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Bahais and military service

Posted by Sen on November 18, 2008

A poster announcing a thanksgiving mass

A poster used to advertise a thanksgiving mass

In a discussion forum, a Baha’i participant said,

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!

Good point!

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:

British policewoman

British policewoman

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 ).

bluehems-honour 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).

policewoman1That 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.

un_soldiers_in_eritreaThat 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.

firefighter-trainingThe 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.

~~Sen McGlinn~~
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8 Responses to “Bahais and military service”

  1. Darrell said

    Sen, Thanks for this timely Essay. There are few young folks with whom I will share it soon. I was actually serving in the military in 1973 when I learned of Baha’u’llah and enrolled in the Baha’i Faith. Although I didn’t feel any conflicting moral dilemma over my particular work (communication elctronics), the potential was certainly there. Besides, I was there because my draft number was “9” (first top ten finish for me in anything) and I had not yet learned about the Teachings.

    Back then, we in America were dramatically divided about the Viet Nam war, which we might view as one of the last great conflicts of a polarized world (communism vs. capatalist demoracy). Since then, that polarized “us” and “them” identity has become the “have” and “have-nots”. Now “beligerents” – many with no particular national affiliation or boundary – are taking terrorist actions that violate international sensibilities but still garner regional sympathies.

    I think the events of the past decade have underscored your point about interantional lawlessness very well. Today we seem to “teetering” on the fence between international coalitions and independent sovereign action. Moral arguments can still be made on both sides. But why elect to confront such a dilemma within oneself?

    I have a young friend, raised in a Baha’i home, who is determined to become a Navy Seal. He sees only the “image” and not the spiritual reality of his choice. One day, if he passes the rigorous training, he will come face to face with his own moral position. I pray he can handle it.

    ///Darrell Rodgers
    Singer, Songwriter, Performer, Humorist

  2. Dan Jensen said

    Thanks, Sen, for laying out a number of good points.

    It seems to me that some Baha’is might wish to abstain from military service for moral reasons–as individuals–rather than simply because of their religious affiliation. Whether a Baha’i fights/enlists or not must depend upon the circumstances.

    Regarding law, it certainly has a place, but we do not always have the luxury of a legal framework–even a good law must sometimes be broken, and even a perfect structure must always be questioned. The fight is likely come to us as anarchy, so we must prepare ourselves. We must determine where our values lie. When is the time for killing? When is the time to disobey, and to accept the personal price?

    I’ve been wondering what the difference would be, generally, between a Baha’i doctrine of “just war” and a Muslim notion of the same (~lesser Jihad). Is [the lesser] Jihad a “holy war” of believers vs. infidels, or is it more about justified use of force? If the latter, how would the Baha’i standard differ?


  3. Hi Dan,

    I agree: good laws must sometimes be broken, for a higher good. And bad laws sometimes must be broken. But the existence or absence of a framework of law can make a difference for the individual concerned. For example, the policeman in a hostage situation: I have assumed that there is no question that the legal framework is good, or at least acceptable, and that the goal of the police action is ethical: to enforce the law and to save the hostages. But the policeman’s judgment as to what should be done may differ from his/her orders. In that case, there is a strong argument for ‘following orders’ despite one’s own judgment, (1) because there is a framework of law that justifies the use of force in principle, (2) because he/or she must know that his/her own information and judgment may be faulty, and at least all will be reviewed after the event and (3) because the worst outcome is even more likely if each member of the police team marches to their own drum.

    In the case of international military action, there may be no framework of law: in fact, what one is asked to do in another country may be directly against the laws of that country. The risk of moral hazard is that much greater in the military, and since there are similar occupations (fire, police, coastguard …) in which there is just as much social utility but, at least in well-governed countries, less risk of facing a moral dilemma, I have suggested these options to Bahais who feel drawn to military service.

  4. Brent Poirier said

    You may find this statement by the Universal House of Justice, contained in the Compilation on Peace, of interest:

    “It is true that Bahá’ís are not pacifists since we uphold the use of force in the service of justice and upholding law. But we do not believe that war is ever necessary and its abolition is one of the essential purposes and brightest promises of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. His specific command to the kings of the earth is: “Should any one among you take up arms against another, rise ye all against him, for this is naught but manifest justice.” (Tablet to Queen Victoria, “The Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh”, p. 13) The beloved Guardian has explained that the unity of mankind implies the establishment of a world commonwealth, a world federal system,”.. .liberated from the curse of war and its miseries in which Force is made the servant of Justice…” whose world executive “backed by an international Force,…will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth.” This is obviously not war but the maintenance of law and order on a world scale. Warfare is the ultimate tragedy of disunity among nations where no international authority exists powerful enough to restrain them from pursuing their own limited interests. Bahá’ís therefore ask to serve their countries in non-combatant ways during such fighting; they will doubtless serve in such an international Force as Bahá’u’lláh envisions, whenever it comes into being.”
    (Letter dated 11 September 1984 to an individual believer; The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 199 #1636)

    My own background, prior to becoming a Baha’i, was as a war resister. I was an absolute pacifist, mailed in my draft card, refused military induction, was tried and convicted in federal court, convicted of felony draft refusal, and in 1969 was sentenced to three years in federal prison. Fortunately the judge suspended my sentence and directed me to do civilian hospital work for three years, during which I first learned of the Baha’i Faith. During that time President Gerald Ford granted me a full, free and unconditional Pardon. So this subject in the Baha’i teachings has been a matter of interest to me.

