War and Civic Virtue

· Logos/Ethos

March, 2012


          The Iraq War cost the United States 4,436 citizen lives, 35,000 wounded and, depending on whom you want to believe, between one and three trillion dollars. (That would be 3 million million dollars). To arrive at roughly the same place as Iraq, that is, a wobbly state with virtually no government to provide needed services but with faint democratic aspirations, the people of Egypt accomplished the same thing in eight days with eight deaths at no cost. Despite the absurdity of these numbers, America continues to believe that war is the best means possible to protect its interests in the Middle East, whatever they may be. It might be time for Americans to have a moral conversation.


         Let’s explore the sacrifices some people make and others don’t in the pursuit of our de facto policy of never-ending war.


          The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fought by a very small percentage of our people. The vast majority of Americans are untouched by these on-going adventures being fought in the name of national security. This is a profound injustice and undermines our moral and civic foundations. 


          Following the Vietnam War we replaced our volunteer/conscripted military with an all-volunteer army. From a moral standpoint, we replaced a system that can be called slavery (conscription) with one that claims to allow people to choose freely if they want to enlist. On the surface, this would seem to be the more just arrangement. In reality, however, the vast majority of military personnel has chosen to enlist not simply because of their sense of patriotism and civic responsibility, but because of their need for the economic benefits derived. Between enlistment bonuses, technical training, college educations, and resume building, the military offers an enticing path to many young people who otherwise lack the resources or education to be as successful as they would like to be in civilian life. Demographic analysis of military personnel clearly shows the disparity. Unless upper middle income youth are born without a patriotism gene, their meager representation in the military would seem to indicate that they simply don’t get anything tangible out of it. 


           Will this “volunteer” army concept always exempt the privileged and exploit the urban and rural poor and undereducated? Here is what Hermann Goering said on the subject:


 Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?  Naturally the common people don’t want war … That is understood.  But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship … Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.  That is easy.  All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.  It works the same way in any country.


          The moral problem we face is that the rest of us, those who are older, richer, or civically disengaged, can sit back comfortably, knowing that somebody else, another class of people, is doing the fighting and dying. Our job, it appears, is to wave flags and shed tears when their physical remains are returned. This is not enough. Not only is there an obvious problem in equity but in the damage being done to our civic virtue. Without a sense of shared responsibility, democracy soon degenerates into aristocracy in which some of us are asked to fight, purportedly to protect our freedom, while the rest of us are asked to go shopping.


          I have two suggestions to right this moral wrong. Despite the obvious ethical problem involving involuntary servitude, the draft must be re-instated, for to believe that many of today’s soldiers choose freely to enlist is naïve. They are “choosing” under the coercive influence of their economic plight. Further, the draft field must include women as well as men. And finally, all steps must be taken to expose and punish those citizens who would use their wealth and privilege to avoid their civic responsibility. In the larger picture, a two- or three-year period of mandatory public service, both military and non-military, can successfully address the problem of a disengaged citizenry.


          Secondly, if our citizens want war, they ought to pay for it, if not with their lives then with their money. Above and beyond what we currently allocate for the Pentagon, we ought to establish a war surtax. People with something to lose are more likely to make a more reasoned judgment about the wisdom of waging war.


          Sadly, neither of my solutions has a future. But I suggest we spend some time considering the question of moral accountability in a democracy. We all need to be engaged and take responsibility to have a just democracy. Can we even imagine a domestic issue so compelling that millions of Americans would peacefully take to the streets en-masse as the Egyptians did? I doubt it. But if there is, it would most likely be the alleged burden of taxation, the two century-old American delusion that we all deserve something for nothing.