Watching Soldiers of Conscience

Rev. Herman Keizer

Soldiers of Conscience: Herman Keizer Jr.

Chaplain (Colonel) Herman Keizer, Jr.
U.S. Army (retired)

Soldiers of Conscience is a must-see film for all those concerned about issues of conscience in times of war. It portrays soldiers who struggle with war as well as those who are willing and not troubled in their conscience by war. It is a story that is repeated over and over in the military, especially by those soldiers and Marines who experience the realities of ground combat.

It is also a story told against the backdrop of training to go to war and experience in combat. Both of these environments bring home some of the stark realities of ground combat. In training for combat, young men and women are conditioned to set aside much of their moral upbringing and take on a different moral code. People are raised not to kill and in combat training they are made to shout out "KILL! KILL! KILL!" For some the words stick in their throat, for others their emotions flood out in tears, for others anger, but for all the mental picture of running another person through with a bayonet and taking a human life is a foretaste of what they can expect in battle.

When I was a chaplain in a basic training unit, I always went to the field site when this training was being conducted. I never had a time when I did not have someone wanting to talk to me about what they were experiencing. It was cathartic for them to be able to express these very real and usually troubling feelings to someone who would treat them with nonjudgmental warmth and hold their conscience in empathetic regard. I did not justify the training or try to talk them out of what they were feeling. It was important for them to honor both their training and their conscience. One of my ethics professors used to say, "If you sin against your conscience, you commit moral suicide." I was determined to protect the conscience of these soldiers.

Soldiers of Conscience is also very accurate in portraying the process established by the Department of Defense concerning conscientious objection. Department of Defense Directive Number 1300.6, Subject: Conscientious Objectors clearly states who will be recognized as conscientious objection.

Conscientious Objection: General. A firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief.

Unless otherwise specified, the term "conscientious objector" includes both Class 1-O and Class 1-A-O Conscientious Objectors. A Conscientious Objector Class 1-O is, "[a] member who, by reason of conscientious objection, sincerely objects to participation in any kind of war in any form." And a 1-A-O Conscientious Objector is "A Member who, by reason of conscientious objection, sincerely objects to participation as a combatant in war in any form, but whose convictions are such as to permit a Military Service in a noncombatant status."

The definition recognizes only those who object to all war in any form. This is usually called pacifism. (There is another view, which I will get to later.) In the conscript Army, a person could state their position of conscience at the time of registration for the draft. So the vast number of conscience objectors were either not drafted or drafted into noncombatant positions. There were still those individuals drafted who were converted to a conviction that all war was wrong or who discovered in military training that war violated a position of conscience being formed in the crucible of training for war.

In an all-volunteer military, one would expect to find only a limited number of those who object to all war-fighting. But training for combat sharpens the issues of conscience in relation to war, so the directive still protects that part of the population. I am thankful for that protection, but the burden of proof is on the objector in the application and adjudication process. Going through the process is not easy, and the film documents a wonderful and sensitive portrayal of the struggles of the objector. I think it correct that the process should not be easy, because the human conscience should never be used as a shill to get out of duty and responsibility. However, in my 34 years as an Army chaplain, I was deeply disturbed by the atmosphere of disdain heaped on the objector. The objectors' patriotism was questioned and challenged as well as their courage. The worst challenge was the questioning of the objectors' faith. I have seen commanders, non-commissioned officers and some fellow chaplains try to reason and argue against the faith statements of the objector. I would remind those who issued the challenges that the Department of Defense honored conscientious objection by publishing a directive and designing a process to honor the conscientious objector and it was their duty to live in the spirit of the directive and the process.

There is another tradition that is meant to inform the conscience concerning war -- the Just War tradition. That tradition says that the state has the moral responsibility to protect its citizens by using its military power in a morally justified manner. The Just War tradition also says that when a state uses military power unjustly individuals have an obligation to object to the injustice. Through its long history, going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, criteria for the Just War tradition have been defined and refined to meet the conditions and realities of the changing political climate and advances in weaponry. Those who subscribe to this tradition do not object to all war. They object only to those wars that cannot be morally justified. An excellent book on this tradition is Brian Orend's The Morality of War. However, the current us Department of Defense directive does not recognize "Selective Conscientious Objection" of persons in this tradition.

Chaplain (Colonel) Herman Keizer, Jr. retired in 2002 after serving 34 years as an Army chaplain. He served in units in Vietnam and Hawaii; on the staff of senior officers and civilians in the Department of the Army and the Department of Defense; as command chaplain in European Command and as the military advisor to the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom at the us Department of State. He is currently the director of Chaplaincy Ministries for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.