The ‘Thank You for Your Service’ Red Pill

Americans have been given an ultra red pill with the events in Afghanistan. As the incompetence and corruption of America’s military apparatus are laid bare before our eyes, as America’s military leaders are hiding in shame (as they ought to be), and as America’s credibility abroad is being shredded, there is much demanding our reflection. The American people deserve better than the military apparatchiks and crony politicians we have now, but we must learn from our experiences and adjust course. This is the requirement of all free people.

One thing we need to examine is our dogmatic praise of the military and its members. For the last 80 years, since the great shift to the post-World War II order, the military has become a hallmark of the American regime. But this was not always the case. Praising a professional military, especially a massive, standing army in times of peace, would have been antithetical to American virtue to most Americans living during the first 150 years of our history. 

During the founding, for instance, professional soldiers were seen for what they are: mercenaries. We debated some after establishing our regime about if and how much we needed some small portion of a professional cadre of soldiers, but I have never come across a founder who did not see professional soldiers essentially as scum. Ours was to be a republic, and republics cannot use mercenary armies. The hallmark of the American military was the citizen-soldier—the direct opposite of the professional.

The logic is simple. There is something less than admirable about someone who would fight and kill for a living. Mercenaries profit from war and death, and as such mercenary armies have a professional interest contrary to republicanism. Republics, after all, are not supposed to be empires. The American Republic is founded in the natural law, and is supposed to be dedicated to two main principles

One is the familiar formulation that government must ‘secure these rights.’ The second is the nonintervention principle: all nations have the right to ‘the  separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.’ Taking these two principles together, the Declaration is saying that government’s main job in foriegn policy is to defend the nation while refraining from interference in other nations.

A regime that follows those principles well and avoids empire has no need for a large standing army, and there is much less opportunity for power, influence, profit, and promotion for the professional soldier in such a regime. 

There is some nuance to this argument that one should bear in mind. The army is not the navy and the two things have different ends. One ought to be permanent and one ought not to be, as seen in the Constitution. The air force, something relatively new, straddles both worlds. The Marines really are a part of the navy, if oriented to their proper purpose and not trying to be a mini-army. But all of this is lost in the massive, consolidated military-industrial complex that we see in the Pentagon. Consolidated as it is, the entire military has taken on the mercenary form.

This confusion is maintained by a slathering of public adoration for anyone who wears the uniform. The “thank you for your service,” let-me-defer-to-your-expertise attitude in citizens is no small part of it.

So next time you are tempted to say “thank you for your service,” remember this moment. 

What we are seeing in Afghanistan are the fruits of decades of mindless lauding of a professional, all-volunteer military—a mercenary military. Not everyone who joined up knew it was mercenary at the start, but there is no excuse for anyone serving more than one term of service for not recognizing it. This is a bitter pill to swallow and the dogma runs deep in all of us, so you will invariably reject the thought at first. But think on it some, and look closer. If you disagree, look beyond the religious conviction and try to determine how the military as it is currently constructed is not, in fact, mercenary. 

Facing this necessarily impugns many, many people, often including oneself even if he has not ever “served.” Pride is a hell of a drug, and this red pill cuts right against our pride. We all know young men (and sadly, women) who joined up for noble purposes, no doubt pushed by our own cultural promotion of “service.” Many of us are those young men. But naïveté and pride do not excuse what is really happening. 

Likewise, there is something noble about training as a warrior with the defense of one’s nation in mind. But that is not what is really happening. For the most part, the training isn’t making warriors, and wars of empire in Afghanistan and the Middle East are not being fought in defense of the nation. Despite the limp-wristed “we must fight them over there so we don’t fight them here” trope that we still occasionally hear, one need not look very far to see that we were always fighting over there for the Afghan people. Simply look at the pathetic, mass psychotic breakdown #MilTwitter is having about their wasted efforts to bring gender studies and women’s liberation to Afghanistan. The public argument for staying seems everywhere to be “think of the Afghan women!”

The simple truth is that professional armies profit from war and always serve as a faction in politics. They are incompatible with free government because of this. They also lead to the loss of virtue necessary in citizens to live free. Even Rousseau, despite his many faults, recognized that there is something gross and degrading about a citizenry that hires out the defense of their nation to a select group of professionals. 

But the rot is functional, not just spiritual. Professional soldiers in modern, bureaucratic armies always become careerist bureaucrats, which is to say they become parochial and competent only in advancing their careers. Most people understand this. 

What most people don’t get is that becoming competent in navigating a bureaucracy requires that they become incompetent in all other things, and must shed any virtue or honesty. As Plato explained in his Republic, the problem with martial virtue is that it is hard to cultivate and easy to lose, especially with age, and the problem with virtue generally is that it is easy to fake. 

In a bureaucracy, it is always easier to lie than it is to put in the work—you cannot compete without understanding this. There are a thousand ways to message this and justify it, and careerists become adept at most of them, but it doesn’t change the fact that the virtue of a bureaucrat is shameless, dishonest self-promotion.

Put another way, professional soldiers inevitably become highly credentialed rent-seekers. They produce nothing of value. They gain nothing by victory. They do not benefit from making you free or helping you advance beyond the need for their services. They profit from war, especially endless war. They profit from losing and pretending it is victory, but only so much as you are required to ask them to fight some more.

There is a reason no serious political thinker in 3,000 years thought professional soldiers were compatible with republican life. There is a reason why every major war we have fought has begun with our professional soldiers suffering humiliating defeats only to be replaced by citizen-soldiers who could win.

After decades of institutionalizing a mercenary force, starting with the National Security Act of 1947 that institutionalized the progressive, modern form of the military-industrial complex; proceeding through the Cold War and the Vietnam Era that solidified the permanent, standing military garrisoning the empire in the minds of the American people; becoming fully established in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that formalized the empire and established warlords everywhere; and coming into full form in the post 9/11 golden age of the “thank you for your service” war on terror, what you get is a kleptocratic military run by functional morons. 

We divided the whole world into war zones called “combatant commands” and established institutions that must jockey for resources and prestige by having wars to fight, and we wonder why we fight wars everywhere and always. We built the system that incentivizes what we have, and yet still, when the combatant commanders scaremonger us into endless wars from which they profit, we believe them, because they are the “professionals”!

Citizen armies don’t fight endless wars with literally nothing to show for it; professional armies do. Citizen soldiers have a motive to return to normal life—their lives—and the path to that is victory. They fight only necessary wars of defense and have no patience for wars of empire. Only professional soldiers, insulated from all criticism by slavish, endless adulation, provided bottomless funding and infinite deference to their “expertise,” raised in the modern, bloated bureaucracy that is the military, could pour trillions into the sand while building nothing of substance and then be so shameless as to claim victory and blame others for defeat. General Mark Milley is all of this personified (even the bloated part).

Freedom requires that men and women think for themselves, and America demands more of its citizens than mindless dogmatism. We must all learn the harsh lessons of the moment and rise to the occasion. So when you want to say “thank you for your service” because it makes you feel patriotic and warm and fuzzy inside, don’t. Twenty years in Afghanistan, and the last few days, are what doing so gets us.

About Bill Kilgore

Bill Kilgore is the pseudonym of a writer serving in the United States military. It should go without saying that the views expressed in his articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Photo: Alex Brandon - Pool/Getty Images

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