The Soldier’s Conscience
The soldier's conscience goes through several formations and reformations throughout his or her life, especially if the soldier is a Christian. The challenge is not making it through basic training and being reinforced with the idea that destroying the enemy is good, and that blood makes the green grass grow; the challenge is not shoving cold, sharp steel into green, life-sized, human silhouettes while shouting “Kill!” at the top of his or her lungs. The soldier’s conscience is challenged once the killing of the enemy has occurred and upon having to transition back to acting like a loving, Christian civilian.
I am writing to inform that you as the counselor or lay-counselor can help a current soldier or a veteran when they cannot make peace with their conscience. This blog is not intended to diagnose or cure any crisis or trauma relating to combat or training. Hopefully when you finish reading this, your view of the military member will be more complete and you'll have a better understanding on how to begin treatment for a Service Member (SM).
The Article from Hel...arvard
My decision to review this article was largely a mistake. It was written in conjunction with the Harvard Law School and it discusses how the Nuremberg trials relate to the modern day soldiers’ conscious efforts to remain ethical, and it eventually discusses how the information presented should be reviewed in schools. This deep-sea roller coaster of a ride opened several cans of worms and I ended up calling in air support (aka phoned-a-friend) to get those slimy things off of me. Nevertheless, I made it through and it gave me a more whole picture for writing something relevant and scholarly.
The Oath of No Life
I have raised my right hand about four times now repeating the “Oath of Enlistment” In this statement, I am affirming that,” I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” I am stating that I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over for however many years I signed for. This implies that I should keep my head straight and ensure that I do what is right in my conscience, according to the seven Army values, even in the face of adversity, confusion, or chaos—in the face of war. Sounds daunting. Dare I say, you have no idea?
A True Story from 35,000 ft
I met a soldier on an airplane while I was coming home from a tour (deployment) overseas. He was a 31E, Army Prison Guard. We had some time to kill (no pun intended), and we started shooting the breeze (again…). He told me of a young soldier prisoner he met while working in the Disciplinary Barracks (DBs), the Army term for Army prison. This young infantry soldier and his small unit was patrolling (looking for the bad guys) in Iraq and they came under fire (got attacked). The unit could not figure out how the enemy knew of their position, as they were hunkered down and being attacked from several angles. His Lieutenant spotted a Local National (LN) with a radio and determined that this man was pointing out this young soldier’s unit’s position and providing intelligence (vital information) to the insurgents (the bad guys). The Lieutenant ordered the young soldier to shoot and kill the man with the radio.
The Rules of Engagement in Iraq at that time were nebulous and I have suspicion that that young soldier gave the Lieutenant a short second thought, but followed through with that order dutifully. Later on an investigation was held and the Army determined that shooting the LN with the radio was unlawful and the young soldier was charged for a crime in a Military Court (military trial). The young soldier told the court that the Lieutenant was to blame. The Lieutenant said that he was under stress and basically denied the order saying, “It’s not my fault”. The court rebutted the young soldier, saying that he should not have followed the order because it was unlawful. This young soldier is now serving at least ten years in an Army prison in Kansas for following an unlawful order. Did this soldier’s conscience kick in and did he ignore it, or was there a more serious conflict going on in his head?
When I heard this story I wanted to cry, hit something, and ETS (get out of the Army) immediately, but I did none of these. If you take nothing else away from this story, please know that this happens more often than it should but that most soldiers to do not meet the end of their career this way.
Most soldiers serve their time in their units and transition to civilian life. The transition is the hardest part of being a soldier. It has been the most challenging for me and for every comrade I have spoken with about it. We are no longer praised for calling running cadences on base that shout, “Kill, kill, kill!”, or chant how napalm sticks to kids' bellies and ribs. That would display signs of anti-social tendencies, according to society, and we would be shunned.
Soldiers are not deprogrammed to deal with civilian life the way they are reprogrammed in basic training to deal with military life and war. When the Army is finished with a Soldier, the Soldier will complete a checklist of information, mostly to cover the Army’s hide in the case something happens to the newly transitioned civilian, but perhaps also in and an honest effort to help the soldier transition. The system is not quite up to par. The five components of the immaterial self are easily hidden under the Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) and there is no in-depth check-the-block for the health of the immaterial components. So what are we as counselors to do about it?
How to Help a Service Member in Transition
I am speaking from ten years of personal experience and from ten years of hearing other service members when I say that a listening ear goes a LONG way. Service members, soldiers, are taught a different set of moral values and are experts at maintaining cognitive dissonance in day-to-day life and in an ever-changing environment. The ability to morph is what kept me alive and it has kept other service members alive in war, but it no one walks away from war unscathed. Here are a few tidbits to help counselors help veterans or current service members:
- Most of the time, soldiers feel as though they are just a number--easily replaced. Ensure you get to know the soldier or veteran and ensure they feel comfortable with you.
- A soldier may have an issue with authority for a little while, for whatever reason. Make sure the soldier knows your credentials but do not give them false information, especially information to make yourself look more qualified. They will have the courage to call “BS” on you and walk out, no matter the kind of organization you or another counselor is associated with.
- If you don’t love the soldier, the soldier will see it and it is possible to further wound them. Some counselors just don’t have the passion or the heart to help soldiers. In my opinion, it’s entirely likely that God just didn’t put a particular love for service members in some people, and it’s OK. Recognize this early on, though, to avoid further hurt, and refer as needed.
If you are interested in gaining more knowledge of how the conscience affects soldiers’ performances, read On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (2009) by Dave Grossman or watch the Australian movie, “Beneath Hill 60” directed by Jeremy Sims (2010). Both are great resources for the history of the soldier’s conscience and the prevalence of the warrior’s burden across cultures.