Salute all who benefit the public, but recognize the uniqueness of military service

In their essay, “Whose deaths deserve to be honored,” James Joyner and Pauline Shanks Kaurin evince a curiously blinkered view of military service, and seem oddly vexed about the American public’s affection for those who serve and have served in the armed forces.

What makes their post particularly puzzling—and, indeed, disappointing—is that Joyner is a professor at the Marine Corps University and Kaurin is one at the Naval War College.

Prof Kaurin

Joyner and Kaurin say they are starting a “conversation” about “whose sacrifices should be honored by the nation” in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic and essentially suggest that those who perform “less-heralded jobs that benefit society” in some way are just as deserving of public honor as the military.  According to the professors, the public has gone too far in “privileging military service above all others.”

Obviously, it’s up to the public to decide who they wish to honor and to what degree, but it doesn’t appear likely that the pandemic will change their minds appreciably about the high confidence they have in the armed forces.  Unlike Joyner and Kaurin the public so far seems to be able to acknowledge the wonderful contributions of the many civilians who do terrific things for our country, yet still grasp what makes military service so unique.

Prof. Joyner

Of course, it is certainly true, as the professors say, that “military personnel aren’t the only ones who risk their lives in the service of the community.”  They are also absolutely correct to point to the “heroism of the police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians.”  Furthermore, it is no doubt accurate that, as the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates, “doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals…often risk their lives to keep others safe.”

(As to the last contention, however, it may be worth noting that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, as of June 26th there were 472 COVID-19 deaths among the nation’s 18 million healthcare workers, as opposed to 124,325 fatalities among 329,853,965 people in the U.S.  Do the math yourself, but I think you will find that healthcare workers suffer a significantly lower lethality rate than the public at large.  It is also not known how many of those healthcare worker deaths were a result of performing their duties.)

Unfortunately, the writers use the heroism of these civilians during the pandemic to, as I say, grouse about the public’s “privileging military service above all others.”   In their minds, it seems the only factor to be considered is the voluntary assumption of physical risk, and they indicate they think service in the armed forces is no more dangerous than some civilian jobs.

WW II Memorial

And they go yet further as they seem upset about what they term as “hagiography” surrounding much of the “Greatest Generation’s” World War II service (and that of draftees in other wars).  They appear to discount that service because “large swaths of those who served on the front lines were conscripts, not volunteers.”

Does this mean that the courage and character draftees so often displayed “on the front lines” should be devalued in some way simply because they were conscripts?  Let’s ask this: why shouldn’t the honorable service of all draftees during wartime especially be worthy of enduring esteem?  After all, even during World War II, only about 7% of the population was drafted and served.

Isn’t this small percentage of American society who bravely faced the rigors of military service in the most deadly war in human history still deserving of special praise and recognition?

The unique obligations of military service

The professors seem unable to distinguish between civilians voluntarily undertaking a demanding public service position, and those who join the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) that is today’s military.  Should we assume that soldiers who commit to the AVF are no different from civilians who take risky jobs here at home?

Absolutely not.  While it is truly commendable for civilians to serve their communities, the profession to which the soldier is joining carries profoundly different and decidedly burdensome requirements.  As the Supreme Court observes:

“To prepare for and perform its vital role, the military must insist upon a respect for duty and a discipline without counterpart in civilian life. The laws and traditions governing that discipline have a long history, but they are founded on unique military exigencies as powerful now as in the past.” (Emphasis added.)

Here are just a few examples of what the Court was talking about:

No matter what the situation, no quitting

For example, a civilian police officer, firefighter, or health professional can always quit if they decide their job is too dangerous, too challenging or they simply come to dislike it.  And they do quit – sometimes at the least auspicious moment.  In 2005, nearly 250 New Orleans police officers left their posts without permission during Hurricane Katrina necessitating the deployment of thousands of troops to provide security and other assistance for the devastated city.

More recently, reports show that police officers across the country are quitting their jobs, as are some public health officials—notwithstanding the pandemic, as they have the right to do.  However, unlike civilians who only risk continued employment if they walk away in a crisis, military personnel have no right to leave their ‘job’, and face serious criminal sanctions if they quit their posts.

