Conscience and the Soldier
by Jacob G. Hornberger
Hopefully, the hoopla surrounding the negotiated release of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl will serve as a reminder to young people who are contemplating joining the military: As soon as you sign the contract with the military, you will be leaving your conscience behind and you will have to follow orders to kill whomever you are ordered to kill.
Let’s assume, hypothetically speaking, that Bergdahl joined the military with the same type of post-9/11 “patriotic” fervor that induced many others to join up. Let’s say that after the U.S. military sent him to Afghanistan, he came to the realization that most of the people who were being killed and maimed, including those in countless wedding parties, were entirely innocent of the 9/11 attacks. Let’s assume also that Bergdahl came to the realization that under the Constitution that he took an oath to support and defend, the president had no legal authority to wage war on Afghanistan, given that Congress never declared war on the Afghan government, as the Constitution requires.
Let’s say that all this caused Bergdahl to experience a crisis of conscience. He decides that he cannot in good conscience kill even one Afghan citizen. He wants to quit his job. He wants out of the contract he signed.
What then could Bergdahl do? What would be his options?
He would have only one option: Obey orders to kill the Afghan people, including those who are simply trying to evict the U.S. government from their country. Kill or be killed. Under the contract Bergdahl voluntarily signed with the military, he cannot simply walk away like a person can do in the private sector. If he does, the contract he signed permits the military to kill him for desertion.
Why is all this important? Because many young people don’t appreciate the profound, life-changing ramifications of joining the military, especially with respect to the exercise of their conscience. They only discover how serious the ramifications are after it is too late—that is, after they have signed the contract and are placed in a position of kill or be killed.
I’m personally convinced that this is the predominant reason that so many soldiers have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq all screwed up in the head. It has much more to do with guilt than it does with post-traumatic stress syndrome. They know that they have been participating in a brutal killing machine, most of whose victims had no role in the 9/11 attacks, and that shows no remorse whatsoever over the people it is exterminating.
Before the wars, these soldiers were normally functioning persons, spouses, and parents. But look at how many have returned as violent, abusive, alcoholic, ill-functioning human beings, spouses, or parents.
That’s what guilt does. It eats away at a person’s soul like acid.
I once asked a Catholic priest friend of mine about Catholic soldiers serving in Iraq, a country that had absolutely no connection to 9/11 at all, not even “harboring” Osama bin Laden or any other 9/11-related terrorist, which, of course, is the excuse trotted out for invading Afghanistan. I asked my friend what a Catholic soldier was supposed to do when he comes under attack by people who are doing nothing more than defending their country against a U.S. war of aggression.
He told me that the Catholic soldier’s duty is clear: He could not kill any Iraqi because that would violate God’s laws. The fact that he’s part of the U.S. Army makes no difference, he said. Since the U.S. Army has no legitimate authority to wage war against Iraq, no U.S. soldier had the right, under God’s laws, to kill anyone, my friend said.
I said, “Then doesn’t this mean that when the U.S. military places him in a position of kill or be killed, he’ll have to let himself be killed”? My friend responded, “That is precisely what it means.”
Some might say that that’s simply ridiculous. But is it? Isn’t it instead the natural consequence of having signed a contract that places one’s self in that position—in a position of choosing between violating God’s laws by wrongfully killing another person or being killed by those who are defending their country against an illegal, unconstitutional, immoral U.S. war of aggression?
Many people suggest that it’s not the individual soldier’s fault that most of the people U.S. troops have killed (and maimed) in Iraq and Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9/11. Really? Didn’t the soldier voluntarily sign the contract that required him to obey whatever orders he is issued? And doesn’t the soldier still retain the option of refusing to kill and paying the consequences?
One of the most profound articles ever written on the individual responsibility of the soldier is “Conscience on the Battlefield” by Leonard E. Read, founder of The Foundation for Economic Education. The article revolves around a conversation that a dying soldier has with his conscience, especially on the point “Don’t blame me. I was just following orders.”
Unfortunately, this phenomenon of choosing obedience to orders above conscience does not only afflict the members of the military. It is also a pervasive force across society. You see it especially at sporting events, when people stand and praise the troops for “defending our freedoms.”
Do the people who do that ever stop to ask themselves whether the troops really are doing that? Do they ask themselves whether the Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, or Yemeni people are really trying to take away the freedom of the American people? Do they ever wonder why the troops can’t just be here at home defending our freedoms?
No, they don’t. They just blindly defer to authority. They support the troops regardless of what the troops are doing and why they are doing it. They automatically assume that the people the troops are killing deserve to die. They place their support of the troops above their individual conscience and their moral duty to support the laws of God.
In the process, they are doing a grave disservice not only to themselves but also to the soldiers they purport to support. If they genuinely supported the troops, they would be demanding their immediate return from Afghanistan so that they no longer would be placed in a position of having to choose between obeying God’s laws and military rules.
Assuming that all this applies to Bergdahl, he might yet have to pay a big price, including death, for having followed the dictates of his conscience by walking away from the battlefield and joining the ranks of those he had been ordered to kill. But at least he would have the solace of knowing that he placed his conscience and his devotion to the laws of God above the dictates of the U.S. military and its vast overseas empire.