Courageous. Noble. Honorable. Just some of the adjectives used to describe military men. In most parts of the United States, being a soldier comes with a guarantee of respect. Americans seem to thank soldiers at every opportunity for “defending our freedom.” The story goes like this:
Young men and women risk their lives to defend the United States. They are willing to die for their country, which is a reflection of their noble character. Without them, we wouldn’t be free. Therefore, they deserve respect.
I disagree with this narrative. In fact, I’d say nearly the opposite is true: in most cases, being in the military is nothing admirable; it’s dishonorable. Pitiful, even. I mean this quite precisely, not as an insult. Allow me to make my case.
The central point is this: fighting for your country is insufficient reason for respect. What matters is why the country is fighting. Since most military action in the last half-century has been for illegitimate purposes, most soldiers are fighting for an illegitimate cause. Therefore, they are not honorable; they are dishonorable and dangerous.
A Simple Example
The first point is easy to make. Merely risking your life in the military cannot be respectable by itself. Take the simplest, most extreme case: Nazi soldiers. They were young men, fighting for their country and family, until the point of death. Yet, we view Nazi soldiers as not only dishonorable, but downright evil. Why? The cause for which they fought. Nazism was immoral. Therefore every single soldier was promoting and defending an immoral cause. In fact, it’s precisely the soldiers who deserve the most blame. They were the ultimate enforcers of Nazism, not Hitler.
Note: consider the young Nazi soldier who doesn’t actively hate Jews. He doesn’t desire world domination. He’s “just doing his job” – just making a paycheck for his family. Does he deserve respect? Of course not. His labor still contributes to an evil organization; his paycheck comes from despicable thugs.
Consider the Nazi who even disagrees with Hitler. He doesn’t support the war. He even complains to his superiors and becomes disillusioned. But, he is still employed by them and reluctantly gathers their military intelligence. He begrudgingly contributes to their cause. Is he innocent? No. Even if he thought, “Well, I don’t really agree with the cause, but my job isn’t to make the big decisions,” that’s not a sufficient excuse – any more than the soldier who imprisons a Jew but grumbles “Sorry, I don’t really want to do this.”
If Nazi soldiers do not deserve admiration, though they were willing to die for their homeland, then we need some further justification for the American soldier.
But America is Special
Perhaps it’s because the United States is a morally superior country to Nazi Germany? Well, let’s scrutinize the idea. We can call this the “intrinsically moral country” argument. First of all, it’s clear that this argument cannot apply universally, as people from different countries could all claim their country is “morally superior” to the others. The patriotic American and the patriotic Russian (or German, or Saudi Arabian) could say identical things about their homeland, but their conclusions would be mutually exclusive – i.e. America is morally superior to Russia, and Russia is morally superior to America.
What about the values of America in particular? Supposedly, this country is morally exceptional, because it’s founded on the virtues of individual freedom, rule of law, etc. If American soldiers are fighting for American values, does that make them respectable?
Again, the answer is no. Stated values are an insufficient reason to fight for a country. What matters is the actual mission. Merely saying, “We’re fighting a war in Iraq for the cause of freedom!” doesn’t mean that’s the actual mission, nor an accomplished result. The Soviet Union claimed they existed to help improve the life of the common man. So did Maoist China. But rhetoric aside, those governments ended up killing hundreds of millions of innocent people. Their language didn’t matter; their actions did.
So, unless we are willing to defend the Soviet soldier, who dutifully executed the orders of Stalin, we cannot pardon the American soldier, just because of the stated values of America. What matters, in every case, is the actual cause for which they fight.
Thus, we’re left with the question: are American military operations justified around the world? If we discover that they are unjustified, then we must conclude that the soldiers are acting immorally. They are contributing to an unjust cause.
I will not make the case against the actions of the US military – that’s for each person to research. Though, for starters, I will note that over half a million children died in Iraq due to political sanctions. Hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Soldiers have been caught murdering civilians overseas, then keeping their dismembered body parts as trophies. The list is lengthy of American soldier atrocities overseas, but that’s not the point of this article.
Rather than condemn the actions of individual soldiers, I want to focus on the bigger issue: the very idea of enacting the vision of political leaders – enforcing their commands. Or, what I believe is the most accurate way of phrasing it: being a pawn in a political chess game.
