Conscience and War

by Alexander Patico

Advocates of going to war often speak of honor, duty and patriotism. Those who plead for peace often stress conscience and faith. Why the dichotomy? Is peace dishonorable? Are warriors without conscience? Does duty point us in one direction only? Does our faith preclude patriotism? Is peace unpatriotic? Can one imagine a border marking the point at which conscience ends and duty takes over? Is there any situation in life in which conscience should be ignored, however acute the tension may be between private and public, faith-based and secular?

Such questions sharpen analysis of “conscience.” Its Latin roots are con (with) plus the verb scire (to know). My dictionary has the additional information that “conscience” replaced the Middle English word inwit – “knowledge within.”
Entries that define conscience in Webster’s New World Dictionary include: “a knowledge or sense of right and wrong, with a compulsion to do right; moral judgment that opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle and that leads to feelings of guilt if one violates such a principle.” To be “conscientious” is to be: “governed by, or made or done according to, what one knows is right; scrupulous; honest; showing care and precision; painstaking.”

Above Image: Rembrandt painting of Jacob wrestling with an angel

Conscience is often described as “the still, small voice” of God in our heart and is sometimes depicted as an angelic figure seated on one shoulder. In the Disney film of a puppet brought to life, the tiny figure of Jiminy Cricket is assigned to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience in his struggle to become “a real boy.”

When a hard decision has to be made, we often speak of “wrestling” with conscience, just as, in Genesis, Jacob wrestled with an angel.

In the case of deciding whether or not to take part in war, patriotism may dictate participation for some, while a careful examination of conscience (which for many people might mean simply reflecting on basic moral teachings) may steer others toward refusal and resistance.

The issue of conscience was at the core of the discussion at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War held this March at Riverside Church in New York City. “When rendering unto Caesar and unto God, God should be given the benefit of the doubt,” said one of the speakers. A retired military chaplain from the Christian Reformed Church wrote, “The imperative ‘to obey one’s government’ is a generalization and not a universalization (‘obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word’).”

In the conscientious objection case of prizefighter Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), who had refused to take part in the Vietnam War, Federal Justice John Noonan, ruling in Clay’s favor, took note of James Madison in his drafting the religion clauses in the U.S. Constitution: “In the ultimate and absolute relation of each individual to God lies the limitation on civil society and civil government on which Madison insists. Without that relation, why should the individual not be absorbed by the community? With that relation to a Creator, Governor, Judge in existence for each individual, with that personal responsibility to a personal God, a government of human beings must be a government of limited powers.”

Interestingly, a Quaker policy statement holds that “whether allied to faith or not, the active conscience belongs to mature citizenship; neither individuals nor society can thrive without it ... Quakers support freedom of conscience as both a human right and a social necessity.” (This is not to say that the Society of Friends does not recognize the centrality of Christ’s influence on their morality. In 1661, the founder of the Society, George Fox, rejected a commission in the militia not on the basis of societal benefit, but as evidence of his conversion: “I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.”)

At the Truth Commission hearings, Joshua Casteel, former Army Interrogator at Abu Ghraib Prison who withdrew from the Iraq War after becoming a conscientious objector, recalled being concerned, during basic training, with the chants of “Kill, kill, kill without mercy!” Casteel thought he “could make a difference – someone like me, with a conscience, should be in a position of authority, instead of someone who only wanted to drop bombs. But there is no private conscience. What you believe and what you do must be in accord with one another.”

In his writings about conscience, Casteel reminds his readers of the definition of conscience that was approved by the Second Vatican Council:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. (Rom 2:15-16) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. (Mt 22:37-40; Gal 5:14) ... The more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, section 16)

The Commission’s host, Rev. Herman Keizer, Jr., retired Army chaplain and former chairman of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, said the military “teaches just war principles from basic training up through its war colleges. Yet current regulations prevent soldiers from using these ideas when called to deploy in a war.”

Others who testified in the New York hearings underscored the view that conscience necessarily has a social aspect and political implications. In Orthodoxy we say “one Christian is no Christian” – we work out our salvation in relation to other human beings. Conscience links us to others and thus is more than a voice of private moral guidance, even though, as a voice within, we may perceive it as private. Part of Eucharistic participation is each person’s regular examination of conscience, not merely as a means to individual soul-cleansing and guidance, but as a part of our preparation for communion – something we do not do alone, but with the other members of the Church and with God. Communion is an act of union, with God and with each other.

If we are honest with ourselves, tough questions arise: How do I know when I am heeding conscience, rather than just fabricating a self-serving rationale? Am I following my conscience or conforming to my peer group? Am I being honest to God or reciting a politically correct sentiment? What must I do when my conscience diverges from that of others? How dare I follow my conscience when people better informed than I, with access both to expert advisers and top secret data, order me to go in another direction?

In the U.S., the law allows for the exercise of conscience in decisions about military service, but with severe limits. One is not allowed to object to a particular war, but must reject all wars. Though most people would agree that there are both just and unjust wars, and many would endorse the traditional criteria for distinguishing one from the other, there is no legal recognition of those who object in conscience to a particular war now going on. It’s all or nothing. Many have been forced to go to prison or leave for another country because they weren’t recognized as objectors to all war.

One Truth Commission witness’s stark question – “Are the members of the military slaves?” – was taken up by Eda Uca-Dorn of the Christian Peace Witness. The military, she says, does indeed act as a slave-master when those whom it employs “lose the freedom to exercise moral agency” – that is, when they are required, under threat of severe penalties, to act contrary to the dictates of their conscience.

