Image courtesy of Flikr user The U.S. Army.
Summer Essay Campaign #5: “An Ideology for the American Soldier”
To Answer Question #5: “How should an officer respond when a soldier asks, ‘why are we fighting’?”
By Captain Zach Batcho
The question of, “Why are we fighting?” can be answered two ways. It can be answered from the perspective of the current day or the perspective of the conflict’s starting point. Answering the question from today’s perspective would imply there’s a coherent articulated national strategy to today’s conflicts. In my experience there is not a long term strategy that has been a unifying thread throughout the conflict but multiple disjointed strategies. It is the nature of both America’s form of government and the organization of the Army where leaders serve short terms and rotate very frequently without being able to execute long term plans. I prefer to address the question of, “Why are fighting?” through the lens of what brings America into a conflict and what pricks young citizens hearts to defend her cause.
In Bono’s 2004 commencement speech at UPENN he stated, “America is an idea.” That is a lofty statement. America is more than just a nation. The idea of what is America comes from the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Since the first European settlers came to America on the Mayflower, personal freedom has been the motivation of the collective. The American Revolution was predicated on men wanting freedom to control their destiny and it started with “No Taxation without Representation.” Liberty in America is a growing and expansive notion, not a restricting one. The idea and its implementation were not perfect at the beginning which is why the United States abandoned its first governing document, The Articles of Confederation. The US Constitution opens with the line, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” A more perfect Union stands out as the founders’ acknowledgment that there is room to grow the concept of liberty.
America’s wars by and large have been waged in support of the idea of Liberty and the protecting that ideal. The Civil War was fought over the rights and liberties of the Southern states and the result of that war was greater liberty for a specific people group. By no means was the concept perfected at that point, but the uniquely American idea grew. America entered World War II against countries that wanted to eradicate the notion of liberty from the Earth. The terror attack of 9/11 was a competing idea of religious superiority against the notion of personal liberty. As Thomas Friedman writes in his book The World is Flat, information, technology, and finances are becoming more democratized across the globe. As this happens, and liberty is experienced across the globe, beliefs that are counter to it will bring conflict to America to stop their spread due to the democratization of information. Societies or faiths not based on liberty will continue to attack America as their people crave some form of what America has. The attacks are going to be faster and more frequent as the world shrinks and elites around the world can no longer shelter their people. The concept that a nation’s people can craft their own future through freedom is uniquely American.
Soldiers fight to protect the idea of liberty. They do not answer the call of the nation to conquer land or gain wealth like warriors of centuries past. It is the nature of being soldiers subject to the will of the civil authority. No matter the make-up of the military, the founders created the military to be protectors and not aggressors. We as servicemen and women may have a will of our own, but it is subject to the will of the nation. Soldiers join the military out of sense of protection not aggression. They will fight and die to protect what is the notion of America, liberty. The military is designed as an organization of servants, serving the will of the American people.
There needs to be an air of caution with the belief that people envy the idea of liberty. While it is true, according to MIT researchers, and Daniel Pink in his book Drive, that autonomy (liberty) is a driver to intrinsically motivate people, which is why it is cherished. What liberty looks like is not identical across the globe. Thinking it is identical is the error America is having as our current conflicts progress. It appears we have forgotten our history as a nation, as we protect the dream that makes us great. In a short time span, we are attempting to build democracies that look like we do now. It is as if we have forgotten that we fought a Civil War, had many internal political battles, two founding governing documents, and 238 years of growth to get to where we are now. So while we fight to protect liberty and spread it across the world we need to understand it takes different forms.
America is a nation where a majority of the people are extroverts and we are an aggressive entrepreneurial society. Liberty has a particular taste to us and our failure is thinking our recipe for liberty is a taste all people will enjoy. As Susan Cain writes in her book Quiet, Asian cultures are largely introverted which is opposite of Western cultures. The society is reserved and people have a group/family focus. As a culture they are less worried about individual freedom. For Asian people, liberty is going to look different than the West and that is OK because it has to fit the people for liberty to become rooted in the society. Without taking root it’s not a protected concept.
So the answer to the question is: We fight to protect the American dream, liberty, and our burden as we fight is to help the world as we encounter it find its own idea of liberty.
I think that you might want to qualify what liberty is. I think that the United States fights for its own liberty or for that which it uses to define liberty. Both of these, however, are different than what I would define as the Platonic ideal of liberty, the denotation of the word. I’m personally much more cynical as to why we fight. I think that we fight for American interests and that we couch those interests in terms of liberty, freedom, democracy, etc. I think that we delude ourselves if we think that American actions are per se goods and that we seek that good at all times.
Certainly the Mexican-American war and Spanish-American war had little to do with freedom. We were hardly impartial in our dealings with the two powers in Word War I which led to Germany constantly attacking our transport vessels, and both Vietnam and Iraq had spurious rationales.
Lastly, would you say that your last line is a good thing? Is it a per se good to "help the world find its idea of liberty?" I don’t think that it is, and I think that we lose credibility in the world when we speak with such lofty language because it seems that we are the only ones fooled by our rhetoric.
Michael I definitely do agree with you. The essay was addressed to a particular audience, younger soldiers, since the question involved an officer responding to a younger soldier in today’s current conflict. It is a hard question to answer because we have lost sight of what we are doing abroad so there are a lot of broad and sweeping generalizations. The answer falls victim to some rhetoric as it is a partial motivation piece and not completely ground in the historical policies of the nation.
Thanks for responding. I didn’t take into account the audience of your piece. I think this brings up an interesting question, though. Where do we draw a line between rhetoric, motivation, and "the party line," and realism? I don’t think that I have the answer to that, but that question is the reason that I did not consider FA 46, Public Affairs!
I agree with you. I struggled with drawing a line between motivation/rhetoric and reality as platoon leader. It made the essay a bit more challenging to truly address.