Cyanide tablets in war

A Catholic friend of mine is convinced that it is morally permissible, even commendable, for a captured solider to “sacrifice” one’s life in war by taking a cyanide tablet to avoid giving up fellow soldiers’ locations which will lead to the enemy finding and torturing or killing them. He argues it is selfish of that soldier to preserve his own life as he believes that, unless he kills himself, he will give up the location of fellow soldiers (through torture) and this will ultimately lead to multiple soldiers’ deaths. He equates the taking of the cyanide pill to a soldier jumping on a bomb to save the life of another soldier or child standing nearby who would otherwise have been injured or killed by the bomb. I think the in first example the soldier’s action is immoral, and the second example the soldier’s action is moral and heroic, but I can’t convince him. Please help! And if you could point me towards some recommended reading from the Church I would appreciate it. Thank you.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

[1753] A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).

There is a moral difference between willfully committing suicide and performing an action which is extremely risky and even nearly certain to result in death, but is not done with that end in mind. Sacrificing one’s life to save others is one thing, directly willing to end one’s life is something else. The former involves choosing a morally good action which carries with it the side effect of dying in the process; the latter involves choosing a morally disordered act.



I won’t point to any recommended reading, but will lay out a few points you may find useful.

  1. Your friend is assuming that foreign forces will use torture in order to obtain information from them. Much of the world holds to the Geneva Conventions which specifically calls out this behavior as impermissible. While it is true, that many of the people we fight in war do not hold to this standard, this is the expectation of behavior that we have established for civilized behavior.
  2. Second, he is assuming that the information that you have holds much value to the enemy. As a former soldier, there is little information of actual strategic value that your average soldier would have to begin with. The information you would have would be more on the tactical level, which is of use for a limited amount of time. What I mean is this, forces in combat typically don’t remain in the same place. So me giving up information on their whereabouts, composition, etc., has a shelf-life as far as how useful that information is. Your job is to withhold information for long enough that the information no longer holds a significant tactical value.
  3. Third, he is assuming that by taking his own life he is of greater use to his comrades and others, when actually the opposite is true. Having experienced the deaths of friends in combat I can tell you that I value my comrades being alive, over being dead. Knowing they are alive gives me hope and motivation. Additionally, prisoners of war typically have historically been freed after a period of time, at which time the freed prisoner of war is actually able to provide counter-intelligence to friendly forces. Not only that, I urge you to actually read the Military Code of Conduct. As a prisoner of war, you don’t live just for yourself. Your mission as a prisoner of war is to resist or escape and aid other prisoners to do the same. If escape is not possible, then your mission is to give comfort and aid to your fellow prisoners. You can’t do that if you are dead.
  4. Lastly, think of your duty to your family when your role in combat is over.

The idea that taking one’s life in combat is heroic is a farce. This doesn’t even address the religious side of things. Have your friend read Paul’s epistle to the Philippians or the other prison letters such as 2 Timothy and try to tell me that the Philippians were better served by Paul committing suicide after he was placed under arrest. Ask yourself, also, why you honor and venerate the saints who were martyred. Their stand for their faith spurred on the faith of countless millions through the years. Suicide would have robbed the Church of the gift they gave through their martyrdom.

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