Friday, June 8, 2012

Ethics and veterans

I am generally a fan of Andrew J. Bacevich's writing. Here he reviews James Wright's Those Who Have Borne the Battle. The book talks about the relationship the United States has to those who have served and also who served in the first place.

I think that veterans pose a few important ethics questions worth exploring for military ethics. For one, we should think about the virtue of gratitude. Gratitude is often taken as a virtue. I would argue that in democratic countries that do not have drafts, veterans deserve their country's gratitude for being the people who were willing to put themselves at the disposal of the democracy. Regardless of whether or not you like how the democracy acted, they acted at the behest of the country, often without prior knowledge of what they would be asked to do, and often put themselves in more danger than most people would feel comfortable doing. (Pace an argument once made by Stephen Kershnar that said, among other things, that members of the military are adequately compensated, and thus do not deserve special gratitude.)

Of course, gratitude is not much. It is an emotion some people feel for some things, and only sometimes actually benefits the veteran. What does a country owe its vets? What attitude ought citizens have toward veterans? What obligations do veterans have?

Any thoughts?


  1. I have read this post multiple times and given a lot of thought to how I would comment on its content. You have struck a sensitive nerve on this subject because of the way I look up to my (RIP) Grandfathers who both served in the PTO and my father who lost his leg during Tet. Call me a cynic: What I am ultimately afraid of is the possibility that the civilian population will soon begin feeling animosity towards military personnel and veterans. Not because of how we ultimately follow through with some bad foreign policy, but because of how we seem to be given special privilege in multiple venues that civilians deem as important to their daily lives. I submit as an example: United/Continentals company policy that military (in/out of uniform) have priority boarding, alongside children and the elderly on all flights. How many Reserve/National Guard not on orders have abused this privilege? Is this not a form of privilege of meritocracy that Heinlein wrote about?

  2. Secondly lets face the reality- not everyone in the military comes into any form of true danger. That is to say that the basic form of combat (as seen in Hollywood) or as any Soldier/Marine/Airman/Sailor who has spent time “outside the wire” knows. Although at times the civilian population is uneducated about military affairs, I would argue that the access to the knowledge of this information through current media can educate civilians on what truly goes on in the military (blogs/websites/forums). However, I would argue that civilians will begin picking up on "BS" when someone begins spouting off about "combat" they saw during their "tour" (forgive all the quotes- but I like to use sarcasm sometimes to argue my point). I work with some of the most cynical personnel in the military, and believe you/me its not easy to fool them. Maybe that is because you can't bull$#!t a bull$#!tter :).

  3. With the attempt/failure at passing the legislation of the “Stolen Valor Act” it is my belief that the civilian population is becoming more astute towards picking out the fakers that walk amongst us. We have all seen them and know who they are. That guy who sits and overtly brags about his time in the service and the “courageous” things that s/he has done. Then when you start asking the right questions and doing investigation it comes out that he was discharged from the USAF-Res. (turns out that he was an administrative human resources clerk who was stationed at Mt Home AFB his entire reserve career).

  4. Lastly, I believe that the current “support the troops” attitude towards veterans is/was self-created by our society not as a way to give the proverbial “pat on the back”, but instead to right the wrongs from the past and of course a way for people to make a buck from a falsely induced “patriotism”. Since 9/11 I have been under the impression that people have a sense of obligation to “thank a veteran”. Some people are truly sincere. However, we do not truly know what goes through the mind of that group of people at the ball games who are socially forced to give the troops a standing ovation before the ballgame begins. This may seem pessimistic, yet at less than 1% of the population serve in the military. The military and civilian population do not come in that much contact with each other on a daily basis (unless you have an uncle who is a weekend warrior, you come in contact with a troop at the airport or you live near a major military base).

  5. Why did the feeling of post-Vietnam have a sudden and abrupt change to the attitude towards military personnel? Let’s face it that war-any war (and politics involved in war) have not changed much since that time. Yet, currently the civilian population has a need and almost an addiction to “thanking the troops”. For some reason this has reminded me of the other sad occurrence in our society. That need by many to feel like they need to right certain wrongs that were committed by our forefathers- I submit for this argument: White Guilt.
    Again forgive me for the long rant, however this is something I think about often. Should the civilian population have gratitude? I am not in any position to give an answer, however I will submit this opinion. Let’s hope you don’t write about PTSD in the future: lest you want a novel written on your blog from me.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. That's a lot to think about. One thing that struck me was your mention of the Stolen Valor Act. I think I agree with the Supreme Court's ruling. BSing should be protected speech (though BSing with the intent to defraud should not be). I may write more about this if I can think of something to say.

    But more relevantly, I wonder what the discussion says about the civil-military relationship. For one, I think, it says that people really can pull anything over on the American people. I have said this before, but because of the small percentage of Americans in the military, 99% of Americans do not appreciate the distinction between a Corporal and a Colonel or any other military distinction. That means that when the news reports anything about what the military does, most of the context is missing - usually to both the reporter and the audience. So people have learned to just say anything they want - e.g. about their heroism in combat, or whatever - and people just take it at face value.

    In an important way I like this though. It may sound weird, but I like the idea of such a vast divide between the civil and military parts of our culture. While I do believe a strong military is vital to the defense of the country, I realize that we have such a strong military so that the average citizen need not worry about how they are kept secure. I would worry if the citizenry were so concerned about their own safety that they were that interested in how the apparatus that protects them actually works. I like the idea that most people go to bed at night completely oblivious to what is going on to keep them safe. I think many people in the military feel that they work really hard at their jobs (and put up with all sorts of crap) so that their families can worry about living the American dream, not about the next threat to national security.

    We've all been to countries where soldiers are a frequently seen on the street as part of the national security infrastructure. Who needs the constant reminder of the threat that makes them necessary?

    Also, on another note- I have never been convinced that most people really support the troops. I think that in actually, the political left learned a very powerful lesson about how bad they came off looking when they spent 10 or 20 years looking down on people whose sole offense to their sense of ethics was that they did not dodge the draft. Soldiers were disdained when they came back because of what politicians did. The left learned that it gaind them few points with voters. Instead of capitalizing on what the soldiers when through, they insulted them. In an attempt to not further alienate potential voters the left (wisely, I think) now draws a clear line between soldiers and politicians; thanking the former and protesting the latter.

    We live in a great country in part because there is a relatively clear line between the military and its civilian leadership. During the Vietnam war the left ignored that line and tarred everyone with any involvement in the war with the same brush. It is good to see that kind of progress being made.

  7. Also, I am pretty interested in PTSD and the current surge in the rate of military suicides that we have been hearing about for the past few years. I am sure there are ethical issues and social issues that are relevant and really need to be more widely discussed.

    I don't think there is anyone in the military that has not encountered someone with PTSD, and I suspect that anyone who has been deployed for any real amount of time to Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Qatar, Kuwait, HOA, the Balkans, etc, came away with some psychic scars.

    Any thoughts are welcome.