Decisions of conscience

I just got this email today from a major in the military. I am gratified that I helped someone think for themselves and make a conscientious decision…but I suspect it was more his experiences and his own considerations that led him to this point.

Prof. Myers,

A while back you wrote a blog post that may have catalyzed a major life decision for me. My life will be definitely be changing because of it, whether for the better or not remains to be seen but I wanted to thank you. You wrote a post dealing with realities of war, specifically on killing. I won’t bore you with the details about how exactly it affected me but rather just to that it very strongly moved me and upset me deeply. I have decided to stop killing because of it. I indirectly caused deaths in a military mission maybe 8 years ago (though I’m not sure , I relive the scene so vividly and often that it might as well been last week). As I did it I didn’t really think of much other that making sure I executed the task well and I remember being nervous in that respect and then just elated that the other guys didn’t succeed at their task of killing me. Months afterwards it started to sink in and I felt sick. About 4 years ago I killed again but it was not so indirect. I had pulled the trigger myself, ending 2 lives directly and helped with a few more that day as well. I was in zero danger of harm myself and maybe that’s why it affected me different. Nausea hit quickly (minutes), then depression/anxiety/nightmares. The weight of it just kept coming down and down more and more until I had to begin to rationalize to keep it from overwhelming me. I did a pretty good job of it until your post snapped the flimsy shell and ruined what I had carefully constructed over the years. I realized that I can choose my own fate and not have to choose between following orders/accomplishing the mission and being true to my ethics. I’ve decided to separate from the military after 12+ years service and come the end of June I will be a civilian. I’ve carefully thought the decision through and weighed the pros and cons. Believe me, giving up that military retirement was not terribly easy (it’s so much money) but, I keep thinking of the idea that I may be called upon to kill again in the next 8 years and no amount of money is worth it. Thank you for helping me break through my self delusion. I enjoy your blog and I think you should know that while you may not get through to everyone, you are doing good (IMHO) during your short stay on planet earth.

It sounds to me like he was being human, and aware of it.

My correspondent did not say, but it might have been my Shades of Gray post.


  1. says

    Thank you for helping me break through my self delusion.

    It sounds to me like you broke through on your own, being a person willing to think a thing through all the way, even if you wouldn’t like the conclusion.

    Thank you for a positive, thoughtful letter and actions.

  2. echidna says

    What a thoughtful letter. PZ may have been a catalyst for a conscious decision, but clearly you had already gone most of the way yourself.

  3. getoveryourselves says

    So, he has a conscience and is human, but others don’t have a conscience and are not human?

    [You won’t be here for long. I’ve noticed a tendency among commenters who use their username to make a sweeping commentary about everyone else on the site, and who make stupid misinterpretions of other people’s comments: they tend to attract the banhammer. –pzm]

  4. anon says

    I seem to have missed the blog post being referred to. Can anyone share the link?

  5. says

    So, he has a conscience and is human, but others don’t have a conscience and are not human?

    Where did anyone say that, lackwit? How about you do something novel this time, and get all your idiocy out in one post?

  6. growlybear says

    Heartfelt and moving. I can’t imagine being in a situation where it would be my obligation to kill someone.

    I avoided Vietnam because I had a student deferment prior to the lottery and then was too old for the lottery. I agonized about having to enter the military and face the possibility of killing other people. Especially since I didn’t see that war as legitimate, but I’m not sure I would have felt any different in a “legitimate” war. My friends and I would discuss options for heading to Canada, one friend became a concientous objector and another had actually served, but not in a combat role. It all passed by while we pondered the possibilities.

    I admire the courage of those who volunteer to serve, but I also fear for the mental integrity of those whose service requires such awful things. Best wishes to this fellow. I admire him for both his willingess to contribute and his willingess to call it quits.

  7. says

    I can’t glean enough information from the letter to find which post he’s referring to, and some likely-sounding search terms aren’t bringing up anything that looks right. Does anyone know which post the writer is referring to?

