Conscience Goes to War

Charles Mills May/June 2017

It doesn’t make sense. Why would you want to join today’s military while absolutely refusing to fire a weapon, drop a bomb, or end the life of someone bound and determined to end yours? What possible good is an unarmed soldier, sailor, or airman?

Historically, many such individuals, labeled “conscientious objectors,” were penalized, imprisoned, or executed. After all, the marching order of most wars is to kill or be killed, and whoever does it most efficiently wins.

Enter William of Orange, the leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish Hapsburgs. In the 1570s he allowed members of the conscience-driven Dutch Mennonites to refuse military service in exchange for cold, hard cash.1

But the world would have to wait almost 200 more years before formal legislation to exempt such individuals from using deadly force was put in place in Great Britain. This time the Quakers were bucking the system.2

The United States, the new home of Quakers, Mennonites, and many other religious groups whose fundamental belief system insisted that members make love, not war, permitted such a choice from its very founding allowing individual states the option of accepting or rejecting such requests.3

In 1948 the right of conscience over commands was partially addressed by the United Nations General Assembly in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It read: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thoughts, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”4

It would seem that, in America at least, today’s all-volunteer fighting forces would be immune to such requests. But that’s not the case. There’s another aspect of the military experience for which young men and women strive and that all branches of the armed forces recognize as valuable. It’s called “service,” and hundreds are answering the call to serve without sacrificing someone else’s life. How does the military address this motivation? Are there policies in place that provide open arms to those who choose to answer the call to service without answering the call to kill?

With the release of the movie Hacksaw Ridge, public attention has been piqued as to what’s possible when it comes to serving a country without a gun in your hand. Anyone who has seen the movie agrees that war is, beyond a doubt, hell on earth. It is carnage writ large. Yet Desmond Doss’s weapon of choice was a first-aid kit. [Read the article on Desmond Doss and the Hacksaw Ridge experience in the January 2017 issue.]

His story has captured the imagination of millions. His actions on a stony escarpment showed that there is more than one way to fight an enemy—that bravery isn’t measured by how many smoking holes you punch through a perceived bad guy, but how many field dressings, splints, and bleeding arm and leg stumps you bind. What saved 75 men on Hacksaw Ridge wasn’t a new type of artillery weapon or freshly developed shell, but a double bowline knot tied by the bloodstained fingers of someone who insisted that prayer be part of any military offensive.

Fast-forward to today. How does our modern fighting force deal with those in their ranks who choose not to carry a weapon into battle? I spoke with Lieutenant Commander Robert Mills, a Navy chaplain presently stationed in the Northeast. His insights provide a glimpse into the military mind-set and the choices soldiers, sailors, and airmen have when it comes to following their individual consciences into battle.

He requested that I add this statement: The opinions expressed here are his alone and may or may not reflect the official perspective of the United States military.

Chaplain Mills, what were the circumstances surrounding your initial viewing of Hacksaw Ridge?

I went with a friend who is a Marine Corps major on, appropriately enough, Veterans Day. He asked me to join him in case he had some questions concerning some of the issues raised by the film. It was a matinee showing, and throughout we were whispering back and forth, discussing what we were seeing on the screen. After the end credits rolled, we sat in the empty, darkened theater and had a good conversation about Desmond Doss and his beliefs. It was very enlightening—for us both. He knew that I was somewhat familiar with Doss—his life and his case. When I was younger, I had read several books about him. My companion was also very interested to get my input on whether Hollywood got it right; whether it was an accurate movie or not.

Did they get it right? Was it accurate?

I think for the most part, yes. There were some details that were overly dramatized, and some events that really happened were left out. But according to what I’ve read about Desmond Doss’s life before Hacksaw Ridge the movie, I think Mel Gibson and Hollywood got it pretty close.

Has anything changed since World War II when it comes to the tolerance or acceptance of those with beliefs not always in sync with the military?

In general, no. However, some of the specific ways we understand conscientious objectors and how we work with them in the military have changed. During World War II we had a draft. Men, and some women, were basically compelled to go into the military. Today it’s an all-volunteer force, and we haven’t had a draft since the early 1970s. So it’s a slightly different vector. Everyone who’s in the military has volunteered to be there. But, in general, the broad strokes are still applicable from the policies that were in place during World War II.

I have to ask this question because I know it’s on the mind of a lot of young people today. Do recruiters tell the whole story? Or should they be considered the “used-car salesmen” of the military when someone shows up interested in a life of service for his or her country?

Our recruiters have an incredibly difficult job. They’re competing with so many different avenues of entertainment, avocation, and vocation for young people. Some occasionally oversell. They do occasionally exaggerate. So the best advice I’d have for a young person who is considering a military career is not only to talk with a recruiter but to speak with a person who has been in the military for a long time—perhaps a friend or relative who may have served in the past. Ask them the same kinds of questions you’d ask a recruiter in order to get the point of view from somebody who’s been there and done that—someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in getting them into the service.

If a person has fundamental beliefs that go against the military norm, they shouldn’t join. That I understand. But let’s say that someone’s already in the military and they have a change of heart and begin to believe as Desmond Doss believed. They realize that they don’t want to kill people. They don’t want to do what the military is training them to do. What are their options at that point?

