combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 06 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2008

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"]

Conscientious Warriors

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 kosher-ness.

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 Youth.

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 society.

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 to.

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 warriors. 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 the Roses.

contributed by B. Keith Cossey

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