  8. brazenlucidity says

    Former Marine, atheist, humanist, member of VFP. A difficult call for this young man to make. Still, the right one, I think. I can’t be too judgemental though. What happens when our military are comprised solely of right-wing, fundamentalist Christians because everyone else has reached an enlightened enough state that they find war too abhorrent to consider possibly taking part in? An honest question.

  9. says

    Thank you, Cassandra. That’s the post I was thinking of; I searched for an hour, here and on scienceblogs, and failed.
    The post moved me nearly to tears.

  10. says

    brazen, that’s… a chilling thought. I’d honestly never thought about it that way before, and here I am, reading about the fall of the Severan dynasty. God.

  11. says


    What happens when our military are comprised solely of right-wing, fundamentalist Christians

    What makes you think it isn’t already at that point? There’s been one story after another, a flood of them, about how atheists in the military, if they are out, are punished, ostracized and threatened. Religion has a stranglehold on U.S. military and it’s no good pretending it doesn’t.

  12. says

    My father served in Vietnam and suffers from PTSD thanks to it. I still live with him and take care of him. A few years ago he came into my room sobbing, I tend to sleep odd hours so it wasn’t like he was bothering me to wake me up, especially considering he was upset. He’d had nightmares and woke up from a very vivid dream reliving an experience he had. I remember him saying:

    “I killed people… sometimes they were just kids but… they were armed and pointing guns at me, what choice did I have?”

    I imagine the faces of those he killed up close and personal are still etched into his memory. He continued to serve in the military until he retired a few years before this incident I mentioned. For a long time he drank, to the point where it nearly killed him, and I mean that in the most literal sense. He was in a nearly month long coma after having a mini stroke brought on by his alcoholism.

    This person has done the right thing. I’m not against the military, what they do is very important and I strongly respect what they go through. Hell, I even joined the army when I was 18 to get the heck out of Dodge but ended up getting injured in basic and getting out, a year before 9/11, so I could very well have been sent out to the front lines if I’d stayed in.

    To the person who wrote this letter I strongly passionately encourage you to seek a counseling for PTSD. If you don’t have it I’d be shocked and even if you’re fully functional now that doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way. Mental health is a tricky thing. There are services available through the VA (Veterans Administration for those not up on the code words.) seek out those, also try to see someone civilian side if you can manage that.

    It’s a topic that hits close to home for me, =/ so I really do hope them the best in the world.

  13. golkarian says

    I’m just wondering how these posts (mostly Shades of Gray) marry up with having a child in the military. A child you seem proud of. I understand people who oppose wars such as Afghanistan or even more so Iraq can still support the military, but the posts seem to be against killing in any situation. I hope that isn’t too personal a question to ask? So if someone can point me to a post explaining this or leave a comment, I’d be grateful.

  14. echidna says

    There’s another point: PZ doesn’t seem to have an authoritarian bone in his body. PZ presumes that his children can think for themselves, and their life choices are their own, not PZ’s.

    It’s only a snippet from the comment CC quoted, but I’ll quote-mine* anyway to support my assertion: “He knows what I think. I trust him …”

    * quote mine in the sense that I have fragmented a sentence, which is really a no-no.
    But not in the sense that I have changed or distorted the meaning. At least in my perception.

  15. says


    PZ presumes that his children can think for themselves, and their life choices are their own, not PZ’s.

    This ^. PZ’s son is an adult and PZ is treating him as one.

  16. mareeds says

    This and the Shades of Gray posts are as moving as anything I’ve read this year. I mean this both in the intellectual and emotive sense. Thank you both.

    One thing I value here is that the better commenters don’t try to spare the rest of us the effort of thought. The man who won’t be warned by other men shall serve as warning to the other men. (Chaucer paraphrasing some early Greek; not Reeds.)

  17. paulbegley says

    Define “being a rational adult.” Does a rational adult agree with you 100%? Is free thought still allowed? What do you think? Did you think that yourself?
    There are an increasingly limited number of ideas that you can defend as an opinion. Your mind is nothing more than meat. You are not always right. You are not always wrong. You think what you think based on the limited knowledge that you have.
    I do not know everything, and think that the opinion that one does is abhorrent. Those who oppose you are not always wrong. There is no god. There is no proof that there is one. You really don’t know as much as you think you do, try harder.
    You’re not being original at all. You seem to be the lowest common denominator: I think I’m right (more than likely) but I am not smart enough to defend my position against true believers because I’ve heard it is true; thus I must attack those that I know espouse the exact argument that pisses me off. But if it pisses me off, it must piss everybody off because we think alike. Welcome to confirmation bias. My old ass has seen it all before.

