Offered by Dana S. Grubb, Co-Convener of EPF's Anti-War/Conscientious Objector Action Group
Several early Christian leaders opposed Christian service in the Roman Army due to its very frequent use of pagan rites. A few also opposed such service for pacifist reasons. But as early as year 180, there were at least a few Christians in the Roman Army. By the end of the Fourth Century, large numbers of Christians were serving in the Army. This has continued to be the case throughout the ages.
The primary role of the Roman Army was to protect the Roman provinces from the frequent incursions by people the Romans saw as barbarians. Our military today seeks to protect us from enemy forces. Many Christians today routinely serve in our armed forces. Many of them make military service a career. However, there are some serious moral problems for Christians in our armed forces to consider.
When a person enlists or is commissioned into the armed forces, they are legally bound to obey any legal order given by their military superiors. For example, they cannot refuse to participate when there is a war that they believe is immoral. Nor can they refuse to obey an order that they see as immoral. Further, they cannot resign from the military as a person can do with a civilian job. They must continue their military service until they are allowed to leave or when their term of service is completed.
Refusal to obey a legal order is grounds for serious criminal penalties, including imprisonment. As the Marines are said to summarize, “Your soul belongs to God, but your ass belongs to the Marine Corps.” However, this assumes that our souls are not responsible for what our bodies do. It assumes that we can lend our bodies to the military for its uses without being responsible before God. However, it is God who has created both our souls and our bodies. We are responsible for what our bodies do.
The burden of determining whether or not a war has a justifiable cause and is waged in a justifiable manor is on the federal government. The Congress can declare war and the Congress can fund a war. But that is not a guarantee that the war is justifiable. Nor is it a guarantee that the war will be waged in a moral manner. We are responsible to God for what we do.
Our military’s legal acts in a war are specified by its “Rules of Engagement” (ROE), issued by the Executive branch of our government. These rules have sometimes been changed by different administrations (e.g., defining “water torture” as being a form of torture or not).
During Second World War, our president allowed the then Army Air Force to do massive fire-bombing of Tokyo with the intention of creating a huge ,self-sustaining fire storm that would kill enormous numbers of civilians. Soon thereafter, atomic bombs were dropped on two other Japanese cities.
In 1950, when I was a freshman at the University of Maryland, I was enrolled in Air Force ROTC. (Maryland was one of only two state universities that had Air Force ROTC, rather than Army ROTC, as its main ROTC program.) I enjoyed the very broad social focus of its courses compared with my basic engineering student courses.
The Korean War was going on and becoming a commissioned officer in the Air Force looked a lot better than being a private in the infantry carrying a rifle. Being near-sighted, I was unlikely to become a pilot and the Air Force wanted engineers. I signed up for advanced Air Force ROTC.
As an upper classman, I witnessed a demonstration of napalming a small shack on an otherwise barren landscape. The F-84 jet fighters repeatedly scorched the earth around the shack, but they never hit or burned the shack. So much for precision bombing!
Several of us got to ride as passengers in a B-29 strategic bomber as the crew flew a simulated bombing run on an American city. Before the flight, we got to talk with the pilot. I naively asked him whether, in the event of a war with Russa, did he have a target in Russia. He said that he had two (unnamed) Russian city targets. I even more naively asked him: Who gave him the right to kill a 100,000 people? He said “higher authority.” I then asked him: Who gave them that right? He said that he did not know.
I got a bad review on this training, but was not expelled from the program. When I graduated (in electrical engineering), I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force.
I was assigned to a combined military installation. Electronic computers were just then getting into production. They used vacuum tubes with very poor reliability and lacked good diagnostic tools. I remember talking with a civilian employee. He told me that when he was in the Air Force during the Korean War, he had followed orders to use his light bomber to machine gun everyone along a particular road. This was because that road was being used to carry enemy ammunition to the war front. Once in a long while he would see an explosion from his tracer bullets. But most of the time he was just killing the many civilians going to and from markets. He expressed much sorrow over his action.
When I had completed two years of my three year active duty commitment, the Korean War had been over a while and the Air Force’s budget had been cut by Congress. Since I was not interested in an Air Force career, I was offered an “easy out,” which I gladly accepted.
Even people who join the armed forces because a war is initially seen by them as legitimate and as being fought within appropriate limits, may find out later that this is not true. Sometimes, newspapers will have been “war hawks” that hyped up the war. Sometimes our government has lied about the circumstances (e.g., in the Vietnam War). It has often been said that “truth is the first casualty of war.”
Of course, the time to have such a concern is not in the midst of a battle. Success on the battle field is dependent on everyone’s obedience to all legal orders. Similarly, if one’s unit is in the midst of a military campaign, that is not a good time to decide to opt out of the war. Also, we should respect the members of our armed forces for following their understanding of what is right. How you practice good, responsible, moral citizenship is one's personal choice ultimately. Faithfully serving one's country and its peoples can take many forms under many difference circumstances.
*Cross Before Flag is an EPF publication that lists many of the EPF’s resolutions that were adopted by previous Episcopal Church General Conventions.