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Another Hurt Locker

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When Mark Boal accepted his best original screenplay Academy Award last night for "The Hurt Locker," he dedicated his award to the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Best Picture Award winner vividly depicts the particular traumas faced by those troops, and like other war films, it has made little at the box office. Perhaps, however, its six Academy Awards will call greater attention to the fact that we continue to be a nation at war.

Another, different "hurt locker" haunts these wars: it is the veteran hurt locker of hidden casualties. How many of us know that, of the 30,000 suicides every year in the U.S., twenty percent are veterans? and from 2005-2007, the rate among younger vets rose 26 percent. None of these many thousands of deaths is counted among the casualties of our current wars.

Some of these deaths, perhaps a substantial number of them, occur because people are forced to fight wars they know are morally wrong. Most soldiers and veterans know more about "just war" than the rest of us--even those of us whose religious traditions espouse it. Recruits learn about just war from basic training on up, all the way to the elite military academies. They are told that in war, especially, keeping a moral compass is crucial. The Western tradition of just war is grounded in Christian and Jewish ethical teaching, but virtually every religious tradition provides explicit guidelines for the moral conduct of war. The Christian version of it says the war must be defensive (just cause); a competent authority must declare it (Congress has not declared a war since 1941); it has to intend to serve justice and lead to peace (right intention); it must protect civilians (non-combatant immunity); it must be a last resort; it must have a chance to succeed in its intentions; and any violence must result in more good than harm (proportionality). A war has to pass all these criteria to be just.

While the military teaches moral discernment, it punishes service members who put it into practice. When a member of the U.S. military is called up to war, she or he has to turn to individual moral conscience and make a decision whether or not to deploy. However, if they try to exercise their moral conscience and refuse to fight a particular war because they deem it unjust, they face sanctions, court martial, imprisonment, and dishonorable discharge. People in military service can only avoid prosecuting a war if they apply for Conscientious Objector status and object to "war in any form." But that is not a just war moral position. In other words, soldiers are taught to use moral discrimination in war, but they have to serve in all wars they are called on to fight, regardless of their moral evaluation of that war.

When a person is forced to fight a war that violates her or his moral conscience, the aftermath can be severe. Indeed, new research is showing that war can bring long-lasting moral harm to our young men and women in uniform. Recently, a group of VA clinical psychologists published an in-depth description of a rarely addressed hidden injury of war called "moral injury." Moral injury, the authors explain, comes from "perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations." The long term impact can harm soldiers "emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, spiritually, and socially." Moral injury can affect any service member -even those who believe their cause is just. Imagine the moral harm facing the service member forced to fight a war they know is wrong. As is so tragically evident in the suicide rates described above, the impact of moral injury can foster internal conflict and self-condemnation that becomes intolerable.

Many of us believe that denying freedom of conscience to our service members - particularly for those who subscribe to the Just War tradition - is intolerable. I will be joining over 70 colleagues in New York this month as a Commissioner for the first Truth Commission on Conscience in War. We will receive testimony from recent veterans, chaplains, religious leaders, and academic experts about the questions of conscience facing service members in war. Our unifying concern is to honor and protect moral and religious conscience for those serving in the Armed Forces. Our Commissioner ranks come from just war proponents and pacifists, evangelical and mainline Christians, Muslims and Jews, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, and veterans of all military branches.

We will gather for this unprecedented Truth Commission on Sunday, March 21, from 4 to 8 pm in Riverside Church. We welcome and encourage the public to join us. Some of the veterans testifying at the Commission are featured in the video trailer at the Commission website.For those who cannot be there, a moving Emmy-nominated film, "Soldiers of Conscience,"offers the powerful stories of eight soldiers struggling with moral questions while serving in Iraq; two of the veterans featured in the film are testifying at the March 21st Public Hearing.

For religious people, the formation of ethical sensibilities and the freedom to exercise moral choice are sacred dimensions of faith. Forcing service members to act against their own moral consciences violates this sanctity and denies them their religious freedom. In a recent letter to President Obama, the Truth Commission's Host, retired Army Chaplain (Colonel) Rev. Herman Keizer, Jr., Former Chair, National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces America, notes:

We do not honor the conscience of those we train to be discriminating about these moral issues. ... Conscientious Objection only acknowledges the conscience of those who object to all wars and not those who object to a specific conflict. ...This is the dilemma faced by every soldier who holds to the "Just War" tradition. In my 34 years as a chaplain, I have seen injustice done to many soldiers who did not object to war, but objected to Viet Nam and now Iraq.

It is time--indeed, long past time--to honor and protect freedom of conscience for all those who serve our nation in uniform. War inflicts terrible, tragic consequences on all touched by it. Moral conscience should not be one of its casualties.