  18. paulbegley says

    Before you misunderstand what you have read (very common…sickeningly so) I was making fun of the childishness on display.

  19. says

    Sally Strange’s variation on Poe’s Law: please don’t bother pretending to be an idiot and an asshole if you can’t make it obvious that you’re just pretending. They already get too much airplay.

    See also: Devil’s Advocate, Sally Strange variation:

    There’s already enough devils in the world. They don’t need anyone advocating for them.

  20. paulbegley says

    I realize that you expect an essay in support of my position; so here it is in two sentences: 1. You do not know the answers to the questions that you shout to be answered; they are by definition unknowable.
    2. You should realize when ignorant, there is a difference between stupid and ignorant, means what it means: They don’t know.

  21. Cassandra Caligaria (Cipher), OM says

    What the hell are you even talking about or responding to, paulbegley?

  22. says

    Before you misunderstand what you have read (very common…sickeningly so) I was making fun of the childishness on display.

    Here’s a thought: just fucking address whoever is bothering you.

  23. DLC says

    It’s one of those conundrums, that can be put this way:
    “too much of “An eye for an eye” leaves everyone blind, but too much of “Turn the other cheek” leaves you laying on the ground.”
    (as much as I detest Biblical phrases.)
    I’m not so supercilious as to tell everyone what to do or how to think on this subject. Everyone has to make that decision for themselves, and there are few “black and white” situations. The decision to use deadly force is akin to the decision to join the military in that sooner or later the need to use deadly force may be thrust upon you. I also won’t condemn anyone who decides that military service is how they want to spend their time. Fighting as a nation is sometimes necessary, and those who volunteer to serve deserve our thanks for it. (and IMO much more in terms of post-conflict and/or post-service support — but that’s for another time)

  24. Woo_Monster says

    1. You do not know the answers to the questions that you shout to be answered; they are by definition unknowable.
    2. You should realize when ignorant, there is a difference between stupid and ignorant, means what it means: They don’t know.

    Alright, obviously Paulbegley is such a shitty communicator that it is impossible to be sure of what the hell xe (he?) is talking about. But, if I were to try and interpret that comment, I would say xe is theist saying that 1) atheists cannot know there is no god, it is unknowable, and 2) [I have no fucking clue]. Is that correct Paul? Do you believe in a god/s and if so, why? and what the hell were you trying to say with point #2?

  25. Usernames are stupid says

    I wish to nominate Paulbegley for non-sequitur of the week.

    Where are the appropriate forms I need to fill out?


    As an ex-member of the military, I’m damn glad I never had to kill anyone; hell, I only fired my M-16 on the range. I’ve known several folks who have killed and there’s something “missing” from them.

    This “missing” is similar to when I try to have conversations with people who smoke a lot of pot. Their mental capacity seems to be shot.

    The lizard brain in me says it would kill anyone who threatened its brood. It would take an extraordinary amount of strength to forgive someone for taking the life of one of my loved ones. I know I could care less about the random crap I have in the home—take it all, just leave the animals within alone!

    Even though I live in a red state that allows carrying firearms damn-near everywhere, I don’t see myself ever getting one. What would be the point? I enjoyed honing the skill it took to hit a target at 300 meters out back in the day, but that shit gets boring after a while.

    I’d rather take the $$$ and drop it on a nice Les Paul instead (did you know Jim Marshall died yesterday? Damn!)

  26. Usernames are stupid says

    @Woo_Monster (#32): Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.

    Is “xe” the new gender-neutral pronoun?

    How do you say it, like “zee”?

    Also, will we be adopting “hir” as the gender-neutral third-person singular?

    Sigh. Fucking english.

  27. Cassandra Caligaria (Cipher), OM says

    Is “xe” the new gender-neutral pronoun?

    Sometimes. And yeah, I think usually when people use xe they also use hir.
    I say it with a crackly “ks” but that’s because I like strange sounds and I don’t say it that often.

  28. Ze Madmax says

    Woo_Monster @ #32

    My guess is that the second point means that believing in the unknowable (i.e., god) without evidence is not evidence of stupidity, it’s evidence of ignorance. Which implies some substantive difference between being stupid and being ignorant, somehow related to self-awareness (maybe?), as paulbegley seems to suggest that being ignorant means admitting that you don’t know, while being stupid means being unaware (or unwilling to admit) that you in fact do not know.

    So, short paulbegley:
    1. God is unknowable
    2. Accepting the unknowable makes you ignorant, which is fine. It does not make you stupid, which is not fine.

  29. DLC says

    it’s not that I am unable to parse what paulbegley said, it’s that it was a complete utter nutfucked non-sequitur.

  30. F says

    Best wishes to the Anonymous Soldier, especially in your separation from the military and coping with the actions which you feel were wrong.

    You were brave to serve, and brave to leave. Take care.

  31. echidna says


    It sounds to me as if you are relying on a shared background of knowledge and views in your audience, who can understand you as easily as the other Beatles understood which riff John Lennon was referring to when he crooked his little finger as a signal during a concert.

    We don’t have the shared experience, the implied meanings to common phrases, that you seem to be expecting of us. Please provide the context, and speak as if you were talking to complete strangers who don’t share your beliefs who might come from anywhere in the world. That is indeed who we are.

  32. Antares42 says

    Believe me, giving up that military retirement was not terribly easy…

    I don’t understand the whole retirement / pension thing in the US. How can that be that you give over a decade of your life paying into a system, that it just goes *poof* away when you change jobs?

    Isn’t this completely fucked?

  33. 'Tis Himself says

    I don’t understand the whole retirement / pension thing in the US. How can that be that you give over a decade of your life paying into a system, that it just goes *poof* away when you change jobs?

    One has to serve 20 years in the US military to be eligible for a pension. If you get out at the 18 or 19 year point, there’s no pension.

  34. says

    I wonder: is it possible to claim conscientious objector status AFTER one has seen combat? And then possibly change MOS so that one could remain in the military but in a non-combat role?

  35. rickschauer says

    My education background is political history and I read a book of a title which escapes me (damn it) now but it contained accounts of the Roman Army and mithraism which is much the same as christianity and the US Army today. It was insightful. I’m trying to google it and if I find it again I’ll post.

    In summary, the knot that binds war to religion is ancient and very, very strong: – war is a willing sacrifice to a god – war is a sacrament – war unleashes god – war cleans the just from the unjust – war rewards the valor of the victors with the spoils (usually cattle and fields) and the feeling that the killing is justified – if you are killed in war, no worries, your soul will live on.

    And that this is why Cesar was associated by Romans as being a god since he headed the army.

    Now, back to google…

  36. Antares42 says

    One has to serve 20 years in the US military to be eligible for a pension. If you get out at the 18 or 19 year point, there’s no pension.

    This strikes me as profoundly unfair. Dear cod, am I happy I’m living somewhere else.

  37. says

    One thing I noticed about basic training (in 1970) was we were taught both how to kill and how to want to kill. The training was very effective. Pacifists who were drafted back then were not likely to still be pacifists two months later.

  38. echidna says

    brazen lucidity,
    You would get a kick out of reading (translations of) the Dead Sea scrolls. The relationship between god, man and war in the Judaic context is quite interesting, and desperate.

  39. julietdefarge says

    @scottplumer My first thought was he should have changed MOS. Admitting you aren’t willing to kill is an iffy proposition. His chain of command might have been understanding, but they could just as easily have found a way to badger him out of the Army.

  40. says

    Hey, #12, I eat, sleep, and shit too, and I’m a woman. More to the point, I know any number of men who are capable of much more than that. I’m sorry that you’re not, but please stop projecting your shortcomings over your entire gender.

    DLC, #30: Agreed. I’m not a violent person at all, but neither am I a pacifist.