Obeying all lawful orders, even distasteful ones

The option civilians have to quit manifests itself in another way.  Unlike civilians, military personnel are required to obey all lawful orders, even if they disagree with them for moral reasons.

As the Manual for Courts-Martial puts it, the “dictates of a person’s conscience, religion, or personal philosophy cannot justify or excuse the disobedience of an otherwise lawful order.”  A civilian can just walk away if confronted with a lawful order he or she nevertheless finds too distasteful.

The solider’s responsibilities are quite different.  In Chappell v. Wallace the Supreme Court explained:

“The inescapable demands of military discipline and obedience to orders cannot be taught on battlefields; the habit of immediate compliance with military procedures and orders must be virtually reflex, with no time for debate or reflection.”

Sacrificing constitutional rights

Military personnel sacrifice constitutional rights civilians take for granted.  The Supreme Court points out that “the rights of men in the armed forces must perforce be conditioned to meet certain overriding demands of discipline and duty. . . ”

Among the rights particularly impacted are those the First Amendment provides.  Again, the Court puts it succinctly:

“The military need not encourage debate or tolerate protest to the extent that such tolerance is required of the civilian state by the First Amendment; to accomplish its mission, the military must foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps.”

Thus, those in the military live in a world that criminalizes conduct fully lawful in a civilian setting.  For example, military law makes it a crime to use “contemptuous words” about certain civilian leaders—something for which no civilian police officer, firefighter, medical provider, or essential worker could be prosecuted.

Late for work?  Cowardly?  A civilian might be fired, but a soldier could be jailed…or worse (military personnel can be executed for at least 15 different offenses under military law).

Those in the military must be ready to lay down their lives to protect rights for civilians that they themselves are unable to exercise.  And what is the scope of that responsibility?  According to the Washington Post the “U.S. is bound by treaties to defend a quarter of humanity” which is why America’s armed forces, distinct from virtually every other military across the globe, is a truly global force.

 Deploying wherever/whenever

The worldwide responsibilities of the American military means that the substantial legal obligations exclusively imposed upon those in the armed forces are hardly the only differences between military and civilian public servants.

U.S. troops must be ever ready to go anywhere on the planet where they are needed.  The duty to deploy when told to do so is an intrinsic aspect of military life, and it’s also an ancient one: the Bible famously quotes a Roman centurion: “For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh.

The contrast with civilians is stark: civilian police officers, firefighters, or health professionals typically perform their service near home, while military members—and their families—are always subject to the specter of overseas deployment, something more than 2.8 million troops have done since 9/11.

There is enormous sacrifice involved.  Mental health professionals readily agree that deployments carry a price [for] soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and their families pay [that] is always considerable.”

Indeed, it is hard to comprehend how the professors could have overlooked the differentiating—and costly—impact of deployments.  A RAND report put it plainly:

In study after study, deployment has been associated with poorer mental health in military families, behavioral problems in children, a higher risk of divorce, and higher rates of suicide.  Not surprisingly, service members and spouses regularly name deployments as the most stressful aspect of military life.

People in the military in almost every career field do deploy.  And virtually everyone in uniform lives under the shadow of being required at almost any time to deploy to harm’s way far from family and friends.

Not only do these professors not even acknowledge the sacrifice that deployments uniquely impose upon all military personnel and their families, their sneer that “most of those who serve in the military, even in wartime, don’t engage in hand-to-hand combat” is especially churlish.

The obvious truth of the post-9/11 conflicts is that they are rarely about “hand-to-hand combat” as the professors appear to think.  Rather, all troops deployed to a combat zone are at authentic risk from the enemy.  As one writer put it:

“In Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no front line, no enemy soldiers in uniforms.  Death constantly hovers in the hot air as terrorists use unconventional tactics such as improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.” (Emphasis added.)

