06 October 2010

On Being Grateful to Veterans

Stephen Kershnar
Gratitude and Veterans: Breaking the Faith
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 4, 2010

In the United States, it is an article of faith that citizens should be very grateful to veterans. Presidents regularly reaffirm this faith. On Veterans Day in 1993, President Bill Clinton said, “Today we gather to honor those who have rendered the highest service any American can offer to this nation: Those who have fought for our freedom and stood sentry over our security. … [T]oday we join as one people to appreciate a debt we can never fully repay.” Other recent Presidents have all said similar things.

There are two federal holidays in the United States dedicated to veterans or a portion of them. Veterans Day, which occurs on November 11th of every year, honors military veterans. Memorial Day, which occurs on the last Monday of May, honors U.S. soldiers who died while in military service. Both are federal holidays. There are many federal, state, and local statues and memorials that honor veterans or some portion of them. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is a high profile instance. In ordinary English, people work as farmers or garbage men, but serve in the military.

In contrast to U.S. citizens’ attitude toward veterans, they are not very grateful to farmers, sanitation workers, intellectuals, and so on. These groups get no holidays and there are far fewer public expressions of gratitude toward them. I assume this general lack of gratitude is correct.

Despite this disparate treatment, farmers did as much historically for Americans as did the military. Specifically, their food added as much to our well-being as did the military’s protection. To see this, consider the conditions Americans would be in if no one grew food and no one worked as a soldier. They would be in bad shape in both cases, but probably worse in the former. A similar thing is true of intellectuals. In forming the system that created and protected liberty in Great Britain and the United States, intellectuals played a vital role.

If we look at individual veterans rather than veterans as a group, leaving aside commanders such as General Patton, we can see that no one veteran contributed that much to a war effort and, in any case, many veterans were adequately paid for their work. Consider contribution. That no one veteran contributed that much to the war effort can be seen in that in most cases, one soldier’s presence did not turn the tide of a battle, let alone the war. In addition, had a particular man not joined the military, it is likely that someone else would have occupied his position. Next consider compensation. For example, consider the salaries of officers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to military analyst Rod Powers, when a person comes into the military as a commissioned officer, an O-1, he makes an average starting salary of $45,969.67. A seasoned officer, for example, an O-4 with 10 years of experience, takes home an average of $94,313.54. This is not bad pay, even when we take into account the officers’ skills. Enlisted men also get paid moderately well, again controlling for skills.

One objection is that combat veterans took great risks in fighting overseas. As the recent flap in Dunkirk illustrates, not all veterans saw combat. Different jobs have different costs and benefits. A person is free to take a job or not take it. If he takes it, particularly if he does so because he likes the cost-benefit package, then so long as he is paid and faces predictable costs and risks, he has no business demanding gratitude. Nor does he merit it.

To see this point, compare the fatality rate of three jobs: member of the military, logger, and fisherman. At the height of the U.S. military insurgency in Iraq, which occurred in 2006, American Thinker writer Steve Gilbert reports that the fatality rate was .13%. Gilbert reports that this is roughly the same rate it has been for the last 25 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are the fatality rates/average salaries for other professions in 2008: fisherman (0.13%) and logger (0.12%). The salaries of fishermen and loggers are lower than that of the military and the fatality-risk roughly the same. Fishermen and loggers miss out on some hardships (for example, they might spend less time away from their families), but they also miss out on some benefits (for example, they might not form the same lasting friendships or take as much pride in what they do). The attractiveness of various cost-benefit packages varies from person to person. If someone chooses one package (for example, a military package) over others (for example, a logger package) knowing the costs and risks, it is hard to see why we should be grateful to him. It is also hard to see why he serves others rather than merely working for them.

A second objector might concede that perhaps we shouldn’t be grateful to veterans or combat veterans, but we should be grateful to veterans who were injured or killed. To see why this is mistaken, consider people who win a lottery. The lottery is fair if it was reasonable to both parties when the ticket was purchased. If it was reasonable to both, then neither party need be grateful to the other. Next consider a reverse lottery. Here players get a good sum of money in return for taking a small risk of death or severe injury (perhaps, they will have to donate an organ). Again, if reasonable, no gratitude is owed. Military service is like a reverse lottery. If the contract when members signed up was reasonable for them and the citizens who hired them, then neither need be grateful.