“Selective conscientious objection,” Uca-Dorn continued, “is a little-understood path – dismissed by some for not being perfect enough in its rejection of violence and dismissed by others as an ‘easy way out’ of combat. Soldiers who make no argument against all war but who cannot in conscience fight in some wars – especially if they change their mind after voluntary enlistment – are often accused of cowardice and opportunism: ‘Well, if you weren’t going to fight, then what did you sign up for? If you were truly for peace, you would reject the whole military industrial complex! Oh sure, you’ll take the job benefits, but when it’s time to do your duty, you run.’”

Ever since the Nuremberg Tribunal, at which war criminals were tried following World War II, there has been a growing body of international agreements rejecting the idea that a soldier has no alternative but to obey orders or be punished for failing to do so. One of the lessons of Nuremberg is that each of us is accountable. To say “I was just following orders” is no defense.

Pope Benedict XVI, who as a young man saw the genocidal consequences of totalitarian ideology and blind obedience in his native Germany, has written a book on conscience in which he sees “morality of conscience and morality of authority” as “two opposing models ... locked in struggle with each other.”

Is it possible that patriotism and conscience may more nearly coincide than is these days admitted? George Washington, America’s first president said: “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.” Can we claim that this standard has been consistently upheld in modern times? Washington’s successor, Thomas Jefferson, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Above Image: a soldier in training: a scene from the film “Soldiers of  Conscience”

James Madison, principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth U.S. president, wrote: “War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” If Madison was right, then, is selective conscientious objection not a legitimate way to help safeguard a democratic society?

Fundamental to our attitude toward conscience and war is our conception of the moral status of war itself. One can view war in one of five ways:

• War is of its nature a sin and thus is never morally justifiable (what is usually termed the “pacifist” approach).
• War is sometimes necessary, in defense of one’s nation, but never just (the lesser of two evils).
• War can be morally tenable, but only under specified circumstances (the “just war” approach).
• War, while lamentable, is sometimes unavoidable and must be fought even if it does not meet the traditional criteria for a just war (the position espoused by most political leaders today).
• War can be, and often is, a positive good, a powerful force as a tool of statecraft in defense of order and one’s national interest (a pragmatic, realpolitik approach).

In the latter two, private conscience may play no part at all. One belongs to one’s society and is obliged to do what that society requires. In the first three, conscience (or at least an agreed-upon set of moral axioms) is an essential part of the decision-making process.

Individual conscience is less and less in the foreground as we go down the list of items above, and the last most closely approximates the unqualified “military mindset” – rulers decide and subjects obey, period. War is packaged as peacemaking. All military programs, no matter how far from our borders, are acts of “national defense,” and all soldiers, no matter what they do, are “peacekeepers.”

In contrast with such a military mindset, we are challenged by the witness of the early Church. In the first age of martyrdom, it would have been a rare Christian who didn’t agree with Tertullian’s declaration that “in disarming Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.” In Tertullian’s view, any Christian who took part in war was a person serving two masters, thus “turning his back on the scriptures.” One of the great saints of those early times, St. Martin of Tours (316-367), at the time still an unbaptized catechumen in the Roman army, told Caesar he could not take part in a battle that was about to occur: “I am a soldier of Christ,” he explained. “To fight is not allowed for me.” (It must be counted as a miracle that Martin was discharged rather than executed.)

In a recent paper, Marian Simion, a member of the faculties of the Boston Theological Institute, Hellenic College and Boston College, concluded that “one could argue that the Orthodox Church has a rather ambiguous record in its endorsement of defensive violence. ... By remaining loyal to the teachings on non-retaliation, inherent into the Gospel (Mt 5:38-42), the Orthodox Church made strong efforts to resist temptations for a unanimous justification of violence and an adoption of the Just War theory.”

There is the case of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was beheaded in Berlin in 1943 for refusing to be part of Hitler’s army. Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, commented on the failure of the Catholic Church in Germany and Austria to support Jägerstätter at the time, though now he has been beatified. “What can we do,” Forest asked, “to help the Church respond positively to those who refuse to take part either in war in general, or in a particular war?” It is a matter, he said, that goes beyond individual moral responsibility: “Protest is not an end in itself, nor is it the most important aspect of peacemaking. When protest is called for, how can it be carried out in a way that makes it more likely for those with opposing views to rethink their position?”

Writer and film-maker Jennifer Rawlings, one of the speakers at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, reported on the case of an Army sergeant from her home town in Kansas who committed suicide earlier this year rather than be redeployed to Iraq. The sergeant put a gun to his head and killed himself in front of his wife and their four children.
“Suicide rates among soldiers are the highest they have been in nearly three decades,” Rawlings says. “There are months when there are more suicides among soldiers than troops killed in the line of duty, with an average of five soldiers a day trying to take their own lives.”

Perhaps those rates of self-destruction may have occurred solely based on the stress and carnage of battle and the variety of strains to which ordinary Americans are susceptible, but to suppose that moral misgivings and agonies of conscience figured into them to some extent seems reasonable. The costs of war are rediscovered in each generation, as much as we try to forget them. It is difficult to know the costs of widespread conscientious objection, as this has never been tried.    ❖

Alex Patico, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America, took part in the Truth Commission meetings. The complete testimony given at the Truth Commission can be found at: Also see The Center on Conscience and War web site at A prize-winning documentary, Soldiers of Conscience, is available from: .