    The US National Spiritual Assembly has published a document called “Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities,” primarily as a guide for the Local Spiritual Assemblies in the USA. Though the guidance from this National Assembly is pertinent only to US Baha’is, there is also guidance here from the Universal House of Justice.

    One final point. During the Vietnam War, the government created a special category within the military, noncombatant. These were individuals who were assigned as cooks, medics, etc. Not only was their work noncombatant — they were not expected under any circumstance to employ force. I believe they were probably given the option of wearing guns. The point is — and the US National Assembly makes this point below — every position in the US military at the present time is categorized as a combatant position. Cooks and medics can be re-assigned to combatant duty; whereas during the Vietnam War, I believe there was a commitment on the part of the government to not do so.

    The excerpt from DDBC follows; I have added brackets where I thought they would help.

    Section 19.7
    General Principles
    Bahá’ís recognize the right and duty of governments to use force for the maintenance of law and order and to protect their people. Thus, for a Bahá’í, the shedding of blood for such a purpose is not necessarily essentially wrong. The Bahá’í Faith draws a very definite distinction between the duty of an individual to forgive and “to be killed rather than to kill” and the duty of society to uphold justice. This matter is explained by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions. In the present condition of the world Bahá’ís try to keep themselves out of the internecine conflicts that are raging among their fellow men and to avoid shedding blood in such struggles, but this does not mean that we are absolute pacifists.

    Letter from the Universal House of Justice, dated February 9, 1967, to a National Spiritual Assembly

    Pacifists, Conscientious Objectors
    With reference to the absolute pacifists, or conscientious objectors to war; their attitude, judged from the Bahá’í standpoint, is quite antisocial and due to its exaltation of the individual conscience leads inevitably to disorder and chaos in society. Extreme pacifists are thus very close to the anarchists, in the sense that both of these groups lay an undue emphasis on the rights and merits of the individual. The Bahá’í conception of social life is essentially based on the subordination of the individual will to that of society. It neither suppresses the individual nor does it exalt him to the point of making him an anti-social creature, a menace to society. As in everything, it follows the “golden mean.” The only way that society can function is for the minority to follow the will of the majority.

    The other main objection to the conscientious objectors is that their method of establishing peace is too negative. Non-cooperation is too passive a philosophy to become an effective way for social reconstruction. Their refusal to bear arms can never establish peace. There should first be a spiritual revitalization which nothing, except the Cause of God, can effectively bring to every man’s heart.

    Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, quoted by the Universal House of Justice, dated February 9, 1967, to a National Spiritual Assembly

    Non-Combatant Status
    There are many other avenues through which the believers can assist in a time of war by enlisting in services of a non-combatant nature — services that do not involve the direct shedding of blood — such as ambulance work, air raid precaution service, office and administrative works, and it is for such types of national service that they should volunteer.

    It is immaterial whether such activities would still expose them to dangers, either at home or in the front, since their desire is not to protect their lives, but to desist from any acts of willful murder.

    Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, Principles of Bahá’í Administration, pp. 95-96

    19.8 Miscellaneous Subjects

    We think that Bahá’ís should be discouraged from seeking or continuing a career in the military, and that in any event they must, in obedience to the Guardian’s clear instructions, apply for exemptions from military duty which necessitates the taking of human life.

    When the law imposes an obligation upon citizens to fulfill a term of military service, as the U.S. Selective Service Act does, and a Bahá’í may fulfill this term of service by enlisting, reenlisting or by being commissioned as an officer, he may do so provided he does not in any way jeopardize his right to “apply for and maintain the noncombatant status” within the spirit of the above principle.

    Letter from the Universal House of Justice, dated September 20, 1965, to a National Spiritual Assembly

    There is no objection to a Bahá’í’s enlisting voluntarily in the armed forces of a country in order to obtain a training in some trade or profession, provided that he can do so without making himself liable to undertake combatant service.

    Letter from the Universal House of Justice, dated January 13, 1981

    [From the US NSA:]/// Note: At this time, we are not aware of any branch of the United States armed forces which will guarantee that the enlistee will not be assigned to combat.

    [From the Universal House of Justice:] Sanctions should not be imposed for violation of these instructions. It is for each believer, under pain of his own conscience, to determine for himself what his actions should be, bearing in mind that the application of these principles is the spiritual obligation of every Bahá’í. It is rather for your Assembly to see that adequate instruction is provided so that the friends will let these principles be mirrored forth in their actions, and that they will be so steadfast in their love for Bahá’u’lláh that it would be unthinkable for them to willingly place themselves in a position where they must take human life.

