Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Enlisting

Rex, a friend of a friend, is thinking of joining the Army. He's not just thinking about it—he's taking concrete steps, including being part of a high school-level ROTC program. I asked him through our connection if he'd be willing to allow me to urge him to reconsider his decision to enlist. He said yes, but the conversation hasn't taken place yet and probably won't. What follows is my guess at how it might have gone after the initial pleasantries.

Me: Why do you want to join the Army?

Rex: I want to serve my country.

Me: How is joining the Army a better way to serve your country than, say, doing what Steve Jobs did and offering a product or service that makes people's lives better?

Rex: Our country is at war, and I want to be part of defeating our enemies. Otherwise people won't be able to enjoy the things that Steve Jobs makes.

Me: Do you think there are no iPhones or iPads in Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan?

Rex: There might be a few.

Me: Are there only a few because those you consider our enemies forbid people to own them, or is it just that the people can't afford them?

Rex: Probably a bit of both.

Me: I agree with you. I'd say that the people in power in those places consider it their duty to run others' lives. They have no qualms about taking others' property or telling them what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes. So they steal the money that people might otherwise use to buy iPads, and if the people buy iPads or other Internet devices anyway, they tell them what sites they can and cannot visit. Am I right that you don't want to live in that kind of society?

Rex: Yes.

Me: So that's at least part of why you want to join the Army—so you can do what you want with your life and not have to have others telling you what to do.

Rex: That's part of it. More than that I want to protect innocent people from being killed by terrorists. I don't want bad things done to innocent people.

Me: You want to be a good neighbor by protecting innocent people.

Rex: Yes.

Me: And you're willing to put your own life on the line to do that.

Rex: Yes.

Me: Why do we have to worry about terrorists? What's in it for them? Given a choice between marrying your girlfriend and getting blown up, either as a suicide bomber or a casualty in war, wouldn't you choose to marry your girlfriend?

Rex: Well, duh, I'd rather marry my girlfriend.

Me: So why would—

Rex: Because there aren't enough girls over there. Some men have four wives, and that means some men will never get married. And they've been propagandized, told lies that it's all our fault, or Israel's fault, or our fault because it's Israel's fault, and since there's no hope that they can have a better life, they just blow themselves up to kill as many of us as they can to get revenge on us.

Me: So there's no reasoning with them. The only thing we can do is blow them up.

Rex: Not everyone. Just the terrorists.

Me: How do you make sure it's only the terrorists who get killed?

Rex: You can't. There's always going to be collateral damage.

Me: How much collateral damage is acceptable? If you're given a command to fire a mortar, and you know there will be collateral damage, how do you determine whether fulfilling the objective is worth the amount of collateral damage you'll be inflicting?

Rex: It's not up to me to decide.

Me: You just follow orders.

Rex: Right.

Me: And if you find out afterward that you or your commanding officer underestimated the extent of the collateral damage, how do you decide whether obeying was the right thing to do?

Rex: I don't set the policies. I just carry them out.

Me: So you wouldn't let it bother your conscience.

Rex: That's right.

Me: So the only moral obligation you have is to carry out your orders to the letter. The actual suffering you inflict on innocent people is none of your concern.

Rex: I trust my commanders to order me to do what's right.

Me: Do you believe that any human being is perfect?

Rex: No.

Me: So it's possible that your commanders are fallible. They can make mistakes.

Rex: Everyone is entitled to an honest mistake.

Me: What would you do if you thought your commander was making an honest mistake that would needlessly cost the lives of innocent people?

Rex: I'd—

Me: And you couldn't convince him to change his mind.

Rex: I'd obey him.

Me: I understand that. If you disobey, they'd court martial you, even if it turned out you were right, right?

Rex: Right.

Me: And you'd be in doubly deep doo-doo if you turned out to be wrong.

Rex: Right.

Me: So you'd cover your ass by obeying him.

Rex: Right. But I don't think that would ever happen.

Me: You trust the military.

Rex: Right.

Me: All the way up to the top.

Rex: Right.

Me: Including the commander-in-chief.

Rex: Right.

Me: Did you vote for him?

Rex: Um, hello, I'm not old enough to vote.

Me: OK, did you want the current president to win?

Rex: No.

Me: Why not?

Rex: Because—

Me: You're not racist, are you?

Rex: No, of course not. I didn't like his policies.

Me: Which ones?

Rex: Well,—

Me: Scratch the question. Do you like his policies now?

Rex: He's OK.

Me: So really it didn't matter that the guy you didn't want to win won.

Rex: Right.

Me: And you like him enough that you're willing to have him be your commander-in-chief.

Rex: Right.

Me: Did you have doubts about his honesty during the campaign?

Rex: Some. I also thought he was incompetent.

Me: But he's more competent and honest than you thought.

Rex: Right. Besides, I won't take my commission until after the next election, so he probably won't be in office.

Me: And the guy who replaces him will be better.

Rex: I hope so.

Me: The same electorate as last time will elect someone better next time.

Rex: They've seen what a —

Me: This is your commander-in-chief you're talking about.

Rex: They'll do better next time.

Me: You might be right, but it's pretty much the same people voting, and I thought they thought they were doing better last time. Tell me: What would it take to convince you that your superiors were giving you orders that you would regret obeying?

Rex: I don't know. I would have to think it through at the time.

Me: What criteria would you use to decide?

Rex: Well, if it didn't feel right—

Me: Hasn't the army been teaching you to ignore your feelings?

Rex: OK, fine, I'd think it through.

Me: Would you have time to think it through?

Rex: If I did, I'd think it through. If I didn't, I'd obey. What's wrong with that?

Me: May I suggest that if you're on the battlefield you won't have time to develop the criteria you need to think it through, then think it through? That you need to think it through now, before you enlist?

Rex: Well, I've thought enough, and I'm convinced that joining the army is the right thing to do.

Me: You're convinced that you're fighting on the right side.

Rex: Yes.

Me: Uncle Sam is the good guy.

Rex: Yes.

Me: What do you think of the bailouts?

Rex: The banks were too big to fail. If the government hadn't intervened, too many people would have lost their jobs.

Me: People are still losing their jobs, right?

Rex: Right.

Me: So did the bailouts work?

Rex: They worked well enough.

Me: How many more jobs have to be lost before you would say that they didn't work well enough?

Rex: I don't know.

Me: But you still trust the president you didn't want to see win enough to go to, say, Uganda or Tanzania or Iran to kill women and children because he orders you to.

Rex: Like I said, I don't think he'll be in office when I'm commissioned.

Me: So you trust the same electorate that elected him to elect a better commander-in-chief next time.

Rex: Aren't you listening? It's not the same electorate. They'll know better next time.

Me: Will you still enlist if he gets re-elected?

Rex: Yes.

Me: He's not the best there could be, but he's good enough.

Rex: Yes.

Me: So it doesn't matter who's in the White House. If he tells you to go to Tanzania or Iran to kill women and children, you'll go.

Rex: I won't be going to kill women and children. I'll be going to fight terrorism.

Me: What reason is there to believe that innocent women and children won't be killed by the action you'll be part of?

Rex: Hey, stuff happens in war. The terrorists target innocent people. We don't target them.

Me: But you know they'll die.

Rex: Stuff happens.

Me: If the Chinese decided some guy was a threat to them and killed him while he was in the US, and your girlfriend were killed in the blast, and they knew when they fired that she would be killed, would you say, "That's OK; they didn't target her; stuff happens"?

Rex: No. They shouldn't be killing people on American soil.

Me: But if our government considers someone a threat, it's OK for US troops to kill him, even if he's in another country, and even if they know they will kill innocent people in the process.

Rex: Here's the difference: The Chinese government is bad. Our government is good.

Me: Do you believe that selling raw milk is evil?

Rex: No.

Me: Our government does. They are sending agents these days to jail people who sell raw milk.

Rex: Well, no government is perfect.

Me: What would the government have to do before you would be convinced that it is not good?

Rex: It would have to do bad things to innocent people.

Me: Jailing people for selling raw milk doesn't fit that definition?

Rex: No.

Me: How about arresting people for being Christian?

Rex: Maybe.

Me: Your girlfriend is very active in her church, so she might be one to go to jail if they start arresting Christians, and all you can say is "Maybe"?

Rex: Well, if she went to jail, that would convince me.

Me: Braveheart would be proud of you. Do you know what her church's stands on abortion and homosexuality are?

Rex: Yes.

Me: Do you know what our current president's stand—

Rex: He won't be president when I'm commissioned.

Me: And his replacement—

Rex: —will be better.

Me: And if he's re-elected,—

Rex: It won't matter. Look, I've had enough of this. Goodbye, sir.

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