Sunday, September 16, 2012

Conscience and the Military: The Case of Kim Rivera

In 2007, American soldier Kimberly Rivera decided that she could no longer participate in the immorality of the US war on Iraq. She had seen for herself the lives lost and the horror of war. Two-thirds of the 100 000 casualties of the war on Iraq are civilians according to the US army’s own estimates. This ongoing persecution of innocents, and the fact that Iraq never has been a threat to the US, led her to take the radical and dangerous decision to refuse participation in an immoral war.

Rivera became a conscientious objector, resigned without permission from the military, and came to Canada to seek refuge. Three weeks ago, on August 30th 2012, the Canadian government ordered her deported to face court martial in the United States, almost certainly followed by prison time and a lifelong conviction. She has four small children.

Rivera has the support of many Canadians, and of Amnesty International. Twice parliament has voted to allow US Iraq war resisters to stay in the country, just as happened during the Vietnam war. Canadians understand the importance of personal conscience, of staying true to principles that matter. But the Harper government refuses to allow Rivera any justice.

Her case highlights the problem with the military. What if a war is illegal by international standards? What if it is conducted in a morally reprehensible way (assuming there actually could be such a thing as a morally acceptable way of violence)? In the years following WWII the Nuremburg tribunal made it clear that soldiers have a duty to refuse to follow illegal orders. Thus we do not excuse the soldiers who guarded the gates of Auschwitz.

We teach our children to think for themselves, to make their own decisions and to stand up for what they believe in. But in the military as young adults, they are told to follow orders, to let their superiors do the moral thinking for them about whether to kill or not to kill. They are separated from their conscience, and taught that obedience supersedes all. They are hoodwinked into believing that it is the one who makes the decision who is really the killer, that they are simply an innocent tool, while at the same time their officers are taught to believe that since they do not pull the trigger they too are innocent. Who then truly bears the burden of responsibility?

The answer is simple. Every person involved in the process from beginning to end bears responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Conscience overrides obedience every time. This is what the Nuremburg principles teach us. This is what Jesus teaches us when he rejects violence even to save himself. It is not about obedience. It is about a rational all-giving love, that asserts the dignity of the life of every human person.

If you would like to send a message to the Canadian government in support of Kim Rivera, go to (Picture from

1 comment:

  1. Well said and excellent description of conscience being exercised during the era of the War on Terror! Someone who choose not to take part in terror.