As we take time this Veterans Day to honor those who have served in the US Armed Forces, we must, as humanists, take time to understand the cost of military service as well. American exceptionalism underscores many expressions of patriotism, and humanists commonly reject that concept. We are too aware of widespread systematic racism and patriarchy, science denial, industrial and commercial waste, gun violence, and Christian nationalism, among other cancers infecting American culture. Yet we also know the US has the resources and liberties to be the greatest nation on earth, even if that ideal is far from our current reality. We advocate for peace because we are too aware of the atrocities war brings. We should also be aware of the atrocities that exist in the absence of war, whole peoples under threat of oppression and genocide under chaotic or dictatorial regimes, but for the force of arms. We honor those who serve not with blind faith in American virtue, but out of respect for those who have made hard choices and put their lives on the line for values we all hold dear.
I remember being named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year in 2003. Not me personally, of course, but “The American Soldier.” I was serving in Baghdad with the Army’s 1st Armored Division. I was honored while at the same time deeply conflicted about my service in that war at that time. I had seen, with the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing chaos in the country, an America that seemed far more concerned with enforcing democracy and capitalism than with liberating a people from oppression. Despite military and political scandals, the troops I interacted with directly and heard about were all deeply concerned with protecting Iraqis and the Iraqi nation. Iraqis worked on installations in large numbers. Despite rousing celebrations after the capture of Saddam Hussein just two weeks before the TIME article came out, we knew that the country was far from stable. The civilians still suffered, and we were trying to do less harm with no clear path to bring the peace we promised. We were in a war that seemed more effective at promoting imperialism and capitalism than humanitarian values.
That conflict of ideals and reality, apparent to me and others I served with, was part of our shared struggle. Being in a desert in a war zone with pressing daily military missions to carry out provided plenty of stress. Add to that the moral dissonance of what that war meant, and it should be easy to understand why military personnel need support. Remember also that whatever reasons people give for serving in the military, those reasons change as each person matures. When I enlisted at the age of eighteen, directly out of high school, I had no idea what I was doing. In hindsight, I had a desire to give back to a prosperous nation looked up to around the world, but that was still teenage justification. In mid-2003, prior to arming myself and going to a foreign desert, I had to decide what justification I had to join an invading military force.
However, my decision to deploy to war could not be made purely in that moment. My original oath to serve was nearly a decade in the past, and I had renewed it every day. I was to some extent obligated by my earlier commitment. I deployed purely for the purpose of helping the Iraqi people. I wanted to be part of a larger effort to help the Iraqi people and also to support fellow military personnel who needed me as part of their team. And I had faith, a secular faith, that our military and even our politicians would carry out that war in the right way for the right reasons. In hindsight, I’m not sure that happened. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued with more than just US forces. It’s unclear if there has been much, if any, humanitarian benefit. Discussions of ISIS, Iran, Syria, Kurds, and other factors involved in the assessment of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are not within the scope of this article. The point is that our military personnel don’t always have the benefit of hindsight or the wisdom of age.
When joining the military, there is a practical abdication of one’s own moral agency in service of the directives of US political leadership. When superiors say go and fight, you go and fight. While any service member is required by military law to refuse any unlawful or immoral order, it’s very difficult for line-level personnel to have enough information or understanding to second-guess the political directives passed down from so far above. Most humanists, and even military personnel, have expressed grave concerns about the current political direction for our military. However, grave concern over leadership does not translate to immediate authorization to refuse orders, a justification to resign from the military, or a general mandate to refuse all military service. Before advocating against military service or military service members, consider the option to support rather than protest.
“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” —Thomas Paine
Humanists aspire to create an entire world where humanity is in harmony. Yet humanists also have a strong commitment to science, reason, and reality. We recognize that the world we live in is one of wealth inequality, dictators, child poverty, and genocide. We live in a world not just of “first world problems” but of soul-crushing tragedy. That is where our military should come in. Humanists should speak up about the need for military force when applicable. Those humanitarian crises around the world that need not diplomacy and hugs but force of arms to drive bad men out of power. It is a slippery slope to advocate violence as a solution for violence. Humanists should speak up when our military is misused to invade “distasteful” or “un-American” or even ”undemocratic” regimes, rather than to resolve true humanitarian crises.
Decisions of when and how to serve are heartfelt, difficult decisions that have faced all our veterans. Our veterans have written a blank check with their lives at risk. That is how strongly they are committed to their ideals. In that sense, show respect for their commitment to their values. They have put their integrity on the line as well, and many wrestle as I do with whether our political leaders effectively and ethically used our military. If you dissent from political misuse of the military, speak up as that is part of honoring those who served. This is over and above the trauma, loss, and personal hardship most veterans endured during their service. For all these reasons, personal conviction, sacrifice, and trauma, I hope that humanists will come out in force this Veterans Day to honor all who have or are currently serving in the military.