In Conscience Participation in the Military
By Adam Krueger, retired Navy chaplain
Whether or not a Christian can serve in the military with conscience is a question on which Christians are divided. My personal belief is that military service may take a variety of forms that are entirely justifiable for a Christian. Several New Testament references support this understanding, including Paul’s writings in Romans (13:1-2) that the State is a legitimate authority charged with preserving order, and to which Christians should submit. It is also possible to infer at least tacit approval from the fact that Jesus interacted with soldiers of his day on several occasions and, unlike his interaction with others he found sinful, he never commands them to repent and leave their profession.
Another consideration in terms of service with conscience to the military is that today when individuals join the military they do so for a fixed period of time and “belong” to the military until that time expires. It is arguably a voluntary form of bondage or servitude, and the Bible specifically deals with what happens when you become a Christian while a slave in 1 Corinthians 7:20-21 – you have a responsibility to remain in service until you become free of that obligation. That may mean a change of venue or type of service but strongly suggests that abandoning the obligation is not an option.
That said, most place limits on what kind of military service is allowable. Actions to protect and defend are more easily justified, for example, than acts of aggression. Likewise, limits are also placed on what conduct is allowable within military service and ethical conduct is especially key to serving with conscience. Providing standards, counsel and encouragement for ethical conduct is where the church best supports members who choose to serve in the military with conscience.
Military service and the conduct of military operations always pose special and pressing moral challenges. The greatest challenge to service with conscience that most members of our military face, of course, is balancing personal ethics and morals with the potential need, at times, to take lives or send others into harm’s way during a time of conflict. How does one, in conscience, give the order, make the call, pull the trigger, pull the pin, or push the button when you know that doing so will likely mean the loss of human life? This dilemma is intensified when the ethical nature of a conflict is also in question.
At its core though, is it any different than the challenges we place on police officers? A police officer is obligated to take action when a crime is in progress, while ordinary citizens aren’t. Similarly, parents are expected to care for their children in ways others are not. Certain obligations are attached to certain roles. As one assumes a role in society, it frequently carries with it some very definite moral baggage not necessarily associated with other roles. The same holds true for members of the military.
To serve with conscience, though, acknowledges a dilemma. To insure that our armed forces serve honorably, training and regulations require that those who serve in the U.S. military act morally, even in war. What this means, though, is not always clear.
When sending troops into areas of conflict and war, the government essentially says that you can engage in certain harmful acts and we won’t hold you accountable. The Nuremberg Principle, however, says this is not always the case. The Nuremberg Principle IV states, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” Service members are often required to discern these moral choices in the midst of battle, suffering from battle fatigue, and despite conditioning to see the enemies as less than human and overcome the moral resistance to killing them. Serving with conscience means being aware of this dilemma and being willing and able to accept the responsibility for making moral choices in these circumstances.
Serving with conscience also understands this is complicated by the fact that the exercise of moral choice is usually restricted. Military regulations do not generally permit those in the military to selectively accept assignments they consider moral and decline those they find morally objectionable. Failure to carry out an assignment most often results in court martial and punishment. Yet another reason it is important to have people of conscience in all levels of military service, decreasing the likelihood of morally objectionable options.
If one voluntarily assumes the role with conscience, then there are, by default, certain standards of behavior and character to which one agrees. Certainly an obligation to honestly and conscientiously attend to every day military duties comes with the package. If called into combat, doing one’s best seems uncontroversial, an obligation attached to the role. The same is true of obedience to superiors and loyalty to the constitution, etc. These are part of the public understanding of the military professional’s role-based obligations.
The importance of having ethical people of conscience in all ranks for the good of our armed forces and our nation cannot be overstated. The kinds of demands placed on the character and behaviour of our military members would prevent them from functioning well, especially in combat, if individuals of every rank were not honest, courageous, loyal, obedient, conscientious, and selfless. Without these qualities, most would never put up with the hardships of military life, let alone be willing to risk their lives. But to what degree do these qualities exist and how are they nurtured in people of conscience? That is rightly the concern of the church. What institution has better resources for building and supporting ethical behavior and service with conscience?
Sylvia Clute writes in her blog: The Moral Dilemma of Military Services…What happens if you acknowledge that you bear ultimate moral responsibility for your acts. Then there is no double moral standard to justify what you are called upon to do in war. You give up blaming others for the harm you cause. Individual moral accountability reflects one moral standard, which, if universally applied, would deny war its moral legitimacy.
The only way out of the dilemma of dual morality is do precisely this, to all live by one standard of morality: harm to anyone, by anyone, is unacceptable. Is it possible for the U.S. military to demonstrate one moral standard for the world?
Sometimes we do. When we give to others what truly serves their needs, not what serves our needs at their expense, we end up serving both our needs and theirs. The 2005 earthquake in Pakistan is an example of what this approach achieves.
In the wake of the Iraq war, Muslims around the globe turned against the United States, threatening Americans with harm and even death. In Pakistan, favorable public opinion toward the United States plummeted to just a few percentage points. Then Pakistan was hit with a terrible earthquake. American soldiers were sent to Pakistan to provide medical care, shelter, and food to victims of this disaster. In so doing, they won favor with many Pakistanis who had previously hated us. In fact, favorable opinion toward the United States rose to 46 percent by the end of November that year. What had been expected to take years took a month do to acts of kindness and charity by our military.
Until we have a military that functions under this single moral standard, however, the hard question of service with conscience remains. Faithful church members who feel the call to serve must ask themselves, can I be a person who is truly ethical but who can also take a life on command, and under what circumstances? At the same time, the church and society must push the military to have the objective of a single moral standard, that of doing no harm. We must continue to insist upon programs that train personnel and makes things like group loyalty and effective fighting compatible with the moral reflection and reasoning necessary to serve and be loyal with conscience. One should not be required to suspend ethical awareness to function or succeed within the military. This should be the future direction of our Armed Forces.
And what of past and present actions? We, the church, should always look at what is being done for those who serve or have served under a dual moral standard with conscience. What is being done to address the mental and spiritual needs that arise when they hit a wall of doubt about this service at some later point? How can the gospel speak to and heal their suffering conscience? The last thing we want to do is demonize these soldiers for their physical, psychological and spiritual sacrifices.
Often the greatest of the sacrifices made by soldiers is not the willingness to die but something more troubling. In times of war soldiers are told to do what everybody is taught throughout their life they must never do: deliberately maim or kill other persons. To be fit for warfare soldiers must abandon that crucial lesson for other, more deadly lessons. They must be trained to be killers who are capable of killing on command. “No sacrifice is more dramatic than the sacrifice asked of those sent to war, that is, the sacrifice of their unwillingness to kill,” Duke University theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has observed. While the rigors of military life can have ennobling effects on a person’s life, at the same time, the experience of war, and specifically the experience of killing, is often morally shattering, leading to guilt, shame and self-revulsion—especially to those who serve with conscience. Soldiers are often in need of forgiveness, acceptance and compassion.
We live in a sinful, broken and hostile world with competing ideologies and national interests. To believe in a world where a military force and trained soldiers is unnecessary is unrealistic. But to imagine a military without leaders and soldiers who seek to serve one moral standard with conscience is terrifying. The best hope we have for avoiding the atrocities of past conflicts is allowing for, and dare I say encouraging, people of faith to serve with conscience. We need courageous, loyal citizens willing to serve our country to act in accordance with one moral standard. By choosing this path, lasting peace and national security will be more assured than through war. And indeed, serving in the military will no longer mean facing intractable moral dilemmas.
Adam Krueger has served as president of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. He is a retired Chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserve.