Thursday, November 06, 2008

On Conscientious Objectors, Soldiers, and Courage

I posted this on the POV.org 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.