05/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When War is Unjust Should Soldiers Just Say No?

"Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels - men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion."

-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, New York City, May 31, 1954

This would never happen, of course. But let's just say the United States invades a sovereign nation because the oil-rich country in question is hiding weapons of mass destruction. Its cache of WMD is said to be an imminent threat to the United States and its allies (read: Israel). If we don't strike first then the last thing Americans could see is a mushroom cloud overhead, similar to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And as Washington knows, mushroom clouds signal the death of tens of thousands of civilians.

So at the urging of a New England-bred president with a native Texan swagger, Congress blesses the invasion despite loud objections from the world and the U.N. The ensuing conflict becomes a bloodbath best not viewed by our newest high-def TVs. Untold numbers of civilians are killed. Not ours, mind you. Theirs. Tens of thousands of working-class folk die, many in gruesome scenes; so many dead that the United States doesn't bother counting. Those who survive aren't only shocked and awed by the invasion, they are traumatized and/or wounded and/or orphaned and/or unemployed.

But, hey, war is ugly. Even I know that, and I'm sitting in a recliner with a laptop. Then -- and here's the twist to this Clancy plot -- the U.S. government is mistaken about caches of WMD. Let's say the threat turns out to not be exactly as it was packaged and sold. Soldiers and politicians were duped. But since we're already there, might as well finish the job.

See the twist? The protagonist becomes the antagonist. It would be cliche if it weren't so real -- real, at least, in the minds of many of the soldiers ordered to kill-kill-kill in this wrongheaded war. They signed up to defend the United States, not to invade and occupy its political enemies, the enemies of its allies and the perceived enemies of the American way -- be it the way of Wall Street and/or Washington.

This Sunday, March 21, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The Riverside Church in New York City, the Truth Commission on Conscience in War will hold a public hearing on the moral criteria of "just war" and the international agreements on the proper conduct of war, e.g., the Geneva Conventions and Nuremberg Principles. Testimony from war veterans and religious leaders will explore, among other things, current-day logic and law as it applies to Conscientious Objector (CO) status, and the differences between just-war objections and pacifism. Military regulations recognize an individual's right to refuse combat for reasons of faith or conscience, but the CO status does not distinguish between wars of national defense and those of preemptive strikes, which can lead to invasion and occupation.

Sunday's event begins a six-month campaign by the Truth Commission to educate the public, especially religious communities, about the realities and conundrums of modern-day soldiers. Although U.S. armed forces are all-voluntary, political, religious and military leaders argue that soldiers are still drafted into service. Only today it's by economics. Lower- and middle-class soldiers often enlist because of limited access to a living wage and an inability to pay for college.


"When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war."

-- President Eisenhower, five-star Army general in World War II and Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during invasions of France and Germany.

One of the soldiers testifying on Sunday will be Hawaii's Logan Laituri, an Army combat veteran who helped found Centurion's Guild, a nonprofit that assists military recruits with grants and other ways to pay for college tuition. The intention is to give lower- and middle-income kids options other than combat. When I returned to Iraq in January for a book's research, Laituri, 28, went along with me and several others. He traveled into Iraq's Al Anbar province, one of the war's hotbeds three years ago, the only way that he considered to be proper. Unarmed. In his world and mine, guests rarely bring guns to a host's house.

In 2006, Laituri, who had served one tour in Iraq in 2004-05, had submitted a CO request asking that he not be forced to carry a weapon. Although he he had not killed anyone in his previous tour, he'd seen enough to know that he could. Deep down in him there was a Pandora's Box that only combat could open. Even after Laituri had befriended everyday Iraqis such as his interpreter, empathized with Iraqi families subjected to random searches, and grieved for the dead he saw spilling from a morgue, he felt that the lines of his Christian morality were forever blurred. His "moral agency" was suspect. He didn't fear the enemy as much as he feared himself.

He put the gun down before he did something that would cause him to toss and turn forever. Before his moral agency became a casualty of moral injury -- and the victim of a wrongheaded war.

The Army eventually granted Laituri an honorable discharge.

"Moral injury does not occur only when you kill somebody, when you take somebody out. It's also when you reach that point where you thought about taking somebody out. When you realize for the first time that you could have done it, that you are capable of it," he says. "I just didn't want to do something that I would regret for the rest of my life. I didn't want to have to take someone out only because I was told to."