My article yesterday, “The Power of Military Indoctrination,” generated two different responses, not on the main thrust of the article but rather on the issue of sympathy.
My article, for those who haven’t read it, detailed the grief that a young woman, Kelsey Baker, is suffering over the loss of her boyfriend, Diego Pongo, who was recently killed in a firefight in Iraq. In the article, I pointed out the lack of anger by Baker toward the U.S. government, the entity that sent Pongo to Iraq in the first place to kill or be killed. I pointed out that the reason for her lack of anger toward the federal government lies with the power of military indoctrination.
The two responses are as follows:
Response 1: I am in complete agreement with your viewpoint. However, l must admonish you on the absence of an expression of commiseration (sincere or not) for the death of a young man who implicitly trusted his elders to not deceive him as to his purpose. My sympathy to the young lady and the boy’s family. I’m certain you do also just having overlooked the expressions.
Response 2: I used to believe that, but in more recent years I have come to lay the blame at the idiots or psychopaths who voluntarily sign up to serve in the US military. No one forced Pongo to join the military, or to not resign once they ordered him to Iraq. Under a system of conscription, I could see feeling sorry for him, but with an all-volunteer military, whose fault is it but his? To say “I was ordered to go” is the Nuremberg defense, isn’t it? Just as one should object to and not comply with morally heinous orders, so too with life-risking orders of manifest stupidity.
I’m always a bit skeptical about expressing personal sympathies in writing about the deaths of people I don’t personally know. It seems a bit disingenuous. I felt that beginning my article with the phrase “A sad article” and describing “Baker’s deep grief” was sufficient to express my empathy with the deep pain that accompanies the death of any loved one. Since I don’t know Baker personally and didn’t know Pongo or his family and since the likelihood that they would ever read my article was close to nil, it seemed sort of disingenuous for me to send them “my sincerest condolences” in the body of my article.
The second response raises some very deep and profound issues though.
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the members of my church were continually exhorted at Sunday Mass to “pray for the troops, especially those in harm’s way.” Every so often, I would write a letter to our pastor asking him why we never prayed for the people who the troops were killing. It seems to me that in the eyes of God, all life is sacred, including the lives of foreigners.
Moreover, as I repeatedly pointed out in my letters, U.S. soldiers were clearly the aggressors in Iraq and illegal ones at that, given that they were waging war without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war and in violation against the rules of warfare set forth at Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. The Iraqis they were killing, on the other hand, were simply defending their nation against an illegal and immoral invasion and occupation.
I never received a response to my letters. My hunch is that some members of my church would have said that patriotism dictates that Christians pray for their nation’s troops and not the foreigners they are killing. Such a response would be unpalatable for me, given my conviction that conscience — i.e., the choice of right over wrong — must reign supreme over devotion to one’s government and its troops.
The 19th-century English philosopher Herbert Spencer addressed this issue when troops in the British Empire were in danger of being killed in the Second Afghan War (1878-1880). Spencer bluntly stated, “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.”
Spencer raises a profound point to which all too many people give short shrift: To what extent do soldiers bear moral responsibility for wrongful actions done while following orders of their superiors?” That question was addressed in 1951 during the Korean War in a deeply profound essay entitled “Conscience on the Battlefield” by Leonard E. Read, which I cannot recommend too highly.
After all, it’s not like everyone in the United States, including 18-year-olds, is unaware of what is going on in the United States. Everyone, including teenagers, knows that the United States is not being invaded and isn’t going to be invaded in the foreseeable future by some foreign power. Everyone also knows that the U.S. government is — and has been — engaged in wreaking death and destruction in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America for decades — all against people who are not invading the United States.
No one is forced to join the U.S. military. While young men are required to register for the draft, no one currently is being forced to serve in the military. Every soldier has voluntarily joined. Equally important, he knows that by signing the enlistment agreement, he is agreeing to kill anyone in the world on orders.
Pongo knew that when he joined the military. So did Baker. So does every other U.S. soldier. Moreover, neither Baker nor Pongo was a naive teenager when they were sent to Iraq. Baker was in her late 20s and Pongo was 34 years old.
We often think that soldiers have no choice but to follow orders, but that is clearly not the case. There is always a choice. A soldier can choose to refuse to follow orders and, in fact, is supposed to disobey orders that are illegal. Every U.S. soldier takes an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Every U.S. soldier knows that there was no congressional declaration of war against Iraq in the first place, which made the initial invasion illegal under our form of government.
Therefore, Pongo as well as Baker, along with every other U.S. soldier who served in Iraq, could have — and should have — disobeyed orders to deploy. Sure, they would have been sent to jail but wouldn’t that have been better than killing people wrongfully and illegally or being killed by people who were simply defending their country against an illegal invader? Moreover, even though it likely would have been futile, resisting soldiers could have taken their cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.
For their part, Americans can thank the troops all they want for their “service” for wreaking death and destruction in lands thousands of miles away from the United States, but the question has to be asked: Have some Americans enabled all this death and destruction by failing to object to it and, in some cases, overtly and silently supporting it?