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 liv...

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?