(Photo: AP Images / Julie Jacobson)
WASHINGTON – On the eve of Veterans Day, interfaith group Truth Commission on Conscience in War urged churches and religious leaders to break their silence regarding the moral conflict that America’s involvement in unjustified wars is putting religious soldiers through.
A group of evangelicals and Catholic soldiers, military chaplains and Truth Commission staff gathered in Washington, D.C., and testified Wednesday about their personal stories of moral guilt and confliction while serving their country in a war.
In their testimonies, veterans advocated for Christians to stand against wars that do not match the principals of just war. Church leaders were also encouraged to be vocal about the implications unjust wars have on the service men and women in their congregations.
“The church needs to confront the open-ended occupation, open-ended war in which men and women get sent on four and five deployments for practical reasons. Those soldiers come back to the church. They come back to home. They’re broken [and] their family is broken,” said Jake Diliberto, a veteran and Truth Commission testifier.
Diliberto, a former Marine, said he grew disillusioned with the war after serving in Iraq. “One time in my life I ignored my conscience and I said ‘That’s OK.’ But today, I stand before you as the co-founder of Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan.”
The change occurred when Diliberto realized he could not justify the war for which he was serving. He says he still carries memories of Iraq.
“I still remember my friends who got killed. I still remember their faces. I remember the Iraqis that got killed,” Diliberto, now an ordained evangelical minister, recounted.
Herman Keizer, Jr., a retired Army corporal and military chaplain, stressed that “the ramifications of how we go to war and the criteria we use to go to war are very important.”
“They are especially important to the individual soldier,” he remarked.
When the proper justifications are not there, said Keizer, soldiers become conflicted about their actions.
“Over 75 percent of the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq shoot to kill. In World War II only 20 percent shot to kill. So training has made it so that our soldiers are much more reflexive, that they are reflective about things that happen on the battlefield,” he explained.
When soldiers do begin to reflect on their conduct, soldiers can become mentally and physically burdened by the moral implication of their actions.
The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder labeled such moral ethical challenges as moral injury in a 2009 study. While moral injury and PTSD are not the same, the study concluded that moral injury causes similar psychological and emotional impairment.
Truth Commission Planning Committee Co-Chair the Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock believes the study has serious implications for the religious community. “Over half of the veterans that seek treatment for this have lost their faith. So war actually killed their faith,” she pointed out.
Brock continued, “The more[soldiers] had a harsh view of God, that God was punishing them or God was a judge, the more likely they were to experience substance abuse and their prognosis for healing was less [likely].”
The daughter and step-daughter of veterans, Brock noted that while moral injury can be devastating for men and women in uniform, it can also serve as an opportunity for ministry.
“I feel that this new research of moral injury is a vocational call to religious communities to get involved,” she asserted.
Keizer stressed that church leaders should call out wars that are entered into unjustly.
“Our Constitution says that only Congress has the right to declare war. The last war that Congress declared was World War II,” he explained.
While the Truth Commission is largely a pacifist organization, several of the veterans made it clear that they were not anti-war. They only asked that America’s military involvement adhere to the principles of Just War Theory.
The Just War Theory, a doctrine of military ethics commonly used by policymakers, consists of four conditions for determining the justice of a war: lasting, grave and certain damage must be inflicted by the aggressor; all other methods have been shown to be ineffective; the use of arms must not cause more grave destruction or evil than the evil to be eliminated; and there must be serious prospects of success.
Keizer recommended that church leaders hold the government accountable to these principals.
Also, the Truth Commission advocated for the religious community to support soldiers’ rights to follow their moral conscience and be allowed a sanctioned out from troubling wars. It has been lobbying Congress to expand the definition of conscientious objection to allow the personnel of all branches of the military to follow their conscience.
J. E. McNeil, executive director of Center on Conscience & War, said it has rounded up the support of 10 Congress members. However, their efforts have been largely unsuccessful due to a lack of political consensus and members ousted in elections.
The Truth Commission will host an interfaith service today in Washington, D.C., at National City Christian Church in honor of Veterans’ Day. The service will feature the Rev. James A. Forbes, Jr., emeritus of New York’s historic Riverside Church and the Rev. MphoTutu, daughter of Bishop Desmond Tutu. More veterans are scheduled to testify about their moral injuries at the service.