Every morning that allows it, I check Google News for the basic run of headlines. I also have a few specially catered sections in there that speak to my vocation and interests. One of them searches news outlets for the terms “religion” and “military.” So imagine my surprise when one of the headlines there talks about a truth commission! When I began reading the article, I stumbled across my own name. Surprising.
The article was decrying the upcoming Truth Commission on Conscience and War (TCCW for short), for which I will be testifying on my experience applying for recognition as a CO. I am also honored to be a part of a small team of ‘student commissioners’ that are researching certain topics in relation to Truth Commissions (TCs) across the world, in order to guide the event in March. The author, I found out through better-connected friends, has a reputation for divisiveness and emotionalism. Not really my thing.
But there are some concerns that others have expressed, either in God’s Politics commentary, or this pseudo-article (it was really more of a rant). So let me clear up a few misconceptions about TCs in general (to the best of my knowledge) as well as the specific goals of the event at the Riverside Church in New York City.
I – Truth Commissions are a sham and a waste of time. Actually there has been an incredibly rich history of truth commissions from around the world that had both reconciliatory value as well as having lead to tangible positive change in the communities they have represented. One classic example is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which helped that country heal from its very painful policy of Apartheid. TCs most immediate goal is to provide a space for oppressed or ignored communities to have their experiences honored and recorded (many TCs have been archived by the United States Institute of Peace), in fact, the TCCW will be archived by Union Theological Seminary. Other forms of TCs could include the Winter Soldier investigations (both in 1971 and 2008) or the 9-11 Commission convened by then-President Bush himself (who refused to testify under oath, curiously).
II – This truth commission is a sham and a waste of time. This one hits closer to home and reveals a greater lack of cognizance on the author’s part. Eighteen combat veterans per day are killing themselves, the highest numbers our nation has ever witnessed. When soldiers are refused the freedom to moral maturation (by which I mean the act of allowing their consciences to develop uninterrupted from a position of tolerance for political violence [when they sign up, everyone confesses that they are not and have not been a CO] to one that reflects something more like strict pacifism or realism), their consciences bear heavily on them. For example, if you shot and killed a burglar in your home that has committed a known act of violence, do you think you would feel so guilty as to kill yourself? How about if you were told you had no choice by a man in a white coat (or a military uniform)? What if you did not think the person was a burglar at all, but shot him anyway out of moral coercion? Methinks you’d be much more wracked by feelings of guilt in the latter example…
III – The TCCW is a bunch of lefty know-nothings trying to validate their “agenda.” The TCCW is hoping to introduce the issue of selective CO to the national conversations on conscience and war. Furthermore, and to their credit, the organizers of the TCCW have gone to incredible lengths to secure vast ideological diversity as well as technical expertise on these issues. The testimony and recommendations will be from both strict pacifists (like myself) to Christian realists (basically representing the Just War tradition) as well as incorporate voices from Jewish and Muslim perspectives. Furthermore, this is not a discussion that belongs exclusively to the left or the right; many people I know who are going do not subscribe to the same pacifism that I do (nor do I expect or desire them to). The point is to bring folks together for the sake of the troops who are asked (and remain ready, as I do) to forfeit their lives for the freedoms we all enjoy, to protect such freedoms as religious expression and moral self-determination.
**As a personal side note, I don’t identify with either the left (I’m pro-life, check my blog entry about it) or the right (again, I’m pro-life, meaning wars inherently violate my religious principles). To reduce people to polar extremes really doesn’t prove much of anything; its major force is that of distraction. Finally, what’s with the constant quotation marks? I can’t tell if this reflects grammatical overkill or if it’s some weird attempt at whimsically delegitimizing anything and everything one places within them…
IV – The TCCW is just going to be a big sanctimonious guilt trip against America. Some veterans have been significantly affected by the restrictions and taboos against conscience in the military. Part of the purpose of this truth commission is to hear from those veterans who are (and not every one is) groaning under the immense pressure of performing their duty without the freedom to exercise their conscience. It is this freedom, besides being guaranteed by the Constitution they and I swore our lives to protect and defend, that may realistically provide relief from the morally oppressive nature of our current political climate. Individual veterans may in fact desire to express emotions the public may not be prepared to hear. “Supporting the troops,” or anyone you care for, does not just include multiplying their joys. It also includes dividing their grief. This has historically been labeled “the soldiers burden.” It is one they should not be made to carry alone; Americans should be prepared to listen and walk along side those who carry out our collective will. More importantly, we cannot love America, are not possibly able to appreciate her, if we do not at least acknowledge her faults. It is when we fully recognize her weaknesses ALONGSIDE her strengths that we finally become capable of loving the country we share. I love America precisely because I know what she is capable of, for better and for worse.
V – There’s nothing to talk about. Service members signed a contract. First of all, it bears repeating that the current form of the Enlistment Contract is the only legal contract in which one of the parties is not bound by the terms set forth therein. I will let you guess which party that is (I’ll give you a hint, the clause to that effect states in part “any guarantees contained in this agreement may be terminated.”). If you think that constitutes an enforceable contract, let’s you and me enter a similar agreement regarding all of your worldly possessions (including your own life) and I get to be the party not bound by the contract.
Additionally, the Oath of Enlistment is important to remembers in terms of what a service member’s duty is, which primarily is to protect and defend not the faulty intelligence disseminated up by a commander in chief, but the Constitution itself. The whole thing about obeying orders comes only after the duty to our Constitution. All of this is to say that a contract does not trump one’s conscience. But more importantly, many people in uniform have interpreted their oath to include donning the “mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent” as a means of fulfilling their duty to you and to me as the vanguard our values and freedoms.
So there is actually a lot to talk about. An entire conversation has already begun and stands ready to engage you. Join us in Manhattan this March to be a part of it all.