Obedience to God or Obedience to Orders?

By Jacob G. Hornberger

November 18, 2009 "fff" -- Speaking about the Ft. Hood killings, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs stated, “The investigation is ongoing to figure out what would motivate an individual to carry out the type of act that this major carried out.”

As the investigation into motive progresses, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the U.S. military’s policy on conscientious-objector status played in the Ft. Hood horror.

Of course, it goes without saying that in examining into motive, Gibbs is not justifying what the alleged killer, Major Nidal Hasan, did. (See my article “Motivation vs. Justification.”)

Under U.S. military policy, the only way that a soldier can claim conscientious-objector status is with a good-faith opposition to all war, not just a particular war.

What happens if the president orders soldiers to engage in an illegal invasion of another country, a country that has not attacked the United States or even threatened to do so? What if the U.S. government is the aggressor, not the defender, in a particular war? What if the president orders soldiers to kill people who have done nothing against the United States? What if the U.S. government itself starts a war against a much weaker nation?

All that might give pause to a soldier. A soldier might think, “I can’t kill someone under those circumstances because my religious faith prevents me from wrongfully killing another person.” Or he might think, “Wars of aggression were punished as war crimes at Nuremberg and, therefore, I must refuse to carry out these orders.”

Under U.S. policy, what happens when a soldier’s crisis of conscience collides with military orders?

There is no doubt about it. The government requires the person’s conscience to be subordinated to the orders of the military. The soldier suffering such a crisis is effectively told, “We don’t care about your little crisis. Get over it. You’re going to Iraq, buster, and you’re going to kill or be killed. You can settle your account with God after you get back, if you get back.”

Now, it’s true that soldiers are taught to disobey unlawful orders. But everyone knows that the unwritten exception to that rule is with respect to illegal wars of aggression. If a soldier refuses orders to participate in an illegal war of aggression, he will be punished, severely.

The best example of this phenomenon was the case of Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to deploy to Iraq on the grounds that the war there was immoral, illegal, and unconstitutional.

In fact, it would be difficult to find a better example of a war of aggression than the U.S. government’s war on Iraq. Neither the Iraqi people nor their government participated in the 9/11 attacks or ever attacked the United States. The U.S. government was the starter of this war. It was the invader. It was the aggressor. And it initiated the war without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war, making the war illegal under our form of government.

In a crisis of conscience, Watada declared that he simply could not kill other people under such circumstances. Thus, he refused to obey orders to do so.

What was the military’s response? They considered Watada to be a bad, unpatriotic soldier for placing his conscience above obedience to orders. They went after him with a criminal prosecution, hoping to have him severely punished for his “misconduct.”

At this early stage of the Ft. Hood investigation, there seems to be at least some circumstantial evidence that Hasan was struck by a crisis of conscience with respect to both the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, a crisis that seems to have grown in intensity after Hasan received orders to deploy to Afghanistan. He was apparently very religious, had expressed deep antipathy to both wars, and had even offered to reimburse the military for education expenses in return for being discharged from the military, an offer that the military refused.

If Hasan was faced with the choice of obeying God laws or military orders, obviously the correct and honorable course of action would have been to follow the route that Watada took. The problem, however, is that when the government pushes people who are suffering deep crises of conscience into a corner, there is no way to predict with certainty how the unstable ones are going to react. Time will tell whether that’s what motivated Major Hasan to commit his dirty deed.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.



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