Soldier’s Rights to Selective Objection

Last March I testified at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War (TCCW) at the Riverside Church in New York City.  Later, in July, I was on a panel at thePeace Among the Peoples conference in Elkhart, Indiana.  Both events placed a much needed emphasis on service members and the place of moral conscience in war.  Selective Conscientious Objection (SCO) played prominently in each instance, but it is important to understand that SCO is very different than the prevailing framework that has defined conscience in war.

Current regulations (Instruction 1300.6 for the Department of Defense) are clear that conscientious objector status (or “CO status”) is to be granted only to those individuals who object to “participation in war in any form.” Therefore,conscientious objection, as it is currently acknowledged by the Department of Defense, is reserved to those who identify as strict pacifists. An important caveat is that one’s reason may be based on moral or ethical reasoning as well as religious training or belief. Selective objection, wherein a service member objects not to the idea of warfare as a whole but to particular wars, is not yet recognized.

To understand selective conscientious objection, it helps to imagine objection and obedience as two ends of a scale. The current regulations recognize the extreme ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, legitimate objectors are only those who, by virtue of a “crystallization of conscience,” would deny that the conduct of war has any moral, ethical, or religious legitimacy. On the other, service members are expected to obey orders basically without qualification, since “unlawful order” is nowhere defined in the entire cannon of military law known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Title 10, Chapter 47, U.S. Code).

Folks in the former camp are what I refer to as universal pacifists, since their pacifism is not contingent upon other claims, such as the tenets of just war theory. Those in the latter camp would adhere to something we might call universal obedience, where it is considered more or less unthinkable that submission to legitimate authorities be questioned. A vocal minority occupies both extremes, producing considerate, rational arguments in support of their beliefs (whether influenced more by holy scripture or Machiavellian political philosophy, respectively).

Most service members (as well as ordinary citizens) find themselves more toward the center of this spectrum. This vast majority finds the debate too nuanced to hang their hat on either obedience or objection. Theirs is a selective objection or obedience because it is contingent upon certain factors, such as the hard to dismiss violence in the Hebrew scriptures and Pauline discourse about the authorities, or protection of the innocent, just cause, and right intention (three major tenets of just war).

The people that occupy this middle ground would scoff at the idea of both unquestioning obedience and unqualified objection. They might object to specific wars (like Vietnam or Iraq), but not others (like World War II or Afghanistan).  My bet is that most readers are either contingent pacifists or selective objectors — that you would retain the right to object to, or obey orders within war if you were to serve our nation with the distinction and honor that our service members do every day.

What has been called Selective Conscientious Objection (SCO), reasonable as it may be, has been drowned out by the polarity of the extremes. The cacophony at the margins of national moral considerations has been debilitating to the centrist consciences of our young uniformed men and women. Patriotic fervor has undone our heritage of humble confidence with power.

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