On Soldiers and Moral Principles

American soldiers are not permitted to make moral assessments about the wars in which they are tasked to fight. This is not meant to be an inflammatory statement. The simple fact of the matter is that if a soldier believes a war to be unjust, and decides to act on his or her moral convictions by refusing to further participate, they risk severe punishment. Soldiers are not allowed to selectively object to immoral wars. This is not a condition unique to America, but it is a status quo worth changing.


I am often told that the American military could not function in its present capacity if a soldier were simply allowed to walk away from war – to quit – for any reason whatsoever. It is true that such a military force would be vastly different than the current system. In my view it would be significantly improved. More importantly though, quitting because one believes a war to be immoral is far from baseless – there can in fact be no better reason to quit. Such an act is not only courageous, it is something that the public should encourage all of its soldiers to do. The alternative is not only to have these men and women fighting in a war they believe to be wrong, but also to punish them, and often severely, if they refuse. What kind of moral foundation is such a society built on? It stands to reason that a civilization that suppresses peaceful dissent, especially from its soldiers, will resort to war more often, will remain at war for a longer period of time, and will be much more likely to instigate an aggressive war because the most credible voices of opposition will have largely been silenced.

To get an idea of where I believe we should go – a truly volunteer and ideally defensive military force – we must understand where we have been and we must endeavor to build on the successes of the past. This requires an open mind and a willingness to criticize modern day shortcomings as a means to constantly improve going forward.

First, where we have been: coercive military slavery (a.k.a. conscription or "the draft"). The draft was a policy tool of the American government until 1973 when it was abolished by former President Richard Nixon. It exists in a great number of countries to this day. Repealing the draft in the United States was a step in the right direction. In short, the draftee is compelled to fight by force. If the draftee resists compulsory violence then he or she is punished. The level of punishment varies but the fact that it exists at all makes the point. Practical punishments have differed over time from extremes such as execution, solitary confinement, and physical beatings to more moderate imprisonment, compulsory labor, unfavorable discharge paperwork, and/or other legal penalties. Imagine being executed because you refused to kill other people. Two things are clear in such a circumstance: first, those in favor of execution are evil tyrants; second, the victim is a moral giant. Although it is a stretch to think that a soldier would be executed today, they would undoubtedly be subject to a lengthy prison sentence and have historically been subject to much worse in the United States. The military draft is wrong because it relies on various forms of coercion (the initiation of aggressive force). It is that simple. The use of coercion to compel violence from an otherwise peace-loving person is particularly evil. The capacity to resist such a status quo and hold onto one’s ethical principles – even to death – is heroic. A free and moral society will encourage principled men and women (especially soldiers) to do exactly that. Unfortunately there are well-intentioned and terribly misguided advocates of compulsory military and/or national service today. People like General Stanley McChrystal want to re-institute the draft as a mechanism to bridge the growing cultural gap between the American soldier and its average civilian. To his credit, McChrystal further opines that re-instituting the draft would engender more buy-in from society and as a consequence provide a check against war. Surprisingly, military men aren’t the only advocates of re-instituting the draft for this very reason. Many peace activists from the draft-dodger generation itself argue that the draft played an important and inspirational role in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 70s. While this notion is undoubtedly true, and while the absence of such an antagonist today may contribute to the general population’s war ambivalence, there are better ways to build on the pro-peace and pro-freedom successes of the past without discarding the metaphorical baby with the bath water.

Second, where we are now: mercenary military contracts. It may surprise you but this is the most accurate way to describe how the United States military presently conducts its business. The politically correct term is the “all-volunteer” force. There is some truth to the idea that the modern American military is staffed by volunteers in that all officers and enlisted men voluntarily sign their contract. That is where the truth ends. Beyond the dotted line there are very few escape clauses. Essentially, once the soldier signs up, they are a compulsory servant in the next war whether they like it, hate it, or change their mind about its moral underpinnings. To label such a circumstance voluntary is to distort the plain meaning of words. Voluntary implies both the unrestricted freedom to associate as well as an equal freedom to disassociate. Being contractually obligated to a predefined number of years in service means that disassociation is not permitted. Because the soldier is legally bound by a contract and because the objective of the organization is ultimately violence, the term mercenary is much more accurate. That said, there is nothing inherently wrong with military contracts up until the point a soldier has a moral objection to what his organization is doing. Interestingly, personnel in the private sector are encouraged to report unethical behavior by their firm to the appropriate authority (generally a governing agency or regulator) and to disassociate from it (despite any contractual obligation with the employer). Why should the military man not be similarly encouraged to report unethical behavior about the wars he is asked to fight? Why shouldn’t he too be allowed to disassociate from it if its foundation is questionable? The stakes are infinitely higher in the profession of arms than in any other.

Third, where we should go: legalize selective objection. For clarity, selective objection is the ability to peacefully disassociate from the military if one feels that a war is fundamentally immoral. In a sentence, it is the following concept: “I think this war is wrong and I’m not going to participate.” Believe it or not this is completely illegal in the United States. That should be shocking. It is 100% true. Legalizing selective objection would represent a positive step in the right direction for a free and peace-loving society. It would empower the military men and women themselves, officer and enlisted alike, to speak out and peacefully disassociate from an aggressive war while not preventing them from lending their support to a legitimately defensive effort. Accordingly, wars would be subject to healthier debate and more transparency. Critics of selective objection will argue that the military man or woman will sign up for a decent job in peace time and leave as soon as a war approaches. This may perhaps be true for a small number of people, but it is categorically false about the vast majority of soldiers. Even so, such "wasted" training expenditures are a relatively small price to pay, and will be infinitely less expensive than the immense cost of waging an unnecessary war. Soldiers, like all people, will inherently disagree about the merits of any given war. What will happen is that more soldiers will refuse to fight aggressive wars. It is my sincere belief as a veteran myself, that there will be no shortage of volunteers if the United States is legitimately attacked. The massive wave of volunteers after September 11, 2001, including highly paid athletes like Pat Tillman, are representative of this fundamental truth. Conversely, forbidding selective objection serves to stifle peaceful dissent from the most relevant segment of society – those who pull the trigger. Permitting it is a small legislative hurdle that would represent a giant leap forward for freedom and peace. It would do this by allowing soldiers to act on their subjective moral convictions without facing serious repercussions. The benefits far outweigh any real or imagined unintended consequences.

In summary, compulsory military service, like any type of compulsory service, is fundamentally immoral. Contractual military service, although less overt, has the same coercive potential as the draft. Since the consequences of war are so incredibly high, the barriers to peaceful opposition should be incredibly low. In an ideal world, a truly volunteer force, there would be no legal obstacles. Selective objection is a good next step because it decriminalizes personal moral convictions. The idea that a soldier should be punished for following his or her moral scruples is an unnecessary and totalitarian relic that has no place in the armed forces of a free society.

Justin Pavoni is a former Air Force officer and F-15E evaluator pilot. Pavoni has deployed twice to Afghanistan, served as a Special Operations liaison, and has flown 550 combat hours.