Skip to main content

On Conscientious Objectors, Soldiers, and Courage

I posted this on the blog in response to viewers of Soldiers of Conscience praising the featured conscientious objectors' courage.

A consistent--and, in fact, necessary--assumption of war pacifists is that the soldiers on both sides of a war are not fully autonomous human beings. Aiden reveals that assumption when he states, "the vast majority of Iraqi soldiers and insurgents are really poor, uneducated men with no prospects, forced into a life of violence not by belief, but by economics." I'm sure he would say the same thing about American Soldiers--that we are "forced or fooled" into choosing to serve their country in uniform.

I cannot tell you how many times, during my masters and doctoral work at civilian universities, and at professional conferences on both ethics and education (my fields of study), people have said to me, "Why would someone as intelligent as you ever join the military?" They are dumbfounded when an actual encounter with a Soldier reveals their assumptions to be false.

I have been inside the pacifist, anti-military movement, and it is characterized by a paternalistic disdain for those who choose to serve in the military. This assumption is so foundational, so shared, that anti-military pacifists take it for granted. They simply go about their work of "saving" those "poor, no-other-options-in-life" patriotic Americans from defending the freedoms we all enjoy.

The other point I would like to make concerns the (mis)use of the word "courage." The film and its media outreach present the CO's as courageous. Let's take a minute to examine the nature of the courage they demonstrated.

If courage is defined as overcoming fear, what is the CO afraid of? People thinking of him as a coward? Fear of social rejection by the peer group? Although this is undeniably a form of courage, it's the civilian equivalent to not drinking when your underage peers do, or of telling someone that you didn't appreciate their racist joke. The primary risk is social rejection.

So, a CO's courage is a legitimate form of courage (a type of moral courage), but it hardly compares with the the moral and physical courage exhibited by Soldiers who sign up to fight and then actually risk their lives in battle.

What does a Soldier fear? Death. Dismemberment. Things that are a bit more serious and permanent than social rejection. The civilian equivalent of a Soldier's courage is a fireman who rushes into a burning building to save someone trapped inside, or of a lifeguard who braves a rip tide to rescue swimmers.

Who's the hero--the kid who resists peer pressure or the one who risks his own life and limb to save someone else? Both are heroes, but the latter one deserves greater admiration.

For every 1 conscientious objector who shows courage in the face of peer pressure, there are more than 1,000 Soldiers who show courage in the face of violent death. We should all be thankful for that unseen, courageous majority. No one gives them book deals.


Kevin said…
Thought provoking blog! A few semi-random thoughts I had as reading this.

First, Michael Gross points out that during times of war people often break into one of two camps, either a "realist" position or an "idealist" position. Neither position is necessarily bad, until it is taken to an extreme. For example, an idealist may forget that someone has to stop the school-yard bully; while the realist may forget that they are trying to stop the bully from interfering with other peoples’ rights, i.e., the realist may forget what they are fighting to preserve. Unfortunately, we find an attitude with some in the idealists camp that the military is inherently corrupt, or that Soldiers are brainless automatons. The flip side, from the realists camp, is that sometimes people are unduly limited in their autonomy due to training that works a bit too well.

Second, there are many types of courage – asking someone out, stopping a friend from drinking and driving, standing up to racism, etc. Yet, as you mention, a Soldier’s courage is the classical example of courage within traditional virtue ethics. We see this theme in classical works like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, contemporary fiction like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, or the popular Card Novel Ender’s Game.

I have a few more thoughts, especially concerning the nature of courage, but as I now work at West Point I hope that sometime I can come discuss them with you. Until then, I look forward to following your blog.
Pete said…

Thanks for your feedback, and I couldn't agree more.

I discussed the pacifist-idealist vs realist dichotomy in this Wash Post op-ed.
Parrish said…
I just posted the following on the POV webblog on the film. It deserves a reading here with an additional comment. The very nature of the conditioning that the military does to prepare men to go into battle raises question of bravery. I'd also like to know are Iraqi insurgents also brave and courageous? Are suicide bombers courageous or deluded? How does their behavior differ from those of U.S. soldiers? As I understood Ender's Game, all of the players were deluded into thinking they were merely playing a game until the very end.

"I am thankful for this film and its POV. It makes me wonder what people do not get. Every world religion assumes that peace is the moral state of humanity. Most have considerable social and spiritual advice for reaching that state. No moral argument has to be made for peace. So we should learn something when a military officer decides he has to justify war morally; when theologians write extensive tracts on the morality of war; governments go to great ends to justify going to war; and the military has to find ways to train men and women so they can actually shoot and kill human beings.

