It has been incredibly difficult to write my testimony for the Truth Commission on Conscience in War. I have gone thru several copies already, each discarded in a frenzy of caffeinated frustration as I try to sort out exactly what my experience has been in regards to conscience in war. The crux of my angst has come from the commonly held viewpoint that we have an “all volunteer force.” I will not go into depth why that term is in fact a misnomer, that is for another time.
From where I stand, the assumed voluntary nature of our armed forces is at the center of this particular discussion. This notion empowers both proponents and opponents of US military force to equally assail others and myself with accusations of either cowardice or complicity. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The supposed volunteer nature of our service has only provided fuel for the flames.
However, I want to make very clear the fact that I did not choose to occupy Iraq, nor did I choose to enter any institution that would actively deny moral agency to any of its members. I have been plagued by guilt for a “choice” I had no definitive knowledge of making.
On the one hand, I am figuratively struck on the cheek for “choosing” to occupy Iraq and therefore, the theory goes, I am complicit in war crimes and may never fully wash the blood from my hands. To make matters worse, though my actions earned me this repute, they may not dissolve it; no matter what I have done in the five years since my deployment, I will always carry the yoke of martial fraternity upon my shoulders. I will only ever be as good as the uniform I wore.
From the other hand, the bludgeon of “choice” is wielded against me in the form of constant reminders (usually screamed at me from point blank range) that my choice was made upon signing my enlistment contract … before I could even shave or consume alcoholic beverages. How dare my moral character evolve?
It might be important to mention that, in theory, service members are actually offered access to SCO. This is achieved by the understanding that each person is to disobey unlawful orders. This is where we find moral agency within the ranks, one might think. Unfortunately, a dangerous precedent is being flown around under the radar, so to speak
Take, for example, my own unit, 2-35 IN, 25th ID. At the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, CA, on a training exercise for what would have been my 2nd deployment, my Battalion Commander, LTC Michael Browder, guaranteed my company that he would grant us immunity from international law by planting weapons “If the wrong person gets shot.”
I would not deploy with that unit, as I was found to be unfit for service on account of my stated intent to exercise my right not to bear arms as a Christian pacifist. During the deployment, SFC Troy Corrales, a platoon leader, ordered a subordinate, one SPC Christopher Shore, to “finish” an unarmed Iraqi detainee. To make matters worse, an additional charge was brought against the SFC, since he had placed an AK-47 on the scene to get precisely the immunity LTC Browder had promised.
“But you are to disobey unlawful orders,” one may say, “that stands in the place of SCO.” The subordinate should have disobeyed! Well, he did disobey, according to his own and other platoon members’ testimony. He was convicted and reduced in rank.
The basic argument, that refusing to obey orders that one deems unlawful constitutes a form of SCO, make for a great principle, but seldom finds its way into practice. While I found a plethora of legal material denying clemency to those who commit crimes under the auspices of obedience (United States v. Keenan, for example, or the famous trial of My Lai perpetrator Lt. Calley), I turned up nothing within the UCMJ that positively protects a member in disobeying an illegal order.
As far as I can ascertain, determination of what constitutes an illegal order is left at the discretion of the unit commander or the determination of the Court Martial. Unfortunately, in terms of practical effect, individual service members are, as I was told repeatedly in basic training, “not paid to think.” My question is whether, in the case of SPC Shore, that duty fell to LTC Browder or SFC Corrales. To drive my point home, Corrales was acquitted based on his defense that his actions were “reflexive,” based solely on instinct and reaction. Essentially, his claim was that his training was so automatic, so superbly administered by US Army Training and Doctrine Command, that he did not deserve a guilty sentence. And his defense worked. …Does that mean it was the LTC’s job to think then? To whom does moral responsibility fall?
Whether I like it or not, it is alongside these men that I am pictured when some people hear that I am a combat veteran. But I am not those men. I served Loyally, Dutifully, Respectfully, Selflessly, Honorably, and with Integrity and Personal courage. These values compelled me on numerous occasions to confront my leadership (sometimes threateningly) about abuses that I observed, often distancing myself from the safety and social cohesion of the platoon. I was labeled gun-shy because it came to be known that I did not fire my weapon during a convoy ambush. The fact that I was dutifully discriminative in my engagement of targets too often does not reach the ears of those who fall victim to US military aggression. The only stories that seem to reverberate are those similar to the images conjured up by SFC Corrales and others like him. It is as though I have paid the price for their transgressions, judged guilty for their sins.