Conscientious objection to military service

Conscientious objection to military service is a perennial issue which brings into sharp focus many of the issues of individual responsibility that we have been discussing. During the Vietnam war, US courts granted exemption from the draft to pacifists but not to objectors who based their arguments on just war principles. Similarly, UK exemption from conscription was (and if conscription returned would almost certainly again be) confined to pacifists. The reason is clear. The just war objector is taking a selective attitude which claims the right to second-guess government policy. The State's sensitivity on this matter is clear enough, but if the just war principles are as powerful and authoritative as has been argued in this chapter then there is strong reason to think that a well-informed just war objector has an especially strong claim to be heard and heeded. The claim is strong whether the objection is at the point of conscription or within the military or within a military scientific research establishment.

In the early 1990s outrages committed during the military-political disintegration of the former Yugoslavia prompted the UN to institute a war crimes tribunal for the first time since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after the Second World War. Such a tribunal raises numerous issues of which perhaps the most fundamental concerns individual responsibility. The UN appears to be reiterating that individuals and states are morally and legally accountable for their actions in war and rebellion. To impose this doctrine on warring factions in the former Yugoslavia is one thing; to incorporate it into our own public life by according due respect to conscience that is informed by the just war principles is another and in some ways a more searching task. In this as in so many ways there is much to be done and much guidance to be derived from the universally valid Christian just war tradition.

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