Mises Daily Articles
The Military Mentality
[Based on a lecture given at the 2011 Property and Freedom Society Conference in Bodrum, Turkey]
As a combat veteran, I'm often asked what soldiers think about our wars.
Some soldiers are constitutionalists and for them I have the most hope. While they consider the state as the only legitimate provider of security, they see our foreign, undeclared wars as violations of the document they took an oath to support and defend against all enemies. In 2008, military personnel and veterans donated more money to Ron Paul's presidential campaign than to all his Republican challengers combined.
I think most military personnel who felt offended by the contradiction between our wars and the Constitution that they swore to support and defend simply did as I did and stepped aside.
Of course, many other military personnel believe the perspective generally promoted on the evening news and in public schools. Though few would admit it, they consider the constitutional restraints on government unsuitable for the modern world.
They'd agree with the sentiment expressed in the forward to my pocket Constitution, which I bought at the Jefferson Monument in Washington, DC, for $2.99:
Many Americans today feel that the quickness of life in the late twentieth century has made the Constitution, an eighteenth century document, somewhat anachronistic. … The Constitution was not a perfect document nor was it intended to be. Indeed, it is a living document, ever evolving as America itself grows and changes.
This general disclaimer was written by Dr. Patricia D. Woods, executive director of the Woods Institute.
Once the Constitution becomes a mockery, military personnel can fall back on the goodness of something, perhaps the endeavor itself.
It's quite easy for nation builders to believe they are doing good. I can attest from personal experience, handing out other people's money feels great, especially handing it out to desperately poor populations and in exotic and far-away places.
Locals demonstrate a profound reverence you've probably never encountered before (and never will again). They hang on your every word. Why should a nation builder look past his personal greatness and benevolence and see in himself instead a bureaucrat respected only because his thumb rests on the flow of money?
If it's not the goodness of the endeavor, then it's the goodness of the institution. Soldiers can consider the military a proud institution steeped in noble tradition — I'm not sure I entirely disagree — and many stand ready to let themselves be wielded as a weapon by the representatives of their state.
Finally, when one becomes disillusioned by unconstitutional wars, by the brutality of the endeavors, by the bureaucratic management of the Army, he can retreat to a fourth line of defense: the goodness of America, as expressed, I suppose, in the decisions of its politicians.
My favorite people in the military, especially toward the end, were mostly either constitutional libertarians or the indifferent ones.
Quite a few soldiers consider our wars another feature of the world's landscape, just like a mountain or river, whose creation and sustenance has nothing to do with them. The war simply exists and they make economic calculations with regard to their personal involvement.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that individual self-interest is the chief motivating factor of soldiers. Factors in their economic calculation include money, the level of danger, the quality of life, the drive for personal development (that was a big part of my motivation), and the status they achieve.
These have always been the motivations of soldiers. It is evident from Thucydides to the present day.
Status is a major factor. When I returned from Afghanistan in 2002 or Iraq in 2004, I was showered with praise from whoever learned I was a combat veteran. Strangers offered to buy drinks and dinners.
Back then, I was still a statist, but found this distasteful only because I was proud of my work and didn't like the idea of the same hero's welcome given to completely incompetent soldiers. I didn't want thanks from people who were ignorant of whether I commanded an infantry platoon or a desk.
It seemed image was more important than reality, and I've come to appreciate that this is inevitably the case, as the hypocrisy of war and its nefarious political motives hide behind the image of the soldier. The soldier's role as provider of security is of secondary importance. Primarily, he functions as an expression of national pride and national identity, a rallying call in support of the official war effort. It is difficult to imagine this happening with a private security agency.
Though likely less severe without compulsory drafts and the associated propaganda, the fawning over soldiers was evident in our current war too, particularly in their first few years as the public required conditioning to the idea of invading and occupying countries.
Now, of course, I view it as downright dangerous. It opens the door for all manner of tyranny at home, and, more importantly, allows for systematic aggression against innocent people based only on their proximity to our perceived enemy.
I've also been asked whether I think that insurgents are nobler than soldiers, because they fight for ideology while soldiers fight for money. I understand libertarian hostility toward all things military, but I disagree with this analysis.
Our first combat mission in Afghanistan in 2002 was a two-week mission during which we walked, drove and helicoptered between different objectives trying to make contact with insurgent fighters — and failing, though we did blow up several thousand pounds of weapons and munitions that we found.
Upon our return to Kandahar Air Force base a fellow lieutenant told me in a very emotional voice that during the helicopter rides he had visions of Christians praying in churches back in the United States for him to keep them safe, and he recalled the difficulties of our training and spoke of how privileged he felt to be defending America. The moment was, for him, a culmination of his Christianity, his Americanism, and his military service.
I might accuse him of being foolish, perhaps egotistical, but I would never accuse him of being insincere. He had his ideology too.
From the other side, in Iraq, in 2003, we would catch poor, poverty-stricken farmers setting up rockets to launch toward our base. They were paid to do so and seemed to have little incentive to make their attacks effective. It was sometimes hard to even tell whether the rockets were intended for us.
