Bahais and military service
Posted by Sen on November 18, 2008
“Baha’is do not join the military, except as non-combatants”
To which the response was:
“That really limits how many Bahais a Nation can have!”
But is it really a Bahai teaching that we should not serve as combatants, or is this just current practice?
One US Bahai military officer who comes immediately to mind is the military linguist Mai Pederson.
Another is the Hand of the Cause Shu’a’llah ‘Alai, who had the rank of “Sar-lashkar” in the Iranian army, which is like a 3-star general. He was appointed as a Hand by Shoghi Effendi in 1952 and, when Shoghi Effendi died, was one of the 9 Hands in the Holy Land who kept the ship on course until the Universal House of Justice could be elected in 1963. Another Hand of the Cause who was a military man was Jalal Khazeh, who reached a middle rank, say a colonel or a 1-star general. He was appointed a Hand in 1953.
In ‘The Art of Governance,’ Abdu’l-Baha says that society needs guidance and restraint:
Now this prohibition and prevention, rules and restraints, leading and impelling, is divided into two types. The first protector and restrainer is the power of governance that is related to the physical world, a power that guarantees happiness in the external aspects of human existence. It safeguards human life, property and honour, and the exalted quality and refined virtues of the social life of this illustrious race. Just monarchs, accomplished representatives, wise ministers, and intrepid military leaders constitute the executive centre in this power of governance, the axis of the wheel of these divine favours. The second type of educator and governor of the human world is sacred and spiritual power ….
In Some Answered Questions, beginning at page 268, Abdu’l-Baha says that a community has the right to punish criminals: this punishment is to protect human rights. But individuals may not exact vengeance. When Christ said: “turn the other cheek” it meant not to take personal revenge. But for communities, justice and not forgiveness is the foundation. In addition, nations have to protect themselves from invaders. And an individual seeing someone about to harm another, is duty bound to prevent it as best they can.
In ‘The Secret of Divine Civilization,’ Abdu’l-Baha writes:
A conquest can be a praiseworthy thing, and there are times when war becomes the powerful basis of peace, and ruin the very means of reconstruction. If, for example, a high-minded sovereign marshals his troops to block the onset of the insurgent and the aggressor, or again, if he takes the field and distinguishes himself in a struggle to unify a divided state and people, if, in brief, he is waging war for a righteous purpose, then this seeming wrath is mercy itself, and this apparent tyranny the very substance of justice and this warfare the cornerstone of peace. Today, the task befitting great rulers is to establish universal peace, for in this lies the freedom of all peoples.
The establishment of universal peace in itself requires a military, a treaty, and a system of enforcing the treaty. In The Secret of Divine Civilization (p. 64), ‘Abdu’l-Baha describes a pact to be initiated by the great powers, generally consulted on and then signed and proclaimed throughout the world. It should define the boundaries of every country and the principles of international relations and duties, and the size of the military of each country. Then he says “should … any government later violate any one of its provisions, all the governments on earth should arise to reduce it to utter submission.”
So there’s no doubt that the Bahai teachings recognise the need for a military, that Bahais can serve in the military, and that this service is an honourable profession. After all, Muhammad himself became a military man: when he and his followers fled from Mecca to Medina they were given a place to live in Medina in return for serving as the settlement’s external security contractors. They had to patrol the area around, keep in contact with the nomadic tribes, protect and tax the caravans passing through, and fight brigands. (See my Church and State, pp 104-111; available from Amazon and Kalimat ).
Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha were very much opposed to the militarism of their day, because of the threat it posed to a country’s neighbours, because of the senseless suffering of wars over nothing, and because of the burden of taxation that militarism requires. They wanted the governments of the world to establish a global system that would eliminate war. They taught that war is generally reprehensible, but still, military service in itself is honourable.
Having said all that, there are few Bahais in military service today, even fewer in combat roles, and when I have been asked for my advice, I have advised Bahais against a military career, combatant or not. The reason I make no distinction between combatant and non-combatant status is that I think the crucial issue is not the Bahai prohibition on taking human life (see the Aqdas, paragraph 73).
That principle, like any other, has to be put alongside other principles when deciding what to do in a particular case. We have seen that there is another principle that says that it is a duty to protect others from attack, and another that societies are obliged to establish both national and international peace and order, which requires a military and a police force etc. In the light of these other principles, the prohibition on taking life is not decisive.
A policeman may be put in a position of taking a life to protect the population, but if he or she follows good police guidelines (necessary force, care for bystanders etc) this is justified. So there’s no reason for Bahais to avoid becoming policemen, in a country where the law and police serve justice, rather than oppressing the people. In principle, the military ought to work in the same way.
However as it stands at the moment, there are few countries in which one could be confident that, as a soldier, one would never be ordered to serve outside the government’s territorial jurisdiction without a mandate making the action legitimate. A state can make the use of force legal within its borders, but not within another country’s borders.
That legal framework makes a difference: in a hostage or armed stand-off situation, a policeman who is told to storm in, or not to storm in, may himself think that it is the wrong decision, but he is working within a framework of law: he has legitimate orders, and after the event there will be a court enquiry or inquest. So although there is no guarantee that one will always agree with one’s orders, there should be no reason-of-conscience for disobeying them. After all, the policeman has to include in his reasoning that his judgment of the situation may be wrong. Given the lack of perfect information about the outcomes, the existence of a legal framework and acting under legal orders does make a moral difference.
But a Bahai enrolling in the military today would face the possibility of later facing a crisis of conscience, of being ordered to go into action where there is no clear framework of law. There are only a few countries in the world in which you could join the military with confidence that you would not be ordered to use force, without a legal framework, in ways that might kill the innocent. Switzerland, for instance, is not going to go to war in anyone else’s territory, but it is an exception and is not an example that should be imitated internationally. That would lead to inaction and give free hand to aggressors.
The ethics of particular situations will, inevitably, be unclear. As a soldier of an enlightened country, one might be sent to Darfur and ordered to protect refugee camps. But when it comes to details, there will be rebels/freedom fighters in the camps, maybe armed. Is it legitimate to take possible fatal action against government-sponsored forces, to protect them? A ruling from a world court or an order from a world executive would, in my view, make it legitimate, just as a policeman can legitimately use possibly fatal force, acting within the legal framework of a country. But we do not yet have that international framework of law, so my advice is: if you feel drawn to this type of service, which is honourable, look first at the police, firefighters, border security, coast guard and fisheries protection.
Ultimately, a legal framework cannot remove any possibility of a crisis of conscience. The German state engaged in the extermination of Jews, mental retards, homosexuals, gypsies etc., and all its citizens had a moral duty to disobey it in these actions, despite German law. An international legal order might order action or inaction that is so immoral that there is a duty to disobey its orders. For example, there was a legal framework for the order to the Dutch soldiers to withdraw from Srebrenica, but it is very much the question whether they should have obeyed it. Law is not a substitute for morality, but the absence of law makes it much more likely that one will face a moral crisis in which all the choices are bad ones. The international stage is largely characterised by the absence of law, and national military forces are largely trained to act internationally. That makes military service a moral risk zone.