When Gratitude is Bad

Posted: July 20, 2011 in Ethics, Military
Tags: , ,

Will Wilkinson writes,

Capt. Matthew Nielson, 27, of Jefferson died June 29, in Badrah, Iraq. He was killed by indirect fire attack while on duty in Iraq, Iowa National Guard officials said in a news release issued Sunday.

Nielson was UNI grad, like me. Like me, he worked in a grocery store as a high-school student. He died in the course of an unjust war that has nothing do with protecting our freedom. Had I been born a decade later, he could have been me. It makes me sick to think about. Would his life have been wasted like this if Americans did not so strenuously insist on lying to one another about what it is our military men and women really do? Who does it help to continue to so effusively thank Matthew Nielson’s luckier comrades for their service and our freedom? Our gratitude is a rain of grenades over the senior high. Bright-eyed American boys and girls stare smiling down the smoking barrel of our thanks, dying to please.

If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been largely unjust, what are we thanking our soldiers for?  Putting their lives on the line to achieve an ambiguous goal that has little to nothing to do with protecting America’s freedom?  Fighting for injustice?

Wilkinson’s posts interests me because he suggests we ask, “Is our thanks detrimental to the lives of the very soldiers we thank?”  Our expressed gratitude “for our soldiers’ service” rather than for specific acts that advance our security encourages military action without an end.  That is, it encourages military action for the sake of military action.  Yet fighting wars is not the job of our soldiers, nor is military action an end in itself.  Soldiers defend liberty.  Soldiers don’t “fight wars.”  Fighting wars which do not defend liberty leads to the unnecessary deaths of our brothers, sisters, parents, and children.  Our gratitude to our soldiers obscufates our opposition to the immensely unjust “duties” of our soldiers.

Wilkinson waxes poetically yet appropriately.  Most people, especially libertarians, would argue that we are not fighting a “just war” in Afghanistan.  By building an aura of honor and justice around our soldiers’ service in Afghanistan, we not only lie to ourselves about the very real injustice of our military policy, but incentivize others to join in our unholy crusade against the rest of the world.  We signal the wrong message to our soldiers: their individual actions are just but the aggregate war is unjust.  How can this possibly be, if wars are composed of individuals acting on a case-by-case basis?  We believe a war’s injustice comes from abstract principles and notions of justice, but fundamentally justice is not a characteristic of an aggregate, of a nation, but rather of individual action and discretion.


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