A third objector might claim that my discussion misses the issue because many young men were made to fight via the draft and hence we should be grateful to them. Let us assume that draftees were made to fight against their will. If this is correct, then we should not be grateful to them any more than we should be grateful to slaves. Neither was motivated by altruism. A former slave owner probably should be sorry for what she did to the slave and should compensate him, but given that the slave did not act out of concern for the owner’s well-being, she should not be grateful.

I think this essay contains a positive message for people considering joining the military or staying in it: It is important that your life go well. Hence, other things being equal, you should join the military or stay in it only if you like the job, people, or values that comprise it. Viewing your life in the military as a service or a sacrifice is not only a mistake, but also prevents you from focusing on what should guide your decisions.


The Objectivist said...

One downside of excess gratitude might be that politicians like John McCain, George H. W. Bush, and Bob Dole can run for office running on their biography rather than setting out their positions on particular issues.

This is why McCain can run as a conservative after trying to regulate political speech, pushing amnesty, and blocking some of the proposed tax cuts. Similarly, Bush the elder signed on to tax increases, race preferences, disability preferences, and so on with Bob Dole there to help push through the latest expanansion in big government.

brian said...

There's an even stronger argument here: praising veterans yields a moral hazard. It increases the tendency of people to pursue a military career in search of more praise.

Do you want to be a soldier or play one on TV?

Jonathan said...

Professor, you appear to be arguing towards two related yet distinct conclusions: first, that the military is owed NO GREATER gratitude than is owed to any other profession that possesses at least as many costs and at most as many benefits as those associated with joining the military; and second, that so long as the costs and benefits associated with the military are reasonably known to a would be enlister prior to enlistment, the military is not owed ANY gratitude, because any one soldier's acceptance of the cost-benefit package is of his own free will.

While I agree that IF the costs-benefits associated with "serving" in the military are the same or more favorable than the costs-benefits associated with other professions, then the military is owed no greater gratitude than those other professions, I must take issue with your approach to assessing those costs and benefits. Furthermore, even if your first comparative conclusion is taken as true, I must disagree with the leap in concluding that the military is owed no gratitude whatsoever.

As to the arguments from compensation and contribution, these arguments together state that because soldiers receive on average greater compensation relative to persons in other risky professions, while exposing themselves to similar risks of death (or perhaps injury, you do not include statistics on this point), soldiers are therefore no more entitled to gratitude than persons in those other professions. Moreover, this argument states that because no single soldier offers a substantial contribution to any particular war effort, he or she is therefore not entitled to special treatment.

My overall objection to these arguments is your generalization of the compensation and risks associated with the military on the one hand, and your individualistic approach to quantifying contribution. Rather than overgeneralizing the risks to "soldiers" as a group, perhaps a more accurate analysis would provide a breakdown of risks by branch of the military, or by zones of combat, or even by job description, so that we may calibrate our gratitude to those various groups accordingly. While this approach may not align with the way gratitude is currently being paid to the military in the U.S., it at least would support a more valid argument as to what ought to be.

In addition, it is difficult to square your general assessment of risk and compensation with your individualistic approach to quantifying contribution. While you note on the one hand that no one soldier turned the tide of any war, you fail to mention any one farmer, logger or sanitation worker who single-handedly impacted the U.S. market for food, lumber, or waste managment. Furthermore, it should also be noted that many of the intellectuals you reference as being integral to the founding of the constitution were also men of war whose first success was in securing the independence necessary to form a charter for the new republic in the first place.

Finally, while your comparative analysis leads to the conclusion that the military is owed no more gratitude than other professions, I fail to see how the DEGREE of contribution or compensation goes to the question of whether gratitude is warranted altogether. I presume that most reasonable people (including yourself) would accept the proposition that soldiers perform their duties, at least in part, for the benefit of others - that is, they do not act wholly out of their own self interest. If that is true, should the fact that soldiers willingly accept compensation in exchange for the assumption of certain risks necessarily preclude paying gratitude for the benefits they provide? In other words, under your argument, does ANY paid employee deserve gratitude? Wouldn't the more appropriate response to your disatisfaction be to show gratitude for farmers, sanitation workers, loggers, and intellectuals IN ADDITION to the military, rather than refusing to show gratitude to anyone at all?