The finger may be pointed without question at religious leaders throughout the ages of all kinds for not preaching what their faith teaches. They have been co-opted by government and hobbled by congregants who live in self-justifying denial about the immorality of war and violence. Sadly, I was reading the other day an interview with a well known religious leader and proponent f non-violence who was credited with having justified violence if one had the right attitude while perpetrating the act. Thus he did as one of the soldiers did, namely, divided us into two parts: spiritual and physical/emotional. In reality, we are each one being that cannot be divided. Most great religious teachers stress that one becomes spiritual by behaving spiritually, walking the way—Training oneself (mentally and physically) to react rightly regardless of one's reflex from nature. One does not create peace by fighting wars anymore than one maintains one's chastity by having promiscuous sex."
David Henise said…
I was googling to see if a specific article was easy to find with certain key words when I saw this article in the search results as well. I saw a line about teaching philosophy at West Point, and decided to read the article through. Well, first I'll be a little divulgent before I even say anything in response to the article.

I got out of the Army as a conscientious objector a couple years ago. So, for political or personally historical reasons, I can be called a conscientious objector. But, I've never referred to myself as a pacifist because I consider my brand of conscientious objection to be albut the opposite of pacifism. That is, I never thought that I wanted to sit at home and "love everybody" and bring about peace with my examples of compassion. I wouldn't think of myself that way, at least, even though as a sort of philosopher myself I think that there is bound to be some perspective from which any statement can be said to be true or at least logical.

At any rate, to get down to the meat of your subject, I think that there is more depth to the courage of a conscientious objector than what you mention. I don't think that because I disagree with you. I hardly disagree with your point at all. I can imagine that some (many?) pacifists on the one hand, or simply economic elitists on the other hand, might not realize how valid your point is. So, all I really want to do is add to your point just a bit (albeit without getting as deep as I could get).

Don't you think that there is a deeper moral/spiritual progression that is really at stake or in question? The courage to "stand up" and "conscientiously object" hasn't, in the bigger picture, anything to do with standing up against peer pressure in and of itself. If that were all that were in question, then we would be rejecting the context into which conscientious objection fits. That context is a larger picture of not only moral standpoints but of moral progression.

It is within the larger picture of moral progression that the "courage" of not so much "conscientious objection" but of the moral growth which it suggests is taking place that the courage truly makes sense. That is, at least, if you're speaking philosophically, yes? There is a deeper courage that motivates the surfacial courage of going against peer pressure (or even physical inconvenience in some countries or in the past or even arguably in some modern legal cases).

The surfacial courage is the equivalent of a legal courage. One decides to apply to be conscientious objector in today's US military, as I did. Or, one might even decide to go AWOL after failing to see how they can accomplish their goals legally. Those decisions are defined by knowledge personal experiences - both recent and past, and are all ultimately legal questions - "peer-pressure" and "social standing" are included.

But, beneath all of that legality and social standing is the courage to face and to challenge yourself to make decisions which may have been foreign to you a year or two ago but which are necessary side-effects of your moral/spiritual growth. It is within the larger context of becoming accustomed to challenging yourself - to build the "courage" to do so - that any morally based decision such as "becoming a conscientious objector" is truly based. Without that, you are correct - the surfacial courage is mostly froth and pales in comparison to the courage of facing loss of life and limb.
Pete said…

I agree that becoming a CO can be a natural outgrowth of a spiritual development that manifests itself in a changed identity that leads to changed attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

But I'm not so clear on your point about courage. Courage is, by definition, action in the face of a "fear."

So, as you speak of a deeper level of courage, what is the fear that it is facing? Your response will help me to understand better your perspective.

Pete said…

I've delayed responding b/c (I have to admit) I find the comments not worthy of responses. Yet, this is an opportunity to address a few important points.

1. "The very nature of the conditioning that the military does to prepare men to go into battle raises question of bravery."

US troops are trained to act quickly and effectively in the chaos of combat, but they still act consciously. Some soldiers act with bravery; others do not. Even when they were trained the same. So, bottom line, is that most of our Soldiers demonstrate amazing bravery (and restraint) by virtue of their individual and collective character.

2. "Are suicide bombers courageous or deluded?" Many of them are brave, most are deluded. It is a shame to see bravery wasted on an unjust cause (and often, merely for money).

Suicide bombers are almost always deluded into believing that "their god" wants them to kill themselves and innocents; the hard-core jihadists behind the bombers (who never kill themselves, of course) prey on the ignorant, plus they usually drug them at the time of execution.

3. "No moral argument has to be made for peace."

Of course. Yet, a just war is undertaken not when the option is peace, but when the option is allowing an unjust attack to succeed. A just war is waged against an unjust attack, not against peace. The aim and justification of a just war is the resrotation of peace, which had already been destroyed by the unjust aggressor.

4. "So we should learn something when a military officer decides he has to justify war morally; when theologians write extensive tracts on the morality of war; governments go to great ends to justify going to war; and the military has to find ways to train men and women so they can actually shoot and kill human beings."

Yes, we should learn that not everyone is content with simple-minded explanations. Those who have experienced war know that it is more complicated than you think it is, that it cuts to the heart of our humanity.

5. "Sadly, I was reading the other day an interview with a well known religious leader and proponent of non-violence who was credited with having justified violence if one had the right attitude while perpetrating the act."