Consider the structure of the military. It is notoriously hierarchical. Rank-and-file soldiers are – first and foremost – to obey orders. Their position is not to be philosophers; if the sergeant says “Jump!”, you jump. If he says “Open fire!”, you squeeze the trigger. The military is not a playground for skeptical inquiry. An armed platoon will not operate smoothly if each member is questioning why they are there – if they are challenging their officers on principle.
The soldier’s role is not to understand the motivation for a mission. It’s not to see or agree with the big picture. It’s to do what he’s told.
And the officers, too, find themselves in a hierarchy. They are not to be autonomous actors. Their orders come from their superiors, and refusing to obey orders will ultimately lead to ejection from the hierarchy. This chain of command goes all the way to the top – perhaps a group of military officials, perhaps the President, perhaps an army general. At some point, a person or group of people, not the rank-and-file soldier, is calling the shots.
So I ask you: is submitting to the commands of other men respectable? Is doing what you’re told – even if you don’t understand or agree with it – honorable? Or, is the opposite true: it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reflective of a lack of character – a missing backbone. Those military men who enforce the orders of autocrats, who act as the armed muscle of politicians – they concretely demonstrate their lack of autonomy.
Then Why Join?
Without meaning to insult anyone, I must confess: this theory has been validated by nearly every soldier I’ve met. From my conversations and experiences, I honestly think I see why most people join the military. One of two reasons:
Insecurity or confusion.
The desire to be honored, to be respected – or perhaps to be financially secure – appears to be a large motivator for the average soldier. I’d guess it’s precisely because young men and women are insecure, the military seeks to recruit them. Malleability is a desirable trait in an organization based on hierarchy.
Look at the advertisements for the military. They look like scenes from Star Wars, complete with zapping lasers and hi-tech button pushing. Other ads craft an emotional story: the noble teenager wanting to protect his neighbors and countrymen from attack. They portray the military as “a key” to success and honor. The young all-American seeking to “make something” of his life; the romantic, dangerous sacrifice reserved only for selfless, courageous soldiers. “The few, the proud, the Marines”: a select group of tough guys, protecting civilians from foreign evil.
Though it will undoubtedly anger military men and families, the truth hurts: the romance surrounding the military is only propaganda. Intentional propaganda, designed to persuade the right people for the job. And the right people are impressionable, submissive, and will allow their own moral and intellectual compass to be turned off, if ordered to do so.
In fact, I’d say it is precisely the weak who are willing to enforce the commands of others – the Nazi soldier with a weak moral compass; the Soviet soldier who was dependent on the paycheck; the Afghani terrorist who gets whipped into a frenzy by Islamic radicals.
If the military recruiters are compelling enough – if they can sufficiently obfuscate, confuse, and manipulate the good intentions of an impressionable youth – then they are rewarded with obedience: an enthusiastic pledge of their own mortality to the cause.
And here’s the unfortunate reality: almost universally, their peers do end up giving them respect. Military propaganda is incredibly successful. Nazi culture worshipped the noble young soldier. The Jihadists are seen as doing God’s work. The American soldier is portrayed as the very definition of the word “hero”, and they are also frequently put into a religious narrative. Their employment is portrayed as essential for civilized life.
But it isn’t true. American soldiers (and country X’s soldiers) are only essential to the political and military agenda – to expand the power of a small group of people. They are essential for anyone who desires to control the lives of others. And in most circumstances, their work causes far more harm than good.
The death and destruction caused in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. – none of it was necessary to protect American civilians. It was necessary to advance political power.
I do not think it’s coincidental that so many soldiers retire from the military with PTSD. I don’t think it’s inexplicable that the suicide rate of veterans is extraordinarily high. Those poor individuals have been used. They were tools – pawns manipulated for violence; convinced their jobs were important – no different than any other soldier on any side in virtually any other war.
Humans are not meant to kill each other, much less when commanded by others. The shock of war can paralyze men; the shame of war can kill them.
How must one feel after killing a man you’ve never met? You’ve been told he’s a target, and it’s your duty to put a bullet through his skull. But what about his family? Will you be responsible for a child’s fatherless upbringing, and a wife’s torment? Yes, if you squeeze the trigger.
And what if he’s innocent – what if your superiors made a mistake? What if – heaven forbid – he’s the one trying to defend his family, and you’re the foreign invader? Alas, it isn’t your duty to think about such things. You are to accomplish the mission and trust your leaders made the right evaluation.
Perhaps there’s an escape: he’s shooting at you. It’s kill or be killed, right? I’m sorry, but here’s the tragic truth:
You had another option. You put yourself into the battle. You decided to join; you obeyed the commands. You submitted to the hierarchy.
