Will Wilkinson, responding to Michele Bachman, posted yesterday on the unreflective practice of thanking our men and women in service for their service. My view on doing so has gotten harder. I used to differentiate between the government (and military) and the people who serve in it, as is common for those who want to appreciate the sacrifice of the servicepeople without endorsing the causes they are fighting in. Then I could think: these wars are misguided (very likely unjust) but the people who engage in them are still putting life and limb on the line, and ought to be thanked for that.
Then I began asking what they were doing volunteering to engage in wars that are unjustified and unjust, and once I asked that question I no longer thought they deserve my thanks. What is more, if they were not to volunteer to fight in such wars, we would not be able to engage with them, at least not without conscription, which is a very different prospect.
There is some culpability involved in agreeing to serve immoral purposes, and that’s what the waging of these wars is. That doesn’t justify going around as per circa 1972 calling them “babykillers.” It does mean that it is far from obvious that thanks are due them for their contribution to these enterprises.
On the other hand, in present conditions we need defense, so this point does not apply to troops that are not engaged in these (at least arguably) unjustified and unjust hostilities. But that means it is precisely those who are not in practice laying their lives on the line that might deserve thanks. Coast Guard (except to the extent they are involved in carrying out an unjustified and unjust War on Drugs), naval personnel (except those involved in carrying out the offensive hostilities), and so on. That probably means fairly few of them, and differentiating is hard. So I think Wilkinson has a real point here.