Just because someone’s willing to die for their country doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to protect them.
Joshua Foust and Zack Beauchamp had an argument on Twitter this morning about the morality of drones, one that has already inspired this Atlantic piece by Foust (which is worth a read on the moral implications not just of drones specifically, but of our nation’s global counterterrorism initiative as a whole). I saw the debate a little after it happened, a lengthy back-and-forth between the two of them, with occasional comments from others I follow, plus a few retweets by Foust or Beauchamp of comments from people I don’t. I thought both had moments of clear, serious argumentation, as well as the occasional minor cheat, but overall the conversation was interesting and brought up a number of issues with broader applications, beyond the realm of drones (a number of which were addressed at greater length by Foust in the Atlantic piece).
There was one claim that cropped up around the edges of the argument–especially in some of the outside comments on the debate–that niggled at me: specifically, the idea that because individuals accept inherent dangers when joining the military, up to and including the potential loss of their own lives in the course of duty, then decision-makers are not under obligation to avoid exposing them to risk.
This is wrong. It is at the heart of the civil-military bargain that precisely because these men and women commit to service and bear the risks it entails, the rest of society–represented by our policymakers–has an obligation to take those risks seriously. The primary thing society owes to service members is not to put their lives in danger lightly, to respect their willingness to put themselves at risk and not take advantage of it foolishly or for no clear end. To say that because they agree to the risks, we don’t need to factor in the degree to which our political, strategic, or operational choices will put them in harm’s way, is unacceptable. There will be risk, and in war it is inevitable that many members of the military will be put in harm’s way, but why, and when, and to what degree must be considered by the decision-makers among the many factors that determine what wars we choose to wage, and how we choose to wage them.
UPDATE: The internet being known as Petulant Skeptic made the very solid point that there are a number of other examples of professions/situations where enormous sacrifice might be asked of people, but their lives are not risked without serious consideration. With his permission, I will quote him directly:
Police aren’t asked to individually rush into drug dens. First rule of search and rescue is that you don’t put the rescuers at risk. Firefighters don’t rush into buildings they know will collapse.
Point being that when people accept great risk to themselves, they can commonly have an expectation that this willingness to sacrifice will not be exploited without all available precautions and forethought.
ADDITIONAL UPDATE: In response to this post, James Joyner posted a link to his truly excellent piece in the American Conservative that covers similar territory to this in much greater depth. I wish I had thought to include a link to it in this in the first place, because it is one of the best things I’ve read on civil-military relations.