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A Libertarian Defense of Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day

In response to my Veteran’s Day post, my friend Jonathan sent me an email pointing out some possible libertarian objections to the celebration of Armistice day.  The points that he raises are valid ones, and certainly demand carefully considered answer.

He quotes Will Wilkinson who, in his twitter feed, posts two messages to the effect that we ought not absolve soldiers of blame for fighting in unjust wars.  By implication, then, we ought not celebrate the efforts and sacrifices of American soldiers who fight in America’s conflicts unless those conflicts themselves are wholly just.

So how can a libertarian, or a person with libertarian sympathies mark a holiday commemorating the soldiers that serve one’s nation, and do so regardless of how just or unjust the conflicts in which they fight?  Personally, my answer is twofold.  First of all, on a personal and emotional level, I come from a family with a proud tradition of military service.  There have been American servicemen in my family for at least the past three generations, possibly more.  My father was a Navy man, my brother a Marine.  They’re proud of their service and I’m proud of them.  This provides me the motivation for the observance of Veteran’s day.

Of course personal emotional appeals are not arguments.  As a libertarian, I have certain ideological obligations, one of which is to personal responsibility.  This would seem to imply that soldiers ought be held accountable for fighting in unjust conflicts.  On closer examination, however, I don’t think this is a necessity and, in fact, is a pretty shallow way of looking at the problem.

First of all, soldiers are under particularly immediate and brutal control of the state, which can and does punish them for refusing orders.  These punishments can include the state murdering the soldier for refusing to participate in a conflict in which he’s been ordered to fight.  See, for instance, the sad fate of Eddie Slovik, who was executed by firing squad for desertion in 1945.  A soldier’s refusal to fight a war (either due to concerns over the unjust nature of the conflict or, as in Slovik’s case, to baser concerns) carries with it the risk of severe punishment by the state.  In this sense, the lot of the soldier is one of inherent coercion.  They don’t have the option of simply recusing themselves from a conflict.

Eddie Slovik’s lot in life highlights another important aspect of the stories of many soldiers: he was drafted.  Not only was he subject to the above-mentioned brutal coercion, but he wasn’t even there by his own free choice.  This, in fact, was the lot of literally millions of men in the 20th century alone.

So where, then, does this leave an idealogically committed libertarian?  Many soldiers sign up out of a genuine desire to serve their country and their society.  Many soldiers sign up either in times of peace or during morally justifiable conflicts.  In doing so, they sign themselves over to the state and place themselves at risk of serious repurcussions if they refuse the orders of the state.  In essence, after having signed up for laudable reasons, they are placed in the unenviable position of having to either a.) fighting an unjust war or b.) facing the wrath of the state.  The blame, then, for their coerced conduct in unjust wars is perhaps better reserved for the state that, in essence, tells them “fight this war, or be severely punished.”

Unenviable choices, to be sure.  The case gets even worse for those who have been forced into service by the state by a draft.  They don’t even place themselves under the military coercion of the state voluntarily.

I think this means that the vast majority of soldiers don’t have an honest say in whether they serve in just or unjust conflicts.  Many, in fact, don’t have any choice at all in whether or not they serve.  And yet they perform a necessary social function and one of the few that I believe is the proper role of the state: the defense of the citizens from foreign aggression.  It makes sense to me to be grateful for those that fulfill this duty.

Another point raised in Jonathan’s email, and also in a Jacob T. Levy post to which Jon linked, was that Armistice Day marks the end of a bloody war that was based largely on petty nationalism and horrendous, pigheaded stupidity.  And I guess to me, it makes sense to celebrate the end of such things.  Just because the war was the result of the short-sighted arrogance of the few doesn’t invalidate the desire to celebrate the end of a conflict of millions of lives.  Should we always be mindful of the fact that the war was the result largely of petty nationalistic grudges?  Yes.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t also mark the occasion of its end with a somber rememberance of the human cost of such a folly.

(Side Note: for a thorough, though occasionally dry, explication of the run up to the first World War, I highly recommend Laurence Lafore’s The Long Fuse.)

Jonathan also goes on to point out that some commanders used the impending Armistice to launch last-minute assaults, trying to take as much turf as possible.  I don’t think this is any sort of objection to the observance of Armistice Day or Veteran’s Day.  If anything, it serves to underscore the hideous brutality that was being put to an end in Compiègne.  That thousands of men were lost in the final hours due to the heinous actions of their commanders doesn’t nullify the fact that World War I was a prolonged and terrible conflict, the end of which is a fitting occasion for celebration and observance.

So in short, by all means, let’s thank our veterans for doing our duty.  But let us also reproach the state that sends them into unjust conflicts.  Let us try our damnedest to change the state so that we don’t get involved in any unjust conflicts that they will need to fight.  Let us never again reinstate the draft, so that we won’t have any more poor Eddie Sloviks.  As libertarians, let us do the best we can to hammer the state back into its constrained and enumerated responsibilities and powers.

But in doing so, let’s not blame soldiers for the sins of the state.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics.

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