Though provocative, Jeff McMahan’s proposal for selective conscientious objection avoids serious real-world consequences. In his rush to maintain the ethical purity of the individual, McMahan exhibits a disregard for, or misunderstanding of, the volunteer’s role in contemporary military service. Furthermore, he punts on the question of whether selective conscientious objection would lead to less international conflict and more peace—perhaps because it clearly would not. Finally, this form of conscientious objection codifies the blaming of soldiers for war while absolving policymakers and legislators in the process—peculiar, given the structure of our constitutional republic.
Intentionally or not, McMahan’s proposal would widen the already cavernous civilian-military divide. Championed by Richard Nixon as a means of undermining protests against the Vietnam War, the all-volunteer force, once enacted, created a vast separation between the United States military and the country it serves: less than one half of one percent of Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, despite thirteen years of war. This separation is starkest in American society’s upper classes. ROTC is all but extinct on Ivy League campuses, and only a handful of senators’ children now serve.
Selective conscientious objection would further remove responsibility for war and peace from citizens—who, presumably, would continue to fund the military through taxes—and place it on the shoulders of a few young people who are already carrying the physical and emotional burden for the rest of the nation. Citizens who disagree with war X would be able to wipe their hands clean of the affair, while letting twenty-year-old privates carry out foreign policy in their country’s name. That’s not ethical. That’s dereliction. While the defense industry wouldn’t object to this system, as it would likely deepen the military’s reliance on private contractors, citizens who care about the use of American force abroad should be troubled by the idea.
Selective objection would widen the cavernous civilian-military divide.
McMahan’s comparison between the military and police suggests another danger inherent in his proposal. Imagine a society in which police could not only refuse to enforce laws they think are unjust, but also could enforce laws that they think should exist. This is what selective conscientious objection would look like in practice: an officer refusing to clear anti-abortion protestors away from a clinic because in his mind they have a First Amendment right to be there, regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling that dictates otherwise. Or a marine lieutenant refusing orders to intervene during a Taliban attack on an Afghan village, because that’s not what she signed up for.
To further explore what McMahan’s military would resemble, one needs to ask what type of person would enlist in a world of systemized soldier blaming. Would the thoughtful, young idealists who enlisted in the aftermath of 9/11 have done so in, and for, a society that reserves the right to blame soldiers for the policy choices made by our own elected government? It’s likely we’d be left with troops who believe whatever the government tells them, aren’t too worried about the complexity inherent in decisions to use force, or don’t ever consider ethical questions. Does this expeditionary force seem suited to carry out complicated operations in a thoughtful and humane way? Does it seem representative of the country whose flag they will wear on their shoulders every day and night they are overseas?
McMahan astutely observes that a person takes on moral risk by enlisting. Soldiers must submit to authority, lawful orders, and decision-makers that don’t always have their best interest, let alone their ethical purity, in mind. And surely there are profound challenges in the relationship between American society and the U.S. military at the moment. Yet selective conscientious objection would exacerbate those issues rather than alleviate them and weaken collective engagement and involvement when they are already waning.
We are all culpable. Like it or not, that’s how it works in a constitutional republic. We enter wars as a nation, and if our foreign policy goes crooked, we share the blame as citizens with the power to hold our elected officials accountable. I, too, long for a world with less war. But imbuing more democracy into our military ranks, not less, is the step toward lasting peace we seek. Selective conscientious objection wouldn’t bring more peace, nor would it make for more thoughtful soldiering. It would, however, further segregate America from its military—something we as an active citizenry cannot allow.
Matt Gallagher is the author of the novels Empire City and Youngbl
Traditional just war theory has it wrong. Soldiers are morally culpable for fighting in unjust wars, and thus deserve the option of selective conscientious objection.
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