That’s an excellent question, and fortunately we have very comprehensive policies in place for folks who find themselves changing midstream. They may have just joined a particular faith group, or their shift in priorities may be born out of personal convictions. Basically, when we discover that they are refusing to serve in the traditional sense, we put them through a series of interviews. We ask them questions to find out where their new ideas have come from and if those positions are firm, fixed, sincere, and deeply held. The chaplain is part of that process, as is the commanding officer and an investigating officer who will also ask questions about the person’s belief. The chaplain will fill out a form that indicates whether he or she finds that that person’s beliefs are indeed firm, fixed, sincere, and deeply held. It’s also determined whether he or she is opposed to all war or whether they’re simply opposed to the particular war in which we happen to be engaged at the time. There’s a difference. The policy states that the person needs to be an objector to all wars.

The military, of course, is aware of religious beliefs, and that’s why they have people like you—chaplains who are serving a wide variety of faiths. Is a religious belief enough? In other words, if I say to you, “Chaplain Mills, I can’t do this because my church says I can’t do this.” Is that enough?

No. There has to be a deeply held personal belief in place. Just because your church says no doesn’t let you off the hook as far as conscientious objection is concerned. On the other hand, there are some churches whose members do bear arms in the military. We occasionally find people from those churches who’ve developed a deeply held belief against bearing arms and taking life. I think the military has been fairly wise in saying we’re not going to apply a blanket policy to all cases. We’re going to take these cases one by one, using basic guidelines outlined within policy. We’re going to allow them to be adjudicated one at a time so that we’re not doing violence to a person’s personal convictions.

Chaplain Mills, you are a Christian, and you serve all denominations. Some of them, as you say, are OK with bearing weapons. Other religions, such as the religion of Doss, who was a Seventh-day Adventist, promote the concept of not killing anyone. Is God selective? Is God saying, “OK, I’m going to forgive these people over here who are bearing arms, but I’m not going to forgive those people over there who are bearing arms, because they know better.” How do you bring those two perspectives together? I’m sure this is something you have to deal with on a daily basis when you try to juggle so many different religious philosophies.

We do have to deal with a lot of different understandings and worldviews. Part of the training that we get as chaplains is to sort through those various views to find the kernel of deeply held belief in the heart of the person who is coming to talk with us. I can’t second-guess God and say that He applies one set of standards for one group and another set for another group. I don’t believe that’s my place. However, what I’m asked to do is talk with people and evaluate how deeply held their belief is. There are some who would hide behind conscientious objection just to get out of the tough duties facing them. We need to prevent this. At the same time, we need to be able to support those who have a deeply held moral belief against war or against their personal participation in it. It’s interesting that Desmond Doss did not want to be called a conscientious objector originally. He said, “Please call me a conscientious cooperator.” He was able to have a deferment because he worked in the defense industry at a shipyard. But he said, “No, I want to go in and serve. I just can’t bear arms.” So we need to find the kernel of truth shaping the deeply held moral belief in a person’s life and support that truth.

What I hear you saying is that if two people are standing before you—or before God—and one is carrying a gun and the other one is not carrying a gun, that doesn’t determine God’s love for that person, how much He cares for that person, or His ability to save that person.

Absolutely! People have different beliefs. They have different understandings of the world. Two men can be standing together, as you said—one with a weapon in hand and ready to kill for his country and one who says no, I can’t do that, but I will gladly serve. I believe God honors both. I believe God respects both. And I firmly believe that we as a nation have a moral responsibility to understand the wide range of personal beliefs people carry in their hearts and, whenever possible, support and defend them.

I like the word that you’re using there: serve. You are telling us—you are telling the young people of this country—that service is the end goal. Some can serve with a gun. Some can serve with a computer. Some can serve with a medical kit. But service is the bottom line.

That’s what drove Desmond Doss. He wanted to help his fellow human beings and he wanted to serve. Those of the generation that I work with most—the millennial generation—have a strong desire to serve, to help, to make things better.

That’s very encouraging for those young people who are considering being part of the military. It sounds like our armed forces are open to their personal beliefs. However, you’ve given a little caveat. That belief has to come from the heart. So how can you as a chaplain know the difference when someone stands before you and says I don’t want to carry a gun? How do you know that it’s from the heart; that it’s from God?

It’s not an easy question to answer, because sometimes people lie. What we try to do as chaplains is develop a relationship with the person; a relationship of trust. We attempt to remove some of the reasons that that person might lie, and this allows him or her to be authentic with us. And, yes, the service does recommend that if people have strongly held beliefs against war, they not enter the military to begin with. However, this introduces an interesting dichotomy, because Desmond Doss had those beliefs and he still entered the military. He faced some pretty cruel persecution and some very real barriers getting to where he got. But I’ve always been impressed that he overcame them all. He stood by his beliefs and served honorably, bringing great credit to his country, his church, and his God.

Charles Mills is host of LifeQuest Liberty, the flagship radio outreach of Liberty magazine. He writes from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Disclosure: Lieutenant Commander Robert Mills is his nephew!

1 Robert Paul Churchill, “Conscientious Objection,” in Donald A. Wells, An Encyclopedia of War and Ethics (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 United Nations Association in Canada, “Questions and Answers About the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Article Author: Charles Mills

Charles Mills, a media producer, is the host of "LifeQuest Liberty" radio program. He writes from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.