Skip to main content

CO is only half the word

A logical implication of my rights-based approach to justifying war is that selective conscientious objection (CO) must be permitted. The challenge of this, though, is determining when a soldier is a legitimate conscientious objector and when he is just afraid and selfish.

In my limited experience, I’ve found that “CO” is only half the word. The other half is –“WARD”. As in coward. How do we distinguish CO’s who are legitimate (those with real, well thought-out moral convictions against the war) from those who are mere cowards?

My former unit in the 82nd found one way to address this challenge during the Gulf War in 1991. In the days of the air campaign before the ground campaign began, a soldier in an infantry battalion declared that he “could not kill his Muslim brothers” and fully expected to be sent to the rear or sent home. His battalion leadership, however, distrusted the soldier’s motive, and put him to a test. The commander took the soldier’s weapon away (so he wouldn’t run the risk of killing his Muslim brothers) and assigned him to the unit’s forward-most unit, the scout platoon. He told the soldier that he could help with radio watch and medical care—tasks that wouldn’t involve him in killing. Well, to make a long story short, when it came time to initiate the attack into Kuwait, that soldier was BEGGING for his weapon. Once he saw that his cowardly attempt to avoid the risk of combat wasn’t going to work, he was ready to kill rather than be killed.

This worked for one unit, but it’s obviously not an approach that could be used on a large scale. Still, it makes clear the challenge of permitting selective CO, a challenge that I’m still trying to think through.

Anyone have any ideas?

Comments

Scott Sterling said…
Pete,

My favorite topic!
I am becoming more and more convinced that selective CO is required if we are to take the Just War Tradition seriously, and if we believe that soldiers are truly moral agents capable of moral discernment.

The challenge, of course, is weeding out those who are cowards (at worst) or merely opportunists, looking for an easy way out of a difficult situation, from those who have serious convictions regarding a particular war. In my role as a chaplain I have run across all of the above.

I understand the Pandora's Box it opens, for both a volunteer army and one filled by draft. But if we take seriously the just warrior's moral right to refrain from certain TYPES of fighting (in bello), must we not also take seriously his right to refrain from the operation entirely (ad bellum)?

I don't have the answers yet as to how, but I'm convinced it's the morally correct policy to adopt.
Israel said…
Greetings,

I'm a graduate student in journalism and I am writing my final grad. stories on COs in the military since September 11, 2001. I find your blog intriguing and have a couple questions about the issue you are raising here.

Is it not the express purpose of DOD Directive 1300.06 to separate sincere COs from those applying for other reasons? Would these regulations not suffice for a situation in which selective objection was sanctioned by DOD policy? If not, what would need to change?

I'd enjoy a chat about these issues!

Thanks,
Israel Tockman

Popular posts from this blog

Moral justification for killing in war

This is my latest version of laying out the argument. Feedback is welcomed!


A moral justification for killing in war
By Pete Kilner, 2009


Introduction:
The Army performs many of the same functions as civilian organizations, yet there is one absolutely unique and defining characteristic of our profession—we are organized, equipped and trained to kill people. As company-level leaders, we recruit patriotic young Americans to kill; equip them to kill; train them to kill; develop and issue orders for them to kill; issue fire commands for them to kill; and commend them for killing enemies of our country. We perform our duties well, and the American people sleep safely at night. However, we as a profession generally do not provide our soldiers with an explanation for why it is morally right for them to kill in combat. Consequently, many of the soldiers entrusted to our care suffer needless guilt after killing in war.
The purpose of this article is to offer you a tool—an explanation for the morali…

War can be an Experience of both Heaven and Hell

Many combat veterans have a love/hate relationship with their wartime experiences. They love the profound sense of purpose that their lives had; they hate the senseless evil that necessitated the war. They love the unity they experienced with their fellow soldiers; they hate the destruction they witnessed and sometimes unleashed.
Wars are visible, political conflicts that spawn invisible, moral conflicts within those who fight them.What combat veteran doesn’t feel pride and exhilaration, disgust and anger?That’s a volatile brew of emotions—a cauldron that veterans must recognize and reconcile in order to integrate their wartime experiences into their personal life narratives.
I am a career Army officer who embedded with combat units and interviewed hundreds of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan over multiple deployments. I am also a Christian. In the course of my own struggle to integrate my identity as a soldier with my larger identity as a Christian, I gained an insight—one informed by …

Killing enemy combatants--a justification

Introduction
The profession of arms talks about ‘morality and war’ using legal terms and concepts. For example, we justify our decision to deploy and fight when the President orders us because we signed a contract to obey the officers appointed over us. Similarly, we consider ourselves blameless when we kill enemy combatants as long as we do not violate the laws of war or the rules of engagement in doing so. These legal rules are so important to our professional identity that all soldiers receive instruction on the laws of war in basic combat training and then annually thereafter, and soldiers at war review the rules of engagement much more often, sometimes daily.

Not everyone in our society, however, accepts these legal answers to moral questions. War pacifists are people who believe that war is morally unjustifiable. They claim that soldiers are morally wrong to participate in war and to kill other human beings, regardless of what’s legally permissible at the time.

Currently, we milita…