The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I am willing to die for you

Ever since a cult of military service started building, the one unanswerable of military service is the mythology that has grown around a simple phrase:

I am willing to die for you.

To begin with, it is not accurate. Military training is not sacrificial. (Life of Brian neatly skewered this illusion with their Judean People's Front crack suicide squad, but this film tends to be most hated by those who most idealise the military.) A modern soldier, even those from countries which most revere the ideal image of the military, is trained to kill before being killed, minimising risk to himself and to his squadmates. Nor may the soldier act independently. In fact, quite the structure is in place to prevent any such thing: because in a non-military junta the military must be answerable to the people. Orders come from the commanding officer, who in turn receives them from his commanding officer, and so up to the generals and admirals, who in turn are acting to carry out foreign policy in an environment of war or potential war.

Regardless of intent, it is not a given that a particular foreign policy will actually make life safer for those back home. Foreign policies are as fallible as the people who make them and the people who respond to them. In a worldwide game of poker played with stacked decks and mirrors, most outcomes still come down to the bluff.

Furthermore, different governments will have different values, and thus different approaches and different goals. At one extreme, mutual beneficial co-existence as yet remains a utopian dream. At the other, foreign policies cannot tolerate any degree of less than complete capitulation in all others: which ultimately requires annihilation of all who don't completely agree and accept. Cultural annihilation is achieved by successfully substituting western values, often dominated by materialism, for the existing ones. Economic annihilation is achieved through lopsided free trade, where staggeringly uneven terms of commerce are the price of maintaining the flow of food and water. Military annihilation should be a last resort, just another tool in the arsenal, because it is at one and the same time the least and most effective of those tools: least, because force does not win the souls of a conquered people; most, because the military holds the most direct power of life and death.

Considered within this complex tapestry of motivations and objectives, the idea of dying for another non-military person, or even risking one's life for another non-military person, is an abstraction. Quite probably the individual soldier carries within him an image of his family and the memory of them will keep him going in the face of great adversity, but his survival or his death will serve them only as well as the particular foreign policy he is commanded to serves serves them. In fact, the greatest risks he will undertake will be on behalf of his fellow squad members and his commanding officer: bond of war, yes, but also military assets representing a significant amount of military investment. Even if the soldier's family happened to be somehow at risk, the military priorities must still come first, regardless of whether those prioritised the safety of the family.

Thus, if anything, the phrase should read:

I am willing to risk my life to protect our interests.

or, perhaps even more accurately (but certainly more controversially):

I am willing to kill to protect our interests.

But for simplicity let's assume a societal good, and return to the basic idea of being willing to risk one's life to achieve that good.

So why the idealism around the military, specifically?

Others have professions in which they risk their lives for the societal good, and at a much higher death ratio than the professional soldier. According to the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, the people most likely to die on the job are fishers and trappers (52.0 per 100,000 workers), followed by:

  • miners, quarry workers and oil workers (46.9)
  • logging and forestry (33.3)
  • construction (22.2)
  • transportation and storage (16.0)
  • military service (15.5 -- my numbers), and
  • agriculture (11.6).
Among these occupations, most serve not only a societal good but societal necessities ... but for the others we never hear "I am willing to die for you": even though they are. Yes, of course members of these professions do take all reasonable precautions so as not to die on the job, but so do members of the military. In Canada, unlike the United States, the chances of dying on the job for members of the military did rise sharply while in an active state of war.

(The current equivalent military numbers for the United States are 4.0 per 100,000: roughly the same as the civilian average for the United States. The current civilian average for Canada is higher, 6.8 per 100,000, which may represent the higher ratios of high-mortality resource-based employment. In contrast, service industries may have a much lower mortality rate than their American counterparts as a direct consequence of a lower gun-related homicide rate: 0.5 per 100,000. These conclusions are supported by the on-the-job death rate in Newfoundland [11.9, the highest in the country], which has among the most heavily resource-based employment bases, especially fishing and oil rig work. It is perhaps not a coincidence that native Newfoundlanders are disproportionately represented in Canada's military.)

In a free society, a person can choose which profession they wish to pursue. In the United States there is no conscription: a person can choose to join the military or not. The statistics tell us that a military profession carries no more of a personal risk than many others society takes for granted.

However, all other high-risk jobs which serve societal necessities are utterly independent of policy. No matter which particular political party or interest group happens to dominate a government, food must still be grown and harvested and brought to the table.

Among all the professions perceived to carry personal risk, only the military's size, support, existence is utterly dependent upon governmental policy -- a policy which can never be questioned so long as the dominant cry, drowning out all other considerations, remains solely:

Support our troops, because they are willing to die for you.

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