    Usernames Are Stupid, re Jim Marshall: Shit. :(

  41. huntstoddard says

    “Here’s a comment for you, golkarian.

    If I may be so bold, I think your comment was more about how one could reconcile oneself to the thought of having a child associated with an organization as horrid as the US military — because it is the most vile, corrupt and despicable organization on Earth.

    Once having a child in the military, if all of one’s effort is not in getting him/her out, you’re doing something wrong.

  42. says

    Once having a child in the military, if all of one’s effort is not in getting him/her out, you’re doing something wrong.

    It must be nice to have the economic privilege to take that POV. Not everybody does.

    Also, I’d put the Roman Catholic Church far ahead of the U.S. military, and, trust me, I’m not ignorant of the problems with the U.S. military.

  43. huntstoddard says

    “It must be nice to have the economic privilege to take that POV. Not everybody does.”

    Of course. That’s another reason the US MIL is evil. And another reason to redouble your effort. True evil (not the Biblical bullshit) is always enticing. That’s why it’s evil. You can’t afford to resist it. Let me tell you…you can’t afford not to.

  44. says

    It seems to me that he has long attempted to compartmentalise his thinking, but that he was not terribly successful at it, and PZ Myers’ post was sort-of the permission he needed to stop forcing himself to ignore what he knew to be wrong.

    Great story. Very moving. It is very possible to he will have to deal with financial hardships, but indeed, he will learn to adapt to his new-found position and have a far better life as a result, even with far less money.

  45. Don Quijote says

    Since I have been reading the posts and comments on Pharyngula I have learned many things and had my conscience raised on many subjects. This one however, I am having trouble understanding. If you live in a country without conscription and a person decides to join the armed forces, doen’t it follow that that person may be called upon to fight for their country be it in defense or attack? Surely one would take this into consideration before making such a decision.

    I would appreciate help in understanding if and where I am wrong in this.

  46. emc2 says

    Don Quijote:

    Whatever the reason someone may choose to join the military, the number of people who join because they want to meet new and interesting people and kill them is fairly low. I my view, it breaks down to the idea that many people (mostly males in their early 20s, but across all ages and genders)may not want to kill, but feel they could if they are defending themselves, comrades, or country.

    One of the reasons that the military spends so much time attempting to dehumanize the enemy is that it makes it easier to rationalize the killing. What happens it that when many soliders finally encounter that enemy, they realize that the enemy is just as human as they are. It is then that many just cannot do it anymore.

    I would suggest On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman.

  47. badethicist says

    Dear Anonymous Soldier-

    You are now embarking on a tremendously important moral project. And you are not alone. History is full of former soldiers struggling to reconcile ‘doing their duty’ with the fact that some of their actions don’t accord with their own basic moral commitments. For America, like many other countries, the story we collectively tell about our military actions involves a soothing lie – that doing one’s military duty is the same thing as acting in accordance with one’s moral commitments. Sometimes that’s true, but more often, it isn’t. We have some conversations in this country about the struggles of our soldiers (e.g. finding employment once they’re back home, getting access to adequate health care). But we essentially never talk about their moral struggles.

    The most we offer are platitudes like “You did what you had to do” or “You were on the right side in the conflict”. But these claims don’t address the deeper moral challenge that you so movingly present, do they? Because even if it’s true that you did what you had to do, or that you were fighting for the right side, you still betrayed one of your own core moral values – you killed people. I think facing that moral betrayal honestly requires stunning bravery. So many forces are arrayed against you in this project. You may be called weak, or whiny, or a pussy. And there won’t be any medal or acclaim waiting for you. But I (and others, as evidenced by many of the comments in this thread) want to encourage you to continue on in your quest. Deep self-respect requires taking your own moral agency very, very seriously. Doing that is very hard work and there’s no path back to the person you were before. You can only go forward, toward the person that you are becoming. There can be resonant moral rewards along the way, as you come to terms with all the parts of yourself, including the parts that led to the actions you’ve committed that have left you shaking and uncertain. But hours will surely come where the task will seem to be hopeless. It might feel like all you have is guilt or shame and no way out. Please, please, please ask for help in those moments. And please know that there are others around you who see what you are doing, and we are awed that you are willingly embarking on this task.