    Letter from the Universal House of Justice, dated September 20, 1965, to a National Spiritual Assembly

    [From the US NSA] /// The Bahá’í teachings require that followers of the Faith obey the laws of the government under which they live. Bahá’ís do not on the grounds of religious conviction seek to abandon their obligations as citizens; instead, they are able to reconcile their fundamental spiritual convictions and their civil obligations as citizens by applying for non-combatant service under the existing laws and regulations. They try to serve as members of the Armed Forces in the medical corps or in any capacity in which they may legally maintain a non-combatant status regardless of the effect which that may have on their personal safety, convenience, the kind of activity they must discharge or the rank to which they may be assigned.

    Draft Registration
    [From the US NSA:] /// All men in the United States must register for the draft upon attaining the age of 18. Bahá’í youth are not required to request non-combatant status at that time. Should a draft be instituted, those affected should contact the National Spiritual Assembly for specific instructions.

  5. SteveS said

    This is an area in which I have some experience, since I had already completed R.O.T.C. training before coming a Baha’i and was in direct connection with the Baha’i military rep. at that time, Col. X, and we were all told to request non-combatant duty.

    During my 4 years in the Army, Viet Nam era, I met several Bahai’s who served honorably as Medics, which means had they gone to combat, they would have endured the same risks to life and limb as the troops they were serving.

    In my case, as an officer, there was no such thing as non-combatant duty and I spent 4 years as an Infantry officer in the Army. It was my priviledge to be assigned to the U.S. Army Ranger School and I can say that these were the best group of people that I have ever been associated with in my life. They certainly were not spiritual and certainly were not Bahai’s, but they were are combat veterans of intelligence, courage and character, something I can not say for many of the Baha’is I have dealt with for 38 years.

    Since I don’t have any texts available at hand, I can only assume that in the future, those contumacious oppressors, or governments that have to reduced to submission will not have been corraled by anything other than force since regiemes can be like murderors, which if memory serves me correctly, Abdul Baha referred to as ‘ravening wolves.’ (like I said, I have no texts available at the moment, so feel free to correct). So, my guess is that in future situations, saying a ‘Remover of Difficulties’ may be very devout, military people, Baha’i or not, are going to have to do the dirty work until ‘peace on Earth and goodwill towards men’ actually becomes a reality.

  6. I loved being a Baha’i medic in the army because we were about 6 Baha’is all in the same unit at Ft. Sam Houston about 1961-2 maybe. I lost one of my most loved friends, a devoted Baha’i from Pasadena, Tom Raschel, in Viet Nam. Many years later when I found his very own name on the Viet Nam Wall memorial, it “finally” brought my grief and my endless emptiness some closure. I’ve kept his photo all these years and I know he is praying for me, as I pray for him. That was the most traumatic loss I ever had to sustain in my late teens/early 20s—and I never forgot that pain and that loss, as if it is just as real and just as close to me as this keyboard I’m typing on in front of me. Tom took me and John Newport (also from Eugene, Oregon) to several local Baha’i meetings & 19 Day Feasts in the city of San Antonio off the base at Fort Sam Houston. I’ll never forget Tom’s dedication to Baha’u’llah all these years—-his inspiration is still strong in my inner most being. This side of the war has always been the most important to me: Tom Raschel gave his life in Viet Nam and he taught me how to be dedicated to Baha’u’llah. He died 49 years ago, yet his friendship and what he taught me is just as crystal clear today as if it were now—here and now. How healing it is for me to share this loss of my Baha’i friend from all these years. Thank you for letting me write these few words. Don Addison (Eugene, Oregon)

  7. Jeanne Foust said

    Dear Don: I read these comments almost 2 years since you have written them – so into the internet world they go. I was very moved to read about Tom Raschel and shall visit his name the next time I am at the Wall and say the prayer for the departed. I visit once a year to remember and honor my old high school friend Brad Mace who went to Vietnam the year I became a Baha’i – 1969. Blessed be their memories.

    Jeanne Rebstock Foust

  8. joe said

    Just happened upon this blog today… I was a Baha’i when drafted at the end of the Vietnam Era. My draft board had given me non-combatant status when my student deferment ran out two and half years after my declaration. I learned the wisdom of this stand, which was endorsed by the Baha’i Institutions, after I was inducted. Being a non-combatant in the military was less divisive than seeking out alternative service, exile in Canada, or going to jail. It was perceived as patriotic even though you were an advocate of peace. The proof was my family’s neighbor; he knew I was a peacenik, and I remember coming home from college once wearing a hippy shirt, and his comment was “first thing I’d do is get rid of that shirt.” When I came home for a visit from the army his comment, even though he knew my anti-establishment thoughts about war etc, was “Joe, I’m proud of ya.”

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