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
- 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.