Soldiers of Burden

Outsourcing Duty: The Moral Exploitation of the American Soldier
by Michael J. Robillard and Bradley J. Strawser
Oxford University Press
240 pp., $35.00

War is awful. Full stop. On that, just about everyone agrees. It would be superb to have a world without it.

Alas, we do not have that world. We have this one, where war—whatever the uncompromised pacifist would like to believe—is not altogether avoidable. And any society that would be prepared for such an event must have soldiers.

Outsourcing Duty tackles the moral issues that arise in countries where it is possible for a large majority of citizens to avoid military service and to isolate themselves from the risks and the moral responsibilities that soldiers face.

The book was written by two professors and published by an academic press, yet it treats soldiers and their work in a fair-minded manner that is increasingly hard to find among academics. The authors, veterans themselves, are admirably bipartisan in their staunch criticism of the emergence and growth of our military hubris. The Bush administration, for example, used bogus claims about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction in order to push a barely concealed regime-change operation that was never approved by the American public. Under President Obama, America targeted and killed many foreign adversaries—also without any substantive deliberation on the part of the public. The military actions of both administrations are evidence of a growing problem.

Robillard and Strawser argue that American soldiers, or at least some of them, are victims of moral exploitation. This form of exploitation occurs when they are burdened with serious moral decision-making that affects others, who are then freed from that same burden. The effects of the moral exploitation of soldiers are profound and dangerous for the country. The soldiers end up bearing the entire cost of any sacrifice required for military actions, and the rest of us are then free to neglect altogether the serious business of weighing military actions against the cost of soldiers’ lives. We can go blindly on with our quotidian business while soldiers fall on the battlefield. In a republic based on democratic ideals, this will not do, the authors argue. A more equitable sharing of the moral responsibility of war is the only way to insulate ourselves from the potential dangers of our current arrangement.

The problem is made worse by the fact that those who serve in the military are disproportionately drawn from a limited subsection of the country—and one despised by many of our cultural and economic elites. Rural, working class, Southern men and members of military families are overrepresented in the ranks of this morally exploited soldierly class. That military service typically begins early in life adds to the possibility of exploitation, as we might wonder how well prepared high school seniors are to make the decision of taking on such responsibility and risk.

Exploitation also frequently breeds antipathy on the part of the exploited toward those who are benefiting from their exploitation. The authors note that there is growing evidence of distance and disdain on both sides in the relationship between soldiers and the civilian ranks.

Moral exploitation is a tremendously clarifying notion, but the book’s perspective is limited by the authors’ uncritical and expansive view of democracy. However much we may admire the political principle, it has its limits, and war is one of the domains in which democracy runs up against those limits with some frequency.

In a society like ours, where much of the citizenry is either physically or cognitively unfit to serve in the military, can a universal national service ever be anything but a mirage? The authors avoid taking an explicit policy stance on this issue, though it is clear they believe that all citizens should have moral responsibilities in war-making. But realistically, how much decision-making power should the average citizen have regarding matters he certainly knows nothing about, and about which he likely cannot or will not be educated? Some of the currently non-serving public can be made competent to assume positions in the military or in national service, but many cannot.

This problem with attempting to democratize service is indirectly acknowledged by the authors. Many citizens in our democracy, they observe, fail to comprehend why anyone would voluntarily serve. They see military service as something all rational people avoid, and indeed, it is perfectly rational to free-ride on the labor of others so long as there is no penalty for doing so.

The authors’ belief about how much moral responsibility everyone in a democracy must embrace is admirable but unrealistic. We make it impossible to culturally train citizens to a default desire to serve their country. We dilute the notion of American identity to the thinnest of brews and bring in a constant stream of immigrants from distant cultures whom we refuse to assimilate. How can a country that teaches its college students to despise traditional American cultural values hope to bring those children into national service and imagine that such could be accomplished without bitter resistance? Not quite half of Americans support even a single year of mandatory national service, and nearly 60 percent of the group most affected—those under 30 years old—reject the idea.

Since I am among the majority of Americans who lack military experience, I spoke with two friends who happen to be veterans, to get insider perspectives. One of them served in the Army and the other in the Air Force; one of them is currently employed in advocacy work for the needs of veterans.

My friends were intrigued with the notion of moral exploitation, although one raised a crucially important point. To speak of “exploitation” with regard to those who serve runs the risk of reducing soldiers to yet another victimized population. In defining them so narrowly, they are robbed of their autonomy and their free will. So long as soldiers choose to enlist, my friend suggested, it would be problematic to describe them with the language of victimhood. A soldier’s position is inevitably subject to exploitation even while the individual who freely selects to occupy that position must be considered in a more morally nuanced way.

Further, my friends did not believe that the question of moral exploitation could be effectively solved by mandatory national service. Though they agreed with the spirit of universal service, they questioned whether our culture would or could support such a shift. And even if it could, such a plan would inevitably involve a division of labor. Some soldiers would be painting buildings stateside while others risked death on foreign battlefields; the moral burden of those tasks is not even close to the same. The difficulty in that case is at best diluted, not eliminated.

Finally, my friends alluded to a problem with the way the military is currently addressing this situation. In the effort to attract populations outside of the traditional military demographics, the services have altered their organizational principles to skew them closer to the practices and principles they observe in the broader culture: in other words, away from the frankly authoritarian and efficient, and toward the identity-based and individualistic. This may make the military more diverse, but it also compromises its ability to do the job it is assigned to do.

In a brilliant paragraph toward the end of the book, Robillard and Strawser imagine where we might end up if our current situation is not addressed. They say that we could well see a class of “bio-enhanced, body-cammed Super Spartans controlled from afar by joysticks in the hands of a civilian demos resembling characters from the movie WALL-E.” If this seems too fanciful, the authors continue, it is no more so than our current state of affairs—where 1 percent of the population shoulders the military responsibility for all the rest—would have seemed to our predecessors of the not-so-distant past.

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