Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war
Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]
If a person must choose between having peace in
his conscience and having peace in his neighborhood, then,
there goes the neighborhood.
The point is this. We do not often associate the nitty-gritty of
warriorhood with the holiness of conscience, but perhaps that is
because the affinity involved is self-evident and does not to be
reiterated. It is worthwhile, though, to occasionally reiterate
the obvious so that we do not become oblivious to it.
Conversely, there are persons who, for reasons of conscience,
have chosen to not take up arms in the event that their nation
should be attacked or go to war. They are classified as
conscientious objectors. An example is my brother,
Craig, who did alternative government service (instead of serving
in the military) for two years, 1970-72, as a surgical orderly in
a Colorado hospital. He was and is a genuine pacifist acting in
response to the calling of his conscience. However, I also know
many, many men and women who, in response to the calling of their
consciences, have girded themselves for war.
The title of this article was originally going to be
Conscientious Non-objectors, as a reminder that American
warriors, also and especially, may indeed operate out of a
sensitivity to heartfelt principles. A person doesn't generally
risk his or her life out of spiritual indifference or out of
conformity to a popular jingoism. The term conscientious non-objector, while serving as a semantic yang to the
conscientious objector yin, does not do justice,
however, to the assertiveness and the will of one who chooses on
the basis of his principles to fight. Non-objection
implies passivity, a go-with-the-flow attitude. Nothing could be
further from the ethos of the warrior.
Each conscientious warrior in an army of thousands is, indeed, an
army of one.
To be sure, not everyone who dons a military uniform does so in
response to a strong calling of his or her conscience. By
analogy, not everyone who identifies with a religion has arrived
at that identification by means of a calling of conscience. A
person may have been baptized in his infancy and have merely
continued walking on the path of his parents. Whole nations
throughout history have been forced, at sword-point, to convert
to the religion of their conquerors. Joining the First Whatever
Church may bring
the new member social prestige, economic advantages, or sexual
Probably the initial reason that I joined the Marine Corps
Reserve, while still in high school, had far less to do with
conscience than with the fact that it established for me some
independence and counter-identity from the fiercely pacifistic
grandmother who had raised Craig and me.
One's individual conscience is under no obligation to supply one
with a calling. Not as a warrior. Not as a pacifist. Not as
anything in particular. By analogy, one may plant the seed of a
rose without knowing what variety it may produce. It is only by
cultivating that seed that one is able to affix a name to the
kind of beauty eventually displayed by the mature bloom.
Taking the analogy further ... The individual conscience of a
mature person is nevertheless still in process. It may resemble a
rose bud or a full rose bloom or – at the age of senility
– a wilted bloom with petals falling. However, roses grow
in beds and in gardens. And, likewise, persons grow in societies
and in creeds. The beauty of the rose comes not only from its own
hue and curve of the petals; it comes from its placement in a
grander, larger design.
As has been noted in this column before, the average age of a
combat infantryman in the Vietnam War was nineteen years old. In
today's all-volunteer force, the average age of a combat
infantryman in Iraq or Afghanistan is perhaps several years
older. Nevertheless, today's grunt is still a figurative
rose bud in the scheme of things. There are good reasons for
there being a minimum age to run for president and for there
being a minimum amount of experience to be promoted to a general.
Older persons have been around the rose bush and back a few times
... One would hope that their basis for formulating policy and
for risking the quality and quantity of life in our society would
be based upon something deeper than a touchy-feely barometer of
their own emotions. Or the fickleness of public-opinion polls.
This is not to say that the conscience of a young person is
invalid. The Roman Catholic Church places the age of
reason – when one may be considered to be
conscientious enough to take Communion and to understand and take
responsibility for that commitment – as being seven years
old. That is well before the age of the average combat
infantryman. And, please note, I am not suggesting that we arm
children and send them into the trenches ... like the Hitler
A seventeen year-old is old enough to be a parent –
literally and figuratively. What can possibly entail more
responsibility than being a parent? A seventeen year-old is
conscientious enough to make a decision about going to war. In
this country, you can enlist in the armed forces at age seventeen
with parental permission.
So ... more than one, isolated individual can be involved in
matters of conscience and responsibility. They say that it
takes a village to raise a child. Likewise, there is not
only the matter of the individual conscience; there is the matter
of the social conscience as codified in the family, in
the religion, in the state, and in the culture.
