On the Distinction between Civilians and the Military

The men and women who serve in the armed forces of the United States fight for our rights and freedoms, risking life and limb as they do.  At least, that’s the ideal.  Sometimes we begin to wonder if they are actually fighting for something else instead, for reasons less worthy, such as access to oil.  But even then, the people who do the fighting may be assumed to have joined the military for noble purposes, even if in the end ignoble motives lie behind some of the wars they end up fighting.

We honor these brave men and women with medals for a few and parades for the rest.  Politicians regularly praise their sacrifice in speeches, and we listen to those speeches with approval.  We regret the loss of life that is incurred on the battlefield, and we are heartbroken to see the ones who return physically maimed and crippled, mentally shattered and traumatized.  We are angered when we find that these veterans are not receiving the care that they deserve, and we all agree that more should be done.  Yet through it all, we never question the rightness of the ideal.  Without question we support the notion that fighting for our rights and freedoms, even at the cost of life or physical or mental well-being, is a good thing.  Only when we suspect that they are not fighting for our rights and freedoms do we question the war, do we say their sacrifice was in vain, do we say that they were betrayed, as was the case in Vietnam and in the Iraq War.  But as long as the war is actually being fought for our rights and freedoms, we do not question the rightness of their sacrifice.

It has been observed that only a very small percentage of our population actually makes that sacrifice.  Even if we include the immediate families of those in the military, the percentage of the population directly involved in these wars is small.  For this reason, a few have suggested that we bring back the draft.  Instead of forcing the men and women in the military to serve multiple tours of duty in combat, we could use the draft the spread the sacrifice over a larger section of the population.

Officially, the reason the military opposes the draft is that conscription is not suited to the twenty-first century, where a lot more technological expertise is required, requiring a greater investment in training.  The draftee compelled to serve for a couple of years will be gone before he has learned enough to be truly useful.  More cynically, we suspect that the real reason is political.  It is easier to fight wars with a volunteer army.  There are fewer complaints from the civilian population, fewer and smaller marches protesting the war, and less chance that politicians supporting the war will be voted out of office.  But even if we returned to the draft, most of us would remain unaffected.  It would only directly affect those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, leaving a substantial portion of the population immune to the horrors of war.

With the recent terrorist attacks, the one in France and now the one in San Bernardino, a majority of the American people want to send ground troops to fight ISIS.  Moreover, as often happens in such cases, there is a tendency for people to be willing to give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for more security.  Donald Trump, who is the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president, has called for a return of waterboarding “and worse,” and has refused to rule out warrantless searches or the identification of people based on their religion.  Since he made those remarks, his popularity in the polls has increased.

It is precisely here that we see that profound difference between civilians and those in the military.  While it is held to be perfectly appropriate for the men and women in the armed forces to risk life and limb fighting for our rights and freedoms, it is not thought appropriate to ask the civilian population to take the same risks for the same reasons.  What is the justification for this distinction?

We sometimes hear the expression “innocent civilians.”  As opposed to what?  Guilty soldiers?  Presumably the idea is that civilians are not combatants and therefore should not be the victims of military action.  Soldiers should kill other soldiers only, the thinking goes.  Of course, there have been many times where we took action we knew would result in the death of many civilians, as in the firebombing attacks in World War II, not to mention the dropping of two atom bombs.  But it is generally agreed that civilian deaths are to be avoided as much as possible.

While that distinction is still worth observing when it comes to how we treat the enemy, is it really a distinction we should be making with respect to ourselves?  When it comes to the sacrifices that are to be made in defense of our rights and freedoms, should we not demand the same from our civilian population as we expect from our soldiers?  Instead of a literal return to the draft, I advocate a figurative return to a draft in which the entire population of the United States is enlisted in the fight for our rights and freedoms.

As we ask our soldiers to risk being blasted to pieces by IEDs, we civilians should risk being blasted by a pipe bomb in a terrorist attack.  As the men and women risk taking a bullet to preserve our way of life, so too should we risk taking a bullet for the same reason.  Those in the military did not put their security first when they signed up, so why should we think our security is more important than theirs?

We should no more give up our rights and freedoms to prevent future terrorist attacks than a soldier should throw down his rifle and flee the battlefield to avoid being killed.  If the men and women of the armed forces have the courage to face down death for our rights and freedoms, we should not act like cowards, giving up those very rights and freedoms they are willing to die for.

Even were we to do as I suggest, the risk we civilians take would still be less than that taken by those who engage in combat.  But it is the least we can do.  We can best honor the men and women in uniform by proving that we are worthy of the sacrifice they are making.

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