Wednesday, July 06, 2011

'Unconditional' allegiance is for machines, not people

"My country, right or wrong," is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober."
-- G.K. Chesterton
Merely by uttering the word "war," that which is unquestionably a crime during times of peace -- murder, for instance -- becomes socially acceptable, "legal," lifting the burden of conscience from those tasked with killing on behalf of their nation's politicians. Those who would normally be hung for the supreme moral crime of taking another's life are instead given parades and medals.

Or so that's what one writer for the liberal American Prospect believes. The law, you see, trumps morality; what you or I may think is wrong -- like murder -- is of no consequence so long as a politician and the proper legal authority (dare not ask how it gained its legitimacy) says it's alright. Responding to my recent piece critiquing the mindless paeans to the "service" of military members that pop up on every American holiday, regardless of the unjust nature of the cause they serve, the Prospect's Adam Serwer denounced my disgusting attempt to treat soldiers as regular human beings, not amoral machines. Writing on Economist writer Will Wilkinson's Google Reader feed (via Ryan Bonneville), he wrote:
The above post is attacking servicememebers as dishonorable professional killers. Those are the words they've used. We should support servicemembers unconditionally because their service is unconditional, and I have yet to hear a rational argument for why allowing servicemembers to disregard civilian authority over the military is a good idea, which is essentially what calling for civil disobedience by servicemembers is.
Just as you wouldn't support a friend "unconditionally" -- I sure hope Jeffrey Dahmer's amigos abandoned him -- I dare say members of the military ought be held to the same moral standards as anyone else and at the very least not to have their immoral behavior (for which those who send them into war bear the bulk of the burden) cheered, their "service" fawned over. The same goes for their command-in-chief. If one's involved in the carry out of unjust wars of aggression as part of what Martin Luther King described as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, the U.S. government, then we shouldn't offer them unadulterated and unconditional praise, for starters. If someone's involved in an immoral enterprise, they should be called out on it and encouraged to follow their duty as a human being capable of moral thought to not perpetrate unjust killing, not cheered on and reassured that their line of employment is right and just.

Serwer thinks he has an answer for the controversial notion that one's moral responsibilities don't end the moment of enlistment:
What if General Petraeus decides that the Afghan surge isn't big enough, so he's morally obligated to take over and make the decision for himself, to save us from ourselves? He's morally obligated to protect his country in the way he thinks is best right? Who cares what the law says?

The whole point of civilian control is to ensure that the people with guns don't get to do whatever they want, that the power given them can only be used with the consent of the political branches, elected by the people. And if you don't think that power is being used properly, than you can change that through the political process.
But no one's arguing, of course, that soldiers should merely do whatever they feel. The argument, at least as I have made it, is that killing people is wrong, except in instances of absolute self-defense, no matter what politician or politically appointed court sanctions it. Now, abiding by one's conscience is typically consistent with the whole not murdering people thing -- poor foreigner or not -- but where it differs, it's subservient to that latter, foundational principal of any truly civilized society. Again, the argument is that people ought to defy orders to kill -- and ostracize, rather than worship, the institutions tasked with carrying out the state-sponsored carnage -- not that they should kill more people if they feel like it.

And instead of wading through a corrupt political process designed to thwart change and serve the needs of the powerful, the legitimacy of which Serwer asserts but does not bother to demonstrate, it's the responsibility of all human beings with a capacity for moral thought, be they uniformed or not, to reject blind obedience authority and the "legal" facade it provides to immoral acts. The idea that only the political process is an acceptable means of challenging injustice treats the average person as but an unthinking cog in the machinery of the state, bound to abide by whatever "lawful" edicts their rulers issue, a worldview that does not allow for principled civil disobedience. We, soldier and citizen, are not entitled to determine what's right and wrong, whether it be a preemptive war or, say, the institution of slavery -- that's left to legislatures.

As I argued on Wilkinson's Google Reader feed (you have to subscribe, I believe, to see all 60-plus comments):
God forbid someone exercise their own moral conscience when it conflicts with a "lawful" order to murder given by some politician. Us proles are powerless to shape the world we live in, you see -- and thank god for that. If soldiers ignored their orders to kill, why, all those wars the U.S. has fought as a last resort and only in self-defense over the last 60 years (help me out here) may never have been fought!

