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May 25, 2009

Comments

I try to remind myself of what it means that people who serve in the military are willing to fight and die when our civilian leaders ask them to, whether they agree with those leaders or not. That's a stunning act of faith in American democracy

On the contrary, that is a stunning act of participation in American fascism. Killing people with whom you have no fundamental argument just because your "superiors" directed you to do so is not a democratic act.

Do I have to say that a lot of people enlist in the military because they want to serve their country on Memorial Day? Sheesh.

Your "superiors", in this case, answer to the civilian population, now_what. This isn't Sparta.

How is invading other countries in wars of choice serving your country? It's a moral crime.

It's destroying your country, not serving it. Why must we pretend that those who are destroying our country are serving it?

"Your "superiors", in this case, answer to the civilian population, now_what. This isn't Sparta."

"people who serve in the military are willing to fight and die when our civilian leaders ask them to, whether they agree with those leaders or not. That's a stunning act of faith in American democracy."

We all know of plenty of cases where the US has democratically chosen to engage in unjust wars, so I'm unclear as to whether this stunning faith is a good idea. Also, it's not just a willingness to "fight and die"--it's a willingness to "fight and maybe die, but certainly to kill, including some, inevitably, who are innocent".

Soldiers who refuse to participate in what they see as an unjust war risk prison--I think this should be changed to allow for conscientious objection on a war-by-war basis. It'd be a real handicap for a President itching to fight in country X if he had to deal with a military full of people asking themselves "Am I willing to kill in this war?" , but I could live with that. I doubt there'd be a problem of pacifist revolt in the ranks in cases where the US was attacked, and probably not in cases where a genocide was in progress and we could stop it without creating even greater havoc (supposing that we ever really did engage in a military intervention for that reason).

I agree with hilzoy's point that it's up to us to make sure our civilian leaders are worthy to make judgments about when to go to war, but I wouldn't separate this out from our obligations to those foreigners that we might end up bombing just because it's Memorial Day, until we have a Memorial Day for all the people we've killed in unjust wars.

And, btw, it appears that the technical difficulties that kept me from posting have vanished.

The war veteran to whose grave I bring flowers and a flag on Memorial Day is my late father. The grave is in Massachusetts. The flag is Greek.

My father was stationed on the Yugoslav border in April 1941, when the Germans invaded his homeland. He was a conscript, drafted in peacetime and "stop-lossed" when the Italians had invaded from Albania in October 1940. Many of his friends and relatives were killed or wounded on those fronts; he barely survived, spent two hungry, hunted years in the Resistance, and finally made it home to Crete.

Now, Greeks invented the word "patriot". You'd think they would make a bigger fuss of their dead warriors than anybody. If it was not a Greek poet who originally asked

For how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods,

it is nevertheless a sentiment that was inculcated in every Greek schoolboy of my vintage. And yet Greece does not have a holiday equivalent to Memorial Day. I do not remember, as a kid, a holiday dedicated to the fallen heroes of modern-day Greece. Or even a Veteran's Day equivalent, come to think of it. I find that interesting.

Anyway, my father eventually emmigrated to the US and made me an American. Not exactly an American by choice, since I was 9 at the time, but close enough. I have taken to American ways, including planting a flag at his grave on the last Monday in May. It is a Greek flag (made in China, for the American Flag Company; go figure) which may seem incongruent with the archipelago of Stars and Stripes around it. And yet it seems the right thing to do. The country my father fought to defend -- actually defend -- was Greece. It would seem false, somehow, to commemorate his war service with the American flag; it would seem equally false to ignore his war service altogether.

He would probably consider the whole flag thing a silly affectation, of course. As I said, Greeks don't have a holiday dedicated to their fallen patriots. But what can I do? I'm an American. My father was a patriot. I bring flowers and a flag to his grave, every Memorial Day.

--TP

I'm inclined to see things they way Donald Johnson does.

There are many, mnay people who fought and died to defend this country. But thhere are many more who fought and died to defend foreighn policy mistakes or outright malfeasence.

People join the military for all kinds of reasons. back in the Civil War Irishmen signed up so that they could immigrate. My dad signed up on his birthday to fight in World War Two. My cousin, pumped full of jingoistic nonsense from his father, signed up to go to Viet nam and never forgave his father for it. Andy had his reasons, which I respecgted, for going to Iraq.

I suppose that everyone is doing the best they can.

TP, I don't agree with you on most of your posts. Buy, I assure you, you did the right thing. I'm sure your father would be proud. You have certainly earned a level of respect from me.

We all know of plenty of cases where the US has democratically chosen to engage in unjust wars, so I'm unclear as to whether this stunning faith is a good idea.

The alternative is for the military to be the ultimate boss of what the military does. I trust I don't have to explain what a bad idea that is.

Tony, I too think you did the right thing.

This post - and Wonkie's comment - made me think of Andy, who was on my mind for other reasons recently.

I agree with Donald Johnson more than Hilzoy, but I appreciate the chance to remember that Andy chose to go, knowing that going might mean dying.

"Greeks don't have a holiday dedicated to their fallen patriots"

TP: But you do have Oxi Day! Which your father was a part of it seems. Thanks for the story.


"The alternative is for the military to be the ultimate boss of what the military does. I trust I don't have to explain what a bad idea that is."

Well, no, there are other alternatives, including what I proposed--that we broaden the idea of conscientious objector status so that each and every individual in the military can decide whether he or she is willing to kill in a given war. This doesn't mean that the military as an institution has any say, nor do individual soldiers or the military as a whole get to declare war whenever they want. They also don't get to stage coups. We just don't force soldiers to fight in wars which they believe are criminal. Why should soldiers be forced to kill and die because of the immorality of the American voter?

On the contrary, that is a stunning act of participation in American fascism. Killing people with whom you have no fundamental argument just because your "superiors" directed you to do so is not a democratic act.

I can see why you might think this was unethical but I can't see why it is fascistic or anti-democratic in any sense. Can you explain?


The alternative is for the military to be the ultimate boss of what the military does. I trust I don't have to explain what a bad idea that is.

To some extent, that alternative has been realized. See here for example. Or consider how odd it was that senior military leaders didn't mention the Powell doctrine in public during Bush's Presidency nearly as much as they had during Clinton's Presidency.

People do things for all kinds of reasons. Regardless, anyone doing military service has given up a chunk of their lives and quite often put themselves in harms way.

Memorial Day is a day to recognize that and say thanks. That's all.

"On the contrary, that is a stunning act of participation in American fascism"

If that's your view, you will do well to get up off of your @ss and do something about it.

Donald Johnson: it's up to us to make sure our civilian leaders are worthy to make judgments about when to go to war, but I wouldn't separate this out from our obligations to those foreigners that we might end up bombing just because it's Memorial Day, until we have a Memorial Day for all the people we've killed in unjust wars.

Thank you.

Fuck you very much, now_what. My brother is serving in Afghanistan right now, and he didn't sign up because he's a fascist or a killer. You don't know shit about the military or the people who serve in it.

I know I broke the posting rules, hilzoy, so you can ban me if you want. But I just couldn't let that comment pass.

I can see why you might think this was unethical but I can't see why it is fascistic or anti-democratic in any sense.

If soldiers go to war, because they think it's a justified war - fair enough. But if they go to war solely out of a sense of duty or because they trust their superiors to make the right decisions, then that is indeed anti-democratic. Democracy is built on the idea that the citizens are the sovereign, so they need to be able to make up their own minds and justify their actions. And soldiers are citizens first, soldiers second. Once you start arguing that a sense of duty trumps all other ethical obligations, you're treading into dangerous waters.

that people who serve in the military are willing to fight and die when our civilian leaders ask them to

Since it appears that your civilian leaders won't be held accountable for even the most horrible misuse of this privilege, is it really a good idea to continue to glorify this one-sided suicide pact?

"There are many, mnay people who fought and died to defend this country. But thhere are many more who fought and died to defend foreighn policy mistakes or outright malfeasence."

I'd like your pointer to what statistics you have to factually back that claim, please.

Here is mine to contradict it in a huge way.

I'll divide our war casualties into three categories: the wars I think were pretty well justified in fighting for as justifiable defense of your countries, those I think pretty well were not, and those that are debatable. I'll leave out the conflicts whose numbers are too small to affect the overall result, even all put together, which is to say, those with fewer than 5,000 casualties. "Casualties" here includes dead and wounded.

Justifiable:
World War II: 1,076,245 U.S. casualties.
Civil War, Union side: 646,392.
American Revolution: 50,000.

Debatable:
Korean War: 128,650.
World War I: 320,518

Not justified:
Vietnam: 211,454
Iraq War: 50,432
Mexican-American War: 17,435
War of 1812: ~25,000
Phillipine-American War: 7,126
Civil War, Confederate side: ~328,000

All the other military actions of the U.S., covert and overt, from the Revolution through today, brought under 10,000 U.s. casualties, total. Dead and wounded alike.

The U.S. has fought a number of other unjustified military actions, but the number of U.S. casualties from them range from very small to absolutely tiny.

I'd like to know, therefore, wonkie, if you count WWII as an unjustified war, or where you get your figures from. Thanks muchly.

(Personally, I find the Korean War, fought by the U.N. versus North Korea and China, pretty defensible, but there are fair arguments against. I also find the U.S. choice to fight in WWI very defensible, but, again, there are fair arguments in the other direction, which is why I'm not including either war in the justified column.)

"But if they go to war solely out of a sense of duty or because they trust their superiors to make the right decisions, then that is indeed anti-democratic."

"Democratic" is not synonymous with "right," whether morally or otherwise, and "undemocratic" or "anti-democratic" is not synonymous with "wrong, whether morally or otherwise.

That a democracy has a military that isn't run internally as a democracy doesn't make the democracy any less of a democracy, and doesn't make the military that serves the democracy anti-democratic. (Let alone fascistic or inherently immoral.)

Wars are right or wrong because of their inherent justice or injustice: not because the soldiers volunteer, and not because the soldiers enlist in a military that isn't an internal demoracy.

If our wars are embarked upon democratically, and they're unjust wars, the fault lies with the people: not with the soldiers who enlist to serve and protect the people.

I'll also voice the opinion that there are 364 other days in the year it's possible and suitable to debate the nature of the military in a democracy, and whether our country is wonderful or fascistic or something in between, or any other related topic, but Memorial Day is the one day in the U.S. calender dedicated to honoring the memory of the individuals who have died in the cause of their country, right or wrong.

It seems to me suitable, and respectful, to set aside the arguments about related topics on and about that one day, and threads posted on and about that day, to remember and respect the individuals, the fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, cousins, niece, nephews, uncles and aunts, and friends, who have died, without getting into a political argument.

It may help to have actual individual relatives or friends in mind to bring that sober thought to mind. But either way, do we have to have these arguments in a Memorial Day thread? Aren't there enough other threads to have these arguments in?

"It seems to me suitable, and respectful, to set aside the arguments about related topics on and about that one day, and threads posted on and about that day, to remember and respect the individuals, the fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, cousins, niece, nephews, uncles and aunts, and friends, who have died, without getting into a political argument"

I wondered if omeone would bring that up. I think hilzoy's original post had some political content and I objected to it. I also have mixed feelings about setting aside one day of the year to mourn the American dead in American wars and not say anything about the others. It's possible to set aside politics when talking about the death of one particular person (and when that person specifically requested it, then one should honor his wishes. But I think it's hard to talk about what Memorial Day means without getting into politics. Not impossible, if one sees it strictly as a day for mourning the dead, but if you go past that, then it's politics.

"...and not say anything about the others."

I think a day to consider those whom Americans have killed in war would be a thoughtful thing that I would support. (I write "consider," and not "consider and mourn" because, frankly, I'd have to go war-by-war/person-by-person on that, too; I'm not going to mourn the deaths of members of the SS, or of Nathan Bedford Forrest, I'm afraid.)

I don't expect such a day to ever become a holidy, and I'm not going to hold my breath waiting even for just a congressional declaration of such a day, similar to, say, National Pi Day, but the latter isn't out of the question, and I'd fully support it.

"Contemplate" would be a better word than "consider."

This being America, you can certainly feel differently. But I think there are a handful of days on the calendar, maybe less, where making the dates political may only serve against whatever point you make or belief you hold. I don't see the point insulting Christmas on Christmas -- or Memorial Day on Memorial Day, if only out of deference to our war dead, or to folks and families like ThirdGorchBro.

When I got up Sunday to fetch the fat newspaper in the driveway, I glanced over to Mr. Bill's nextdoor, saw the Stars and Stripes shining in the sun and something inside me felt good (and guilty in that I never get around to buying one of those flag kits for our home). A product of the so-called Greatest Generation, Mr. Bill always puts the flag out on such holidays. Mr. Bill is dependable like that.

We didn't go to it this year, but in years past have been to our town's Memorial Day parade. It's always cool to see the veterans -- some of them very old -- from WWII or Korea or Vietnam, dressed up and proud.

Late Saturday night I happened upon the History Channel and Band of Brothers, based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, and aired originally on HBO. Having seen all 10 parts, I caught the last three of the marathon viewing before falling asleep in the wee hours. It is a masterpiece, moving and ruminating and violent. I am struck upon each viewing of the World War II epic at how young the soldiers are, how some barely even look like they can shave. They fight, they die, they live lives cut far too short one thing, all wars have in common.

P.S. I was touched by your story, Tony P. Also: Very well stated, Gary, at 5:52 p.m.

If our wars are embarked upon democratically, and they're unjust wars, the fault lies with the people: not with the soldiers who enlist to serve and protect the people.

What happens when the people repeatedly embark upon unjust wars and soldiers join knowing that? Is there any point at which we decide that prospective soldiers had no basis to believe that their civilian leaders will use them to only prosecute just wars?

Is there any point at which we say "you know, the existence of Vietnam and Iraq suggest that the American people like to kill millions of foreigners for no good reason and are liable to do that again" and once we do, does that have any implications for the ethics of military service? Or is an enlistment contract some sort of magic pixie dust that absolves the signer of all ethical responsibilities whatsoever?

"I'll also voice the opinion that there are 364 other days in the year it's possible and suitable to debate the nature of the military in a democracy, and whether our country is wonderful or fascistic or something in between, or any other related topic, but Memorial Day is the one day in the U.S. calender dedicated to honoring the memory of the individuals who have died in the cause of their country, right or wrong."

Here's another rare moment of my 100% total agreement with Gary for all to savor. Enjoy!

And: thanks, Gary. You said well what I couldn't even make a start on saying badly.

The number of soldiers signing up goes up in a recession. Those people are manifestly *not* signing up out of patriotic duty or a desire to risk their lives for the love of their country but because they don't have any other choice.

I wish people would realize that there are a lot more reasons for joining the military than just patriotism, and that every soldier is not a shining example of All-American goodness and humanity.

Gary: any stats for the number of foreigners that Americans have killed? I don't suppose the 500,000 excess deaths in Iraq alone get their own memorial day...? Thought not.

I'll also voice the opinion that there are 364 other days in the year it's possible and suitable to debate the nature of the military in a democracy, and whether our country is wonderful or fascistic or something in between, or any other related topic, but Memorial Day is the one day in the U.S. calender dedicated to honoring the memory of the individuals who have died in the cause of their country, right or wrong.

OK. Can you tell me which of those 364 other days have we dedicated to honoring the memory of the one million Iraqis whose deaths we brought about? Of course, they don't get a day. In fact, we've decided to systematically erase them from our consciousness. In the interests of trying to prevent our country from killing another million brown people in the future for no reason, I think I'll exercise the option to discuss the politics of war and military service. I don't see how that discussion in way dishonors those who have served. And a lot of people will be most receptive to these discussions after contemplating our fallen heroes.

" But I think there are a handful of days on the calendar, maybe less, where making the dates political may only serve against whatever point you make or belief you hold. I don't see the point insulting Christmas on Christmas -- or Memorial Day on Memorial Day, if only out of deference to our war dead, or to folks and families like ThirdGorchBro."

I think Memorial Day is political in some ways. We aren't just mourning the dead--if that's all that was going on I would keep my mouth shut, except to praise those individuals I happen to know who fought in a good war for good reasons (like my father, for instance). But I think Memorial Day talk (and hilzoy's post is a good example) usually contains a view of America and the military and wars that I don't entirely agree with and you hear it in politician's speeches (which, not surprisingly, are acutely political) and in the way mainstream America has decided to talk about the military. Or that's my opinion. I'm aware and uncomfortable with the fact that some people see discussions of this sort as disrespectful towards the dead.

If our wars are embarked upon democratically, and they're unjust wars, the fault lies with the people: not with the soldiers who enlist to serve and protect the people.

Your dichotomy between "people" and "soldiers" doesn't make any sense - soldiers are people, citizens, moral beings first and foremost. And exactly how did the Iraq war "protect the people"? And if it didn't, but rather was an unjustified war of aggression resulting in countless deaths, how can you justify taking part in it? Hint: duty and obedience alone won't cut it.

I find it darkly amusing that someone would consider both the colonists in the American Revolution and the Union in the Civil War to be justified in their actions.

World War II was a war of choice, also.

3GB: "you can ban me if you want."

Oddly, I don't. (Besides, I'd only warn you, this being the first offense, and quite uncharacteristic.)

Clean up on aisles 8:51 and 8:55.

Oh and while I've only skimmed the thread, I can only hope that now_what is being sincere, rather than deliberately obtuse and offensive. While I understand the posting rules, I would like to applaud ThirdGorchBro's 2:50; any commenter who will simply toss the statement off that "World War II was a war of choice, also" with no further explanation is deserving of no less. After all, I can hope that the statement is intended to convey that all wars are wars of choice, and sometimes it's a darn good choice, but given now_what's theme in the thread I feel no confidence that such a meaning was intended.

"I wish people would realize that there are a lot more reasons for joining the military than just patriotism, and that every soldier is not a shining example of All-American goodness and humanity."

Well, who would ever have those thoughts if you weren't here to condescend to voice them? I, for one, find them novel, and now that I've you've made me aware of those ideas, my entire worldview is in upheaval.

Alternatively, did you ever consider that you were addressing people above the age of 14, and that we might actually have encountered and contemplated such ideas before now?

Thought not.

"In fact, we've decided to systematically erase them from our consciousness."

Speak for yourself.

"In the interests of trying to prevent our country from killing another million brown people in the future for no reason, I think I'll exercise the option to discuss the politics of war and military service."

Yes, you're so repressed from engaging in such discussions in other threads. We see every day how you're stifled here. How very brave of you to stand up against the oppressive pro-unjust war, and pro-Iraq War, conformity at ObWi.

"Your dichotomy between 'people' and 'soldiers' doesn't make any sense - soldiers are people, citizens, moral beings first and foremost."

The soldiers neither voted our government into office nor made the decision to fight a given war. I'd have thought this was entirely obvious.

"And if it didn't, but rather was an unjustified war of aggression resulting in countless deaths, how can you justify taking part in it?"

Justifying serving in the military isn't the same as justifying a war of aggression; lots of folks defend those, not committing war crimes, and not in the SS (or Gestapo) who served in the Wehrmacht and other German military services, and in the German government, and in German industry that supported the War, during WWII, without justifying German aggression. Is it your assertion that all Germans were, in fact, equally guilty of war crimes?

Were all Vietnam vets guilty of war crimes? Is it your contention that everyone who didn't desert, or refuse to serve, were war criminals? How far do your easy generalizations go?

The idea that serving in a military equals and mandates justifying the choices of politicans as to how to engage that military doesn't logically follow, so far as I can see.

If people volunteer for military service in a democracy -- and in a democracy that has only a volunteer military (let's set aside stop-loss programs, which I agree have been abused unjustly), some folks have to so volunteer, unless we're all converting to pacificism, or waiting for everyone to achieve perfect morality -- they're taking the risk -- that's the "act of faith" that Hilzoy mentioned -- that their willingness to serve will be abused, perhaps abused criminally and tragically and horribly -- by the politicians who do make the decisions of war and peace.

But those decisions, I point out for the zillionth time, are not decisions made by soldiers.

As well, there are, according to Wikipedia, 1,454,515 active duty personnel at present in the U.S. military (I don't trust those final three digits, myself), and 848,000 in the Reserves. Naturally, there have been far more than that serving, and being discharged, since the Iraq War began; at least another million, I would think. According to Star">http://www.stripes.com/08/mar08/iraq5/">Star and Stripes, about a eleven hundred thousand have served in Iraq, as of March.

In other words, the majority of the U.S. military has never been to the place. I'm not clear therefore, why a decision, post-Iraq War, to enlist in the U.S. military, equates to a decision to serve in Iraq, since it turns out it factually does not.

Nor do I agree with the idea that taking the risk that one will serve in Iraq means that one supports the war in Iraq, let alone everything done in it. I just don't see how that follows, and I don't observe it factually to be the case as regards many of the military personnel I've spoken to.

But most of all, as I said, the responsibility for the decision to go to war rests with the politicians, and the people who chose them: you seem to have some strange idea of collective responsbility that extends to military personnel as a homogenous set of people, but conveniently just forget entirely about such an idea as regards the actual political leadership that is responsible, or the citizenry that have to ultimately take responsibility for that leadership. (Setting aside arguments about the difficulties inherent in our current political system of true representation being achieved.)

Serving in a military that politicians put into an unjust war doesn't make the soldiers responsible for that war, nor does it make them all war criminals, as you seem to believe.

Bottom line: assert as you wish that a decision to serve in the military is identical to a choice to engage in "an unjustified war of aggression resulting in countless deaths," I'm going to assert -- with equal subjectivity, that it isn't.

"Oh and while I've only skimmed the thread, I can only hope that now_what is being sincere, rather than deliberately obtuse and offensive."

It's my observation that now_what is consistently sincerely and deliberately obtuse and offensive on a range of topics.

In other words: a troll. But, in the immortal words of Woody Allen: I'm a bigot, I know, but for the left.

Some folks have to so volunteer, unless we're all converting to pacificism, or waiting for everyone to achieve perfect morality -- they're taking the risk

Sure, but some folks will volunteer no matter what. The point is that if many people decide not to reenlist (or enlist in the first place), we're not going to end up with zero military: we'll just end up with 200,000 instead of 2,000,000 people in the service. That's more than enough to defend this country but probably not enough to engage in pointless military adventurism abroad.

-- that's the "act of faith" that Hilzoy mentioned -- that their willingness to serve will be abused, perhaps abused criminally and tragically and horribly

Look, you can talk about an act of faith, but at some point it just becomes patronizing. We look down on people who make an "act of faith" to work for the mafia -- after all, you never know, maybe this mafia organization will stop engaging in criminal activities and become a legitimate business. Anything is possible! It is merely an act of faith! Of course, merely invoking "faith" is not sufficient to eliminate the ethical obligations based on statistical inference. When your faith gets abused again and again and again, one has to ask: shouldn't you expect it to be abused again?

by the politicians who do make the decisions of war and peace.

Politicians decide to make war and peace, but individuals decide to enlist. One cannot blame a soldier for a politician's decision to make war, but one can hold them accountable for deciding to enlist in an organization that they know (or should have known) to be used in unjust wars.

In other words, the majority of the U.S. military has never been to the place. I'm not clear therefore, why a decision, post-Iraq War, to enlist in the U.S. military, equates to a decision to serve in Iraq, since it turns out it factually does not.

Gary, what point are you trying to make by talking about what a majority of US soldiers have done? Who specifically are you addressing?

Nor do I agree with the idea that taking the risk that one will serve in Iraq means that one supports the war in Iraq, let alone everything done in it. I just don't see how that follows, and I don't observe it factually to be the case as regards many of the military personnel I've spoken to.

Look, when an organization brings about the deaths of a million people for no reason, I think a reasonable person might say to themselves "I don't want to work for these people because there is a chance that they might ask me to do something morally horrible". I'm sure that accountants working for the mob have practically zero chance of being asked to kill people, but it still a questionable thing to do.

"Sure, but some folks will volunteer no matter what. The point is that if many people decide not to reenlist (or enlist in the first place), we're not going to end up with zero military: we'll just end up with 200,000 instead of 2,000,000 people in the service. That's more than enough to defend this country but probably not enough to engage in pointless military adventurism abroad."

I'm not clear how this is a useful argument when expressed to a given individual: if you're trying to persuade any given number of individuals not to enlist -- which is what I make your argument out as doing, please correct me if I'm misunderstanding -- I don't see how you can logically argue that everyone you speak to shouldn't enlist because some other bunch of people will do the necessary job in any case. If you're arguing that no one should enlist, I at least recognize that as a coherent pacifist position. But you don't seem to be making that argument, either. So I'm rather confused what your argument is, I'm afraid.

(And this comment will likely be my last word of serious discussion tonight, as I have to be up early, and just took an early Ambien, and that'll only make my head turn all muddy, and send my typing to hell.)

Or are you only addressing some select subgroup of people eligible to enlist in military service, and if so, which subgroup would that be?

"We look down on people who make an 'act of faith' to work for the mafia -- after all, you never know, maybe this mafia organization will stop engaging in criminal activities and become a legitimate business."

This is a reasonable argument if you take the armed forces to be the moral equivalent of the mafia, which I take it you do. (Again, please correct me if I misunderstand you.) I don't share that position.

"One cannot blame a soldier for a politician's decision to make war, but one can hold them accountable for deciding to enlist in an organization that they know (or should have known) to be used in unjust wars."

You seem to believe that the majority of things someone serving in the U.S. military does is be used to commit war crimes in an unjust war. I do not share this view.

"Gary, what point are you trying to make by talking about what a majority of US soldiers have done? Who specifically are you addressing?"

I was responding to novakan'ts 08:12 PM: "And if it didn't, but rather was an unjustified war of aggression resulting in countless deaths, how can you justify taking part in it?"

"I'm sure that accountants working for the mob have practically zero chance of being asked to kill people, but it still a questionable thing to do."

I'm sure that people who believe that the U.S. military is the moral equivalent of the mafia will agree with you.

I'm not clear how this is a useful argument when expressed to a given individual: if you're trying to persuade any given number of individuals not to enlist -- which is what I make your argument out as doing, please correct me if I'm misunderstanding -- I don't see how you can logically argue that everyone you speak to shouldn't enlist because some other bunch of people will do the necessary job in any case. If you're arguing that no one should enlist, I at least recognize that as a coherent pacifist position. But you don't seem to be making that argument, either. So I'm rather confused what your argument is, I'm afraid.

See my explanation below. Some force size is ethically OK; a larger force is problematic because it enables the US government to do evil. Until the force is reduces to that OK level, joining is problematic.

For the record, when I've spoken with people considering enlisting in the past, I usually start with the argument that this country doesn't give a frack about its veterans; it will happily mangle you in a war and then virtually abandon you when you return home and if you don't believe me, go read some history. People are welcome to ignore that history if they want to make an "act of faith", but they shouldn't be surprised when their country fails them upon their return. Just like a spouse shouldn't be surprised when her philandering husband cheats on her yet again -- despite how wrong cheating is and despite his marriage vows.

This is a reasonable argument if you take the armed forces to be the moral equivalent of the mafia, which I take it you do. (Again, please correct me if I misunderstand you.) I don't share that position.

That's not my position. As you know, the armed forces do not decide to go to war. But their bosses do. So I'd say that choosing to work for the military forces of the American government in 2009 is kind of like choosing to work for the mafia. I mean, how many more pointless wars does the government have to engage in before we say that the US can't be trusted? How many millions of people does the US government have to kill using its military before we say that joining the military is problematic? Really, can you specify a number?

You seem to believe that the majority of things someone serving in the U.S. military does is be used to commit war crimes in an unjust war. I do not share this view.

I never said this; I don't know where you're getting that from. Here's what I believe; let me know which specific parts you disagree with:

(1) Based on recent history, there is a reasonable probability that the US government will employ the US military to kill lots of innocent people in a pointless war.

(2) Joining in an organization which you believe may compel you to engage in immoral or illegal acts is ethically...problematic. Even if there is only a 10% chance that your membership in the organization will force you to, say, kill lots of innocent people, you should not join.

(3) Totally apart from the question of what specific action you might do as an individual after joining an organization that will likely be tasked with significant immoral or illegal actions, every additional enlistee above some critical threshold level enables the US government to start pointless wars and kill lots of people. Maybe that critical threshold is 200,000 or maybe it is 20,000, but you cannot secure a large territory without a certain number of soldiers no matter how sophisticated your technology is. Any individual soldier can say "as a mere pebble, I'm not responsible for the avalanche" but that doesn't change the fact that if enough pebbles decide differently, the avalanche never happens. This is a collective action problem, but I don't see why that absolves individuals of responsibility.

I was responding to novakan'ts 08:12 PM: "And if it didn't, but rather was an unjustified war of aggression resulting in countless deaths, how can you justify taking part in it?"

Thanks for explaining but I don't see why that majority argument is relevent to novakent's point. I mean, any individual drunk driver has a good chance of not killing anyone; but putting yourself in a position where you're likely to drive drunk is still unethical, right?

"I mean, any individual drunk driver has a good chance of not killing anyone; but putting yourself in a position where you're likely to drive drunk is still unethical, right?"

Probably equating soldiers in general to drunk drivers is not your most persuasive move, nor is it apt. I suggest that you try subtracting "drunk" from your statement above, and examine how that changes things.

Just a suggestion.

It seems to me that in the back and forth over the ethics of military service and debate over just and unjust wars we are losing sight of something which relates to hilzoy's top level post.

Democracy is more than just having elections. Lots of regimes have elections. Even distinctly authoritarian regimes have in the past called and carried out elections which (under circumstances of their choosing and when perceived to be politically advantageous to them) have been reasonably free and fair. Napoleon III's France comes to mind, to take just one example.

Nor is democracy the same as one person = one vote. By that standard historic democracies in the US and elsewhere have for most of their history fallen miserably short, disenfranchising various subsets of their populations by gender, by race, by propertied status, and so on.

There is something else which makes a democracy work, beyond just the mechanics of voting and elections. And it seems to me that the essence of that is that when the election is over and the votes have (more or less) been counted, there is a basic commitment from all sides that the losers will lose gracefully and the winners will win gracefully. That is what makes possible a peaceful transfer of power

Now this commitment to honor the results of an election is an asymmetric one – the losers are potentially putting their necks on the line by yielding up power to the winners, which is why the spirit of a democracy is only as strong as the willingness of the losers to abide by the results. Doing so requires a system of values such that the integrity of the process is more important, is weighed as being of greater value, than the outcome. Whatever policy changes may occur, whatever personal benefits may accrue, whatever consequences may flow from a change in leadership, all these things have to be seen as less important than the fact that we are still allowing the election to determine the outcome. And that holds in broad terms even if the details themselves are, as is often the case, messy.

In broad terms, a democracy is a polity where there is shared consensus to value process over results. Where that consensus is missing or damaged, anticipated potential outcomes which are unacceptable to one side or the other justify attacks on the process, and soon we aren’t a democracy anymore, instead some other political process generally involving more overt uses of force and violence, takes hold (see the US in 1861, or Spain in the 1930’s for examples of this).


What does any of this have to do with those who serve in the military?

They have more to lose, more directly and personally, if our political process produces a bad outcome. It can be a matter of life or death for them, and not just fatalistically (as is the case for civilians whose lives can be turned upside down by bad leadership and poor policy choices), but as a direct result of their having chosen to put themselves in harm’s way for their country’s sake. In the scales whereby their private investment in political outcomes and their public commitment to abide by the process whereby those outcomes are determined, one side is more heavily weighted, than is the case for those who have less at stake.

In that sense, they are more heavily invested in the spirit of democracy, which is to value the process over the results. And it seems to me that this is the case even if (as is quite commonly the view of many here in discussing questions of policy) you think the results are, in the final judgment, bad ones.

As ancient Athens went, down the road of empire, so go we. It doesn't make us any less a democracy that we sometimes freely chose actions that are wicked or foolish. For those who have more at stake than others and yet remain committed to the process whereby we collectively make these decisions (come what may), I feel a sense of admiration and gratitude for the fact that they do so, and I read hilzoy's top level post in that sense.

My father, stepfather, and father in law all served in WWII. My brother in law served during Vietnam.

My old man joined the Navy because the handwriting was on the wall and he thought he'd do better joining up than being drafted into the infantry. He was probably right, his brother was Army and was killed. My father spent his war below decks on supply ships as a machinist's mate. Not very dramatic.

My stepfather joined the Army before WWII began because he could get three hots and a cot, and they wanted him because he could operate heavy equipment. They gave him a tank and told him to figure out how to drive it. He did so and was immediately promoted to sergeant. He was captured early in the war in North Africa and spent most of his war in a prison camp.

My father in law joined up because that's what guys did then. There was a war on. He spent WWII tramping around the Philippines, which sucked. He didn't kill anyone, and nobody in his company was killed, which were his two favorite things about his war.

My brother in law did his Vietnam-era tour driving trucks around Germany. He drank a lot of good beer.

All of these guys, along with many other of my friends and family, put aside their own lives for some number of years and served the nation. It's actually a good thing that people will do that.

They didn't make policy, didn't decide what wars to engage in, they just stepped up when required to do so.

So, I say thanks to them for that.

Actually it is quite useful to compare the US military to the US mafia from a consequentialist point of view: let's take the past 50 years and consider how many innocent people either organization has killed. The fact that our democratically legitimized military comes out really bad in a comparison with a bunch of amoral, greedy criminals might lead us to rethink our appreciation for this institution.

Can you tell me which of those 364 other days have we dedicated to honoring the memory of the one million Iraqis whose deaths we brought about?

Can you make a list for me of all the countries who have holidays dedicated to the people of other countries whom they have killed in wars? It shouldn't take long. Thanks in advance.

Can you make a list for me of all the countries who have holidays dedicated to the people of other countries whom they have killed in wars? It shouldn't take long. Thanks in advance.

I have no idea why you need such a list, but I'll give you a start: January 27 in Germany - Gedenktag für die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus (Commemoration Day for the Victims of National Socialism).

I want to apologize for my angry words yesterday. One of my personal buttons got pushed, but that's no excuse.

To clarify, let me just say that I strongly disagree with those commenters who think American soldiers should be held collectively responsible for the sins (real and imagined) of this country's wars. Individual soldiers who commit individual war crimes should be held responsible for what they have done. Their superiors who ordered the criminal acts, or displayed gross negligence by looking the other way, should be held responsible for their own actions or inaction. Political officials who set policy that constitutes a war crime should be held responsible for their actions. But collective guilt? I thought good liberals like you all didn't hold with such concepts.

Additionally, I'd like to ask all the people who are saying that soldiers should be allowed to (or perhaps obligated to) "opt out" of any war they feel is unethical: do you support the right of pharmacists, for example, to opt out of providing medicines (like birth control or the morning after pill) they believe are unethical? I don't. I believe that people should do the job they are being paid to do.

let's take the past 50 years and consider how many innocent people either organization has killed

Hey, let's take the last 50 years of traffic fatalities, too, while we're comparing unlike things. In round figures: 2 million plus. I blame big oil, or big auto, or even the US government for underwriting the US highway system that made this all possible.

Slarti - sure, they all seem pretty complicit in the lax vehicle safety standards in the US. Also, you could at least try and pick a third comparison that involves an organization that basically employs people to kill other people for money.

If the US military is a pay-for-killing organization, it needs to do a bit better training. There's no reason why they can't be killing a LOT more people for just about the same basic cost.

Maybe we should employ some efficiency experts.

Come to think of it, the Mafia might do a bit better job killing people, too. That might tend to be bad for business, though, if they just killed everyone.

Maybe there's a faulty assumption in there, somewhere.

"do you support the right of pharmacists, for example, to opt out of providing medicines (like birth control or the morning after pill) they believe are unethical? I don't. I believe that people should do the job they are being paid to do."

I haven't given that much thought. Coming back to my issue, if someone thought invading Iraq was a war crime, then I think they should be allowed not to participate rather than face jail. It really doesn't seem like that much to ask. As I understand it, we already allow for people becoming conscientious objectors and refusing to participate in any war, but this discriminates against people who might think some American wars were just and others were war crimes.

As for "collective guilt", I don't think the rank and file of any army engaged in an unjust war should be tried for war crimes. Nobody thinks that (except maybe Stalin and he had peculiar ideas about punishment in general). But again, an individual soldier who thinks that the invasion of Iraq was a criminal act should not be forced to participate or thrown in jail if he doesn't. Now maybe he can't stay in the military either--fine. He (or she) gets an honorable discharge.

Health care providers who think birth control is immoral probably can't work in a place where that is part of the job. They probably won't be jailed if they decide to quit because they oppose abortion and/or birth control.

"I don't think the rank and file of any army engaged in an unjust war should be tried for war crimes. "

Poorly phrased, as usual. I mean the rank and file who participate in the invasion, but don't commit war crimes in the narrow sense (murder of civilians, torture, etc...) . Of course, killing enemy soldiers in an unjust war is bad also, but nobody is prosecuted for that. Though currently in the US we might be heading in that direction (where anyone we capture seems to be a terrorist by definition).

Hey, let's take the last 50 years of traffic fatalities, too, while we're comparing unlike things.

You can stop wars of choice tomorrow, nobody needs them, few want them. Stopping car traffic would take a while, because we need people and stuff to get from a to b. But hey, I'm all for increasing the budget for public transport - maybe the military could help out with a few gazillions.

"I thought good liberals like you all didn't hold with such concepts."

I'm not under the impression that novakant, Turbulence, or now_what identify as "liberals" at all. This is one of those many differences between a leftist and a liberal, and why leftists tend to have contempt for liberals.

Probably equating soldiers in general to drunk drivers is not your most persuasive move, nor is it apt. I suggest that you try subtracting "drunk" from your statement above, and examine how that changes things.

It may not be but can you explain what the actual problem here is? I thought it was obvious that I was not simply claiming that drunk driving is exactly equivalent to enlisting in the armed forces in all cases. My point was only that we don't usually let the probabilistic nature of serious negative consequences deflect ethical responsibility for an action. And so talk about how the majority of the armed forces have never been in Iraq misses the point: an enlistee has a reasonably high probability of participating in an illegal war or unethical war. Note that you don't have to be in Iraq to perform vitally important functions relating to the war effort there. Drone pilots in Nevada or logistics experts in Tampa are pretty damn important.

Just to be clear: the US military doesn't decide to invade foreign countries. It follows the orders of its civilian leadership. But the civilian leadership has been pretty consistent for the last few decades: it repeatedly starts pointless wars that kill hundreds of thousands of people. And there's no indication that it is going to stop that behavior anytime soon.


Political officials who set policy that constitutes a war crime should be held responsible for their actions. But collective guilt? I thought good liberals like you all didn't hold with such concepts.

I don't think I'm advocating for collective guilt at all. I just think that the decision to enlist necessarily supports the US government's ongoing and future pointless wars that kill lots of people. I'm not angry at soldiers for following orders once they're in the service; I just think that to the extent that a reasonable person has a good faith basis to believe that US government is likely to start pointless wars and kill innocent people, enabling that specific government capability is ethically problematic.

There is no question in my mind that the US has, both quite recently and historically, engaged in unjustified wars and wars of aggression. Criminal acts, some of them, IMVHO.

If you are in the armed services, you may choose to refuse to participate. In the end, no-one can really make you pick up your gun and fight. That refusal will earn you quite severe punishment. Depending on circumstances, "severe punishment" may include death.

If you're not in the armed forces, there are about 10,000 things you can do to prevent, resist, and help bring about the end of unjustified acts of war. Unless what you choose to do is an act of illegal civil disobedience, you will likely be punished not at all. Even if what you do *is* an illegal act of civil disobedience, your punishment will likely be a small fine or a day or two in jail.

It's quite easy to write a blog post condemning people who serve dutifully in military actions that you find wrong. What I'd say is that if that's as far as your outrage has taken you, you have damned little to say to the folks who your own apathy and laziness have sent to fight on your behalf.

If you think it's wrong, get up off your @ss and do something about it, and quit putting the blame on the folks who would hang for doing what you can do quite easily.

Thanks -

If you think it's wrong, get up off your @ss and do something about it, and quit putting the blame on the folks who would hang for doing what you can do quite easily.

I'm sorry, is refusing to enlist now a hanging offense? Is refusing to reenlist a hanging offense?

Look, I've tried to be clear but apparently I'm not communicating well at all: I'm not blaming anyone for following orders. I'm not blaming the US military for invading Iraq because it was never their call to make. The only choice I'm raising ethical concerns over is the decision to (re)enlist. That's it.

I don't the US government is going to stop starting pointless wars because I don't think the American people are going to become any less cowardly. And that means that it will continue to be easy and politically beneficial to act like a global jerk. Having people not (re)enlist is our last best hope for stopping our atrocious behavior.

My comments were not primarily in response to you, Turb.

No, choosing not to re-enlist is not a hanging offense, and many folks have made that choice. And yes, if enough folks did so out of disagreement with our foreign policy, it would likely have an impact on our foreign policy.

Shorter Gary Farber:

"Get off my lawn, hippies!"

Leave me some of your dope, though, please.

Gary, if you get a chance, I'd be interested in any response you care to make to my comment here.

"So I'd say that choosing to work for the military forces of the American government in 2009 is kind of like choosing to work for the mafia."

And I don't agree with that characterization. You're entitled to differ.

"I mean, how many more pointless wars does the government have to engage in before we say that the US can't be trusted?"

I can't give you a number.

"How many millions of people does the US government have to kill using its military before we say that joining the military is problematic? Really, can you specify a number?"

Nope.

"Here's what I believe; let me know which specific parts you disagree with:

(1) Based on recent history, there is a reasonable probability that the US government will employ the US military to kill lots of innocent people in a pointless war."

I'd use the words "reasonable possibility" rather than "reasonable proability." And, again, you're entitled to differ. But that's one of the roots of our differing perspectives.

"Even if there is only a 10% chance that your membership in the organization will force you to, say, kill lots of innocent people, you should not join."

You're entitled to that view.

Gary, I want to thank you for all your comments. I have withheld comment because I thought I would probably go off like TGB did upthread.

For those who think that because of what the military might do, or be ordered to do so, it would be unethical to join or rejoin, then there are any number of jobs that would fall into the same realm. It may not be as blatant as military work but how about working for chemical companies, drug companies, tobacco companies, automobile makers, airplane factories (particularly those who make military planes), and the list could go on and on.

I'd use the words "reasonable possibility" rather than "reasonable proability." And, again, you're entitled to differ. But that's one of the roots of our differing perspectives.

What exactly is the difference here that you're pointing to? Any event has some probability of occurring. Is the issue that you think that we have no good faith basis for believing that the US government will launch a pointless war that kills a few hundred thousand people in the next N years? Or do you think that the future is so unknowable that we cannot possibly consider how likely such an occurrence is?

I can't give you a number.

Really? So if different Presidential administrations repeatedly ordered the military to kill a million people around the world every few years as a sacrifice to Mars and this happened for decades, you still don't think there would be any ethical problem at all with enlisting? Is that right?

You're entitled to that view.

Would you agree that it is ethically problematic to join an organization when you believe that doing so will mean that there is a 99% chance that you will be compelled to kill innocent people?

It may not be as blatant as military work but how about working for chemical companies, drug companies, tobacco companies, automobile makers, airplane factories (particularly those who make military planes), and the list could go on and on.

I apply the same reasoning to other companies, certainly tobacco companies. Most of the drug or chemical or automobile companies that I'm familiar with don't present those issues: can you list any drug or chemical or automobile companies that killed a million people for no reason in the last decade?

Why on earth do you find it so shocking to think that there might be a number of jobs that are perfectly legal but perhaps unethical to take?

"Even if there is only a 10% chance that your membership in the organization will force you to, say, kill lots of innocent people, you should not join."

Gary disagreed with this claim and I'm assuming that there are lots of other people here who disagree with it as well. Could someone distinguish it from the claim that drunk people should not drive cars? I would have thought that "you should not take actions that have a 10% chance of killing innocent people absent extreme circumstances" is so boring a moral claim as to be cliched. So what am I missing here?

Could someone distinguish it from the claim that drunk people should not drive cars?

Or that people should not drive cars. Because people driving cars kill other people, even if they're sober.

"Is the issue that you think that we have no good faith basis for believing that the US government will launch a pointless war that kills a few hundred thousand people in the next N years? "

No. I simply don't think that that's all the U.S. military is apt to end up doing.

"Really? So if different Presidential administrations repeatedly ordered the military to kill a million people around the world every few years as a sacrifice to Mars and this happened for decades, you still don't think there would be any ethical problem at all with enlisting? Is that right?"

No.

"Would you agree that it is ethically problematic to join an organization when you believe that doing so will mean that there is a 99% chance that you will be compelled to kill innocent people?"

Under many circumstances, yes. I don't think that that's the case with enlisting in the U.S. military, however.

"Could someone distinguish it from the claim that drunk people should not drive cars?"

People shouldn't drive drunk, and people shouldn't use their military to engage in unjust wars. This is not an argument for either banning cars nor banning militaries.

It may not be as blatant as military work but how about working for chemical companies, drug companies, tobacco companies, automobile makers, airplane factories (particularly those who make military planes)

It is not as blatant, but I won't invest in (and will not work for) companies that make weapons of war or tobacco products. I lost a parent to cancer from smoking, I don't know that it is that different than losing one to war. Someone decides that telling lies for economic benefit is more important than another's life, and there are plenty of people who need jobs to go along with the plan.

Perhaps we need to take a day out of the year to think about the sacrifices the executives in the tobacco companies made, all that time away from their families, being required to smoke cigarettes or lose their jobs. Quite brave, really.

Some people would have no problem working at a company that sold weapons to both sides in a conflict half way around the world. I do have a problem with it.

As for drug or chemical companies, there are certainly individual ones that I would not work for, or buy products from, or invest in due to their actions but I don't see it as a parallel to your other examples.

Automobile companies I would avoid working for or investing in out of fiscal sanity. Or greed.

I'm not under the impression that novakant, Turbulence, or now_what identify as "liberals" at all

I think things through on my own with the facts and my moral sense. That's the group I identify with.

If you're not in the armed forces, there are about 10,000 things you can do to prevent, resist, and help bring about the end of unjustified acts of war

One of those things is more important than the others. Simpler, too.

"One of those things is more important than the others. Simpler, too."

And WTF have you, personally, done to prevent, resist, or help bring about the end of any war, that puts you in a position to describe any and all participation in the US military as a "stunning display of participation in American fascism"?

Every decision I make in life, from which tooth I should brush first to whether or not to wear a purple shirt, is based on a highly accurate alternatives analysis of how many lives it will ultimately cost over the next millenium. You see, like all humans, I am fully capable of such calculations and fully aware of the importance of such calculations at all times. What else is there but moral decrepitude? I feel so superior, and life is so simple.

No. I simply don't think that that's all the U.S. military is apt to end up doing.

I know! Think of all the schools they're likely to paint too!

I'm not sure what kind of good is sufficient to outweigh the slaughter of a million people. If you'd like to argue that the US government, by starting the Iraq war, has done anywhere near enough good to compensate for bringing about the deaths of a million people, go right ahead, but I think that will be difficult.

People shouldn't drive drunk, and people shouldn't use their military to engage in unjust wars. This is not an argument for either banning cars nor banning militaries.

No one here is talking about banning militaries. All I'm talking about is the ethical consequences of joining a military that takes orders from people who consistently start pointless wars that kill lots of people. I don't think there's any ethical problem with, say, joining the Canadian army or the Swedish army.


Or that people should not drive cars. Because people driving cars kill other people, even if they're sober.

Slarti, I think there's a difference between a choice that has a 10% chance of killing people and one that has a 0.001% chance of killing people. You might argue that both probabilities are non-zero and are thus equivalent, but I don't find that to be a persuasive argument. I note that you still haven't answered my question. If you can't do it or don't want to, that's fine, but don't waste our time with stupid questions that suggest you can't discriminate between 10% and 0.001% because I know you can.

Every decision I make in life, from which tooth I should brush first to whether or not to wear a purple shirt, is based on a highly accurate alternatives analysis of how many lives it will ultimately cost over the next millenium. You see, like all humans, I am fully capable of such calculations and fully aware of the importance of such calculations at all times. What else is there but moral decrepitude? I feel so superior, and life is so simple.

If you have a claim to make, say it directly. Insinuation isn't worth my time. Then again, if your values are so close to d'd'd'dave that you want to imitate his methods, go ahead.

that puts you in a position to describe any and all participation in the US military

Was that what a phrase I used?

I object to this:

that people who serve in the military are willing to fight and die when our civilian leaders ask them to, whether they agree with those leaders or not

Does that describe any and all participation in the US military?

"For those who think that because of what the military might do, or be ordered to do so, it would be unethical to join or rejoin, then there are any number of jobs that would fall into the same realm."

Yes, there are. Tobacco companies are the obvious example--the product has killed tens of millions of people, a few million per year worldwide, I think, and I remember reading some years back that the tobacco companies hoped to hook future generations on their brands in other countries.

The advantage of working in such places is that if you decide one day that your workplace is engaged in some evil action that you shouldn't support, then you can quit without fear of going to jail or being accused of treason. And coercion aside, there's no patriotic fog that obscures one's moral vision, making it seem somehow just and right to listen to one's leaders as they spout transparently stupid justifications for invading a country. But soldiers are in a particularly unpleasant position--they can't legally back out and psychologically I would guess there'd be a strong desire to want to believe that if you are forced to risk your life, it's for a good reason.

What I don't get about some of the reactions I've gotten from my own hobbyhorse in this thread is how anyone could object to allowing individual soldiers to opt out of wars they see as unjust. If you genuinely respect the troops--oh forget that crap, if you respect human beings-- can you reconcile this with forcing a person to engage in a war he or she sees as wrong? Shouldn't soldiers be encouraged at all levels to be thinking about these issues, rather than being told that they are showing faith in democracy when they believe what some jackass in the White House has told them?


I think it was stupid and arrogant of those 60's antiwar protestors to mock or spit on Vietnam vets (to the extent that it happened, and I don't doubt it did in some cases). I suspect that much of the praise given to the military these days (and here I don't mean Memorial Day, but year-round) is, on the part of liberals, a reaction to those days--nobody (well, almost nobody) wants to be seen as the kind of judgmental person who would go up to a perfect stranger, knowing nothing about him or his motives or what he's been through, and call him a war criminal or babykiller.

All that said, I can disavow that kind of behavior and still not be in love with the military or feel comfortable glorifying them for following orders, even if they are given by democratically elected civilian leaders.

If you have a claim to make, say it directly. Insinuation isn't worth my time. Then again, if your values are so close to d'd'd'dave that you want to imitate his methods, go ahead.

Okay, fair enough. My claim is that life isn't that simple, at least not for everyone. Some people, many even, simply aren't that aware of the extrapolations of their decisions. Those who are may not be capable of extrapolating at all accurately. Many people have many different reasons for doing different things, and many people may not think that membership in anything at all can force them to kill innocent people with any probability. I've never served in the military, but I can imagine doing so with perfectly good intentions. Maybe that necessarily makes me an idiot or a moral failure, but I don't think so.

"If you'd like to argue that the US government, by starting the Iraq war, has done anywhere near enough good to compensate for bringing about the deaths of a million people, go right ahead, but I think that will be difficult."

If you'd like to argue that Europeans, by colonizing the western hemisphere, has done anywhere enough good to compensate for bringing the deaths of a million people, go right ahead, but I think asking you to do so will be as based on what you said as your suggestion to me. Ditto the painting schools remark.

I don't know who you think you're arguing with, but I'm completely uninterested in being some stand-in for someone else you want to have some argument with, or for the voices in your head.

If you want to find someone to argue with who will justify starting the Iraq War, go find them and take it up with them. Ask them about painting schools, too. Meanwhile, I'm done playing this game. Bye.

"Insinuation isn't worth my time."

Yeah, it's only fun when you do it.

What I don't get about some of the reactions I've gotten from my own hobbyhorse in this thread is how anyone could object to allowing individual soldiers to opt out of wars they see as unjust

When there are foreign soldiers in the streets of my town, opting out will not be allowed.

"No one here is talking about banning militaries. All I'm talking about is the ethical consequences of joining a military that takes orders from people who consistently start pointless wars that kill lots of people. I don't think there's any ethical problem with, say, joining the Canadian army or the Swedish army."

At the same time, what if a Canadian or Swedish soldier considered something his or her military was doing -- not necessarily a direct order -- unethical, or just not right, but remains part of that force?

Does that, all of the sudden, make him unethical because, perhaps, in the heat of battle or during real-time events without time for thoughtful deliberation, he compromised his position? Does that all of the sudden make the decision to join these militaries unethical? (Sure, the chance of this is unlikely for the Swedish soldier, but I suppose one could find fault with any military.)

I'm rejoining this thread late, and will be signing off, and hesitated but I figured I'd put my 2 cents in anyway.

Without going over every paragraph as carefully as I'd like, I find myself agreeing with Gary. I respect what Donald is saying and Turb's frustrations, but I find Gary combining the ethical and the practical almost a necessary combination if one is going to recognize the need for a military in the first place.

I suspect a regiment of ethicists would make great citizens but not necessarily the best soldiers.

From the point of view of this decidely non-expert and career layman, the pronounced and rigid structure in the military may seem crazy or insane. But for the most part, I imagine it is necessary.

The hard truth is our men and women in the military do and have done the dirty work, the violent work, as part of their job, their duty, that many of us could not imagine doing, even in a so-called just war.

If called upon, we might. But until the moment occurs, how do we really know? Our men and women in the service sign up not knowing either, but with training and commitment, expect themselves to do so when the moment arrives.

Ultimately, while serving for a democratic and free nation, if our men and women sign up and serve with the notion that they can pick and choose what orders they follow or what fights they pick, we'd be looking at a poorly functioning military.

I'm sure we could all draw up exceptions -- that is why we have military review boards and the like -- and ethics certainly has its place in the big picture. But, in the case of the United States, that is one reason why the Commander-in-Chief is a civilian.

We place utmost importance on him, and theoretically Congress, to make the right combination of ethical and practical decisions so our men and women in uniform won't have to.

Perhaps it is imperfect. But it is the system we have.

Good night.

Donald Johnson: If you genuinely respect the troops--oh forget that crap, if you respect human beings-- can you reconcile this with forcing a person to engage in a war he or she sees as wrong? Shouldn't soldiers be encouraged at all levels to be thinking about these issues, rather than being told that they are showing faith in democracy when they believe what some jackass in the White House has told them?

There's a scene in LeGuin's novel The Dispossessed, where Shevek, hiding out in a cellar with a wounded man after the peaceful demonstration he participated in has been fired on by the Urrasti military, reflects on how he has been told by many people since he first came to Urras, how the military is all about courage and fitness and manliness and patriotism: and how he hadn't understood before that what the giant coercive structure of the military is all about is ensuring that you can have people in helicopters firing on an unarmed crowd because they have been ordered to do so.

In short: No. I rarely say this, but Gary is right: you cannot have a military if you are going to respect the soldiers as individual human beings with a right to make moral and thoughtful choices about what wars they are going to participate in.

The point of having a military is that soldiers do not get to exercise their individual moral choice: they go to war because that's what they've been ordered to do. Allowing soldiers moral choice isn't what the military is set up for: it would be a different kind of world if it was.

A better one: but why would any national government give away its power to start wars with other countries? War is politics: allowing soldiers effectively an additional, collective vote on what political actions their government would take, would so limit a government's power that no government would consent to it. That's not what a military is funded to do.

Besides, if the US government had had to make the case to each individual soldier serving that the attack on Iraq was a just war that they ought to want to participate in, does anyone doubt that Bush & Co would just have lied even more to make the case?

He’s the one who gives his body
as a weapon to a war
and without him all this killing can’t go on

The arguments against joining the military in general might be too broad, almost every country has military to defend its territory and will have one until we have reached a utopian state of world peace. But the argument for honoring all members of the military no matter in which conflict they have participated is too broad as well and simply placing a sense of duty over all other ethical considerations is wrong.

It is not impossible for members of the military to object to taking part in a war they deem unjust, they don't get shot anymore. The harshest punishment is a couple of months in prison and a dishonorable discharge - a rather small price for refusing to take part in the killing of lots of innocent people.

So I say: happy selective conscientious objector day to you all.

"The point of having a military is that soldiers do not get to exercise their individual moral choice: they go to war because that's what they've been ordered to do. Allowing soldiers moral choice isn't what the military is set up for: it would be a different kind of world if it was."

I'm familiar with the argument--it might even be true. But it's dangerously close to the Nuremberg defense and the logic that says a soldier should shut up and invade isn't that different from the logic that says a soldier should shoot or bomb or torture when ordered to do so, no matter who is on the receiving end. And it's also a slap (though I know you don't mean it that way) at those soldiers who do decide that they can't take part in an immoral war and face criminal proceedings. Does their brand of moral courage mean that they never should have been in the military in the first place? Should that be part of recruitment drives?

I also see the recruitment ads on TV and in movie theaters and the emphasis is on coolness and being a hero (fighting an enormous monster with a sword, video game style was in one)--those appear in the movie theaters. There was also one showing war in some Middle Eastern country as cool, with grateful children on display as the soldiers return some kid's soccer ball. On TV it's all about making one's family proud, becoming a man or woman, and thinking things through and making the right decision, serving one's country. In "Jarhead" (the book--I didn't see the movie), there was also some stuff about foreign sex workers, but that came from a recruiter, one on one, not in the public ads. I got a call from a recruiter when I was just out of high school and the guy was a bullsh*****. He was trying to shame me into joining. Maybe these people know their marketing strategies, but to me there's something just a tad sleazy about marketing strategies here.

Maybe what they should say is "Join the military and we'll train you and you'll just have to trust the civilian leadership to ensure that when you participate in a war that will inevitably kill civilians, it's for a good reason. Yeah, okay, stop laughing. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. You might be defending your country, or then again you might be plunging another country into bloody chaos at the behest of some jerk who can't go birdhunting without shooting his friend in the face and blaming him for it. But that's how the world works. Suck it up."

Hell, maybe recruitment would go up.

No. I simply don't think that that's all the U.S. military is apt to end up doing.

Gary, can you please explain what you're talking about here? Because I have no clue. Do you mean to imply that in addition to killing a million or so people during the Iraq war, the US military might be sent to, say, stop a genocide in Rwanda? Or maybe save democracy in Grenada? Or maybe do something very important in Lebanon? Or do you think it is likely that the US government will send the US military to save many people's lives? You're not making an argument so it is hard to see what you're claiming.


Okay, fair enough. My claim is that life isn't that simple, at least not for everyone. Some people, many even, simply aren't that aware of the extrapolations of their decisions. Those who are may not be capable of extrapolating at all accurately. Many people have many different reasons for doing different things, and many people may not think that membership in anything at all can force them to kill innocent people with any probability. I've never served in the military, but I can imagine doing so with perfectly good intentions. Maybe that necessarily makes me an idiot or a moral failure, but I don't think so.

I sort of agree with your point here hsh. There are lots of people who will never know history well enough or never be skeptical enough to make the determination that (re)enlisting is ethically problematic. I don't think those people are at fault: you can't hold people responsible for what they don't understand. But I don't think 100% of the military falls into that category either, even if 90% does.

I suspect that much of the praise given to the military these days (and here I don't mean Memorial Day, but year-round) is, on the part of liberals, a reaction to those days--nobody (well, almost nobody) wants to be seen as the kind of judgmental person who would go up to a perfect stranger, knowing nothing about him or his motives or what he's been through, and call him a war criminal or babykiller.

I agree with this in part, but I think it goes much deeper. We've built up a set of social expectations around the assumption that military service is compulsory. And so we're not used to scrutinizing areas where that assumption is not violated. It is very important to praise people unquestioningly for military service in a society where said service is compulsory. But that is no longer one we live in. It is funny: I've seen people who have a panic attack at the thought of eating a tuna sandwich or seeing a diamond ring be completely unable to see any ethical issue at all with enlistment.

I think there is another layer of moral calculus at work for some people with regard to military service. A given individual's service will not affect foreign policy or prevent morally indefensible wars. So, given that such wars will occur regardless of your or my service, we may decide that the best way to mitigate the harm of such wars is to take what we feel are our good decision-making skills, our leadership abilities and our moral sense into the fray, with hope, to prevent some 19-year-old kid from being killed or panicking and killing innocents or coming home too mentally disturbed to function. A lot of day-to-day and minute-to-minute decisions in wars have profound effects on the lives of the people involved, and the greater percentage of good, smart and capable people are there to make those decisions, the better. If you leave things only to the people you assume are morally deficient, things will like turn out to be as bad as you expect. And, frankly, there are those who enlist just because they want to kill them some A-rabs (or whatever other is of-the-day). It helps to have someone to hold them back.

"You might argue that both probabilities are non-zero and are thus equivalent"

Or, more likely, I might not. It's a fact, though, that sober drivers kill three times more people than drunks. The odds are HUGE that over 40k people will be killed in traffic accidents this year.

"I note that you still haven't answered my question."

I'm not sure which question you're referring to. If it's the one in which you've assigned a completely erroneously high probability to any enlistee killing an innocent person, I don't think I need to answer that one. It's either a hypothetical, which is kind of perpendicular to the point of this entire thread, or it's based on assumptions that are, to be kind, unsupportable.

A given individual's service will not affect foreign policy or prevent morally indefensible wars.

I think any individual's service will have a tiny affect. No individual pebble is exclusively responsible for starting an avalanche, but you can't have an avalanche without all of them. In the same way, no individual refusing service can prevent a war, but lots of individuals choosing to do so can.

So, given that such wars will occur regardless of your or my service, we may decide that the best way to mitigate the harm of such wars is to take what we feel are our good decision-making skills, our leadership abilities and our moral sense into the fray, with hope, to prevent some 19-year-old kid from being killed or panicking and killing innocents or coming home too mentally disturbed to function.

In wars, some people will die because individual leaders are not quite as good as they could be and some people will die because no matter how good individuals are, the nature of modern warfare means lots of people will get killed. Improving the talent pool can reduce one set of deaths but not the other.

A lot of day-to-day and minute-to-minute decisions in wars have profound effects on the lives of the people involved, and the greater percentage of good, smart and capable people are there to make those decisions, the better.

Only up to a point. People operate within the context of a system; really awesome soldiers at a checkpoint are still going to end up shooting innocent people if the army is too dumb to equip them with arabic stop signs. People often overestimate the power of the individual and underestimate the power of systems.

If you leave things only to the people you assume are morally deficient, things will like turn out to be as bad as you expect.

The set of potential enlistees who refuse to (re)enlist because they think the US government will task the military with unethical wars is not sufficiently ethically or intellectually different from the set of potential enlistees that do (re)enlist. People have different ways of reasoning for different types of issues; the fact that you come to a different conclusion about the enlistment issue doesn't mean that you'd necessarily make a different decision in the heat of battle.

And, frankly, there are those who enlist just because they want to kill them some A-rabs (or whatever other is of-the-day). It helps to have someone to hold them back.

If you don't think that the US military is institutionally capable of keeping sociopathic racists from killing innocent people en masse for sport, then I don't think we should be in the business of operating a military abroad.

Or, more likely, I might not.

Since you didn't bother make an argument, you can hardly blame me for trying to suss out what you were talking about.

It's a fact, though, that sober drivers kill three times more people than drunks. The odds are HUGE that over 40k people will be killed in traffic accidents this year.

Wow. Drunk drivers do in fact kill fewer people than sober drivers, but that is due to the fact that there are far fewer miles driven drunk than miles driven sober. Do you really think that the per-mile probability of killing someone is three times higher for sober drivers than drunk drivers? Because if you don't, what possible relevance can this statement have?

I'm not sure which question you're referring to.

This one.

It seems like you didn't read any of that comment.

"Since you didn't bother make an argument"

I'm not making an argument; I'm pointing out flaws in yours.

"It seems like you didn't read any of that comment."

I'm assuming that the question you wanted answered in that comment is:

"It may not be but can you explain what the actual problem here is?"

Since I've pointed out multiple aspects of problems with the comparison between soldiers and drunk drivers, and since you're clearly capable of reading and understanding them, I'm going to assume that you reject them out of hand, without bothering to address them.

Which is fine. Just don't pretend that I haven't responded to your question.

If there was another question in there that you had in mind, please restate it.

The point of having a military is that soldiers do not get to exercise their individual moral choice: they go to war because that's what they've been ordered to do. Allowing soldiers moral choice isn't what the military is set up for: it would be a different kind of world if it was.

Nonsense, soldiers don't relinquish their rights, nor do they get relieved of their duties as moral human beings by signing up for the military.

I'm not making an argument

Very true, how about trying that for a change.

"Nonsense, soldiers don't relinquish their rights"

Of course, soldiers factually and obviously do indeed relinquish many of their rights for the duration of their service. They relinquish free speech, the ability to come and go as they please, their right to be free of searches, and on and on. I can't imagine why you'd say otherwise.

"...nor do they get relieved of their duties as moral human beings by signing up for the military."

This is true.

why would any national government give away its power to start wars with other countries?

They supposedly have, by signing the UN charter.

In the same way, no individual refusing service can prevent a war, but lots of individuals choosing to do so can.

Yes, but a given individual can only choose for himself. That's not to see that you or I shouldn't discourage other people from serving if we think we rightly should, but it is to say that we should acknowledge the reality in which we live. The question isn't simply how many people will if I serve, but how many more or less people will die if I serve versus not serving.

Improving the talent pool can reduce one set of deaths but not the other.

Then it's (possibly) a worthwile endeavor.

Only up to a point.

Then it's (possibly) a worthwile endeavor.

The set of potential enlistees who refuse to (re)enlist because they think the US government will task the military with unethical wars is not sufficiently ethically or intellectually different from the set of potential enlistees that do (re)enlist. People have different ways of reasoning for different types of issues; the fact that you come to a different conclusion about the enlistment issue doesn't mean that you'd necessarily make a different decision in the heat of battle.

I'm not sure what you're trying to say here, but it seems that your first sentence seems to contradict what you've been saying previously.

If you don't think that the US military is institutionally capable of keeping sociopathic racists from killing innocent people en masse for sport, then I don't think we should be in the business of operating a military abroad.

I agree, but I have no idea why that should matter to the discussion. I don't see why the killing would have to be en masse to matter. Do feel the military is "institutionally" omnipotently capable of preventing individual killings without conscientious individual soldiers?


I can't imagine why you'd say otherwise.

To clarify, that should read "relinquish their rights as moral human beings", as in: both the rights and duties of moral human beings.

I just re-read my last comment. So many typos, so little time.

But backing up a bit, Turbulence, I think we could go on parsing each other ad nauseam. The issue, though, is whether or not one necessarily must be ethically challenged or morally deficient to decide to serve in the military, under the assumption that there is no arguably valid moral calculus under which to serve, given the recent history of the US. I feel as though I've made my point well enough that it can be diminished in scope, but not refuted.

Donald Johnson: I'm familiar with the argument--it might even be true. But it's dangerously close to the Nuremberg defense and the logic that says a soldier should shut up and invade isn't that different from the logic that says a soldier should shoot or bomb or torture when ordered to do so, no matter who is on the receiving end.

Of course it is. No country which wins a war will see its soldiers prosecuted by the losing side for crimes committed during the war. The Nuremberg trials established this as well: neither Arthur Harris nor Leslie Groves ever faced trial at Nuremberg for mass bombing of cities to kill civilians. (Though, consequently, neither did their German and Japanese opposite numbers: it was a more intellectually honest age, it seems, than today when a war crime is defined as "something the enemies of the US do".)

And it's also a slap (though I know you don't mean it that way) at those soldiers who do decide that they can't take part in an immoral war and face criminal proceedings. Does their brand of moral courage mean that they never should have been in the military in the first place?

I didn't intend it as a slap but as a pragmatic acknowledgement of fact: moral courage is not wanted in the military. The ability to stand up against your fellows and your orders and do what you know to be right regardless, is not a military virtue. What you want, which I agree would create a better world, is a military which requires moral courage of its personnel, and almost by definition, such a national military cannot exist. Hugh Thompson and Joseph Darby had enormous moral courage, and that put them at severe odds with the military in which they served.

Should that be part of recruitment drives?

Yes, probably it should. The presumption in all recruiting ads I've ever seen is that you won't need any moral courage at all in the military because it will never not be right to follow orders.

Maybe what they should say is "Join the military and we'll train you and you'll just have to trust the civilian leadership to ensure that when you participate in a war that will inevitably kill civilians, it's for a good reason. Yeah, okay, stop laughing. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. You might be defending your country, or then again you might be plunging another country into bloody chaos at the behest of some jerk who can't go birdhunting without shooting his friend in the face and blaming him for it. But that's how the world works. Suck it up."

Yeah. That's the reality. That's what being in the military means. But I don't expect employers to admit this kind of thing in any job ad: you're expected to work it out for yourself....

Besides, really, how many Americans would turn down a good job with benefits just because it involved being responsible for the mass deaths of millions of non-Americans? The kind of Americans who would, are the kind of people who have lots of moral courage, and those kind of people are not wanted in the miltary anyway.

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