I know this post will be very unpopular with some people I know, but I write it not as someone who means to offend, but simply as someone who wrestles with ethical principles all the time and this is a subject I’ve though a lot about. I guess I was inspired to share my feelings about this after reading an article that talked about the dangers of automatically associating heroism with anybody who is in the military. I’ve written about heroes before and how there are a lot of people in this world worthy of being called a hero, but most people don’t know about. In this country it seems that if you’ve joined the military and are deployed you are a hero; plain and simple. In fact usually when someone joins the service they are automatically seen as honorable and brave. Adopting any attitude that is in opposition to glorifying the soldier is seen as treasonous by many. The only narrative we are allowed to accept is one that paints the recruit as someone who nobly has joined to serve their country and defend American freedom (this turns out to not be the reason, most people join the military). To think otherwise, it means you don’t appreciate the fact that soldiers died for your freedom. You are ungrateful and you don’t understand the cost of being free. I’ve always taken offense to this generalization, and it seems to me that many people who say things like this experience nationalism in the same way that the devout experience religion.
It’s not that I don’t think it takes a lot of guts to join the military, knowing that one day you may be placed in a situation in which people are trying to kill you. In the middle of combat it is either kill or be killed and to come out of such a situation alive requires
some pretty good team skills and awareness in an extremely stressful situation. There is certainly something to applaud and be amazed by such people. Many of us perhaps would not be able to face such an extreme situation. The question is, does that quality mean that this is their only defining quality of character? And do we not have the right to complain about the context in which these soldiers are placed to take part in this very dangerous combat? People often criticize us peace-lovers if we don’t support the war, and say we are not supporting the troops. But I can think of no better way of supporting the troops than wanting them home and safe and not fighting in a conflict for which we have no business being part of. If your child wants to do something that could get them killed, for which you don’t think there is any valid reason for them to be doing, if you don’t want them to do that are you being unsupportive? Perhaps you just value their life more. And when you don’t support a war, many consider you unpatriotic. Most of those people have no problem criticizing Obama and his policies, so why is it unpatriotic to criticize a decision to go to war?
Often, of course, these things come down to your point of view. If the act of joining the military and the willingness to put yourself in harm’s way automatically makes you a hero, and a brave and honorable person, then every member of the military anywhere must also have such qualities. It may even include rebel forces, or terrorists. Such people believe in their cause just as much as anybody in the military. In some way this would make war even more horrible if the most brave and honorable of men and women are always being killed, it seems to me a terrible way to solve a problem. The
problem is that we tend not to see just any soldier is honorable, but only the ones that fight for us, our allies, or causes that we agree with. To say that a Nazi soldier was as honorable as any allied soldier would not go over well. And of course in order to justify killing the “enemy” we must dehumanize and make them less than they are. When they kill civilians they are the scum of the earth, and when we do it, it’s an accident in the course of an honorable fight. Was every Nazi a Jew-hating genocidal maniac? That seems unlikely. Many were perhaps simply fighting because they had been recruited, because they wanted to provide for their family, because the country was destitute at the time and thought the fight was a cause that could improve the German standard of living. There are likely many other reasons, but how easy would it be to kill someone if he was no different than you, but just happened to live in a different country?
In Henry V, one of the well-known scenes from the play involves King Henry disguising himself as a common soldier and walking through his troops on the eve of a big battle. His troops are tired, sick and will be outnumbered the following day. At one point the King questions one of his men about whether or not they should trust the king, that
what if his reasons for this fight are unjust and is just leading them all to slaughter. A soldier gets angry at this and says that he fights for King and country and that if the King’s reasons be unjust that that is a crime he will have to answer for when he dies and that it is something for the King’s conscious to deal with, and not the soldiers. This seems to be the ultra-nationalistic mentality that many in this country subscribe to. If there is an afterlife then perhaps this is true, but even if there is some supernatural judge up their making us answer for our crimes, does that morally justify leading men to their slaughter even if their loyalty leads them to be willing to do so (although at least in King Henry’s time the King fought along side his men instead of sitting thousands of miles away)? Just because someone is willing to die for you, should they? Is it not even more morally wrong to take advantage of that loyalty for an unjust cause? It seems that context is important. When it comes to killing shouldn’t we need more than simply, “this is just what our government wants, so we have to do it”? Shouldn’t we make absolutely sure that our cause is just? Shouldn’t we also really make sure that other means of solving conflict aren’t a better option?
For the most part, honor and courage being automatically associated with the military mystifies me for a couple of reasons. First I find it very uncomfortable to surrender my choice about what causes I fight for. Would I have enlisted to fight Nazi’s in WWII. I think that’s likely especially given what they were doing in concentration camps. But would I have happily then gone to Korea 5 years later? Absolutely not. And while I realize on some level a military probably wouldn’t work if we got to pick and choose which conflicts we wanted to fight in, when it comes to pointing a gun and killing somebody else I think I should believe in that cause, not do it because someone else believes in the cause. I want to live a moral life. The Nuremberg trials even set the international legal precedent that “just following orders” cannot be used as a defense for committing atrocities and absolving guilt, but only lessening the sentence. I simply don’t want to be put in a position where I am asked to fight and kill others unless I think it is the best and only course of action. I don’t find any honor in simply killing or dying for someone else’s cause.
Secondly, many people will question your lack of courage when you say you don’t want to be a soldier, or say at least that a soldier has more courage. I’d like to say that I am not afraid of dying for a cause I believe in. Dying is a pretty easy thing to do after all. Many people have done it, and you only have to do it once. What I am afraid of is killing. My grandfather fought in WWII. He didn’t talk about it much and I admired the courage it takes to get through such a terrible conflict in which so many, including his brother, were killed. I never asked him how many people he killed though. He was a good man. It was hard to imagine him killing, and if I were to guess, I think he is the type like many who would have carried the weight of those he killed. Even in a cause he believed in. He would have wondered, “what kind of man was it that I killed? In different circumstances could we not have been friends, shared a shot of scotch whiskey and kept each other laughing all night?” I know such questions would plague me. I know the average person loves his/her family, is kind to his/her neighbors and would help those in need. And perhaps it is come to the mind of many in the military, “Perhaps that soldier’s leaders have taught him/her dehumanize me in the same way I had been taught to dehumanize them.” Maybe they have doubts. I certainly would. Like, what if my bullet misses and hits some civilian or my own comrade? What if we were told to attack the wrong target and it was a school instead of a military hideout? If I choose an action that could end my own life, that is my choice, but ending someone else’s life is another matter altogether. From a psychological point of view, one could easily argue that putting yourself into a situation in which you give up your right to choose the causes you fight for, and are willing to kill people you really don’t have a problem with, can be seen as mentally unsound as opposed to a decision filled with honor and courage.
In the end, I can’t subscribe to the idea that those who join the military are the best example of bravery and honor. There are people in the military who have done terrible things. Rape in the military is a huge issue right now. Where is the honor there? Of course we want our military to be honorable, and there are many who are. But there are also many honorable people in different facets of society. If we are going to celebrate heroism let us not only do it for the glorification of war. There are many people who have courage and face difficulties and adversity everyday. Sometimes it takes more courage to live than to die. Let us at least bestow the label of honor, courage and heroism to wherever it applies and not apply it blindly. Such things prevent us from having honest conversations about important issues concerning conflict, war and violence. I bear no ill will towards soldier, and appreciate the sacrifices that they go through. Particularly because I know many of them did not join the military because they wanted to fight in a war. And maybe I don’t understand or am a coward, but personally I’m glad that we have found better ways to deal with conflicts and that there are a smaller percentage of people dying in wars today than in our past. It gives me hope for the future.