    p.s. this issue of the moral agency of combat soldiers is something that I research and think about a lot. If you would like, I would be happy to suggest some resources that might be helpful. But since you are clearly engaging with these questions so thoughtfully, I didn’t want to presume that you needed that kind of input from a random stranger on the interwebz. ;)

  48. says


    Somehow I missed your “Shades of Gray” post even though I’m a generally faithful reader of your blog (no pun intended). That’s one powerful and very vivid description of the wages of war and hatred in general.

    I’ve really have to get around to submitting my “Why I am an Atheist” email. I still polishing the composition.

  49. hillaryrettig says

    More proof, PZ, that you ought to get your top 100 blog posts and indie publish them via Lulu or Smashwords or something similar. Make some scratch, help influence more people…

  50. cultureclash says

    Hmmm… Interesting.

    You stated in an earlier post that you were a fan of Ian M. Banks’
    fictional utopian society ‘The Culture’.

    I am assuming based on this that you mean the ‘peace faction’
    because the Culture proper certainly wouldn’t agree with your
    ‘shades of grey’ post.

    The hard parts of morality are ALL about dealing with situations
    where there isn’t a perfect (or often even good) option.
    They are about balancing the various bad options and picking the
    least worst.

    In general I couldn’t agree more that killing another human being
    is a horrendous act and that the repercussions of that act ripple out
    and there are (almost) always people who loved and cared for the
    deceased and who are going to be devastated (and angry) by their

    However even if you regard killing a human as a black and white
    moral issue you still can’t make the case that killing is always
    the wrong moral choice.

    Because there is always the case where you are faced with the choice
    of killing the few (or the one) to save the many.

    The only way you can argue out of that one is to claim that one life
    is as valuable as a million, or a billion.

    I certainly agree that we often (as civilisations) make killing too easy.
    It’s the first option and not that last.
    Killing should be hard, and there should always be an investigation after
    to learn from it and make sure that it was the best available option and
    to see how we might avoid it in the future.

    But to say that it’s never the best moral option…
    That I can’t agree with.

    I can’t actually even respect that position.

    Because it requires that I value the life of a 9:11 plane hijacker equally with
    all of the people on the plane and in the towers COMBINED.
    It requires valuing Hitler’s life equally as ALL the MILLIONS of people he ordered
    or caused to be killed.

    Even if you value every life equally it still must be better to kill the few or
    the one if that will save the many (assuming that there is no available non-lethal

    I however don’t agree that all lives should be valued equally.
    If one person tries to murder one other person then I value the life of the one
    being attacked over the one attacking them.
    If TEN people are trying to murder ONE other person then I value the life of the
    One being attacked over the TEN attacking them.

    The deciding factor being that the people doing the attacking devalued their own
    lives when they made the choice to try to take someone else’s.

    Or then there is the classic tale of the beaten wife who finally gets beaten once
    too often and kills the man who did it.

    Now I think that this should have been stopped by society stepping in and protecting
    her long before it gets to this point (we really suck at this).
    And it shouldn’t end in this way, and every time it does it shows that there has
    been a massive failure in society…

    But I don’t shed a single tear for the guy who beats his wife until she snaps and
    kills him.

    I couldn’t agree more that we need to change how we value life and how we think about
    killing people (both civilian and military)…

    And don’t get me started on the evils of executing people, and how damaging and
    barbaric that is…

    But I can’t agree with your stated position that killing is NEVER the best available
    moral action.

    Your shades of grey blog post is thought provoking and highlights the horrors of killing
    and the humanity of those being killed as well as the ripples of pain, anguish and anger
    that emanate from every killing.
    We need to be re-sensitised to the evils of killing.

    But the conclusion that killing is ALWAYS the wrong moral choice is just wrong.
    The logical consequences of what you would have to accept if that is your premise are
    just unthinkable.

  51. Don Quijote says

    emc2: Thanks for the reply. I’ve ordered the book you suggested. I’ll read with interest.