Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The, Uh, “Conservative” Case for Spitting on American Soldiers

American Greatness offers a red-pill argument for hating on the military.
by Jim Swift
August 25, 2021
The, Uh, “Conservative” Case for Spitting on American Soldiers
U.S. Marines from 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, RCT 2nd Battalion 8th Marines Echo Co. conduct an operation to clear a village of Taliban fighters on July 5, 2009 in Mian Poshteh, Afghanistan (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In a piece entitled “The ‘Thank You for Your Service’ Red Pill” published on the Trump fan site American Greatness last week, a pseudonymous writer used the occasion of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan to make the case that a volunteer army is bad.

The article opens with this doozy of an observation: “There is something less than admirable about someone who would fight and kill for a living.”

Sure, some people join the military for the wrong reasons, and yes, people can and certainly do get disillusioned, but the argument from “Bill Kilgore”—a frequent American Greatness contributor who is apparently actively serving in some branch of the armed forces—is that the U.S. military is essentially mercenary. “Not everyone who joined up knew it was mercenary,” he writes, “but there is no excuse for anyone serving more than one term of service for not recognizing it.” He continues:

Pride is a hell of a drug, and this red pill cuts right against our pride. We all know young men (and sadly, women) who joined up for noble purposes, no doubt pushed by our own cultural promotion of “service.” Many of us are those young men. But naïveté and pride do not excuse what is really happening.

So what is it about the shift from an old-style volunteers-plus-draftees army to a professionally trained, standing volunteer army that fundamentally transforms its character in a way that troubles Kilgore? It’s this:

The simple truth is that professional armies profit from war and always serve as a faction in politics. They are incompatible with free government because of this. They also lead to the loss of virtue necessary in citizens to live free. Even Rousseau, despite his many faults, recognized that there is something gross and degrading about a citizenry that hires out the defense of their nation to a select group of professionals.

One can quibble with the phrase “select group of professionals.” We have more than 1.3 million active-duty service members and upwards of 8 million veterans from the post-conscription era, but from Kilgore’s description you’d think our military was made up of Blackwater (now Academi) fighting for us like in War, Inc., which is basically the sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank. Kilgore conflates several distinct terms throughout his piece—“professional,” “standing,” “volunteer,” “mercenary”—and cherry-picks from political philosophy. The passage from Rousseau to which Kilgore alludes, for instance, is a rich and complicated one, but it must be stretched and strained to be applied to our own military.

Kilgore’s ideal American military would apparently be one that shrinks in peacetime and rapidly expands during wartime by conscription and volunteers, which is more or less how things worked through the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries. But he has nothing to say about the actual historical reasons for why the United States moved away from that haphazard approach; he prefers instead to darkly imply that it was a lust for empire that moved us in that direction. His argument might have been worth taking more seriously if he conceded that the transformation he laments was provoked by the experience of seeing the country ill prepared to face real threats, and then by the risks and responsibilities associated with America’s post-WWII superpower status.

Kilgore rightly notes that “Citizen soldiers have a motive to return to normal life—their lives—and the path to that is victory”—but his implication is that our armed forces today, professional soldiers instead of citizen soldiers, lack the motivation of a desire to return to normal life. That frankly seems utterly detached from reality. I’m sure if you polled the military, most would prefer to live a “normal life,” however defined, instead of sleeping in fear at a FOB outside of Fallujah or being stationed at a peacetime military installation thousands of miles from family. There are always exceptions, of course—like the soldiers who think that joining the Army will be a way to escape their problems. But by and large, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines tend to plan for and think about their post-service lives. Here again, Kilgore’s argument would have been worth taking more seriously if his argument were narrower, for it’s true that the existence of a professional, standing military can create messy, complicated, warped incentives regarding work and family life.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Kilgore then gets really carried away:

Put another way, professional soldiers inevitably become highly credentialed rent-seekers. They produce nothing of value. They gain nothing by victory. They do not benefit from making you free or helping you advance beyond the need for their services. They profit from war, especially endless war. They profit from losing and pretending it is victory, but only so much as you are required to ask them to fight some more.

Kilgore calls professional soldiers “rent seekers”—a term from economics referring to those who don’t help create wealth yet find ways to pocket it. I suspect that economists would technically also refer to citizen soldiers as rent seekers if they are paid. More to the point, Kilgore would be on solid footing if he had referred to rent seeking in the military-industrial complex writ large. But to refer to individual soldiers as rent seekers comes across as bizarre and offensive—as if people join the military for the tax benefits, Tricare, and mortgage assistance when they’re moved for the third time.

I’m not sure what Kilgore means in his piece’s closing paragraph, other than to suggest that we treat with indifference those who fought bravely under our flag:

We must all learn the harsh lessons of the moment and rise to the occasion. So when you want to say “thank you for your service” because it makes you feel patriotic and warm and fuzzy inside, don’t. Twenty years in Afghanistan, and the last few days, are what doing so gets us.

It’s worth reminding our younger readers: The reflexive use of “thank you for your service” largely arose after September 11, in an intentional break with the supposed hostility (at least according to legend) faced by American troops returning home from Vietnam. Perhaps Kilgore feels that enlisting or going to OCS was a mistake for him. He certainly is cynical about the reasons people choose to serve and even the idea of service itself. Fortunately, most Americans are more levelheaded and more capable of making nuanced judgments—including the judgment that while our military is, like all our institutions, imperfect in many ways, the individuals who serve in our armed forces largely deserve our respect and our gratitude. Thank them for their service.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.