A friend and I recently got into a bit of a tiff over John McCain and how much we should respect him. This led into a far larger fight about the military, military personnel, respect, and patriotism. And I had to use it as an opportunity to air my grievances against the hero worship attitude that most people in the U.S. have towards veterans. This article probably will offend some people, because the idea of questioning the respect and honor we give to veterans is unheard of. Democrats do it, Republicans do it, Libertarians do it…no one would think of demeaning those who fight for their country.
But I can’t help but ask the question…what’s so great about fighting for your country?
I’d like to try to break the question down a bit. First there’s the action itself. What is being a soldier made up of? Essentially the actions that define a soldier are violent: fighting and killing, taking things over, etc. There are some actions that soldiers undertake which are constructive, but generally those aren’t what we use as definitional of being a soldier. So the basic essence of being a soldier is killing or destroying. Those actions in and of themselves are not really things we generally feel are worthy of respect, so obviously the respect for vets doesn’t come from those actions in and of themselves.
Now I am the first to admit that actions aren’t just always bad or always good. Duh. Sometimes intention or consequence plays a role in determining the ethics of an action. So let’s look at intentions. Well the most obvious intention that people cite is “serving and protecting your country”. I’m just going to start with this one, and then move on to some others as well. I’m not entirely sure what is honorable about serving the country to be honest, and I honestly would like some kind of explanation for what is good about it. A country is simply a group of people, most of whom you don’t know. Serving that group of people can be a good thing, however we don’t seem to view it as a positive across the board. Public servants for example are rarely lauded for their service. And there are definitely instances in which serving and protecting the people who are part of your “in group” is distinctly a negative thing: think of racial violence or the mafia. So protecting and serving isn’t inherently a good thing either.
In addition, most of the recent wars we’ve engaged in have not been about directly protecting America. We have not been attacked by the countries we’ve invaded, and we have been in little to no danger. In general, those countries that we have invaded have not asked for our help, and have had mixed (if not negative) reactions to our presence there. So the larger mission of serving and protecting may not even be present at all in the recent wars we have engaged in. I find it hard to laud people for engaging in violent action when no one is being protected, and they really aren’t welcome.
In addition, there are many extremely negative incentives that some people have to go into the military. There are a disturbing number of individuals who join the military for explicitly racist reasons, like for the express purpose of killing those of a different color, or of “destroying the enemy” (read: the brown people). Some people join the military for money, for education, for “honor”, for family tradition, or all sorts of other reasons. Now I will add the caveat that there is definitely a racial and class element to a lot of people’s experience of joining the military, and in no way can I fault those who have few options and take the best option given to them. That said, I don’t necessarily think that ANY of these motivations for violence are good reasons for us to respect and honor someone, and I particularly don’t think that the very bad reasons among them (racism) are excused by the fact of “protecting and serving”.
So the intentions generally aren’t inherently honorable or worthy of respect either. Some people might think it’s honorable for a man to protect hearth and home, but I personally think it’s an outdated concept of honor that thrives on violence and patriarchy, and really isn’t worthy of our respect at all. Respect is earned by those who contribute something to the world, not those who destroy things in the world.
So what about consequences? Well the consequences of war are generally death, which is a bad one, I generally don’t think death is something we should respect people for bringing about. SOMETIMES it’s a better world (although this is nearly always arguable), but generally that “better world” comes at the expense of those in other parts of the globe, often civilians, often those we view as not as important because they’re brown. Even if it DOES improve the world (e.g. WWII), it comes at a huge cost of life and the mental health and well being of those who survive. PTSD is a huge consequence of war. Should we respect people for bringing these things about? I don’t necessarily think so. While I do think that the people who suffer through war should have our compassion and kindness for the difficulties they’ve gone through, and they certainly should have our support in dealing with PTSD or any other ailments they have gained during their time in the military, their actions themselves aren’t praiseworthy, the motivations for their actions aren’t praiseworthy, and very rarely are the consequences of their actions praiseworthy. In most cases, we barely break even in the consequences of war. So why do we continue to hero worship those who have fought? Why are they untouchable in political discourse, when those who are fighting poverty, hunger, child abuse, sexual abuse, or other clear ailments of society are ignored? I will never understand.