Honoring our past soldiers requires that we ask our future ones not to sacrifice their values, but to uphold them.
Veterans Day arouses three emotions in most Americans: solemnity, because it celebrates the veterans who defended our great country; sadness, because so many have lost their lives in the process; and pride, because they fought so well.
The supreme value that our veterans fought and died for (with some tragic exceptions) from the American Revolution to the Civil War to two World Wars is freedom.
America is the country of freedom. We were the first to declare that government exists to serve men; men do not exist to serve government. We were the first to proclaim that all men are equal before the law. We were the first to say that each individual has inalienable rights–the right to his life, his liberty, his property and the pursuit of his happiness.
There is no more precious possession than one’s own life. But without political freedom, human life is empty. Man cannot exist in any meaningful sense as a serf. The New Hampshire motto says it perfectly: “Live Free or Die.”
Because human life is so precious, war should never be undertaken unless our rights are threatened. We must not ask our soldiers to sacrifice their lives.
A sacrifice entails the surrender of a greater value for a lesser one. But if a man loses his life on the premise, “I would rather die than live in slavery,” it is a tragic loss–but it is not a sacrifice.
Such a man is acting in his own interests, to protect his most precious values.
On the other hand, it is a sacrifice to send our soldiers to a country that has no connection to their interests and values. An example is Somalia. Many brave American soldiers died there–for what? To capture warlords who posed no threat to America.
Vietnam is another example of a senseless, self-sacrificial tragedy. While it was in our interest to oppose the communist threat to America, it did not benefit Americans to throw away their lives. The mere fact that they needed help should not have created a claim on the efforts and the lives of U.S. soldiers.
Any element of self-sacrifice in war is a betrayal of our soldiers and the American freedom they fight for. Witness the pervasiveness of self-sacrifice in the ongoing debacle in Iraq. In the name of preserving Iraqi civilians and mosques, our government has forced American soldiers to fight with self-crippling restrictions, leading to hundreds of unnecessary American deaths and enabling a militarily puny insurgency to take over Iraqi cities.
It is because the war has been waged not with the self-interested purpose of eliminating any threat that Saddam’s regime posed, but with the self-sacrificial goal of building the hostile Iraqi population a new “democracy” free of charge, that the war has become little more than an endless drain on American lives and treasure.
Our heroic fighting men and women are not to blame for these disasters. It is the politicians who are responsible. It is they who believe that our soldiers are sacrificial fodder to fulfill the politicians’ desire for “prestige-enhancing” adventures. They believe that our armed forces can be sent to aid Somalia or Haiti or Bosnia or Iraq in order to be able to show the world how “humanitarian” the politicians are.
But politicians desperate to carry out altruistic missions should be told that they may not utilize our armed forces as the tool for doing so. And they should be told we have no duty to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of any country in need of our assistance. Our soldiers are sovereign beings who have a right to their own lives.
Furthermore, our armed forces should consist only of volunteers. It is an ugly contradiction to claim that we must protect freedom–by coercing people to fight. If the cause is just and the American interests clear, there will be no shortage of enlistments. In fact, a volunteer force helps make sure that our soldiers do battle only when serious threats to our interests are at stake. A volunteer force helps prevent politicians from involving us in senseless wars.
We must be proud of our soldiers, but it is equally true that they should be proud of the cause they fight for. It is terrible to die in war, but there is one thing worse: to die in a war that has no meaning, a war that offers no reason for risking one’s life.
The best way we can honor our veterans and give real meaning to Veterans Day–aside from ceremonies honoring their past and present dedication and bravery–is to promise that we will go to war only when America’s interests as a free nation are threatened, and wage it in the uncompromising pursuit of victory.
Edwin A. Locke
Professor emeritus of
University of Maryland