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Selective Conscientious Objection

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As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on the U.S. considers new wars in Arab nations fraught with political unrest, there is a serious debate around war growing at the grassroots level that includes people of many religious denominations. It has to do with the moral right of our soldiers to decide whether or not to fight in a particular war.

The United States of America is founded on principles of political and religious freedom. When we punish the soldier who heeds his or her moral compass, our democracy is in grave danger. We fail as American citizens and we fail as human beings.            Rev. Dr. Kaia Stern, Truth Commission on Conscience and War Chair

The Truth Commission on Conscience in War was created to address moral dilemmas created for members of the U. S. Armed Services by current regulations governing Conscientious Objection. It seeks to provide greater protection for religious freedom and the exercise of moral conscience in war and to educate the public about the moral injury caused by war. If this movement were to succeed in achieving its goal, by shifting the right to decide when and where to fight, the implications for U.S. militarism are significant.

The Commission arose due to objections to the silence of most Christian churches to the multiple wars and military actions that the U.S. is engaged in, the unacknowledged moral damage caused by war, and the limited military rules relating to conscience objection.

One goal is to have current U.S. military regulations governing Conscientious Objection amended to recognize Selective Conscientious Objection. This is the right to object to a particular war based on moral grounds, a right recognized for many years by Great Britain, until Tony Blair revoked it.

The Truth Commission held hearings in March, 2010. The Commission's Report on these hearings was released Veterans' Day, November 11, 2010, during a worship service at National City Christian Church in Washington, DC.

The Report notes that our military regulations have long recognized an individual's right to refuse military service for reasons of faith or conscience. This was highlighted when President Obama cited the moral criteria of the Just War Doctrine to defend the rare necessity of going to war when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

The U.S. military trains members of the armed forces in the principles of just war, both in basic training and at the war colleges. The Commission Report states that they are expected to exercise individual moral conscience in war as defined in Nuremberg Principle IV, which 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."

Current U.S. military regulations governing Conscientious Objection require objection to "war in any form." The Report states that this requirement creates a major, irresolvable conflict. "It denies freedom of religious practice and the exercise of moral conscience to those serving in the military who object to a particular war based on the moral criteria of just war, which the military itself teaches and upholds as important."

It asserts that "the current suffering and moral dilemmas of the service men and women who morally object to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are evidenced in the large number of those in military service who have refused deployment, are in prison, have been dishonorably discharged, or have committed suicide. In addition to unprecedented suicide rates among active duty military, veteran suicides (6,000 a year or twenty percent of all U.S. suicides), have taken more American lives than the Afghanistan and Iraq wars themselves."

Those forced to fight a war that violates their most deeply held moral beliefs can suffer long-lasting moral harm. The Report states that "VA clinical psychologists have identified a previously untreated and still rarely addressed hidden wound of war called "moral injury." Moral injury comes from "perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.' The long-term impact can be "emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, spiritually, and socially' devastating, sometimes lasting an entire lifetime. Or the impact of moral injury can foster internal conflict and self-condemnation so severe that their burdens become intolerable and lead to suicide." (Citing Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans.)

These are issues worthy of discussion in our democracy, a nation whose leaders so often see military might and war as the answer to our problems. It is evidence that the shift in consciousness around how we deal with conflict in other arenas, such as our criminal courts, school discipline and neighborhood conflict, is beginning to encompass the issue of war as a tool for addressing conflict. As our engagement in war has long drawn its moral legitimacy from the blessings many of our religious institutions have given to it, the fact this movement primarily involves churches is of particular importance.

Posted on on Nov. 23, 2010.

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