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Why I Served

Eric C finished Wednesday’s post with the obviously provocative question: why do soldiers fight? I thought I’d answer that question today, at least as best I can

In some ways, I’ve answered the question, “why do I serve?” before (here and here), so I could just point to those posts and say, “Well, that’s why I joined.” Like Eric C, I had altruistic motivations; I wanted to literally serve my country.

In spring of 2003, I watched our country embark on a war that at the time I considered ill advised. Combined with my skepticism that Afghanistan would be a short war (something I was proven wrong about, then later proven right) it seemed clear to a young, naive college student that if ever our nation needed smart people serving in its military, 2003 was the time. So I joined for selfless reasons, to serve my country.

That’s not really the whole story though.

Eric C isn’t really just asking about my opinion, he’s asking about the opinion of all soldiers in general. What Eric C is also asking, circumscribally, is, we all know the selfless reasons to serve, what are the selfish reasons to serve?

Back to my personal experience. As soon as I sat down in the ROTC recruiter’s chair, weeks after I first thought about joining, I was pitched several things. The good Major pitched me about serving my country, yes, but also about the tremendous leadership experiences of young officers and the pay and benefits. I also learned that ROTC could help pay for my college.

Did those things influence my decision? Absolutely, especially the parts about leadership.

If I am being totally honest, the idea of serving as an officer in the military went back to grade school. Back then, I desperately wanted to someday be President of the United States. To do that, I determined that I needed to serve in the military, because it looked good for Presidential candidates. So even the idea of serving my country has selfish gains; I would look like a good person.

Does my experience apply to all Soldiers? I think it does. The reasons for why a soldier serves aren’t simple. Some need the money, some have no other options, and some want the experience. Selfless service to country is only one part of the equation.

Now to Eric C’s thesis: some soldiers serve to fight. They are fighters and the Army is the place many go to fight the enemy (since 9/11, the enemy is “terrorists”). Yes, I think this describes plenty of soldiers very well. When faced with danger, some citizens feel duty bound to personally sacrifice themselves to face it. Others feel obligated to shoot that danger in the face, right or wrong. That describes fighters.

four comments

I think the last paragraph misses the point: some people want to fight, regardless of who it is against. Yeah, there are terrorists now, but it used to be communists, or Nazis, or Japanese.

The military is the only place where it is legal to kill, and for some that is a thrill. I don’t think I’ve read a war memoir where someone didn’t offer some version of that sentiment.

Final point: I hope John Kerry doesn’t read your third to last paragraph.


The current Harpers has a very thoughtful (and historically questioning) piece by Nicholson Baker: Why I’m a pacifist:
The dangerous myth of the Good War

It’s available here if you have a subscription:
http://harpers.org/archive/2011/05/00834..

Or get ye to the dentist:)

There’s another good article on the President and the generals so worth the cover price this month.


I’m right now in an airport, so I’ll see if they have Harpers here. I doubt it.

As for how my reasons relate to the “Good War”, I do think there is an argument that once a war starts we need smart people to make sure it doesn’t go off the rails. Good ethical leaders stop Abu Ghraibs and “The Kill Team” from happening in the first place. At least, I like to think they do.

As to Eric C’s last point, I think the last ten years have shown that military service doesn’t matter, only political affiliation.


I remember my father telling me about a couple of the guys he served with in Vietnam. One stole a car and the other was arrested for assault. They were both given an option. Serve time or serve in the military. They chose the later. I always thought that was funny.