Honorable service?

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.

14 thoughts on “Honorable service?

  1. Mark, do you make the same argument regarding police officers here at home? What about BATF officers? Many of them are actively engaged in enforcing what many—including me in some cases—consider immoral laws. Are they equally morally blameworthy?

  2. I would think so, in some cases even more patently. Without having any calculus for how to grade degrees of injustice, it does seem that some institutions nominally existing for the sake of our security are engaged in more unjust and more egregiously unjust activities than others, and I would think the same claims would apply to those who choose to serve those institutions.

    If in the end we want to resist “I was just following orders” rationales for horrible conduct — and I assume most of us are clear enough how much damage accepting such rationales can promote — then we have to think that people are responsible in part for their being in positions in which they are expected to follow orders to treat others unjustly. I see no reason not to hold people responsible for being in those positions when putting people in those positions is an essential element of the reason for being for those institutions. Some branches of police work may now quality (for example, being on SWAT teams which exist in practice just to carry out no-knock raids on mostly non-violent suspects). Other agencies, such as the DEA, would seem to have no legitimate or just function, and there the case is strongest. On the other end are those who are committed to providing genuine public safety and security, but as time goes on are expected more and more to carry out unjust policies. So I would expect in most cases the story would be a matter of degree.

  3. Mark,

    Why shouldn’t your critique apply to taxpayers as well? Although they do not themselves perform the unjust actions which you complain of, they do not furnish the means by which such actions are carried out. Doesn’t every American taxpayer bear some degree of guilt?

    From Thoreau:

    “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico; — see if I would go”; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war…

  4. If they (I, we) paid voluntarily, I could see that case. But they (I, we) don’t: we are compelled to do so. I think Thoreau’s standard is way too high: you are culpable if you don’t suffer at the hands of those compelling you. Maybe such a case is to be made, but there is a far stronger case for culpability in the case of those who volunteer to serve in those organizations, knowing what are the aims, or the frequent activities, of those organizations. It would seem to me a pretty serious mistake to think there is a similar degree of culpability in the two cases, though I can see the case for thinking it is a matter of degree.

  5. Perhaps you would agree that the degree of culpability should be based on the difficulty of relocation. Thus, for federal crimes (e.g. DEA raids), taxpayers are not really guilty, since the cost of relocating to another country is prohibitively expensive; alternatively, the blame flowing from unjust actions undertaken by a local police force, or neighborhood swat team can be placed (in part, obviously, I don’t think Thoreau was arguing that Slavery was caused by MA taxpayers) in a much larger degree on the municipal taxpayers, since they can be considered to be “voluntarily” paying the tax – at least in the long run.

  6. I think there is certainly more consent for most of us in choosing a locality than in choosing the national government under which we live. But a significant part of the issue there still is the complication that choice is forced: some agency or other says, we have the authority to compel you to pay if you choose to live or work in this jurisdiction. There is nothing comparable in the choice to go to work for the DEA, or for that matter the Marines. Moreover, there are lots of legitimate purposes to be served in choosing to move even to a high-tax jurisdiction, and for that matter in serving the Marines. I don’t know of any in the service of the DEA. I think these are decisions of distinct moral kinds.

  7. I think the question whether a military guy “ought” to be thanks by his service starts a good reflection about the morality of the public servant. Maybe some dude inside the military force aren’t forced to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean that this guy is in contradiction with the libertarians ideas (of course if the guy know and adhere to those principles).

    My argument is that each person choose to live in accordance with his capacities. People in the military are the same as civillians. They choose to do infantry because they want to do so. They love training, acquire knowledge about survivalism, etc.

    Morally, is the guy guilty of the action taken by the decision-maker? Worse, is the guy guilty of “high treason” to his libertarian principle, due to his actions in Iraq? I do not think so. The guy serves within a system created by generations of decision-makers. Maybe he will live with remorse. But this is a personnal matter, not a proof of immorality of his actions.

    Do not misunderstand me. People in the military may, in a theater of operation, kill someone. They are trained to do so. In a way, this is in contradiction with the non-agression principle. But I do consider this situation like an defence act. The guy protect his life or the life of his buddies. Think of an ideal world, in which the guy serves within a private security force. Do you really think that he did not do the right thing?

    The real culprit of treason is the decision maker who gave the task to the military force. Those are the ones who doesn’t merit our thanks.

  8. Mark, Are you saying that people who volunteer to join the military are specifically volunteering to fight the current wars? That’s not a generalization that covers as many people as you might think. Also, presidents and federal legislators bear the culpability for foreign wars more than the servicemen and women who take an oath to support the Constitution which gives ultimate authority for military actions to civilians, which sounds like the position you started with. To the degree that individual soldiers support our various wars, they do so as private citizens, not soldiers. A soldier’s allegiance is to the Constitution and its delegation of power over how the military is used to civilian authorities that derive their legitimacy from being elected. It seems to that the warmongering individual soldier is a straw man you’ve invoked to avoid the harder issue of an elected central government making decisions for which all citizens bear moral culpability.

  9. Andy, I don’t see this as an either/or situation. There is more than enough culpability to go around, and I completely agree with you that a different kind of moral blameworthiness belongs to the engineers of these wars. The real question isn’t their conduct (that’s pretty obviously reprehensible), but the conduct of those who serve in the forces that carry out their bidding. The point of departure is the nearly mindless way it is taken for granted that we owe these men and women our thanks. That was Bachman’s theme that Wilkinson began upon, and I don’t know how many flights I’ve been on where there’s a call for similarly “spontaneous” applause or thanks for service people in uniform. The present question is whether that kind of attitude is warranted.

    Certainly our deep thanks are due to those who put their lives on the line (and sometimes pay the highest price) for actually engaging in the defense of our country. But the case that that is what has been going on in Iraq failed first, is failing for Afghanistan increasingly, and was a non-starter for Libya. And though you’re right that if you’re in uniform you don’t get to pick and choose your wars, the vast majority of people serving in these wars now joined after they were begun, after the plausible justifications that they were for our national defense got as threadbare as they are, and once it was quite clear that governments both Republican and Democrat were willing to wage war unjustly wherever they thought there was a political justification for doing so. Once it’s clear that that’s the way these institutions are being used, and for the foreseeable future will be used, I don’t see that there’s a moral free pass on signing up to advance their ends, let alone that we owe them our thanks for doing so.

  10. Perhaps we are in agreement then, given this statement of yours: “There is more than enough culpability to go around.” I don’t think that the degree of culpability for policy decisions is higher for servicemen and women than for citizens at large (regardless of whether they voted for/against the engineers of unjust wars). I also don’t think that your post hoc ergo propter hoc assessment of post-9/11 enlistment decisions is broadly valid. So long as you admit the legitimacy of a national institution dedicated to defense you will have to admit that some people will join it on that basis and no other.

  11. I’m not willing to go as far as you. I think we have institutions that began by serving decent and even noble purposes, but have changed in their mission as time has gone on. When it becomes clear that those institutions have become devices to carry out unjust policies and actions, then that fact seems appropriate when one is deciding whether or not to join them, or help them advance their ends. The fact that at one point they did something different doesn’t seem to bear very much on the matter. (Though, as I acknowledged, various branches of the service are still carrying out missions that can arguably be justified, and to that extent my argument does not apply to them.) One cannot be justified in joining the Mafia just because they help widows and orphans when they are in need.

    Nor do I think the responsibility of those who join voluntarily is on par with those of us from whom the funds for those institutions are extracted coercively. We have no choice about the taxes we pay to support them, but the volunteer soldier or sailor certainly has a choice, and is responsible for that choice. (Draftees of course would be a different story, but thank heavens for now we do not have that form of injustice to grapple with.)

  12. Mark,
    Your argument that “we have no choice about paying taxes…” attempts to assuage the culpability of the citizen, although you reject outright the plea of “just following orders.” It is true that after 9-11, many young men (and women) joined the military (and in my son’s case, the Marines) in order to go to war. But to posit an immorality to this decision is as disingenuous as the claim of lack of moral responsibility for those of us whose tax liabilities finance any and such military action. We don’t pay taxes voluntarily, but like Thoreau, we can refuse.

  13. Yes, and it is possible to refuse a gunman’s demand for your money or your life. That doesn’t change the moral status of the decision: if you turn over the money, nobody in their right mind will think you have done so voluntarily in a way that would make the money now the property of the gunman. Similarly, to think we are culpable for paying taxes that are demanded of us legally seems to me pretty out of whack. (Can you really avoid paying? Do you really think the government has to have your agreement to get at your money? That ship has long since sailed.) Certainly to think you are as responsible, or culpable, for supporting an unjust war by refusing to go to jail in a futile attempt to keep the government from taking your money, as you are in choosing to provide more muscle to the forces used to wage that war, seems to me a gross error in moral judgment.

    You are right about 9/11. I would not have made this argument 8 or 9 years ago, in no small part because it was not clear at that point what was required for national defense, nor how clearly irrelevant to that project are the wars we have engaged in in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot of people courageously and nobly chose to serve when national defense seemed to be at stake, and I do not suppose what I have said applies to them, nor to lots of career military that joined in a time before the government decided the work of the military was to project American power around the world, rather than defend America and Americans. I think the claim that people are not culpable now because they are ignorant of those facts about the use of American military power is nowhere near what it was 8 or 9 or even 5 years ago.

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