Insurgents often fight for money too, and you can probably find a dark joke in my story about the power of market prices.
There is another powerful motivating factor for combatants on both sides. Young men like to fight. Every young man wants to know whether or not he is a coward.
As evidence, I would point to how, when I was a member of the Hawkeye Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Club, we drove five hours to Milwaukee and paid a $60 entrance fee for the privilege of fighting, albeit under the constrained conditions of a grappling tournament.
While libertarians instantly see the difference between such a voluntary contest and a war of aggression, most young men do not, which is why, throughout history, convincing young men to fight for dubious causes has never been much of an obstacle.
The individual motivations of soldiers and insurgents are more similar than people realize. Good people have sacrificed themselves on both sides of every military conflict in human history, and, even more tragically, once an endeavor is sprinkled with the blood of good people, it takes on a religious significance and becomes its own justification.
By stressing the similarity of mindset between soldiers and insurgents, I don't mean to muddy the waters on justice (there is a big difference between residents and invaders), but one must apply a philosophy of individualism and a rigorous devotion to property rights for the invader and invaded to appear in stark contrast.
The best case for an invasion like the one of Iraq is a weak one. It begins with citing massacres and systematic abuses committed by Saddam Hussein's regime and the sincere and desperate desire of Iraqis for an outside security agency to rid them of their dictator.
In many places Iraqis greeted us with cheers and people lined the streets to welcome us. They believed we freed them, and so did I. I was thanked by men who literally cried as they shook my hand. They knew of America's high standard of living, and thought we would help them progress toward it. I did too.
In other places, of course, people shot at us. It was very confusing.
This is a very weak case for the war. It does not justify the size and scope of the invasion. It does not justify the deaths of between 100,000 and 1 million Iraqi civilians, and the exodus of 4 million more. It does not justify nation building, torture, the length and invasiveness of the occupation, or the coercion used to fund the war.
With states as the units of decision making and action, and with the belief that the state must be a security monopoly, war follows logically, even by well-intentioned people. For the politicians, it is simply a matter of doing what Hermann Goering once described: convincing a significant portion of the population of a foreign threat and denouncing pacifists as unpatriotic and dangerous.
It does not take evil people to do evil things; it only takes evil ideologies. As further evidence, I would cite the 1971 Stanford prison experiment.
The 24 most mentally stable people were chosen from 75 volunteers. They were given roles either as prisoners or prison guards and uniforms suitable to their roles. The planned two-week-long experiment was called off after only six days, when the guards became belligerent, cruel, and even sadistic.
Back when I was a constitutional libertarian, a position I gave up very reluctantly but one I now consider a contradiction, I often pointed out that had we followed the Constitution and required a congressional declaration of war, had we heeded the Founding Fathers' warning about keeping large standing armies during peacetime, then we wouldn't have fought a war every decade for the past 60 years: Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s, Panama and Honduras in the 1980s, Gulf War I in the 1990s, and, since the new millennium, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. This does not even include smaller wars like Somalia and the Philippines.
The argument that these could have been prevented by following the Constitution and avoiding standing peacetime armies is probably true, though it rests on the assumption that a monopoly on security and justice is capable of following the Constitution. I'm not sure it is.
Today I would point out to my former self that such constitutional constraints did not prevent the United States from entering World War I at a time when the sides were ready to make peace, prolonging the war and probably setting the stage for national socialism in Germany, and Marxist-Leninist socialism in Ukraine and Russia.
It also failed to prevent what many historians consider America's first imperialistic war, the Spanish-American War and the brutal occupation of the Philippines that followed — something I never learned about in public school.
A Republican congressman who visited the islands in 1902 is quoted as saying,
You never hear of any disturbances in Northern Luzon; and the secret of its pacification is, in my opinion, the secret of pacification of the archipelago. They never rebel in northern Luzon because there isn't anybody there to rebel. The country was marched over and cleaned in a most resolute manner. The good Lord in heaven only knows the number of Filipinos that were put under ground. Our soldiers took no prisoners, they kept no records; they simply swept the country, and wherever or whenever they could get hold of a Filipino they killed him. The women and children were spared, and may now be noticed in disproportionate numbers in that part of the island.
This was done in accordance with the Constitution, with the blessing of a congressional declaration of war. The correct case against war, and the strongest case against war, begins with a rejection of the state as the sole and exclusive provider of security. Market prices and voluntary patronage are a far better restraint on power than any constitution.
A cultural leviathan stands in the way of the reasonable arguments against a security monopoly made by Hans-Hermann Hoppe and others. The myth of the state as noble provider of security is deeply entrenched. The state exerts pressure through its public institutions to replace local culture with national culture, individual pride with national pride, and individual identity with national identity. Many people have nothing else left.
If we tear down the myth of the state, or if it tears itself down, as it very well might, they would become empty, hollow shells of their former selves, scarcely able to answer the question, Who are you?
We must all be able to answer that question with confidence. Then we will have taken the first step toward claiming our rights and liberties.