In all seriousness, though, praising as honorable U.S. servicemembers' "unconditional" (and vital) role in unjust wars of aggression -- holding out blind allegiance to authority as a virtue, not a vice, completely divorced from the direct consequences of that allegiance -- perpetuates a dangerous, ignoble myth that U.S. military actions are just or honorable when they are anything but. The U.S. military is not, TV commercials aside, a better funded Peace Corps. No, that doesn't mean we ought to go around spitting on the troops; recruiters, maybe. We're all fallible human beings capable of making morally questionable decisions (particularly if we should choose to be a mere unthinking, conscienceless tool of the state, "a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity," in the words of noted anti-American Henry David Thoreau). But glorifying what the military does as a public service is a disservice to millions of dead Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Iraqis, Afghans and Nicaraguans, to name a few. If we're going to make future wars of aggression less likely, we need to stop idolizing the solider as some democratic ideal -- and maybe then there will be less people willing to suspend their better judgment and fight them.

As for the "professional killers" bit: In my experience, actual members of the military are much less reticent to admit what it is members of the U.S. military are asked to do than writers for The American Prospect.
Serwer's rebuttal, in its entirety:
We do have some job openings, but nothing quite as prestigious as writing for Code Pink, I'm sad to say.
Seems like a nice guy.


  1. ahhh, the American Prospect, what a fine publication!!! I always thought that the civilian controlled argument (democracy) can easily be used against them. Doesn't it give more incentive for soldiers not to enlist when they realize that in a year or two the politicians 'pet cause of the moment' can be completely undone by some other newly-elected politician? Doesn't that render your actions utterly meaningless? How many times does this have to happen before people go, "hmmm, wait a minute, do i really believe this invasion is meaningful work?"

    Even if you AGREE with it at the time, you leave yourself vulnerable to a regime change (new commander-in-chief/sec.of defense, etc). There's nothing honorable about blindly adhering to orders. Loyal perhaps, but nothing intelligent or honorable.

  2. BlackVidal11:10 AM

    This culture of obedience to violence and the status quo is what is leading so many to suicide in the armed forces. I feel that Adam Serwer is spitting on those that have spoken out against illegal and immoral acts during and after serving. Adam Serwer is a hope killer to those that joined the military for honorable reasons, to help their family financially, to serve their country and get a college education financed, etc. To pretend that there is not rape, murder, torture, graft, animal cruelty, bigotry and an accompanying code of silence about such acts is betrayal to the innocent. Rumsfeld put down draftees, largely because they democratize the armed forces. That is why there is no serious job legislation except for an economic draft which nets the largely uneducated. Shame on you A.S.

  3. The funniest bit of that...

    "We should support servicemembers unconditionally because their service is unconditional, and I have yet to hear a rational argument ..."


    What exactly was that last line of his supposed to mean? Was he basically laying bare the economic forces influencing his position of unconditional support (meaning he couldn't get a job unless he kowtowed to military worship)? Or was this some kind of journalism job interview and that was his way of letting you know you didn't get the job?

  4. Anonymous1:55 PM

    If publications like The American Prospect are the best that the organized "left" in the US can do, we're definitely screwed.

  5. I'd say that "your post is excellent" is always worth saying; implied appreciation is great, but nothing beats the real thing. And I agree with Oh: your post is excellent, Charles (and I also agree that that's so common for your writing that it could be taken as read).

    About unconditional allegiance for the military, a few years ago I wrote up a detailed list of reasons why people might want to think twice about it.

  6. Weldon Berger2:41 PM

    All else aside, members of the military don't serve unconditionally. They're required to uphold the Constitution and they're required to refuse unlawful orders, which means they're required to think about what they're doing. So it's a stupid proposition even without looking at the question of whether what they're doing actually does the country any good.

  7. Pliny_theElder7:34 AM

    Whoa, I just started reading The Man Who Was Thursday.

  8. The Man Who Was Thursday is great. Chesterton is easily my favorite reactionary religious crank.