About the Commission
The Truth Commission on Conscience in War is the first nationwide attempt to critically examine the questions of conscience facing our nation’s service members, military regulations governing freedom of conscience, and the moral and spiritual injuries of war. The Commission launched on March 21, 2010 with a Public Hearing at the historic Riverside Church in New York City. The hearing brought together a diverse group of over 50 Co-Sponsors and 80 Commissioners to receive testimony from 14 veterans and experts. On March 22, Testifiers and Commissioners met in private to reflect on the testimony and identify strategies for change; Commissioners formed working groups to synthesize their recommendations for inclusion in the Commission’s Final Report, to be released on Veterans Day 2010.
Learn more about the Truth Commission model, conscientious objection and the laws of warfare, and the power of personal testimony.
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Why do we need a Truth Commission on Conscience in War?
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2009, President Obama used criteria of just war to assert the rare necessity of war for peace. Unfortunately, few people understand the moral criteria of just war or international agreements on the conduct of war and the importance of international courts. Hence, public conversations about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have focused on strategy, troop counts, and efficacy, rather than international law or the morality of these wars, except in relation to the use of torture and the Geneva Conventions.
Yet, members of the armed forces are expected to exercise individual moral conscience in military service; Nuremberg Principle IV states, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”
Military regulations in the United States have long recognized an individual’s right to refuse military service for reasons of faith or conscience. The United States takes pride in the integrity, loyalty to duty, love of country, and willingness to sacrifice of all who serve in the armed forces. However, U.S. military regulations governing Conscientious Objector (CO) status require objections to “war in any form,” a requirement that denies freedom of conscience to many serving in the military who belong to traditions that uphold just war.
Members of the U.S. Armed Forces who oppose a particular war, such as those in Iraq or Afghanistan, have no legal basis for refusing to deploy, even if they believe participation implicates them in an immoral war or in war crimes. Instead, they face sanctions, and even court martial and prison for their refusal to serve. The suffering and moral dilemmas of the service men and women who morally object to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are evidenced in the large number of soldiers who have refused deployment, are in prison, been dishonorably discharged, or have committed suicide.
The majority religions use criteria of “just war” when addressing the morality of a particular war, and, as a member of the United Nations, the U.S. is governed by the Nuremberg Principles. Current CO regulations must be expanded to include the right of soldiers to refuse deployment in a particular war.
There is no better historical moment in our nation’s history for a national process of citizen education about the rights of conscience of service members who object to a particular war given
- Religious and ethical distinctions between just war and pacifism,
- Requirements of international agreements such as Nuremberg Principles and Geneva Conventions,
- Religious, moral, and legal concerns surrounding the justification and conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and
- The devastating impact of these wars on many service members.