Cost of conscience: naval Afghanistan objector detained

By Savi Hensman
July 6, 2011

A horrific incident that happened three years ago has recently been reported in the Guardian as follows.

On 4 March 2007 a convoy of US marines, who arrived in Afghanistan three weeks earlier, were hit by an explosives-rigged mini-van outside the city of Jalalabad.

The marines made a frenzied escape, opening fire with automatic weapons as they tore down a six-mile stretch of highway, hitting almost anyone in their way – teenage girls in fields, motorists in their cars, old men as they walked along the road. Nineteen unarmed civilians were killed and 50 wounded...

The soldiers' initial concern, it appears, was a wounded marine – their only casualty...

No criminal charges were brought against any officer, although some did receive an "administrative reprimand".

One of those shocked by this and other Wikileaks revelations was a young naval medic, Michael Lyons, who was about to be deployed in Afghanistan.

He already had misgivings: ''I was unable to find a real, just and noble cause to go out but I still had a sense of duty to my country''. What he heard about the treatment of civilians led him to make what was maybe the hardest decision of his life.

He applied to be treated as a conscientious objector, but was turned down. In December 2010, he explained to the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors:

''Being in the military, most people's view was you just have to go out there and do what you're told to do.

''I came to the conclusion I couldn't serve on a moral ground and I couldn't see any political reason for being there.''

But the original decision was upheld.

On 5 July 2011, a court martial found Lyons guilty of wilful disobedience of a lawful order, after he refused to take part in rifle training. He was sentenced to seven months’ detention.

He is not religious. But according to some faith traditions, his choice is in line with a moral law that outweighs obedience to any human authority.

And some might believe that the 16-year-old girl carrying a bundle of grass and 75-year-old man returning from the shops who were among those gunned down near Jalalabad were of no less human worth than citizens of more prosperous and peaceful countries.

Michael Lyons’ decision, costly as it has been for him, honours the preciousness of life.


(c) Savi Hensman is a Christian social commentator, an Ekklesia associate and a regular contributor.

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