Service—Military and Non-military April 1, 2009Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
Tags: community service, Ethics, military service, national service, Philosophy, veterans
I have occasion to speak with many veterans in my line of work. And when they talk about why they went into the military, they often say they wanted to make a contribution, make the world a better place, or make something of their lives.
Their decision and motive is certainly worthy of admiration, respect, and gratitude.
But I find it disconcerting that, in our society, military service is viewed as the primary avenue to achieving this kind of fulfillment. Although the military fills an important need—defense—our world has many other vital needs that are typically underserved—teaching, caring for the indigent, the elderly, and the disabled, environmental cleanup, infrastructure development, etc.
And although the military yields a variety of satisfactions and builds skills that are useful in civilian society, so would these other non-military activities.
Of course, the fundamental difference between military and non-military service is that those in the military sometimes risk their lives and must engage in the distinctively destructive activity of learning to and sometimes having to kill people, some who might be quite innocent, and often for less than justifiable reasons.
The fact that some members of the military sacrifice their lives for their country gives military service an heroic aspect. But shouldn’t we judge the value of a service at least in part according to how much good it produces? Doesn’t the fact that military service involves killing sometimes innocent people for bad reasons count against it as a form of service?
I suppose we think of the value of military service in light of the fact that physical security is a vital, non-optional collective good. Having an effective military is an absolute necessity. And the military can perform its function only if its members are willing to do what is necessary regardless of personal sacrifice and despite some moral qualms.
In other words, the heroic aspect of military service is just inherent in the “whatever it takes” necessity of providing physical security. The non-military forms of service, although they provide unqualified goods, are perceived as less necessary.
But this ignores the fact that much military activity has little to do with providing collective security and much to do with projecting power based on quite illegitimate motives. Furthermore, it ignores the subtle but very real damage to our collective security when poverty, despair, and environmental degradation are allowed to fester.
It is to be hoped that some of the new initiatives to promote community and national service will elevate their prestige.