Three Reasons Why it Is Immoral to Serve in the Military of Any Country
Glen T. Martin
President, World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA)
The first reason why it is immoral to serve in any military is based on our moral freedom as human beings. Our sense of ethical obligation, our capacity to do what is morally right and not merely live according to our desires, is the source of our dignity as human beings. Since this is what justifies our lives and gives us our innate value as human beings, it is vital for each of us as individual persons to pay careful attention to the quality and implications of our actions (see Martin 2018, Chap. 2).
A free, moral human being is personally responsible for his or her actions. This capacity for moral integrity the glory and crown of human existence. Our worth derives not from wealth or power or fame, but from our moral autonomy and dignity as persons.
The idea of human rights in such documents as the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights derives from this dignity. Animals don’t have rights except insofar as human beings give these to them, or at least have compassion for them. They can be bought, sold, or used for human purposes. Only a human being cannot be bought, sold, or used by other human beings because of our innate dignity, our human rights. Only a human being, and no other animal that we know of, has the innate dignity of rights that derive directly from the fact that we are free, self-aware, moral agents.
One 20th century thinker wrote a book entitled Moral Man, Immoral Society, pointing out that people are often corrupted when they are part of institutions that pressure them to act in ways they might not choose to act as individuals. However, in a free society, individuals usually have a choice about whether to follow “immoral institutions” and can maintain at least some of their moral integrity. They can quit their job and get another job if their employer expects them to do something immoral. If their community insists they participate in a lynching, they can refuse, and perhaps move to another community. If their church wants them to hate and fear those who are different, they can join another church.
They can do this because they have enough moral autonomy to want to preserve their moral integrity and dignity as human beings. Any relatively free society makes possible this moral autonomy in its citizens, even though such integrity may often require great courage and personal sacrifice. However, there is one institution in nearly every society that systematically works to obliterate this moral autonomy in its members. It systematically works to substitute in the minds of its victims a sense of participating in an illusory and immoral substitute for true moral integrity and dignity. In place of the sense of moral integrity and individual human dignity, this institution forcibly substitutes the illusory dignity, pride, or glory of the nation-state. This institution is the military.
No military organization could operate if it respected human moral autonomy, that is, the capacity of individuals to take full responsibility for their actions. In spite of the lip service sometimes paid to the principles of moral responsibility formulated in the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals after the Second World War, military training must seek to destroy moral autonomy in those subjected to it. At Nuremburg, the victorious powers in the war put some of the Nazi leaders on trial for committing crimes such as genocide.
The Nazis defended themselves by saying that they were just obeying the laws of their own society and the orders of their military commanders or the commander in chief. The prosecution held that every human being is personally morally responsible for his for her actions and that these Nazis should have disobeyed the law and their military commanders. Yet this disobedience would have required immense personal sacrifice (they would probably have been shot for disobeying orders) and would require them to go against their entire society and its military training to always obey orders no matter what.
In all military training anywhere in the world, the constantly repeated, overwhelming message is unquestioning obedience to orders, no matter what these orders are. Recruits are forced to do agonizing exercises or other absurd tasks to ensure that they will obey any order no matter what. Once inducted into the military, there is no quitting, no looking for another job, no moving to another community, or joining another institution. Serious punishments, such as long prison terms at hard labor or execution by firing squad, are meted out to those who insist on their right to quit or refuse to obey an order. Once in the military, there is no discussion of the rightness or wrongness of actions, just blind obedience and absolute, unquestioning submission to authority.
This means that people are “trained,” forced under extreme pressure, to give up their moral autonomy and substitute the false dignity of the state and the military. The substitute values are forced upon recruits under such slogans as loyalty to one’s fighting unit, courage, honor, discipline, defending the values of the state, etc. But to give up one’s moral autonomy is to give up one’s dignity as a human being. It is to become, in effect, a robot, a human machine at the disposal of the will of others. To be trained to obey orders no matter what (the very essence of military training), is to be trained to debase one’s very humanity, the essence of which is one’s capacity for moral autonomy and integrity.
The nation-state can never have genuine dignity, for dignity derives from the moral freedom of human beings only. The state attempts to exalt itself through the idolatry of flags, national anthems, worship of leaders, or symbols of collective power and glory, but in the end every state is solely made up of human beings and whatever dignity it may have derives only from their individual human dignity. That is why the institutionalized promotion of freedom, democracy, and equality define the only legitimate form of government (see Martin 2010, Chaps. 7-10).
For the dignity of the state is proportional to the moral autonomy and integrity of its individual citizens. If the citizens are free (and hence their capacity for moral autonomy is promoted by the state), then the state derives whatever legitimate dignity it may have from that freedom. Just as with individual persons, wealth, power, or fame do not give dignity, only the free capacity to do what we believe is right regardless of desires, social pressure, or institutional demands.
Every military attempts to submerge the sense of dignity that its members innately have (that is awareness that they are free, moral beings) into the false dignity of its collective noble aims and ideals. “We are citizens of this great country.” “We stand for freedom and democracy in the world.” “We are fighting terror and evil.” “We defend our homeland against all enemies.” “We defend human rights and justice.”