Make no mistake: you could be home, employed in a peaceful line of work. You could be sitting in a chair, evaluating the merits of the mission for yourself.
But now, because of a series of choices – all of which you are responsible for – violence and death is the inevitable result. Persuasion and cooperation has been rejected in favor of physical violence, at the ultimate command of men you’ve never met.
And this is honorable? Of course it isn’t. The circumstance is awful, and I deeply pity any soul tormented by these ideas after-the-fact.
Exceptions to the Rule
I have painted a bleak picture of the soldier; are there exceptions? Certainly, and let me explain them.
First, and most obviously, we’ve established that what determines the respectability of a soldier is the cause for which he fights. Thus, if a war is inevitable – if you are a Pole waiting for the Nazis to invade – and you haven’t a peaceful way out, then it’s no longer a clear sign of weakness to join the military. Voluntarily “submitting” to the orders of a military commander – because you sincerely believe in the cause – is not dishonorable. Enforcing the plan of the military leader – because you and your families’ lives actually depend on it – is not a function of insecurity. It’s not for gaining the appearance of nobility, and it isn’t for the pension. And crucially:
It isn’t a blank check.
Every single action by a soldier must be analyzed and evaluated as sensible or just. Outsourcing your critical thinking is not justified simply because you support the cause. Say what you will about the justness of WWII, but imagine you are an Allied soldier and agree with your mission. If a commander orders you to kill an innocent, you mustn’t do it. You are equally liable as if it were in cold blood.
If the mission ever changes – if instead of defense, the Allied forces were bent on their own domination – you must quit. If, for example, the President tells you to drop two atomic bombs and incinerate a hundred thousand innocent civilians (even though there’s another option) you’re morally condemnable if you obey.
The only way to remain respectable is to always evaluate the big picture – good intentions are not sufficient. You must always have a concrete answer to the question, “What am I doing and why?” And if any action rubs against your conscience, or if any mission is corrupt, the soldier must refuse orders.
In other words, the honorable man always takes commands as suggestions. If he disagrees, he disobeys.
But from my experience, I’ve rarely encountered such an anti-authoritarian soldier.
So, there is an exception: the soldier fighting a defensive battle – no different than the father defending his home from invasion – might be respected. The naïve young man who believes the propaganda for a time – he too might be absolved of joining the military by awakening to the corruption and immorality within it. And, of course, by quitting immediately.
But since the vast majority of military battles are fought for political reasons – for conquest, economic plunder, or national glory – and since most soldiers are unwilling or uninterested in scrutinizing the justification for their mission, they do not meet the criteria for respectability. As upsetting as it sounds, most soldiers are how they’ve been used: as disposable pawns for ambitious men.
We’ve established a few things: simply fighting for a country is not sufficient to be honorable. The same is true for having a dangerous job – we don’t see lumberjacks and fisherman as universally noble. The “our country is unique” argument also fails; every country states lofty principles.
The military is intrinsically hierarchical – obeying commands (from other men) is an essential part of the job. This attracts the wayward and weak, who seek an easy path towards respectability and a paycheck – or, even worse, the simple adrenaline rush of combat.
The military is also the ultimate enforcement of political power; without the threat of violent force, politicians are impotent. Militaries are inextricably linked with government and governance. If the government is unethical, so are the soldiers. Therefore, the question of honor, courage, and respectability is entirely dependent on the mission at hand and the demonstration of insubordination at the first sign of error.
In short, the honorable soldier is an exception to the rule in the 21th century. The desire for respect or security leads too many people to foolishly believe their countries’ military propaganda. While soldiers will certainly garner affection from fellow civilians, it’s ultimately because the general population, too, is tricked by the same government lies. Being used as a political tool – even if it’s popular – is not courageous.
I know these ideas will upset people – military families in particular. But too much death is caused by this particular organization to remain silent. I realize many young soldiers risk their lives on a daily basis and that they don’t intend to cause harm. But the stakes are too high. “They mean well” is not sufficient justification to overlook institutionalized, aggressive violence.
So, to anybody considering joining the military, please don’t. Do not get caught up in nationalist romance. If you have already joined, you are responsible to learn about your employer and your mission – if you haven’t yet discovered their corruptness and immorality, it’s because you aren’t looking hard enough.
And, if you start to doubt the judgement of your superiors, immediately stop obeying their commands. Even if you aren’t involved in active combat, don’t contribute your labor to an evil organization. Do the honorable thing: refuse orders and quit.