Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Right to Not Bear Arms

There will be a chance to sign a Registry of Conscientious Objectors at Clark University this Friday. I believe this is a national registry, but I am having some trouble establishing that definitively, so for the time being let's just call it a registry and carry on from there. I think the event will be interesting and encourage people to attend even if they don't sign the registry. Peace is a tricky subject and whether or not you feel a worldwide peace is attainable, the topic demands discussion in order for us to shape our personal and national approach to foreign policy.

Conscientious objection is an equally difficult matter. According to the Department of Defense, conscientious objection is "a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief," and is further broken into two classes - Class 1-O objectors, whose beliefs prohibit them from participating in war of any kind, and Class 1-A-O objectors, whose beliefs limit them to non-combatant roles in war. There is a question, however, of whether or not conscientious objection is morally and ethically coherent within its motivation and end result.

Of course, if Christian Just War Theory guided US military actions, conscientious objection would become a moot point; presumably the citizens supporting a military and government guided by these principles would be Christian themselves and thus willing to engage in combat under Just War principles. This is not the case in the United States, and we must adjust our thinking accordingly. We are uncomfortable with the use of religion as a justification for war. It seems that in abandoning this justification we are declaring religion an inadequate basis for combat and perhaps for political life all together. This seems clear enough, but we then allow conscientious objection on the idea that religious conviction supersedes the agreement one makes with his nation to serve in the military.

Is it fair to let religion inform our decisions concerning the state when we are meant to function as a secular society? This question concerns both the motivation for joining and the reasons for leaving the service. The refusal to rely purely on religious motivation for war and the reticence to even discuss publicly the idea of letting Christian Just War Tradition inform our discourse on military action would seem to cast off religious determination all together. If this is so, it seems a radical exception to allow religious objection to military service. Given the secular nature of today's military, I can't help but feel that a recruiter would not be wholly comfortable when confronted with someone who showed up to register for military service saying he or she was directed by God to join the US military. Should there not be similar discomfort when one relies on religion for an exemption?

There is also a question of veracity. The simplest way to handle objections to service developed after contracting with the military is in fact the current policy. We can all relate to certain moments which changed the direction of our lives, and the extremities of combat could certainly supply such moments. However, the conscientious objection policy specifically concerns itself with religious belief. Religion is often understood as an all encompassing subscription to a faith; of course people may come to or change their religion later in life, but that an immediate and complete transformation should occur in the midst of combat after having felt strongly enough about the cause to put one's life knowingly in harm's way seems like it would be an unusual reversal. Why religion above all? Why specify that it must be a religious revelation that can release one from a service contract? It seems that we are less ambivalent towards religion than our larger military policy and disregard for Christian Just War Theory may at first indicate.

Even more complicated are the Class 1-A-O objectors. Is it possible to join a military body and refuse to participate in the stated actions of the military? This class further fractures the religious/political distinctions and allows the objector to exempt himself from the principle reality of military service. Even if one serves as a medic, one would be healing soldiers so that they could go again into battle. In an administrative role, one still facilitates the business of war. If one's objection is to killing or war, then the efforts he exerts in his non-combat job still violate his principles. To simply serve his country, there are numerous options for civil service one could choose, but the Class 1-A-O objector remains in the military. Does this detract from the strength of the religious basis for objection? I think it must; rare is the religion that says direct killing is unforgivable but indirect killing is okay.

The matter of conscientious objection points to large scale confusion between we have different levels of commitment just as we have different kinds of love. There is a certain fear in our public discussion of religion, perhaps because religion relies on unprovable faith. We demand clear definitions of our actions, and sometimes it is not that simple. One feels loyalty to many things in his life and how we vet these loyalties cannot be rigidly defined. The US conscientious objector rules certainly make a game stab at establishing lines dividing religion and politics, but we see that these rules are rife with problems nonetheless.

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