in it a weight they'll have to carry their whole lives. Our new video features the voices of some of these veterans, urging us to rethink the burden we're laying on troops.

There’s going to be, as always, a lot of talk today about supporting the troops, but if “support the troops” is to have any meaning beyond the bumper sticker or car magnet, it’s got to include support for the consciences of those troops. And right now, current military policy includes a healthy dose of disrespect for the deep moral convictions of many of its members.

Many of us are familiar with the concept of conscientious objection--the refusal to participate in combat due to deep religious or ethical objections. But the right to assert a moral objection to service in war is severely limited. Under current law, the right to obtain conscientious objector status is restricted to those who consider all war immoral. In fact, the policy of the Defense Department is that,

“requests by personnel for qualification as a conscientious objector after entering military service will not be favorably considered when these requests are... [b]ased on objection to a certain war.”

But there’s a contradiction here. The policy goes on to state that:

"Relevant factors that should be considered in determining a person’s claim of conscientious objection include training in the home and church; general demeanor and pattern of conduct; participation in religious activities; whether ethical or moral convictions were gained through training, study, contemplation, or other activity comparable in rigor and dedication to the processes by which traditional religious convictions are formulated; credibility of persons supporting the claim....The personal convictions of each person will dominate so long as they derive from the person’s moral, ethical, or religious beliefs."

The problem is that most ethical and religious traditions--traditions that produce sincere personal convictions that should be relevant to the decision whether to grant a particular troop C.O. status--don’t deal with war the way the C.O. policy does.

Most major religious and ethical schools are not pacifist. In the most prevalent of these schools of thought, wars are moral or immoral, just or unjust, solely on a case-by-case basis. Just war theory, both inside and outside its various formulations by religious institutions, philosophers and legal scholars, tends to raise objections to a war based precisely on its particulars.

According to just war theory, to be regarded as just, a war must pass all the following criteria:

  • It must be defensive, the principle of just cause;
  • It must be declared by a competent authority;
  • It must have the right intention to serve justice and lead to peace;
  • It must have a chance to succeed in its intentions;
  • It must uphold non-combatant immunity by protecting civilians;
  • It must be a last resort after all other measures to resolve a conflict have been utilized; and
  • It must be proportional and result in more good than harm.

So what is a troop to do when, through careful, rigorous study, he or she determines that a particular war--say, the war in Afghanistan--fails to meet several of these criteria? There’s a very strong case to be made that the Afghanistan War does not have a chance to succeed in its intentions, is not a last resort, fails to protect civilians, and results in more harm than good. If a troop came to any of these conclusions, and they had been trained in just war theory, it’s probable that it would lead to a severe crisis of conscience. Current policy would just toss these objections aside.

This blind spot in the consciences objector policy is particularly destructive because the military teaches its members about just war doctrine. According to the new report from the Truth Commission on Conscience in War:

“This...creates a major, irresolvable conflict. It denies freedom of religious practice and the exercise of moral conscience to those serving in the military who object to a particular war based on the moral criteria of just war, which the military itself teaches and upholds as important.

“What the military teaches, therefore, it also punishes.”

The commission’s report goes on to describe the effect of such a destructive conflict:

"When people in military service are forced to fight a war that violates their most deeply held moral beliefs, the aftermath can be severe. Indeed, new research is showing that war can bring long-lasting moral harm to veterans. VA clinical psychologists have identified a previously untreated and still rarely addressed hidden wound of war called “moral injury.” Moral injury comes from “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” The long-term impact can be “emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, spiritually, and socially” devastating, sometimes lasting an entire lifetime. Or the impact of moral injury can foster internal conflict and self-condemnation so severe that their burdens become intolerable and lead to suicide.

Tolerating this destructive contradictory policy fails to support the troops, as does tolerating the continuation of an unjust war in Afghanistan.

As we speak, the Truth Commission on Conscience in War is pushing for the recognition of a right to selective conscientious objection to allow C.O. status for those whose deeply held convictions indict a particular war as unjust or immoral. You can learn more about this and the three days of Veterans Day-related events they’re hosting at //

And, if you’re ready to join the tens of thousands of others fed up with this immoral war in Afghanistan, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

On the tenth Veterans Day of the Afghanistan War, it’s time to do more for our troops and veterans than put a sticker on a car or a magnet on the fridge. Let’s get moving.