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By The editors | DECEMBER 10, 2007
In the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, reports the Army Officer’s Guide, “the emperor or empress had a medal that was awarded to officers who, by disobeying orders, turned the tide and won important battles. In the U.S. Army,” it continues, “of course, there is no such medal: this sort of judgment, wrapped within a full, disciplined understanding of the legal and moral impact of decisions, is expected.”

Elizabeth D. Samet reflects on this passage in her recently published account of teaching literature at West Point, Soldier’s Heart (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Principled disobedience to orders has always been difficult, even when it is not just permitted, but required by law. The logic of battle, and so of military discipline, weighs heavily in favor of obedience to command. After the Vietnam War and atrocities like My Lai, the Army and Marine Corps took pains to train their personnel in responsible obedience. By the early 1990s, however, senior officers were already troubled that a new generation did not share their commitment to “military honor.” The so-called war on terror, shaped by the belief that terrorism changed all the rules, and then the protracted war in Iraq, with the uncertainties of counterinsurgency warfare along with the battle fatigue that comes with repeated rotations of the same people into combat, have made conscientious objection even more difficult. In our day, judgment “within a full, disciplined understanding of the legal and moral impact of decisions” has become more difficult to realize and still harder to implement.

Much of the difficulty has been created by civilians at the top of the chain of command. Assertions that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the war on terror paved the way for atrocities like Abu Ghraib. Talk that asymmetrical warfare demands relaxing established constraints on what might be done in combat and that new forms of unconventional warfare require “new,” undefined responses contributed to a climate of permissiveness. Some in the military, especially military lawyers, to their credit, did their best to hold the line for observance of the laws of armed conflict. But against the White House, the Justice Department and the office of the Secretary of Defense, it was an uphill battle. It fell, as it inevitably does in all wars, to conscientious officers and enlistees to stand up for the rules of war. With a volunteer military in need of men and women to fight in Iraq, however, the military has grown increasingly resistant to granting conscientious objector status to soldiers and marines. (See “A Soldier’s Decision,” America, 1/29.)

Pleas for C.O. status, dissenting from all war, often emerge from repugnance at the repeated horrors of battle. It is understandable that the experience might turn some individuals against war altogether. For Catholics, however, the issues are more complex. Catholic teaching requires disobedience to immoral orders. In their recent statement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops not only affirmed the duty of Catholics “to oppose torture [and] unjust war”; they went further, affirming the right of citizens not just to reject participation in all war, but also to resist serving in “a particular war, or a military procedure” by what is known as selective conscientious objection. While the law and military regulation make allowance for conscientious objection, neither law nor judicial decision permit it to be selective. Over the years, the U.S. bishops have repeatedly urged legalization of selective conscientious objection.

The moral confusion and ethical dilemmas brought on by the U.S. war in Iraq point to the need for legalization of S.C.O. For as the Catholic Peace Fellowship advises potential objectors already serving in the military, “Somebody might refuse to fight in Iraq, believing it to be an unjust or immoral war, but would not be opposed to fighting in a war of defense. [Such selective] conscientious objection is NOT legal, and an S.C.O. would face jail time.”

Logically, the case for S.C.O. should be stronger than the argument on behalf of a dispensation for consistent pacifists, since S.C.O. is a corollary of the just war tradition. If it is permissible to wage a just war, then it is forbidden to wage an unjust war or execute an immoral order. S.C.O. can be said, in fact, to uphold the system; it guarantees the integrity of the military. And the claim that S.C.O. endangers the national defense and the good order of the military is obviously fallacious, for it argues in effect that to support just wars, one must support unjust wars and immoral uses of force as well. Indeed, legalization of selective conscientious objection may add to the pressures that prevent political and military leaders from prosecuting unjust wars of choice, such as the Iraq war was at its inception.

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