I assume you are referring to Augustine's call not to let hatred consume our hearts when we have to use violence to defend ourselves. Actually, the more I learn about combat, the more impressed I am with Augustine's guidance. It is entirely consistent to kill an aggressor while feeling sadness for the tragic situation, rather than hatred and glee. War is the lesser of evils, not a good thing.

I appreciate your comments, and I invite others to engage in this ongoing conversation. There's not enough of it going on in our world.
Pete said…
Here is another follow-up to David.

I would disagree with you that "new thinking" always implies moral progress.

I know many people who have "discovered" new ways of seeing the world and their role in it--some give up Christian faith, others find it; some become recommitted to their marriage, others divorce to "be their authentic selves"; some find meaning in physical fitness, others in environmentalism.

All in all, sometimes their "personal growth" is moral progress, and sometimes it's not. People have a natural search for meaning in their lives, but there are as many wrong paths as right ones, as many that represent spiritual growth as represent spiritual loss.
David Henise said…

Funny, but googling once again brought me around to your blog - from a very differnt path this time. This time I was googling myself to make sure some things got updated in the rankings. But there was your blog in the list. I'm sorry this is such a late reply. I really didn't check back with your blog more than once or twice after I posted. But let me try to give answers to your questions:

In your first reply to me you asked: "So, as you speak of a deeper level of courage, what is the fear that it is facing? Your response will help me to understand better your perspective." Well, in short, I mean(t) inner fear. That may sound simplistic. But I'd rather keep my answer to that question short rather than rambling on. I will add, however, that it's easy to note that inner fear is the only true fear. So, that's why I say my answer probably seems so simplistic - in case that wasn't clear.

In your February reply to me, to paraphrase, you stated that "new thinking" could be either backward or forward - progress or regress. Well, here's where I have to admit that I am very (neo or Western) Buddhist in my thinking. That is, knocking out karmic reincarnations and all that assumption based thinking, and getting down to the principles of things...I don't that change can really be regressive. Perhaps that's because I tend to concentrate on the bigger picture in different scenarios. But, if there is change, there is bound to be growth. Growth is progress, etc.

I think I'm aware how positivistic or, again, simplistic that could sound. However, I think it just emerges out of my general worldview. If our lives or our existence is to be said to have anything like "meaning" or even a direction in which to move, then we must be in the larget sense growing and progressing. And it is that perspective that I come from when I think and imply that "new thinking" means progress. And again, I am thinking mostly from angles that I would call philosophical but that a lot of people could probably only call spiritual.

I'll just end by saying things this way. It might not be so easy for one person to track another person's growth a lot of times, but it's there. It's got to be. Besides, the whole "right versus wrong" framework just didn't stand up to years of analysis for me...even though I was raised with the type of thinking that depended heavily on what was "right" and what was "wrong". Right and wrong (and progress and regress) are like appearances and dichotomizations but are not the underlying, shall I say, evolution or driving force to things.
Randy Converse said…
I am a conscientious objector. I see the task of COs is to challenge the assumption that soldiers need to use weapons designed to kill to defend others.
We need to put the emphasis instead on the use by soldiers of nonlethal weapons (i.e. rubber bullets, tasers, nonlethal grenades, microwave immobilization of tanks,etc.) and nonviolent strategies. This may be a "pipe dream" of mine but I see this as a worthwhiile goal because it is a good balance between the "realistic" and the "idealistic" perspectives.

Randy Converse (
Apolloin said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adrian said…
Hi Pete

Unfortunately your post shows a lack of understanding of the history of the CO phenomena.

Throughout history, until the turn of the last century when the right to CO was established, COs risked being court marshalled and executed.

Even when the right was established, people claiming to be COs would have to appear before a judge who decided whether they were legitimate COs or just avoiding - and judges of course are establishment figures and often found against them.

During WW1 and WW2 COs were routinely imprisoned, lost their careers and families, and sentenced to service which amounted to hard labour.

I speak of the UK experience where I believe the CO rights were first established.

Being a CO has never been the easy choice of the thoughtless and morally week. Signing up has throughout history been the smooth path supported by propoganda and society. This has changed only very recently with the professionalisation of the forces due to technology changes.

I look forward to reading more of your blog.
Adrian said…
Hi again

I should also point out that the brave thing is to do what you think is right in the face of difficulty. If the difficulty is small then the bravery is small, whereas if the difficulty is large then the bravery is large. But the key thing is it's about doing what you think is right.

Doing what you think is wrong is a moral weakness. Doing what you think is wrong in the face of great difficulty is still a moral weakness.

The issue here then is what is right and wrong, and the comparison of the difficulties involved is not relevant. It's a moral choice, not a p*ssing competition on who can put up with the most difficulty.
Jim Lieberman said…
I respect Pete Kilner's statement on ethics but challenge his dismissal of the CO, who he asserts is not courageous, i.e. does not have to overcomd a fear comparable with fear of death. I'd say the CO confronts a fear of loss greater than death, i.e., loss of soul--by acting contrary to his/her ethical and religious principles. They have the courage of their convictions--that taking orders from a commander does not make killing ethical, a chaplain's blessing notwithstanding.

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

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

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…