We laud veterans for having "fought for their country" regardless of what the fight may have actually accomplished. For example, many people who regard the Vietnam War as a failure--or worse, a moral atrocity--still hold Vietnam vets in high regard. It strikes me that reverence for veterans rarely considers whether their actions actually made any of their countrymen better off (never mind people in other countries). We have a notion of honorable military service that is tenable only insofar as it abstracts away the actual practical outcomes of warfare. When we praise a veteran, what exactly are we praising them for?

One morally important distinction here is between conscripted and voluntary military service. As you are probably aware, the United States currently has an all-voluntary military; every soldier is a soldier by choice. This has not always been the case (either in the U.S. or elsewhere). Nations sometimes requires military service of all citizens as a matter of course and/or utilize a draft during wartime.

Let's focus first on those whose service is voluntary. Our attitudes toward those who volunteer for military service are, in my estimation, incoherent. We have become too quick to "thank them for their service" without due concern for the morality of their service. Classical just war theory divides the moral appraisal of war into two: there is the question of whether a nation's waging war in a given set of circumstances is just, and there's the question of whether a war is justly waged (whether, for example, the tactics or strategies used to pursue victory are just). Soldiers can therefore err morally either by volunteering for an unjust war or by participating in unjust tactics. Either way, we ought not laud their service. Of course, whether a war or a wartime tactic is just are complicated questions, and I make no pretense of answering them here. And we might sometimes be justified in excusing soldiers who willingly participate in an unjust war on the grounds that they could not reasonably have known that their participation would be unjust or could not reasonably have anticipated that it would be unjust. A solider might volunteer for service under the influence of deceptive propaganda, say. And in some cases, we could be justified in sympathizing with soldiers on the grounds that they are sometimes put in moral dilemmas largely not of their making. But I don't see a rational basis for lauding immoral military service. And a soldier who knowingly volunteers to fight in a war of conquest or who willingly participates in the torture of prisoners of war deserves no praise for her service.

Indeed, I think we can put this conclusion more strongly: When we fail to morally criticize such soldiers, we in fact fail to respect them as moral agents. Unless we believe (extremely implausibly, I'd say) that war is a morally neutral activity, those who participate in it can be rightfully subject to moral blame for their contributions to war. (Notice that if soldiers can be praised morality, it has to be true that they can be criticized morally too!) To refrain from moral appraisal of military personnel is to infantilize them, to see them as somehow immune from moral demands.

What of those whose service is conscripted, that is, non-voluntary? Here it seems to me there is a stronger basis for lauding their service inasmuch as they have a reasonable excuse if, in the course of their service, they either contribute to an unjust war or engage in unjust war tactics. The conscript, after all, is coerced, and can suffer imprisonment (or worse) for either failing to serve or failing to follow superiors' orders. Their behavior is no less subject to moral scrutiny than military volunteers, but praise and blame are less apt. (I'll duck for now the obvious next question: might someone have a moral duty to engage in civil disobedience to avoid serving in an unjust war or to refuse an unjust order?)

One last point: My suspicion is that a good bit of the knee jerk praise of military service comes from the belief that service exhibits courage. Surely it does exhibit courage. Military personnel can be injured, maimed, or killed in combat. And part of courage is a willingness to undergo hardships in the service of some end. But notice that the justifiability of the end matters to the moral appraisal of courageous acts. A terrorist may exhibit courage in an act of terrorism, but that doesn't make the terrorism morally justified. Whether an act that's praiseworthy for being courageous is all things consider morally defensible thus depends upon facts besides whether it's courageous. We ought therefore be more hesitant about praising military service solely on the grounds that it exhibits courage.

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