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What is the military for Americans today? Neither of these. Nor is it the if-you-survive-you-come-back-rich scheme of the early Modern Era, as late as Napoleon.
What clearly is a nonstarter is the justification for serving that the military, against all logic, actually proposes to its people nowadays: that those in the military are morally better ("held to a higher standard") than the civilians they defend. You're better people, the military tells those who join it: more loyal, more self-sacrificing, and tougher. But if this is true, why put your life on the line to defend these lamentable civilians?
We need a new military metaphysics, a coherent view of the role of an all-volunteer force in a complex, multipolar world. This view has to acknowledge that national defense is not always the main reason for using the military. It has to acknowledge that the military can be misused by civilian politicians out to seem tough, or working on their "legacy." It has to know that history may judge harshly the "worthy" and "noble" campaigns that cost too many soldiers their lives and limbs.
It needs to offer a pride that's not bought at the cost of denigrating the civilians the military exists to protect. This needs to be a pride in doing a sometimes thankless, dangerous, and frustrating – but necessary – job. Those joining the military today have no guarantee they will be correctly used, or indeed used at all. But they shouldn't need this. Instead, all they need is a clear view of what the military is: It's the hammer to the civilian hand. It's a tool, which can be used well or ill. But the tool needs to be there, ready. That's the pride of the military, a pride that is not based on victory (over what?) or clear goal achievement. Nor is it based on a sense of superiority to the civilians it's there to protect.
I SERVED, read the bumper stickers. I was there. I stood ready. Well used or badly used, used or not used at all: Soldiers have no control over this in a democracy. That is why the civilians who control the military have to be so careful not to misuse this precious resource of sweat, muscle, intelligence, and blood.
This notion of readiness must be the basis of a new military metaphysics. It's not "hooah!" based on victory or spoils. It's more modest. But it's more sustainable. And most of all, it gives an answer to the question of why would we recommend that anyone join the military. What should we say to those who have just graduated from our academies, who are enlisting, or entering Officer Candidate School? Should we say "Congratulations"? Yes, and give the biggest cheer we can.
Bruce Fleming, a professor of English at the US Naval Academy, is the author of "Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide."