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The Moral Argument Against War Validating One's Existence

A few week’s back on Carrying the Gun, Michael C rebutted the idea that, if women join the infantry, it somehow prevents young soldiers from validating themselves as men. He responded to this specific quote:

“The question looming, hidden and afraid in masculine hearts, as this discussion rages, is nearly impossible to ask: Where now does a man go to prove his manhood in society?”

This wasn’t the first time I’d read something like this. Donovan Campbell, in his war memoir Joker One, wrote:

"I also knew in the infantry I’d be in a place where I could no longer hide behind potential, a place where academic achievements and family connections were irrelevant."

(Before I go on, I do have to point out that Campbell’s assertion is absurd. Family connections absolutely make a difference in the military. Unfortunately, I will agree with him that academic accomplishments are meaningless.)

Andrew Exum, in his memoir This Man’s Army, wrote:

"I began to believe that war might be the only answer to all my doubts. That war might validate my existence as a soldier and a man."

In my time living with Michael C in Italy, I met more than one soldier who justified their experience in the Army with this explanation. In short, if you want to prove yourself, go to war and see some action.

Michael C, in his guest post, addressed gender issues. To me, the real issue is a moral one: why should one have to validate their existence by killing people?

The above quotes don’t talk about joining the military, but going to war. Exum specifically writes, war is “the only answer” while Campbell advocates joining the infantry, not say, logistics or the Signal Corps.

The vague, indefinable self-worth one gets from going to war comes at a cost. That cost is human life. Whatever self-worth a soldier gains from his combat experience, the cost in human lives will always outweigh it.

Want a good reason to join the military? Do it to protect our country. Or to help other people around the world. Or to pay for college. (I just happen to think that should be free regardless.) Do it to learn leadership or gain life skills. My favorite reason comes from my dad when he justified Michael C’s decision to join the military: the military needs smart, ethical soldiers. It needs soldiers who will question authority, who will strive to improve the organization and, most importantly, who will maintain the moral high ground.

Those are all good reasons to join the military.

But no one should have to prove their self worth by killing someone else.

26 comments

It all sounds a bit pagan, doesn’t it? “I need to prove my masculinity by destroying the masculinity of someone else” and all. Like some sort of anthropological nightmare scenario that you learn in a 100-level class.


You find this throughout the whole argument of “warrior” versus “soldier.” There’s a belief that war is some giant Joseph Campbell tale come to life, when really it’s just misery heaped upon despair. How masculine is that?


This is a great point. I wonder how wartime experience relates to male soldiers’ use of this type of justification. If you win most of your battles, or get stuck with a particularly bloody defeat, how does that support or challenge this narrative?


@Rachel- That’s a fascinating point. I would say that the U.S. hasn’t lost a battle since WWII. I mean, we have, but we haven’t publicly said that. Anyone who suggests we have lost is branded as a hater or worse.

@AJK/F- Yes but those nuanced voices are absent in the discourse about war in contemporary culture.


“(…) why should one have to validate their existence by killing people?”

I don’t think that’s the point. It suffices to prove one’s ability to be useful in harm’s way.
This is actually a rather important trait, relevant in civilian life, too.

I suppose the same can be had by proving one’s ability to function in extreme civilian situations as well: – facing a knife-wielding robber successfully – surviving a crash and help others instead of crying – rescue some drowning child
et cetera


SO- Question, though, should society still strive to lower the number of incidents which put people in harm’s way? Based on our judicial/prison system and large military, it would appear that is a goal of society, to make people safer.

So even though people want to prove their manhood/masculinity, should they seek out incidents to prove their manhood?


@ S O – Yeah, but you shouldn’t want to do it. Maybe, after the fact, you can congratulate yourself on doing well. But you don’t want to have someone attack you with a knife, or survive a car crash. You should hope you go your whole life without experiencing that.


Keep in mind these men don’t take a gun and go duel or do life fire gotcha. They only get into combat situations as a part of the society’s mission to them.
They may be in the wrong place when the shit hits the fan, but society would be to blame. Don’t choose to wage a war of choice, period.

An often useful analogy of mine is the firefighter analogy. Only sick people want buildings to burn, but we need firefighters in case they burn nevertheless. It would be stupid to overspend on firefighters, and it’s legit to wish for high firefighter proficiency.

Would you question a firefighter’s motives because he may be seeking to prove himself in extreme situations?
Or are you more concerned about the damned arsonists and the passive fire protection of buildings?


S O – I think we agree. I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to prove they can handle extreme situations, so long as their primary reason is something greater (for instance, in the Army, Eric C pointed out a few excellent reasons to join the Army).

I don’t, however, want “to provide people the ability to prove themselves” coming anywhere near policy arguments. Take your firefighter example. Sprinkler systems literally obviate the need for fire fighters. If every building had up to date sprinkler systems (not an extreme cost by the way), most major metropolitan areas could cut their fire fighters in half. So should we keep large fire fighter contingents on the off chance they can prove their effectiveness in danger? I would say not. We will always need some firefighters, but the debate on how many shouldn’t revolve at all around the ability to prove oneself, but the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of preventing structure fires.


A different take:

Someone has a preference. He likes to prove himself. He joins an institution in which he can do so in a socially useful way (unless society messes it up itself).

Who are you/we/anybody to judge this negatively?

How could others know what’s best to him? His preference is innate, private, impossible to measure. It could easily be of greatest importance to him and we wouldn’t know. It could be economically speaking optimal for him to pursue this interest of his.

To oppose this is the equivalent of opposing that a child tastes peanut butter for the first time because it could be hyperallergic to peanuts and die from it. We don’t know if it’s going to suffer (unlikely) and we don’t know how important peanut taste is to it.


Michael, the “prove oneself” thing isn’t about the size of the military bureaucracy, but about its recruiting.

Combat troops are a small minority in a modern military, but it’s still difficult to recruit the right people for the job in peacetime and large wars.
It’s actually rather easy in small wars (the Canadians had nowhere as few recruiting problems during their Afghanistan involvement as for the infantry exactly because of these “prove himself” thing – the drawback was that almost none of these special folks re-enlisted).

Many of today’s soldiers are not soldiers at heart. They are technicians in an ugly uniform. An army cannot afford to ditch the “prove manhood” folks, for this would deprive it of too many critical recruits.
Related http://tinyurl.com/ojr8tgd

A navy or air force can easily work without the “prove manhood” folks. You could easily run an all-female air force and it would probably be superior.


Fascinating discussion most likely never to be settled. But Eric’s point is most profound and negates any macho, or need to be macho, baloney that our culture might foster:
“The vague, indefinable self-worth one gets from going to war comes at a cost. That cost is human life. Whatever self-worth a soldier gains from his combat experience, the cost in human lives will always outweigh it.” I have known personally three Marines who didn’t return from Iraq or AFG. Their loss is forever and the memory of them is a daily thought, one so overpowering that I think of him each and every hour. The “manhood” of each of them was never in question even before they deployed and I doubt that they thought much selfish thoughts themselves. They served to serve with their buddies.


Interesting question. I would suggest looking at Sebastian Junger’s “War”. The short and simple answer may be biology, or several thousand years of ingrained social structure. Looking at Grossman’s “On Killing”, many ancient tribal fights involved young men of the tribe, and was more about protecting the tribe and demonstrations of courage and bravery, vice killing. We can, in 2013, say the ‘prove manhood’ rationale is bad; I think, based on personal observation, it is far far more of a rationalization then the belief that 19 year old young men have patriotic ideations. I think more of these soldiers wish to ‘see the elephant’ and show courage by defending the larger tribe then necessarily take life. So I disagree with the premise somewhat. Fact is, going back thousands of years, this has, for some reason, been the near universal human approach. Whether it is rational or not, whether you agree with it or not, I suspect it would not be hard to predict the visceral reaction against this.

One could ask why women need to justify their womanhood by being mothers and raising children. I dont have agood answer for that either other than acknowledging it as a theory supported by a near infinite amount of facts.

At any rate, Im not sure the question supports a change in policy. Physical fitness and shortcomings alone are enough to justify not going down this road; if we insist upon it, this pendulum will, under the weight of factual data yet to be accumulated, probably swing back.


Sorry for showing up late to the comments.

I haven’t read them all so I apologize if I’m restating what someone else already has.

In neither of the quotes pulled did the author say that they felt validated because they killed or were able to kill. Rather, they felt validated because they were doing something hard or that put them in harm’s way. I think if you come from the mindset that war is just killing, that is all you can see in those statements. I remember having a long conversation in college with an anti-war activist with whom I got along. We deconstructed his argument at his core, he believed that I was wrong for going to Iraq because I didn’t have the courage to throw down my weapon and desert. War, to him, was wrong. Especially that war.

But I think the central idea here, isn’t validating one’s existence, but feeling important. I remember being a young 21 year old Sergeant of a pretty normal background. But for that year in Iraq, I was at the center of the world. I was the decisive operation, on the front page of the newspaper.

It’s about ambition and feelings of self-importance. I think that’s why you’ll also see so many military/veteran folk lambast their civilian peers, or touting their status as the “less than 1%.”

It’s about being exclusive.


Even more, why should men be allowed to discriminate against women in order to validate themselves?


Well, Jason, your argument is basedon an invalid premise. There was a fairly famous study done in the Army in 2011, for example, where studies of ROTC cadets (college students waiting to be commissioned) were made, looking at physical fitness. In terms of strength and endurance, the top 2 of the Army is infantry, for example, a simple merit basing of phsyical strngth and endurance indicates the military could man these units with nearly 100 or so of the Army that is not as physically strenuous is open to everone. There has been at least one female four star general, so promntion opportunties there are validated.

The US Army/USMC’s attitude to ward this is pretty much the same as every other Army in recorded history. If you think Washington,Eisenhower, et. al. discriminated against women by not letting them in the infantry, so be it.


Okay, that came out garbled with typos. What I meant to say is that the top 2 of males, and the infantry and like combat arms are only approx 20% of the total size of the force.


No my argument is not based on an invalid premise; you need to check your logic. The percentage of women at a given fitness level is irrelevant. Any woman who is capable of meeting the physical fitness standard is being discriminated against on the basis of how she was born if she is not allowed to try out for the infantry.

Not letting women in the infantry is discriminating against them. Having the last name “Washington” or “Eisenhower” doesn’t magically mean that you can bar people opportunities on the basis of the circumstances of their birth without it constituting discrimination. Your last two sentences are fallacious appeals to tradition and authority, respectively.


Further, if you’re going to appeal to an authority to wave away discrimination, then it would seem unwise to invoke an authority figure who owned slaves.


So far this conversation has been incredibly respectful without personal insults by everyone involved. Let’s please keep it that way, or we have to shut down the thread.

@ Don et al- I will say that Exum specifically used the phrase “validate my existence”, as opposed to simply putting himself in a dangerous place to accept the toughest assignment. Having served in the infantry and felt its pull, I understand the argument and appeal of the infantry. I never considered combat as a place to validate my existence, specifically getting in the fight, though I know a lot of other soldiers did.


Some men grow to 2.1 metres length and are excluded from serving in tanks because tanks are not designed for such tall people.
The army could accommodate them with some extra vehicle costs. We could expect some loss of performance of the tank as well, but it would be possible.

Are tall men being discriminated against?

The topic of gender equality is a fail-fail topic. You cannot get it completely right, neither in the civilian realm nor in the military realm.

Some arbitrary policy will be enacted somewhere in the grey zone and we can hope that it turns out well.


One could ask why women need to justify their womanhood by being mothers and raising children. I don’t have a good answer for that either other than acknowledging it as a theory supported by a near infinite amount of facts.

“Being mothers” is a pretty loaded phrase. For most of human history a mother has gotten a lot of help with the raising part of the equation. For most of humanity today that is still the case, actually. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?i..

It’s interesting to consider cases such as that of that of the Iroquois, for whom a female proved she was a true woman by unflinchingly enduring childbirth in the same way a man did by unflinchingly enduring the ritualized torture that was the fate for those captured in battle.


“Are tall men being discriminated against?”

Yes, but by a relevant standard instead of an irrelevant one as in the case of sex, which is not a determinant of combat fitness on the individual level.


“One could ask why women need to justify their womanhood by being mothers and raising children. I don’t have a good answer for that either other than acknowledging it as a theory supported by a near infinite amount of facts.”

Women don’t need to justify any such thing. Where is this theory published?


If you wish to assert that “the percentage of women at a given fitness level irrelevent” then I have to wonder what your perspective is on this.

I doubt that you will be open to my argument, but you are not the only person reading these comments.

The top 2 of the overall group need to enter the infantry, which has rigorous physical standards.

Statistically, best case is that if you allow group X into the infantry you will get a maybe 1% of the force. It is an inefficient use of funds and resources to accomodate such a low percentage ofa group that is physically incapable of accomplishing the task. It is not about discrimination. It is about efficiently defending the nation. Group X could be asthmatics, diabetics, obese men, men with excessive vision or hearing handicaps. Are they discriminated against? Perhaps we should define discriminate. We happen to be talking about women, though.

If it is “unwise to invoke an authority figure who owned slaves” and we are referring to George Washington” then you and I can disagree on wisdom. I am a military professional. With the exception of the Soviet Union in 1941-45; no military; I say again none—-chose to emply widespread numbers of women in the infantry. If you take this historical evidence back far enough, the military leaders you refered to own slaves. Not really a relevant point. So I guess everyone in the military profession is discriminatory or perhaps there were valid logical reasons why, in a competitive environment, they all universally felt that they could defend their respective nations better with men in the infantry. Perhaps you could share why that is invalid. The only other community that I can think of that has such universal refusal to integrate mixed gender is professional and olympic sports teams. Again, wither based on physical needs between men and women, or just 100 widespread discrimination.


To me, the real issue is a moral one: why should one have to validate their existence by killing people?

Pretty profound statement to make. Perhaps a cultural element is at play here.