While each individual is ultimately responsible for his or her
actions, it would be a myopic egotist who would not at least
consult the combined experience and wisdom of the social
conscience. And the social conscience is not just a bunch of
elders telling the would-be lone wolf to stop being stupid and
jump on the bandwagon. Each individual is a part of the
social conscience and contributes to it as well as drawing from
it. The general has to ultimately make the decisions on the
battlefield, but a good general will trust his enlisted personnel
to provide assessments and on-the-ground reactions that he would
not otherwise have access to. And a good enlisted person will
trust his or her leaders – political and military
– to operate in the best interests of himself and his
Only a frantically-waving red flag in one's individual conscience
should give one pause to consider going one's own way vis-à-vis the social conscience. This is particularly so
in a wartime situation in which lives are mutually dependent on
one another's choreography. In a peacetime situation, the social
conscience has a lot more latitude. Too much latitude, though,
may lead to chaos and an end of peace.
It is one thing to be in the figurative rose garden calling
oneself a tea rose or a climbing rose or a hybrid perpetual rose;
it is quite another thing to be in the middle of the rose garden
calling oneself a begonia ....
While the healthy society encourages variation and diversity and
takes account of the opinions of its younger members, there is
nevertheless the necessity for maintaining some kind of
consistency. This is especially true in a democracy
where there are so many divergent viewpoints attempting to agree-to-disagree.
Take for example the military and political situation in Iraq. At
the writing of this article, the Republicans want us to stay the
course while the Democrats want us to get out. Please note that
this following observation comes from a lifelong Democrat (I try
to maintain some consistency in my own commitments). Regardless
of whether you think that we should have invaded Iraq and
overthrown Saddam Hussein ... or not, the fact is: we are
there. We cajoled Great Britain and a number of other
nations into joining us on this grand venture ... although some
nations, such as Spain, have subsequently decided to throw in the
towel. Thousands of Iraqis have risked and continue to risk their
lives in support of our venture which is ostensibly on their
behalf. Although mistakes have been made and innocent lives have
been tragically lost, we will not improve the situation by being
inconsistent and changing our collective mind.
Regardless of which political party is in power, we need to show
some consistency to ourselves and to the world. We need
to follow our social conscience and to not be misled by
the Pied Pipers of expediency. Call a spade a spade, and swing
that spade at the heads of those who would torture and kill
innocent people in the dubious name of religion. We are going to
stay for as long as it takes, and we are going to win. And we are
going to demonstrate, to the terrorists and to our friends alike,
that it is kismet – fate. Blasphemy, you may say.
All war is blasphemy, but sometimes it is a seeming untruth
responding to a higher truth.
Sometimes the higher truth is not evident at first. Many a man
has impregnated a woman and has, rightly or wrongly, felt
obligated to marry her ... and then has – gradually or
suddenly – fallen head-over-heals in love with this
companion and friend that God has given him. He no longer stays
married because he has to but, now, because he wants
A soldier may volunteer to serve in Afghanistan because he needs
the combat pay in order to make his child-support payments, and,
after he arrives in harm's way, he may come fully to appreciate
the Afghan people and to fully believe in the fight on behalf of
their dignity and freedom. Voila! It's that doggoned conscience
again. Once again, the lemons in our life – especially
those of our own making – have been turned, by God's
bittersweet grace, into lemonade. It has not been unknown for a
man to enter military service with a relatively small conscience
and to be eventually discharged with a large conscience. The
military not only serves the cause of civilization; it can be a
grad school for civilization.
It's not only matter of going to war for the sake of conscience;
many men and women – the cream of our society –
conscientiously choose to make a career out of the military. They
are not lovers of war, but they are lovers of the humanity whom
they protect. And it is important to point out that decisions of
conscience do not necessarily involve sacrifice and a Puritan
ethic; there can be joy in being a warrior among
I'll take a joyful conscience over a joyless conscience any day.
Joyless conscience – it's kind of a contradiction
in terms. No consistency there.
During the American Revolution, there was a group of Quakers
– they eventually become known as the Free Quakers –
who decided out of conscience, in objection to the total
pacifism of their religion, that it was necessary to fight
against the tyranny of the British crown. My ancestor, Betsy
Ross, was one of them.
Hindus perceive the inner essence of the individual to be the
atman while the ultimate ground of all being is (the)
Brahma. It's sort of like the individual
conscience and the social conscience ... or,
perhaps, like the rose and the rose garden.
However, the responsibility for moral conduct is still yours and
mine. I never promised you that there wouldn't be any War of