The idea of supporting the troops is not one where you find a whole lot of argument. Of course in the Vietnam era there are the stories of how hippies used to spit on servicemen, calling them “baby killers”. I’ve heard that scenario repeated so many times, I’m starting to wonder if this reaction was really so widespread, or if it got an urban legend boost at some point. I’m sure this type of thing happened, I was too young to take in the riots, the protests against the Vietnam War to fully appreciate the dynamic of the times. But in any case, we are now pretty much united in the notion that while a given war may be unjust, we don’t blame the average man or woman in uniform. In fact, we seek ways to honor or show respect for them, even if we are seeking to end the conflict in which they are engaged. This is a good thing on the whole.
I would like to draw upon the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church to come up with some concrete ways to show support for the average soldier- to empower the troops to be moral agents, not just unthinking machines of war at the beck and call of the politicians.
I quote from the Compendium’s chapter on the promotion of peace, I recently wrote a summary of the chapter for an upcoming book from Pax Romana. The idea here is that soldiers must know that they have a moral choice when it comes to participating or not participating in the acts of war, and in a given war itself. Even if you have signed up to serve as part of your nation’s self-defense, or to be an agent of peace by stopping an aggressive, violent force such as in an ongoing genocide- you still have a right to say yes or no. You should have the legal right to say no to an order that calls for you to do something immoral- like targeting innocent civilians, or dropping an atomic bomb for example. And, if there is a war that is decidedly unjust in your estimation, you should have the right to choose an alternative public service, should you already be under contract to the Armed Forces.
Yes, this would make the military of our nation more complicated, more difficult to organize. But morality trumps efficiency. Our troops have human rights of their own, and they have human rights that they must respect- sometimes you cannot serve God and Mammon simultaneously. If you choose to serve God, you shouldn’t be punished as an American. If a Catholic servicemember drew the conclusion that the Iraq invasion was unjust, he or she should have had the right to ask for alternative service. Does this right exist among contracted members of the U.S. Armed Forces? I’m not sure, but if not, we need to lobby for this right for our troops.
I imagine what could have been if thousands of Catholic service members had decided that going into Iraq was not part of a legitimate national defence, and they took in the prudential judgment of the Pope, the Holy See, and the U.S. Bishops for the most part. What if they had stood up against the many forces in American life that were pushing for the invasion- both major political parties, the mass media, and even many individual priests and parishes? This is the type of leadership that the Church should be inspiring. Individual responsibility for moral actions of self and of state. Here are some relevant passages from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
b. Defending peace
502. The requirements of legitimate defence justify the existence in States of armed forces, the activity of which should be at the service of peace. Those who defend the security and freedom of a country, in such a spirit, make an authentic contribution to peace. Everyone who serves in the armed forces is concretely called to defend good, truth and justice in the world. Many are those who, in such circumstances, have sacrificed their lives for these values and in defence of innocent lives. Very significant in this regard is the increasing number of military personnel serving in multinational forces on humanitarian or peace-keeping missions promoted by the United Nations.
503. Every member of the armed forces is morally obliged to resist orders that call for perpetrating crimes against the law of nations and the universal principles of this law. Military personnel remain fully responsible for the acts they commit in violation of the rights of individuals and peoples, or of the norms of international humanitarian law. Such acts cannot be justified by claiming obedience to the orders of superiors.
Conscientious objectors who, out of principle, refuse military service in those cases where it is obligatory because their conscience rejects any kind of recourse to the use of force or because they are opposed to the participation in a particular conflict, must be open to accepting alternative forms of service. “It seems just that laws should make humane provision for the case of conscientious objectors who refuse to carry arms, provided they accept some other form of community service”.