In our April EuroISME blog contribution, David Whetham asks the questions when and under what circumstances soldiers should say no and become conscientious objectors.

We are looking forward to your comments and reactions (below the post at the bottom of this page).


 When should soldiers say no?

In a lecture delivered in 1539, entitled De Iure Belli (On the Law of War), Francisco de Vitoria commented that:

If the war seems patently unjust to the subject, he must not fight, even if he is ordered to do so by the prince. This is obvious, since one may not lawfully kill an innocent man on any authority, and in the case we are speaking of the enemy must be innocent. … So even soldiers, if they fight in bad faith, are not excused. … And from this flows the corollary that if their conscience tells subjects that the war is unjust, they must not go to war even if this conscience is wrong.

Vitoria’s view was that a soldier was not obliged to determine for himself whether a war was just or unjust; the soldier was quite entitled to leave that deliberation to his rulers. But if for some reason he happened to come to the conclusion that his rulers were wrong and the war was unjust, then he must refuse to fight.

In our enlightened age, and nearly half a millennia after Vitoria’s careful considerations, there are almost no armies anywhere in the world that offer their soldiers this option. Most states do recognize that pacifists who object in principle to all wars have a right to refuse to fight in them. Even if in practice states often make life very difficult for those who try to exercise this right, conscientious objection of this absolute sort is relatively uncontroversial. By contrast, very few states are willing to allow people to refuse to fight if it is a particular conflict which they consider to be unjust. A soldier who tries to follow Vitoria’s advice is liable to be punished for disobeying orders, desertion, or some other crime relating to disobedience or duty.

Conscientious objection to specific wars rather than to wars in general is often referred to as ‘selective conscientious objection’. Until recently, few people challenged the distinction between absolute and selective conscientious objection. However, in the past ten years, this has changed as citizens and soldiers alike found their confidence in their state’s justification for the wars they were fighting challenged by what appeared to be incompetence, wilful misinformation or possibly even downright lies. The war in Iraq, in particular, undermined one of the key arguments against selective conscientious objection, namely that soldiers should accept that their political masters know best and have information at their disposal which they do not, so they should accept the decisions of the politicians. Those who reluctantly swallowed their doubts about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and then found that the doubts were actually very well-founded and that the politicians had seemingly misinformed them are now less inclined to accept this argument again.

A crucial question in the debate about selective conscientious objection is whether soldiers exist in a state of invincible ignorance. According to some, they are not; soldiers are quite capable of judging the justice of wars correctly. They are often very well educated, and most of the relevant information is in the public domain. If they choose to fight in an unjust war, they will therefore be in the realm of vincible ignorance, as they could have discovered the truth if they had but tried.

However, according to others, most soldiers are simply are not in a position to know all the relevant facts about a government’s decision to go to war and so are not able to reach an informed judgement on the justice or injustice of the war. While in some contexts, the position taken by one’s state might be clear enough, in others it might be horrendously complex and the ability to find out the truth about what is really going on may be compromised in many ways. In such circumstances, surely, they cannot be to blame for fighting in the war, only held accountable for their actions actually within the war if those actions violate the dictates of conscience directly, such as targeting non-combatants etc. If they have doubts about the justice of the actual war, they should exercise humility and accept that they should not follow the inner voice of their consciences but defer to those who are in a better position to judge – if in doubt, trust thy prince – as Vitoria put it half a millennia ago.

One of the arguments against permitting selective conscientious objection is that if you allow people to opt of any such decisions they do not like, you will undermine democracy. Democracies operate on the principle of majority rule: people agree to submit to collective decisions. But, how does this square with the idea that just because you are ordered to do something, that is not enough to make it right? We wouldn’t accept “I was only following orders” as an excuse for committing a war crime, so why allow it when we are talking about fighting in an obviously unjust war?

Modern soldiers are more educated and better informed than their predecessors in generations past. Ethical education, which is taken seriously across all Western military training and educational institutions, focuses on building morally autonomous individuals, which seems incompatible with claims that the same soldiers must ignore their consciences regarding the justice of the wars in which they fight. Is it right to educate someone to have the moral courage to stand up for what they believe is right and then court martial them for doing precisely this?

The subject of selective conscientious objection is an issue of profound importance, both to the military and to the society that the military is supposed to serve. In an age of discretionary conflicts where the survival and even vital national interests of the state are rarely if ever at stake, the issue of when it is right and proper for individuals to take life on behalf of that political community is likely to become more problematic rather than less.

Adapted from
Andrea Ellner, Paul Robinson & David Whetham (Eds), When Soldiers Say No: Selective Conscientious Objection in the Modern Military (Ashgate: 2014)