Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Military Philosophy and Pacifism, Part 1

I’ve been wanting to write about the military for a long time.  It’s a difficult subject.  Like with most things, there’s a lot of nuance in my opinions, and because I care about people on nearly every side of the issue, it’s not something I get emotionally worked up about, but sometimes I feel like I should.  Rather than giving only  my opinion, I’ve written a list of questions that I will answer for myself, and I’ve asked some friends to answer them also (their entries will be up once I receive them back).  My hope is that the group of answers will give food for thought, regardless of one’s current opinion.  There are no easy answers to problems of violence, but I’m optimistic that there’s still room for progress to be made.

What is your religious affiliation, if any?
    The most succinct way I can answer this question is that I’m a recovering atheist.

Politically, what are the issues that are most important to you?
    I’m a huge proponent of people being more important than money.  So, issues like marriage equality, equal pay for women, lowering the income gap between workers are bosses, and universal health care are very important to me.  Support for marriage equality and opposition to the death penalty are probably the only two issues that I’m 100% unwilling to budge on.

Do you have a political party affiliation?
    I’m registered as a Democrat, but am considering switching to the Green party, mostly because of the issues discussed below.
Please describe your involvement in the military, if any

 Questions about the military and violence

What do you think the function of the military should be (ideally, not based on any current situations)?
    It saddens me that we need a military in the first place.   In a perfect world, conflict would be resolved peacefully through negotiation, compromise, and a common respect for the humanity of everyone involved.  Obviously that’s not the world we live in.  I’m realistic enough to admit that a military has to exist, but I’m not sure that it has to exist for any purpose besides defense (and when I say defense, I mean the opposite of offense).  I think the libertarians have it right when it comes to the military.  If it must exist, it should exist to defend the citizens of our country, within our own country, and whenever possible, without the use of violence.

In what situations, if any, is it acceptable for our military to set foot on foreign soil?
    I have trouble justifying this in any circumstance.  In my view, our military traveling abroad to impose the will of the USA via violence, or the threat of violence, is not justifiable on moral grounds.  It attempts to resolve disagreement through physical force, rather than with respect and care towards other people.  The obvious problem with this is that our “enemies” are no more inclined towards peace, and can’t be counted on to act peacefully.  There’s not an easy answer to this dilemma, and I don’t pretend to have one.  But I’m confident that trading dead bodies is not going to resolve whatever conflict we might be sending our military to resolve.

In what situations is it acceptable to kill foreign soldiers?
    If it’s on their turf, I don’t think it is acceptable.  It’s hard to argue that our military is defending me thousands of miles outside my country.  Since we’re discussing philosophy more than current events, I’ll avoid Bush’s wars, but in general, there don’t seem to be many, if any, instances of others directly threatening Americans in a manner that can be resolved by traveling to their country and killing them, without making the situation worse.

In any current military conflicts, do you think the people that are dying as a result of war have anything to do with the decisions that led to the war?  Morally, what does it say about a country if a conflict has to be resolved through violence?
   One of the easy criticisms of war is that it’s started by those who have little risk of being harmed, and fought mostly by those whose best life path was to join the military (how different would things be if the draft were still in place - I suggest we‘d think more carefully about going to war if our children were unwilling participants).  While there is certainly bravery involved in signing up to fight, I don’t agree with our national sense of pride over being a soldier.  This would be different if our soldiers were kept here in a defensive role, but today’s soldier signs up to be sent around the world either threatening violence to strangers, or enacting it, and I don’t see the nobility in that.  We’re so often told that our soldiers are “defending our freedom,” or “fighting for their country,” but my freedom is not something that anyone can take away from the other side of the world.  The ideas of equality and liberty are not threatened  - not by Muslim extremists, not by anybody.  They are ideas born of evolved thinking and moral goodness.  To kill others out of a false fear that someone wants to take our rights away (as if they could) makes a mockery of the ideas on the first place.  It’s to say, “we recognize we are equal, and we will kill you to prove it.”  Defense of values by violence says that American humanity is greater than the humanity of those we deem our enemies.  Do our enemies not also want happiness?  Do they not also believe in their own humanity, and the right to live the way they want to?  There has to be a better way to allow everyone freedom than to kill those with the least physical power.

  What do you think about pacifist ideology?
  I know a lot of pacifists.  I respect the purity of their philosophy, and I wish I could call myself one.  But for mostly intuitive reasons, I can’t quite there, for the reasons below.

Do you make a distinction between violence by a group (like the military), and violence conducted by an individual on a personal level?
     I think it’s a big distinction, and it’s the reason why pacifism ultimately doesn’t quite attract me.  Military violence is cold, calculated, intentional, and attempts to settle disputes with might rather than intellect.  Personal violence is often the same, but not always.  It’s not usually a good idea to develop philosophy based on unlikely scenarios, but I do in this case.  To put it simply, were a member of my family in direct, immediate danger of death or serious injury by another person, and it was only in my power to prevent it by causing death or serious injury, I would do it.  I think nature shows this to be a natural response worldwide.  In that moment, an idealist philosophy isn’t going to make me feel better about a dead wife or child, and I don’t think it’s a moral failure to commit violence in that situation.  I don’t have a better explanation than that.

Anything else you want to say?
  There are a decent number of things that cause an instant recoil when I see them.  One of the big ones over the last 12 years is the hero worship being given to the American soldier.  After 9/11, the American flag wasn’t just a country symbol, it became the symbol of might over right, of unapologetic bluster, of ignorant rhetoric instead of careful consideration.  Eventually, the country realized its mistake, and we have largely become hesitant about war once again.  But the solder worship continues.  We can talk poorly of our teachers, scientists, politicians, and police, but god help us if we criticize our instruments of war.  We are asked to believe that the young men and women of our armed forces are out there somehow preventing our freedoms from being taken away, and dying for the American utopia of freedom and justice, but I don’t see the cause and effect.  I don’t believe that if our military were smaller, and kept at home, that our liberties would disappear.  And I don’t believe that a soldier dying because of a roadside bomb has any correlation to whether America will continue to be a great nation.  These are preventable deaths, they’re tragic deaths, but if we‘re going to call them heroic deaths, I propose we need to assess what it means to be a hero, and apply the word equally to civil servants, ranging from teachers and police to scientists and authors.

Following an order to kill is not valiant, nor is being killed while doing it.  I grieve our lost soldiers, and I have known a few of them.  But if the pageantry involved in a military funeral is bestowed even on those who have done little more than volunteer and show up, let us equally honor the lives of those who served their country through non-violence, peace, and the education of society.  Let’s not treat our soldiers poorly, as we did after Vietnam, and some on the left did in the early 2000s.  But let’s also not elevate them to being better than the rest of us simply because of their bravery in the face of potential death.  We’re all people, we all live and die, and as much as possible, we all serve our country the best we can.

That said, for those who do follows their orders, and suffer physical and mental harm because of it, we must improve our medical and psychological treatment for them.  I’ll let my friend Nick speak to this in greater detail in his entry, but our VA system is struggling mightily to keep its promises.  The patriotic zeal with which we send our friends into battle seems to disappear once they need something in return.  If our tax dollars can send them to death’s door, surely those same dollars can help repair the damage once they come home.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments, either on the blog or on Facebook.  Thanks.

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