Monthly Archives: May 2022

Let’s Stop Glorifying Soldiers

Today is Memorial Day. This holiday does make me reflect upon the many soldiers who lost their lives while serving in the military. Without doubt it brings great comfort to many. But for me, those thoughts unavoidably drift far beyond merely acknowledging and appreciating their sacrifice. I’m forced to ask, is this level of glorification justified? Is it a good thing? Does it go too far? And does it cause unanticipated and undesired harm?

How justified really is the extremely high level of recognition we ascribe to soldiers on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, at more routine events, and in the many popular references and acknowledgments that are so pervasive throughout our culture? Many may say it’s far too little and too perfunctory. But many others feel our reverence for and romanticization of the military is borderline pathological.

Yes, some soldiers die during their service. But we have many professions that suffer from similarly high death rates, in fact much higher if you only count combat deaths (see here). And if we look at harm to health and well-being more generally, the terrible cost suffered by other professions is even far more pronounced.

But even while acknowledging the actual numbers, we still like to think that military service is special; that soldiers didn’t merely make the ultimate sacrifice in the course of earning a paycheck. We imagine their sacrifice to be more noble because they were selflessly serving their country to protect our freedom and liberty and our democratic way of life.

In reality, that may at times be the big picture result of military service, but many professions likewise serve those same greater goals. But for individual soldiers, claims of noble motivation are highly exaggerated rationalizations. Many studies have shown that the primary motivation for joining the military is simply money. One such study by RAND (see here) identifies five primary reasons that people join the military:

  • Adventure and Travel
  • Benefits
  • Job Stability and Pay
  • Escaping a Negative Environment
  • Job Training

None of these driving motivations have anything to do with defending freedom and democracy. They are all simply based upon personal gain. Now, that’s not to say that serving a noble cause is not important to many in the military. But for most it’s secondary at best and a rationalization at worst.

That is not as true of many other service professions. Teachers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and many in legal, medical, or other service professions do often cite helping others as primary motivations for working in difficult, low-paying, and sometimes dangerous careers. Not so with most of the soldiers who are so honored by our culture.

So then we ask, what’s the harm? Certainly we should not fail to honor one group simply because we cannot similarly honor all deserving groups. Recognition is often not fair. It never can be. And maybe the goal of inducing soldiers to join the military is indeed so important to democracy that honoring them is a necessary pragmatic white-lie we maintain for the greater good.

Well, my concern about this kind of pragmatic logic is two-fold. First, it is not at all clear that the good accomplished by our huge military overcomes the bad. But secondly, I am pretty confident that our glorification of the military does real, profound harm to our social fabric by propagating guns, military dress and equipment, and paramilitary behaviors that are incredibly damaging to our country. Beyond mass shootings, our fetishizing over everything military has become inextricably intertwined with the greatest dangers to our democracy emerging from within.

I have to think that our exaggerated romanticizing over soldiers is a significant enabling factor in the marketing of the real dangers and threats we face as a people. Glorifying soldiers, their equipment, and military solutions only models and ennobles this kind of behavior in civil society. We see this distorted and dangerous military mimicry escalating almost daily.

Maybe military behavior, however noble in theory, has become so corrupted in popular society that it is time to reevaluate our long-standing military traditions and their increasingly theoretical and irrelevant positive values.

So what should we do differently?

My suggestion is that we treat Memorial Day more like a remembrance of people who died in natural disasters or mass shootings. We remember these people as victims, not heroes. Rather than creating romanticized narratives of altruism and self-sacrifice, we should mourn the tragic, often needless, loss of friends and family. We should show icons of hope and renewal rather than parading our flags and shooting off rifles in militaristic displays. We should mourn the foreign policies that have put so many in harm’s way, dismantle a military-industrial complex that drives so many into the military, and stop feeding the delusions of so many disturbed, gun-crazy individuals in our society who are driven by the distorted ideas of military honor that they take away from Memorial Day and other military exhibitions.

Animals are Little People

Like many, I opine quite a bit about the harms caused by social media. Let’s be clear; those harms are real and profound. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge all the good it does. Social media has many well-acknowledged benefits as related to social networking and support, I’d like to point out two less obvious benefits, namely as they relate to science and animals.

For some quick background, I always heard that people spend lots of time watching video clips online. I assumed they must be endlessly entertained by “guy gets hit in balls” videos. But my son sent me some links to clips on the “InterestingAsFuck” subreddit (see here). They were really engaging and gradually I started to watch them more and more. Now, my wife and I ravenously consume the clips daily and can’t ever seem to get enough.

The first great thing is how many of the video clips involve science. These clips tend to demonstrate science principles and phenomena in incredibly engaging and inspiring ways. Some are certainly presented by scientists, but most of the presentations feel accessible, home grown, like real magic that you could be doing too. I have to think that this tone and style of presenting science has a tremendously underappreciated benefit in advancing or at least popularizing science and innovation.

The second benefit of these videos is their effect on how we relate to animals. Throughout history, we have seen ourselves as separate and above animals. While we might acknowledge theoretically that we are animals too, we still view them as relatively primitive creatures. We have zoos that are intended to help us to appreciate animals, but while they offer some exposure and appreciation, they generally just make us feel like we are in a museum, watching uninteresting stuffed figures behind bars and glass required to keep us safely away from their dangerous animal natures.

But then we go to InterestingAsFuck, and we see video after video of animals relating to humans and other animals in compellingly “human” ways. We see animals playing, teasing, problem-solving, sad, fearful, happy, proud, generous, and yes, sometimes selfish and even vindictive. And not just dogs and cats. We see videos that focus on behaviors of and interactions with the full spectrum of animal life on our planet, from eagles to microbes. They all demonstrate profoundly “human” behaviors.

We see videos of animals helping other animals, even ones that are traditional enemies or prey. It is incredibly gratifying that humans are included in this. We see videos of humans helping animals and animals helping humans. In fact, we see almost entirely positive interactions between humans and our animal cousins.

You could visit a hundred zoos or spend your entire life on a farm, and not be exposed to the tiniest fraction of incredible animal interactions captured in these videos. But once you watch enough of them, I find it hard to imagine how people could not be changed by them. It is hard to imagine how, having seen so many extraordinary examples, one could continue to dismiss animal behavior as just “mimicking humans.”

I hope, perhaps I am naïve, but I hope that after exposure to positive social media like this, most people will come away understanding that humans did not just suddenly appear on Earth; that all of our behaviors and emotions evolved and can be seen in our animal cousins. Animals are more like little people, like toddlers on the evolutionary ladder. As such, they deserve far more respect and appreciation than has traditionally been afforded to them.

If you don’t agree, follow InterestingAsFuck for a while, and see if you can still continue to dismiss any due recognition of animal feelings and emotions as mere projection.

Perhaps, just perhaps, social media can inspire us to engage with science, and with the real world around us, in ways that documentaries, and safaris, and zoos, and college courses have never been able to achieve.