Editor’s note: John Helmiere ’10 M.Div. was among a group of Yale-related persons who participated in deliberations of the Truth Commission on Conscience in War at Riverside Church in New York City, March 21-22. In the following article, he reflects on his participation in the two-day event, which included a public hearing. The Commission, representing a diverse coalition of 50 religious, veterans, academic, and advocacy groups, is launching an eight-month campaign to bring national attention to decisions of moral and religious conscience facing American service members. Central to the effort is the question of whether a soldier’s moral objection to a particular war should be honored, just as objections to war in general can result in “conscientious objector” status. Kristen Leslie ’86 M.Div., associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at YDS, also participated, in addition to the following Yale alumni: George Hunsinger ’88 Ph.D., co-founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary; Peter Laarman ’93 M.Div., director of Los Angeles-based Progressive Christians Uniting; Rosemary Bray McNatt ’76 B.A., senior minister at the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City; Donald W. Shriver, Jr., ’57 S.T.M., president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary; and Traci West ’81 B.A., a professor at Drew University Theological School. Drew Christiansen ’82 Ph.D., editor of America magazine, was also an official commissioner to the gathering but was unable to attend.
On truth, war, and morality: Ruminations at Riverside Church
By John Helmiere ’10 M.Div.
I spent most of the afternoon of March 21 on the verge of tears, sitting in the sanctuary of the historic Riverside Church in NYC. A large crowd had assembled to witness the “Truth Commission on Conscience in War” in which Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans, as well as legal, theological, psychological, and media experts, spoke about the horror of these wars. YDS co-sponsored the event, allowing the Divinity School to appoint two commissioners, whose job it was to listen deeply to testimonies and craft actionable responses. In the interest of creating a diverse Commission in terms of age, YDS appointed me to serve alongside Professor Kristen Leslie and many other well-known leaders in the academy, the military, religion, politics, the media, and the arts.
The first testifier was Camilo Meija, a former Army sergeant who served jail time after refusing to deploy for a second tour in Iraq. Meija shared an experience in which his convoy leader arrested a boy who threw rocks at their vehicle. Local Iraqis came out to the scene to beg the soldiers not to take the young child to a military prison. The U.S. commander indicated that the boy had to be punished, so a man at the scene, probably the boy’s father, hit the child. The commander found this insufficient, forcing the man to give the boy a brutal, bloody beating in public while the soldiers and local villagers watched. Eventually, the commander was appeased and the convoy drove on. This was just one story, and not nearly the most disturbing, that kept the audience in silence during the four hours of testimony at Riverside.
Truth Commissions are convened in response to a traumatic social problem. They bring into public consciousness veiled realities that suffering-averse societies or repressive governments would prefer to ignore or suppress. Truth Commissions always begin with public truth-telling from those most affected by a problem. These first-hand stories form the basis for action plans intended to reduce suffering and change structures.
The particular problem that we were addressing at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War was the common experience of the soldier facing a crisis of conscience. Soldiers who develop an ethical worldview that causes them to reject war during their service may apply for “conscientious objector” status but as a result often face alienation or persecution. However, soldiers who ascribe to just war philosophy – which considers war to be moral under certain conditions -- but whose personal experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan cause them to reject these wars as unjust, have no grounds, under current regulations, to refuse to participate in combat despite the fact that doing so causes them to act in direct contradiction to their moral frameworks.
During the second day of deliberations, commissioners and testifiers began developing an agenda for the future. Plans began to form around seeking government recognition of “selective conscientious objection” (which would protect moral-ethical integrity for just war soldiers alongside pacifists), enhancing counter-recruitment and veteran care programs, and developing new theological understandings of war and justice in light of the conditions of modern warfare. Whatever fruit comes of our actions, the courageous act of public truth telling on the part of the veterans forced all present that day to see the true human cost of war.