Groups to Discuss Soldiers’ Conscience Issues

On Sunday, more than 80 national religious, academic, advocacy and veterans’ leaders will lead a discussion titled, Truth Commission on Conscience in War. The event will be held at the Riverside Church in New York City, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “Beyond Vietnam” speech, and recent veterans and national experts will talk about moral, psychological and legal dimensions of conscience and war.

The discussion, centering on issues of conscience facing service members in war, will launch the commission’s eight-month campaign to bring national attention to decisions of moral and religious conscience facing American service members. The campaign will conclude with the Veterans Day release of the commission’s final report. The talk is co-sponsored by a diverse coalition of more than 50 religious, academic, advocacy and veterans’ groups.

Rita Brock is part of the four-person planning committee for the talk. Brock said the planning committee, based in the Bay area of California, has been organizing the event over the last two years.

She said, “Because it’s an all-volunteer military, most people who join the military aren’t pacifists, but they might have a moral sense about leading an illegal war, and the military actually teaches them just war regulation, the idea of just war.” Soldiers aren’t allowed to use what they learn, she said, because they can’t object to a particular war, but she said, “We would like them to have that right, so the point of the whole campaign is to protect moral conscience for people in the military.”

Brock has been to the Riverside Church before and said she has gotten “great cooperation” with the church. “They’ve just been wonderful to work with,” she said.

Brock said she attended the church on April 4, 2005, for an anti-Iraq interfaith service that commemorated King’s speech against Vietnam. “Whenever I’m in New York, I often go to church there,” she said. Also, a good friend of hers, James Forbes, is a former preacher there.

“Besides the public, which we hope will turn out in droves, we have five really terrific veterans testifying about moral conscience in war and about their own personal moral struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “And we have a gold star mother talking about losing her son to a war that she believes was immoral.” Also, representatives of three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – will talk.

Speakers will include Tyler Boudreau, an Iraq War veteran and author of “Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine”; Joshua Casteel, former US Army Interrogator at Abu Ghraib; Jacob C. Dilberto, a US Marine veteran and founder of Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan as a civilian; and Logan Mehl-Laituri, a US Army veteran with service in Iraq who also recently returned from a trip to Iraq as a civilian.

Other speakers will be Jonathan Shay, a VA clinical psychiatrist, national PTSD expert and MacArthur “Genius Award” winner; Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times; and Chaplain Herman Keizer Jr., a Vietnam veteran with 34 years of military service.

Brock said, “We have such an unusual group of people cooperating on this. We have secular activists who don’t care about religion who are willing to cooperate with religious people to push this forward. We have pacifists who object to all wars and just war people who think it’s possible to have a just war coming together rather than arguing. They’re coming together because we all believe that protecting moral conscience is crucial.”

The commission is organized by Faith Voices for the Common Good, Luna Productions, The Mission and Social Justice Commission of the Riverside Church, Starr King School for the Ministry and Union Theological Seminary.