Conscientious Objection and The Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers

The Deserter

This has been sitting in my queue of things to write about for two months now. It is an essay in the Boston Review titled ‘The Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers.’ It is written by Jeff McMahan, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University.

One of the topics on war that interests me is the ‘why we fightstuff. I wrote recently about the ‘virtue of the conqueror,’ and how the disappearance of that as an actual thing makes the whole episode of war more difficult to swallow for the individual charged with fighting it.

Professor McMahan writes about the moral dilemma soldiers in an all-volunteer military face when thrust into an unjust war. What are they to do?

Much of his essay is an exploration of the all-volunteer military and just war theory and how the two interplay. Then, he posits that it would be in our best interests as a nation to allow for selective conscientious objection.

I furrowed my brow at that, thinking, we already had a means to exit the service through conscientious objection. I remembered from my enlisted time the stories of soldiers deserting and fleeing to Canada shortly after the Iraq War began and the groups that sprouted aiming to assist soldiers get out of the military as conscientious objectors.

I thought that it would be a pretty glaring error to publish something in the Boston Review without checking first, so I dug into Army Regulation 600-43 (Conscientious Objection) to find out more.

Interestingly, I found that one cannot attain status as a conscientious objector “based on objection to a certain war” (para 1-5, no. 4). That is, if an individual soldier thinks a certain war is unjust or whatever, that is not criteria to attain status as a conscientious objector and either be moved into a non-combatant role or discharged from the military altogether.

Being a soldier is hard. It’s especially hard when faced with ambiguous situations (which is why I compare war to the game Mass Effect, not Call of Duty). It’s been shown time and time again that “I was just following orders” is not a defense for illegal or immoral behavior on the battlefield. Individuals are charged – rightly or wrongly – with processing orders from superiors through filters of appropriateness before acting. In the grander scheme of things, a soldier has to decide whether he can live with himself after taking this or that action. That is hard. Soldiering is hard.

All that said, it’s often not that hard to know whether a given action is right or wrong. Usually, just asking the question “is this the right answer?” is enough to know what to do.

Back to Professor McMahan: his charge is that individual soldiers should have a way out of specific conflicts, which the current regulation prohibits. Ethically, that seems to make sense. How can we ask an individual who has voluntarily put his faith into “the system” to go to war in a conflict that he or she sees as unjust or immoral?

There are pitfalls here, which McMahan concedes. One being the test of sincerity. How do you know that one is really opposed to a specific conflict and not just trying to avoid going to war, especially if that war is particularly gruesome?

It’s tough being a soldier. And without writing a long thesis on it, I’ve personally found solace through “believing in the system” as cold and distant as it can seem. If you fundamentally believe in the American project, then carrying out its orders doesn’t come with great difficulty.

The individual always reserves the final vote, however – the ultimate veto. And in the end, each of us – as individuals – has to be prepared to answer for our actions. “I was just following orders” will not work on the front page of the newspaper or the trial of our gods.

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