On 17 December, 24 year old medic Michael Lyons lost his appeal to be allowed to leave the Royal Navy on grounds of conscience. He now faces punishment if he still refuses to serve in Afghanistan. Yet his moral stance deserves respect.
When he heard reports about civilian casualties, including children, he made an effort to find out more about the situation. ''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,'' he explained at his hearing.
Then WikiLeaks revelations alerted him to the fact that civilian casualties were far greater than had originally been reported. “'Examples included a convoy of marines tearing down a six-mile highway, firing at people with no discrimination.”
What is more, despite being a medic, he might not be allowed to treat everyone needing his help, and might even be called on to kill: “It seems from previous testimony and courses I've done that even going out as a medic with all good intention, if you're at a patrol base or forward operating base, it's likely you'll have to use your weapon and will have to turn civilians away who are in need of medical aid."
He concluded that “I couldn't serve on a moral ground and I couldn't see any political reason for being there."
Lyons is an atheist, not a Christian. Yet he deserves the support of Christians, along with people of goodwill of all faiths and none. Strict limits to the violence that can be meted out during war, and personal responsibility on the part of each member of the armed forces for making moral choices, reflect not only international law but also basic beliefs about the value and dignity of humans, made in God’s image.
Long before the Geneva Conventions were drawn up and law developed to set bounds to armed conflict throughout the world, theologians grappled with the question of whether going to war was permissible. Some argued the case for pacifism, others for ‘just war’. This set strict rules for judging whether it was right to go to war and what was right when at war.
In the mid-twentieth century, after the Nuremberg trials, it was widely recognised that those in the military sometimes had a moral and legal duty not to obey orders unquestioningly. But it still takes considerable courage to declare oneself a conscientious objector, especially if – like Lyons – one is from a military family and has friends who are being sent into battle.
It is all too easy for the state to become an idol, yet duty to humanity can sometimes outweigh obedience to the authorities. As Lyons told the hearing, “If more people in my position stood up, there would be a lot less innocent lives lost around the world."
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia Associate. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice.