People have sometimes asked why I am in the military. Obviously, war is an unpleasant thing, and the imminent task of killing people and destroying land in the name of a questionable cause always irritates the conscience of a moral person. However, I've developed a thought project for anyone wondering about issues of military service versus pacifism.
Question I. Is there anything you would die for?
What that thing might be is not necessarily important, but if there is something, it implies that you have deep-seated values about something. I have scarcely found a person to answer this question "no," so I will not address it except to say that someone who would not sacrifice his life for anything is not fit for pacifism or military service. "If you stand up for nothing, you'll fall for anything"
Question II. Is there anything you would kill for?
In contrast to the previous question, to answer this question a person must descend from the moral high ground of altruism. One could die in place of family or friends in many ways that do not involve any possibly evil or aggressive action. Delineating that point at which one takes it upon oneself to prevent some atrocity by any means, to include murder, is the first step to military service, for such eventualities invariably arise. In this case, the line is drawn when one agrees that one would kill to protect anything other than oneself. If this protected group (for which you would kill) includes family, friends, or ideologies, then your values are not necessarily incompatible with military service.
Question III. Do you consider the military a practical and legitimate expression of the values you mentioned above?
It is not so simple to say that one takes up arms to defend one's way of life and lineage, it is quite another thing to let another make the decision of how you will do your protecting. Pioneers who shot marauding indians to defend their families (or indians who shot marauding pioneers for that matter) are exercising a slightly different ethical code than soldiers who defend against an invading enemy. Another case arises when soldiers go overseas to defend national interests. If the military options are acceptable, the next step is to justify inefficiencies in military service or even corruption in the government and develop contingencies at which no justification will account for military atrocities.
Question IV. How could you justify for yourself the failures of the military in history?
At this point, I must present some of my own views as example. As an
American soldier, I am often presented with the examples of Vietnam and Iraq.
Iraq is the simplest justification. Regardless of the true machinations of some world leaders, the
legitimate aims of protecting the Kuwaiti and Saudi people, and
containing Iraqi forces for the stability of the Arab world were
not invented. Even if underlying aims were present, the
idealistic aims hold merit. One should not condemn the US or its
forces for intervening where it had the support of the majority of the world, but rather one might question why we do not intervene in
other areas of the world where problems are even greater.
"Other areas" generally include Africa where starving children are at the mercy of vicious warlords. Another way to say this, and this isn't me talking, but one way to say this is children are starving in Africa because of deliberate efforts by the Imperialistic west to put down the poor and blacks. Regardless of where the fault lies, many wonder why the US Military won't send aid to Africa when it sends aid to Europe and other parts of the world. In response to this, I present the example of Somalia. Public opinion supporting US intervention in this area rose to such an extent that the US sent forces to Somalia. After difficulties and deaths in the region, public opinion supporting the withdrawal of US forces rose to the extent that the US removed forces from Somalia. What I have just described is the democratic process. Where one accuses the government of not intervening in certain areas of the world, I reply that the citizens need only speak out and the forces will go or leave as may be necessary.
The issue of Vietnam is different in that it is an example of a mistake that the US Military has overcome. Opinions differ, but in general, the Vietnam Conflict is considered to be the result of political jockeying for favor that required the government to continue with the status quo, i.e., keeping forces in Vietnam. The factions pressing for escalation and withdrawal from (1955 to) 1965 to 1972 were so significant that the government chose to lie to itself rather than truly take either side. Another problem in this case was the disregard of the military for the humanity of the Vietnamese. The military was an uninvited force that misunderstood the populace (both its language and culture) while trying to overcome a guerilla force. My point is that the military and the government have learned from Vietnam and the problems of that era have and will serve as a lesson to the future.
So, my primary defenses are that the military is often at the mercy of democracy, and that the military, contrary to some opinions, is remarkably good at recognizing and learning from its mistakes.
Question V. At what point would an action be unjustifiable?
It is a common believe that soldiers are unthinking automatons. While sometimes true, the situation is often not the case. I would be supported by any officer in saying that I would flatly disobey immoral orders from my superiors. Orders to commit any sort of atrocities, to include accosting civilians, pillaging, murdering prisoners, and others, are strictly unlawful and immoral and are not be followed. In the Nurenburg trials, Nazi officers continually repeated the defense that they were just following orders. Modern soldiers clearly understand that they must follow lawful and moral orders only. Understanding the difference is how soldiers continue to be moral soldiers.
On an ethical level, I am in the US Military because I consider it a valid way to express my values. I also consider the violence inherent in service to be necessary in some cases, and I recognize that the military only uses force when absolutely necessary to protect the greater good. The military and the US government are by no means perfect organizations. There are times when their directives conflict with my own ideas. I have boundaries at which I would disobey orders are resign, regardless of the consequences, if this organization strays to far from what I believe to be right.
While reality sometimes presents unpleasant contradictions, the vast majority of soldiers want nothing more than to carry out the values they showed in the first two questions. That is the purpose of their service and the reward for the injustice and hardship they endure. And one maxim in the hearts of every soldier is that there is no surer evidence of the rightness of their actions than in the eyes of those they protect, both at home and abroad.
In addition to this, I have seen where the military has taken great steps, especially in the modern era of nation building and peace keeping, to define the humanity of the native people. In any area of operation, there are enemies, but vastly outnumbering these are the natives of the area. Understanding the people and protecting them is the first step to peace. Also, admittedly as a result of bad press, the US Military has taken steps at all levels to develop a values education program for soldiers. Honorable living and respect, even for the proverbial grunt, is becoming more of a reality every day.