Most stressful job in America

This may be key as to why civilian experts conclude that “enlisted military personnel” have the most stressful job in America, over firefighters and police officers—even though the troops only make a fraction of what civilian civil servants do.  (No healthcare occupation made the top ten “most stressful” jobs.)  In fact, the ten least stressful jobs in America all typically paid a higher salary than enlisted military personnel.

A mission like no other

ICBM Launch facility

More than that, everyone who joins the military becomes part of an institution that has a mission fundamentally unlike that of any other in our society.  The Supreme Court explains it in a straightforward manner: the “differences between the military and civilian communities result from the fact that ‘it is the primary business of armies and navies to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.’”

Fighting wars means being required to be part of a process that, ultimately, can involve the systematic killing of other human beings in the name of the state.  In a modern, high-tech force with many complexities, the contribution those in uniform play in that process may be hard for civilians to understand, but the fact is that everyone in the military knows they play a role in “the primary business of armies and navies.”

B-2 stealth bomber

This is just not the same as a police officer who might shoot a criminal suspect as a last resort in self-defense or in defense of another.  Rather, it is often about lawfully killing enemy combatants who at the moment of their death might have presented no specific threat to the particular military member who is obliged to kill him or her.  (The law of war generally permits targeting based merely on an individual’s status as a member of an enemy armed force, even if unarmed at the moment of attack.)

This is one reason I believe military members, like drone pilots, may suffer mental trauma and high rates of PTSD even though they “may be far from the battlefield” and don’t engage in “hand-to-hand” combat as these academics conceive it.  Again, the fact is that all military members are part of the process in some way, and though perfectly legal under the law of war, may nevertheless find the experience psychologically wrenching.

The various stresses of military life take their toll.  Though the causes are not always clear, it is a sad reality that, as the Military Times reported last fall, “[v]eterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Americans who never served in the military” and “[f]or female veterans, the risk factor is 2.2 times more likely.”

Connection does not amount to identity or even to similarity

It is a serious mistake to conclude that simply because the tasks civilians perform may seem similar to those performed by the military, the two forms of public service are therefore coterminous.  As I’ve said elsewhere:

It is easy for civilians to think that military occupations are interchangeable with a seemingly similar job in civilian life.  However, the eminent military historian John Keegan (who, though without military experience himself, taught for years at the British military academy Sandhurst) relates something worth pondering, based on his “life cast among warriors.”  Soldiers, he said,

“…are not as other men…[that] lesson has taught me to view with extreme suspicion all theories and representations of war that equate it with any other activity in human affairs…Connection does not amount to identity or even to similarity …. War…must be fought by men whose values and skills [differ]….They are those of a world apart, a very ancient world, which exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong to it.”

One may argue whether those in the military who perform duties that some think are “civilian” in nature are “warriors,” but the real point is that in order to be truly effective at these putatively “civilian” endeavors within military culture, one must embrace a “life cast among warriors” and all the burdens doing so entails.  It really is that simple.

The “best of America”

President Barack Obama seems to have understood how the military is distinct when in 2009 he asked:

“What tugs at a person until he or she says “Send me”?  Why, in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of the narrowest self-interest, have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others?  Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?(Emphasis added.)

Whatever it is, they felt some tug; they answered a call; they said “I’ll go.”  That is why they are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform—their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met? (Emphasis added.)

It seems that notwithstanding Joyner’s and Kaurin’s opinion, most Americans share President Obama’s view that those who “answered the call” have been willing to “bear the heaviest burden” and “are the best of America.”

Don’t begrudge America’s affection for those who serve and have served

Finally, just to be crystal clear, we should be extremely grateful for all those who have taken risks to serve the common good during the COVID-19 pandemic, to include first responders, healthcare workers, and the millions of workers who have performed essential services of every kind.  In terms of those who have died, there is no hierarchy of grief—everyone mourns for those who have been struck down by this horrible disease.

To reiterate, we should honor the brave Americans—heroes, really—here at home who have stepped up during this crisis.

But that does not require begrudging special affection and enormous respect the nation reserves for those who serve and have served in the armed forces.  We can salute all the tremendous efforts so many civilians expend to help our country while still realizing the unique and different sacrifices made by those in the military.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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