Humanism in the Military

May is National Military Appreciation Month. This became the case surprisingly recently, in 1999, and was first proposed by veteran and Senator John McCain. May was chosen as the month due to the number of military-related observances and celebrations that happen in May and the month was officially designated Military Appreciation Month after a unanimous senate vote of 93-0 in April 1999.

The military is both an important institution, serving as a vital mechanism out of poverty for many millions of Americans, and also a place with a deeply humanistic history. It can be easy to pigeonhole the military and view it as an institution whose purpose is to “Kill people and break things” as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee famously said in one of the 2016 Republican Presidential Debates but this quote is, at best, an oversimplification.

The American military is a surprisingly egalitarian institution and has a history of being one of the first places where social change is predicted and showcased. For example, there is a long history of the military being a place of integration with one facet of this being evidenced in the fact that there is evidence of the service and sacrifice of Black men in every conflict in our country’s history. While there are many examples of this, one of the most succinct collections of evidence here can be found in “The Military as a Social Experiment” a paper written by Dr. Jacqueline E. Whitt and Marine Corps Reservist Elizabeth A. Perazzo.

The American military has a long and surprisingly profound history of serving as a social mechanism and as a viable route to social upward mobility. One incredibly famous facet of this, the GI Bill, has existed for eighty years, having been signed into law in mid-1944. This law, formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, was signed into law in the latter half of June 1944. In addition to the military serving as a means out of poverty by providing service members with access to the opportunity to get an education, the military served as an organic vessel by which many people could learn of the potential of anti-racism and integration. This link, while not often explicitly discussed, has been acknowledged by civil rights groups before.

While there is an understandable mental link between the military and destruction in the minds of many people, the truth is a bit more nuanced than that. Many who work in the military build things, be it military infrastructure or projects designed to serve as public works, with one famous example of this mindset being the United States Army Corps of Engineers. This branch of the American Army has three primary focus areas: its engineering regiment, military construction, and civil works. It’s easy to focus on the military’s destructive capabilities, but this ignores the more important and long-term work done by many service members.

On a more personal note, I think many humanistic servicemembers, veterans, or their family members owe some of their humanism to the military. I am an “Army Brat”—a term only somewhat, sometimes, affectionately used to refer to the children of members of the army—and I personally believe that a great deal of what eventually led me to leave Christianity behind and become a secular humanist were traits I gained due to the sometimes chaotic nature of my upbringing.

One important trait I gained due to my upbringing was a willingness to take new ideas and beliefs in stride both pragmatically, as a tool for survival and building connections, but also as a genuine part of an appreciation of new beliefs I gained due to my exposure to a wide variety of ideas. There is a significant cultural shock one experiences going from rural North Carolina to the metropolitan parts of Honduras like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, and I enjoyed the transition when my father’s job led to my mother and I packing up and moving because I had already been flexible before. This same flexibility contributed to me going from being a young earth creationist to a theistic evolutionist and eventually an atheistic appreciator of biology and natural history. And if this is the case for me as a child of a servicemember I can only imagine how much more profound it must be for an actual soldier.

Another important trait that is linked to my humanism and is due to my upbringing is a certain level of bravery I have in challenging bad ideas. One thing I was taught to appreciate due to the chaotic nature that comes from moving every few years, something many children of servicemembers know all too well, is the courage it takes to be disruptive, which can be easy to appreciate when you have to endure being disruptive through no fault of your own every few years. I would often be forced to intrude on delicate webs of social networks when I first arrived in new places, so I got used to hearing bad ideas that have a momentum all their own and challenging them both actively and passively. Sometimes I’d be the first atheist people had met, or the first openly queer person they had a chance to get to know, and so I’d experience the consequences of their bad ideas, which has made me courageous when it comes to challenging long-held notions. This truth for me, as an army brat, is in all likelihood even more true for many soldiers, particularly other marginalized and minoritized servicemembers such as those who are queer or who are religious minorities.

There are many humanistic sides to the military, ones which often go unappreciated. From the long and surprisingly progressive history of the practical consequences of the military’s willingness to serve as a testing ground for bold ideas, to the consequences of being a child of a servicemember, the military is oftentimes a more humanistic place than one might think. I hope this personal insight allows you to appreciate the military a bit more, while also making you think a bit more deeply about what it’s like being both a servicemember and a close relative and loved one of theirs. The military has shaped my life in more ways than I can consciously articulate and I know my experience as a family member of a servicemember who inadvertently became a humanist is far from unique.