Monday, 12 June 2006

The Thin Thin Line

For most of us, everyday choices present modest dilemmas in which we may choose between two sets of potential outcomes with variable good or bad results.

Military personnel, however, are faced with a duty to follow orders which may have grave consequences. Where is the line beyond which that duty to obey becomes a duty to refuse the order? Certainly there is such a line. No reasonable person would suggest blind duty to obey orders for instance to kill one's fellow soldiers. And yet the military would not work if all orders became optional, and soldiers could disobey any order they thought wrong. Perhaps this is all spelled out quite clearly in the military code, and yet it is hard to imagine there not being circumstances where a soldier might suspect (without being certain) that following an order constitutes a greater crime than disobedience. And then there are cases where one person's certainty counters that of another.

Lt. Ehren Watada has made a very difficult choice.
It is the duty, the obligation of every soldier, and specifically the officers, to evaluate the legality, the truth behind every order — including the order to go to war.
Detractors will point out that Watada enlisted in 2003 after the risk of being deployed to Iraq was quite clear. But since that time the illegality of that war has been made clear to many who did not see it before.
Watada has received substantial support from numerous organizations and individuals who are standing by him, and an online petition supporting his decision is being circulated.

Dan Kirkdorffer, of On the Road to 2008, has been closely following the Watada story here, here, and initially here.

I've long known I never had the right make up to be a soldier. To submit so thoroughly to the authority of others does not come easily when I'm so imbued with notions of independent thought and intellectual freedom. As abhorrent as I find war, I cannot deny the necessity for organizing militaries for the defense of nations, and can see the case for leaving the option of war open as a last resort. I understand the need for a command structure which demands rote loyalty in order for such an enterprise to work. But we must defend a soldier's right to question some orders, including some entire campaigns. Otherwise leaders have carte blanche to engage our troops to their own ends with impunity.

Earlier soldiers such as Kevin Benderman and Carl Webb have been drawing that line. Now a commissioned officer has joined them. America's conscience is being tested, and it will take more than just committed pacifists to bring us around to sanity. When our leaders take us into questionable military adventures, is it any wonder that our military is stretched too thin and morale is low? We risk not having a ready response when the cause is just at some point down the road.

Go here for a military blogger's perspective on this case.


Daniel Kirkdorffer said...

This is an important and difficult issue, and I'm glad you have written about it. We can disagree about whether he is right or wrong to take his stand against the war, but we cannot deny that he has that right and his position is on par with the consensus thinking of most Americans about this particular war.

Noemie Maxwell said...

I appreciate ths entry -- and the link to the military blog.

What I need to think about from the military piece you linked to is this idea, which I find valuable:

... if U.S. laws permit officers to choose whether they enter a war or not on the basis of their individual moral assessments -- then we live in a nation in which "the Generals decide who they will allow to rule."

Is that a valid line of reasoning, I wonder? I don't have the context now to understand it. Intuitively, it appears valid.

So this leads me to the next point.

Law and morality are two different things. Law should reflect morality as closely as possible. But it cannot reflect it exactly. In other words, it is possible for something which is moral to be, properly, illegal. And it is part of the human condition that moral choices can lead to difficult legal consequences.

On a moral level, each person has the responsibility to follow his or her conscience. If an officer feels a war is immoral, it is correct for that officer to refuse to serve. We are in a dire situation in this world because not enough people are willing to make that choice. Absolutely, I support the decision for people to refuse to fight on moral grounds. I yearn for our culture to reach that point of maturity. A just world rests on the individual choices of people who decide they must act from a moral base.

At the same time, on a legal level it can be right and proper that correct moral decisions call down legal punishment. I don't know if that is my opinion in this case.

It is also moral to support laws that, at times, can result in punishing correct moral decisions.