Soldier's Duty

In case you might've missed it on other blogs, Andrew Olmsted has died in Iraq. The name vaguely rings a bell from the early days of the blogosphere, but I don't think I ever really followed his blog. Here is his last post published posthumously. It's worth reading. One passage caught my eye:

Soldiers cannot have the option of opting out of missions because they don't agree with them: that violates the social contract. The duly-elected American government decided to go to war in Iraq. (Even if you maintain President Bush was not properly elected, Congress voted for war as well.) As a soldier, I have a duty to obey the orders of the President of the United States as long as they are Constitutional. I can no more opt out of missions I disagree with than I can ignore laws I think are improper. I do not consider it a violation of my individual rights to have gone to Iraq on orders because I raised my right hand and volunteered to join the army. Whether or not this mission was a good one, my participation in it was an affirmation of something I consider quite necessary to society. So if nothing else, I gave my life for a pretty important principle; I can (if you'll pardon the pun) live with that.

Olmsted makes it clear in that post that he does not want his death to be used for political points. So I hope I'm not being tactless in discussing this. I don't think I am as long as we keep it at a general level, without mentioning this particular war or the circumstances around it.

Can militaries be effective if soldiers are allowed to opt out of missions they disagree with? Do soldiers have an obligation to carry out missions they disagree with after they join?

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The guy was obviously very

Soldiers cannot have the option of opting out of missions because they
don't agree with them: that violates the social contract.
[...]

I do not consider it a violation of my individual rights to have gone
to Iraq on orders because I raised my right hand and volunteered to
join the army.

The guy was obviously very confused. He mentions "social contract" but then claim that his rights were not violated because he volunteered...

I can no more opt out of missions I disagree with than I can ignore laws I think are improper.

Same level of confusion here... it's very weird.

The social contract was constructed by philosophers on top of real contracts, therefore the moral claim that you should obey an actual contract is obviously always stronger than the claim you should obey a social contract. Yet, he uses the later to make a case for the former. Absurd. RIP though.

 

 

I have a strong gut reaction

I have a strong gut reaction against specific performance in contracts, but I have not yet studied enough law or legal theory to give an intelligent justification for this rejection. (Maybe the lawyers and legal theorists among us can help out?)

Rejecting specific performance certainly solves a lot of problems in libertarian theory - namely, whether one can sell oneself into slavery. If we reject specific performance, the answer is: you can try to sell yourself into slavery, but no rational consumer would agree to the terms, since the contract would be unenforceable, and would therefore simply devolve back into a regular employment contract with collection of monetary damages in case of violation.

Since I don't view military defense as fundamentally different from any other choice of employment (should firefighters and police also be subject to specific performance for failure to follow an order, not only through court martial and prison time, but summary execution on the "battlefield" as well?), I don't see why militaries couldn't be effective without having to rely on specific performance. The financial disincentives of huge monetary penalties, along with the pride, reputation, and career-ending effects of refusing to carry out a mission, should be sufficient in most cases to ensure military success.

Of course, there may be exceptions - if the costs of military failure are high enough, "anything" might go, including our resistance to engage in torture and other degrading activities. But perhaps we might want to compartmentalize these exceptions for when exceptional circumstances arise, and not incorporate them into everyday policy, where they are not needed, and serve only to debase our common humanity.

Other people are not your property, and they should not be treated as such. (Other people's property, however, might be your property, and can be legitimately taken as compensation for contract violation.)

Ignoring laws

I was struck by this sentence:

"I can no more opt out of missions I disagree with than I can ignore laws I think are improper."

Back in the late 17th Century, before the Peace Testimony became pretty much universal among Quakers, the English military (the New Model Army) was already deciding that they didn't make very good soldiers precisely because they wouldn't follow orders that conflicted with the guidance of the Inner Light or Inward Christ. And today, Quakers are still known for "ignoring" laws they think are improper, although they do not try to evade the consequences.

So, as a Quaker, that sentence doesn't parse coherently: the two halves are not equivalent. I would say that one has an obligation to at least consider ignoring laws one considers improper, to the extent one can. I still pay taxes that support the warfare state, having chosen to "live the contradiction," as Parker Palmer puts it, but I'm not easy with that course of action, and try to remain open to the possibility that I may at any time be led to tax resistance, with all the consequences that entails.

To answer your question, I don't think militaries (understood as state-organized bodies whose mission is breaking things and killing people) can be effective if soldiers are allowed to opt out of missions they disagree with. In the case of such state military bodies, there seems to me to be no halfway house between a conversion to pacifism and a refusal of all missions and an obligation to carry out all assigned missions (assuming they are lawful, as per the UCMJ).

It's a more interesting question if one examines the possible nature of an anarchist military, if that's not an oxymoron. Wearing my SF writer hat, I'd be interested to see what others have to say. Wearing my Quaker hat, it's the wrong question.

Anarchist military

I don't think that is an oxymoron at all. It can be good or bad, but terrorism and resistance are essentially anarchistic military organisation. People are not coerced to join these movements and their pay does not come from taxation of the pool of people they are drawn from. You can also think of Switzerland. While supervized by the federal govt, it's mostly anarchistic in nature, every citizen having at least an assault rifle in his home.

My view

I don't think militaries can function if soldiers could opt in and out of missions easily. There's a reason the military is the only institution remaining that requires this sort of contract: because that's the only way it can work. States that didn't require this would make themselves vulnerable to others that did. In a future world, perhaps this would be different.

That said, I don't think this implies that soldiers are obligated to commit war crimes. There's a happy medium between soldiers having the freedom to choose willy-nilly what exercise they participate in and soldiers being obligated to commit war crimes.

I also believe these sorts of contracts should be allowed. They can benefit the soldier as well as the state, just like indentured servitude (essentially a slave contract) has often been the price to pay for immigration.

Specific performance doesn't have to be required for these contracts to 'work'. A heavy penalty for breaking the contract also works.

While I strongly disagreed

While I strongly disagreed with your position as stated in the first paragraph on my initial read through your post, your final sentence redefined the entirety of the preceding content for me, and of course I agree.

On the other hand, I'm not sure what you mean by "this sort of contract" in the second sentence. How is a contract to serve in the military any different, in your view, than an employment contract anywhere else - other than requiring a heavier penalty? Wouldn't that just be a difference in degree, not a difference in kind?

Incidentally, I believe there are already laws in place that permit (and in fact obligate) soldiers to refuse to follow orders in certain cases; these laws and exceptions are designed to reduce the incidence of war crimes.

opting out

"I don't think militaries can function if soldiers could opt in and out of missions easily."
Probably not. but there are societal pressures, so I don't think soldiers would be inclined to "call in sick" to battle as easily as I might call in sick or take a half-day at the office. Also, do you really want an army full of soldiers who don't want to be fighting? Probably, they wouldn't be terribly effective or victorious.
If a hypothetical military is rendered impotent by ad hoc desertion, I think this would suggest something more troubling about the nature of the war they're being asked to wage.