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In 2009 Major Hasan is alleged to have killed 12 soldiers and one civilian at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. In 2007 he presented “The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military” During his presentation he said that “it’s getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims.” Based on this, he recommended that the “Department of Defense should allow Muslims [sic] Soldiers the option of being released as ‘Conscientious objectors’ to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events.” In light of the deaths at Fort Hood, perhaps his recommendation should have been taken quite seriously.
While this event is a recent one, the idea of being a conscientious objector is a rather old one. Also, the question of obedience is an even older one, dating back in terms of philosophical discussion to at least Plato’s Crito.
While Socrates is not discussing military service in the Crito, he does discuss the moral question of whether a citizen should obey the commands of the state or not. In Socrates’s case, he is in prison and awaiting his execution. His friends, lead by Crito, have arrived with a plan to spring him from jail and go to another city state. Socrates refuses to flee and, like all good philosophers, decides to spend the final moments of his life in philosophical argumentation.
While he presents three distinct arguments, the two that are relevant to the matter at hand can be presented in the following condensed versions. The argument that does not apply here is his argument that he could have chosen exile during his trial and hence would appear foolish to run away.
One argument can be classified as the benefit argument: Socrates argues that since the state benefited him and he freely accepted these benefits, then he owes the state his obedience. A second argument, the contract argument, is that by remaining in the city of Athens by his own free choice he thereby agreed to obey the laws of that city. Socrates does, however, add two important conditions: the state cannot trick or force people to remain and still expect their obedience. But, once an adult person agrees to obey by remaining and accepting the benefits of the state, then she owes her obedience to that state. If she disagrees, then she is obligated to persuade the state that it is in error, but if she fails to do so, she must remain obedient.
Now, let us turn to the matter of Muslim soldiers and Hasan’s case. As noted above, he contends that it is difficult for Muslims in the United States military (and this would presumably also apply to Muslims in any Western military) to morally justify serving when the United States military is engaged in operations against Muslims. He also presents a view that can be easily made into a utilitarian argument: Muslims should be allowed to leave the service so as to avoid harms such as damaged morale and other adverse events (perhaps including such things as violent actions by Muslim soldiers against their fellow soldiers).
While I cannot speak for Socrates with certainty, given his views in the Crito, I suspect that he would present a much better version of the sort of argument I will now hazard.
When Muslim soldiers enter the United States military, they know that they might be required to fight against fellow Muslims. Of course, anyone who enlists knows that they might very well be required to fight against other people who belong to groups they identify with (such as Christians, or men, or women, or Russians, or any number of groups). As such, there seems to be no trickery in play. Also, entering the military is completely voluntary: no one, Muslim or non-Muslim, has to enlist and serve. As such, there is no force.
When people enter the military, the United States spends a considerable amount of resources in training them. Also, the soldiers are given various incentives (such as signing bonuses) and opportunities (such as education). Naturally, the soldiers are also paid and receive other benefits as well.
Since Muslim soldiers have not been deceived or forced into serving and they have accepted the benefits provided by the service, they are then obligated to fulfill their obligations. If they did not wish to risk facing fellow Muslims in battle, then they should have chosen another career path.
It might be objected that this would discriminate against Muslims by not allowing them to enter the service. However, this is not the case. This would no more be discrimination against Muslims than expecting pacifists to either be willing to fight or not join the military in the first place. After all, the military’s function is to fight and service members might be, in theory, called upon to fight people of almost any faith.
Of course, this still leaves open the possibility that a soldier can correctly object to immoral orders or situations and do so within the rules of the military. This right is, of course, held by all soldiers.
Naturally, it could be argued that it is immoral for a Muslim to fight a fellow Muslim (although a shared faith, be it Islam or Christianity rarely if ever seems to be a deterrence against violence in war). However, the same sort of argument could be made by anyone who objects to fighting folks whom they identify with. Of course, I do find this appealing: when we are killing each other over land, power, or whatever, it does seem like we are acting in an immoral manner.