Watching Soldiers of Conscience

J.E. McNeil

J.E. McNeil
Executive director of the Center on Conscience & War

Soldiers of Conscience: J.E. McNeil

I speak with men and women in the military daily as the director of the Center on Conscience & War. The Center receives approximately 300 calls a month asking for help. The Center was founded to protect the rights of conscientious objectors to war caught up in a military draft in 1940. Even without the draft, we continue to protect the rights of conscientious objectors in the military -- whether they see themselves as such or not.

Most people, including the military, have a very narrow definition for the words "conscientious objector." Conscientious objectors -- especially ones who have never participated in the military -- are seen as an odd but harmless group. Generally, us citizens are willing to smile at us, proud that they protect us in our naiveté. We are tolerated as long as we don't cause trouble.

Of course, the problem is people of conscience often do cause trouble. It happens in the difficult situations they find themselves in when they realize that conscience is the thing from which they cannot escape, the thing that suddenly drives their actions and drives their lives.

The conscientious objectors in Soldiers of Conscience -- Camilo, Josh, Kevin and Aidan -- were all in difficult situations when they realized that they were compelled to turn away. They turned away, not from the blood on their hands (for none of us can do that), but from adding to it deliberately. And these four men are not alone. Soldiers of Conscience brings into focus the concept that all the men and women in the military are soldiers of conscience -- even those who do not turn away from war.

But the group is even larger than that. All of us in the United States stand with blood on our hands -- members of the military, the administration, Congress, even you and I. The question is not whether we are complicit in the killing, but what we do with that knowledge.

Many take solace that war may lead to justice and liberty for some. Many look only to the soldiers to their left and to their right to find justification. Some find protection within faith and patriotism and the logic of revenge, never daring to look at the beginning of the cycle.

What is not shown in the film are the silent men and women confronting the questions and burdens of killing in the name of the United States, men and women who never find peace again. Suicide is the number one cause of non-combat death in the military. Suicides of veterans number in the hundreds each month. The homeless are disproportionately veterans. Spousal abuse and sexual assault are at inordinate levels in the military.

None of us are free of the burdens of killing. None of us are free from being soldiers of conscience.

We only pretend we are.

J.E. McNeil, the executive director of the Center on Conscience & War (CCW), has been a practicing attorney for 25 years. Before becoming executive director, she worked with CCW on its legal committee, where she contributed to amicus briefs and represented conscientious objectors in court. She received the Alan Barth Service award of the National Capital ACLU in 1982 and the Washington Peace Center Peacemaker Award in 1987. McNeil has also represented military tax resistors and demonstrators. At the Center on Conscience & War, McNeil oversees the implementation of CCW's programs and is responsible for the fund raising.