However, it is an explicit contradiction for a military to claim it upholds ideals such as these at the same time that it attempts to destroy the moral autonomy of its members. Military trainees must be made to kill whomever their commanders say to kill. They must be willing to destroy the homes and factories and livelihoods of whomever their commanders designate. They must be willing to use weapons of mass destruction if their commanders so order.
This is why even militaries that are authentically founded in the above named ideals are inevitably perverted. An organization whose members who have had their moral autonomy destroyed is an immoral organization from the very beginning. It cannot be expected to care about noble ideals or human dignity. For military training is based on the very denial of these in military personnel.
Members of military organizations cannot be allowed to question strategy or tactics or individual commands that they are given. To questions any of these (as rational, moral agents always should) would be to destroy their imposed function of acting as robots in a command structure who have given over their moral autonomy to the military machine designed for killing and destroying. It would also destroy the inevitable secrecy that attends to all military planning and action. Soldiers must give up their dignity as human beings for the false dignity imposed by the military machine. Our moral dignity is something real and concrete and must not be sacrificed in the name of some vague ideals of the nation-state claiming that some noble end (e.g. defending freedom) justifies the means we are now using. There are some means that are not justified by any end.
A second decisive reason why no one should serve in the military of any country derives from the all-important distinction between the police and military. To be a member of a police force under the rule of law in a democratic country can be a noble and respectable form of employment. To be a member of a military machine, as we have seen, is neither noble nor morally respectable (see ibid. Chap. 9.2).
Police operating under democratically legislated laws serve the people by protecting them, enforcing legitimate laws, and promoting the common good. In a democracy, police always have civilian oversight. They are carefully and legally restricted in their ability to use force. They are required by law to use the minimum force necessary to apprehend those for whom and independent warrant has been issued and must accord such persons their due-process rights. Police are required to do everything reasonably possible to avoid harm to innocent bystanders and those present who are not named in the warrant. Their function (to uphold the laws using the minimum of force necessary to do so) is vital to a free and law-abiding society.
They police can remain morally autonomous as individuals and still serve effectively as police officers. If given an order by their commanders that violates their conscience or integrity, officers can challenge the order within the police department itself. They may also challenge the order by taking the matter to the civilian review board. Or they may ask for a transfer within the police department. They may resign from their job without the fear of being shot or imprisoned for years at hard labor. The argument here is not that the use of reasonable police force is never justified in human affairs. It is that the use of force to maintain order and freedom in a democratic society can be justified only if those empowered to use force are able to maintain their moral autonomy and integrity as human beings.
None of these features of police work obtain in military service. Since military organizations normally exist to perform certain functions within the international system of sovereign nation-states, they operate in an international environment where there are no democratically legislated laws circumscribing their behavior. What is commonly called “international law” is merely a treaty system among sovereign nations, broken at will by the parties to the treaty.
Secondly, there are no legal restrictions on the ability of a military to use force (international conventions like the Geneva conventions are not laws but voluntary agreements among sovereign states). Since war is the systematic attempt to cause suffering to an enemy to the point where the enemy surrenders, the use of tremendous force and violence is built into the system. Military forces do not serve people in general by protecting them for the common good. Rather they serve a certain group (their nation) at the expense of all other peoples and nations.
They may claim some noble ideal of serving “freedom,” but to destroy the homes and factories and lives of some enemy not included in this “freedom” is to act outside of the rule of law and all possibility of a democratically legislated freedom. The good of those against whom they are commanded to use force is not part of the equation. Indeed, they must try to harm those against whom they are commanded to use force. And there is no question of those against whom they use force being “innocent” or “guilty,” since there is no due process whereby warrants are issued and evidence is assessed under democratic rules to determine innocence and guilt. The civilian and military commanders act as police, judge, jury, and executioners all in one, the very antithesis of democracy.
In addition there is no genuine democratic civilian oversight of the military because the very nature of militarism requires immense secrecy: secret planning, secret strategies, secret development of weapons, secret maneuvers and tactics. A military is an organization of blind robots in the service of a few commanders or politicians operating in secret within the vacuum of international affairs where there is no law, no democracy, no real option to perform a legitimate police function. Victims of military actions need not be accorded any due process rights. They have no legal grounds to sue for damages. Their human rights need not be respected. They are either targeted as an official enemy (without due process) by the secret elite controlling the military (for example by a President or a National Security Council) or they are mere “collateral damage” for whom no one is legally responsible.
Military action is action to destroy, kill, or defeat in a lawless world. To be a member of a military organization is to have given up one’s moral autonomy and integrity to kill or destroy in a lawless world. This is never justifiable. We have an absolute moral duty never to serve in any military.
The so-called “argument from self-defense” is not valid. Individuals (who are moral decision-makers under the rule of democratically legislated laws) do have the right to use force in the defense of their persons, property, or family under certain very limited circumstances. When we live under the rule of law, disputes and conflicts must be handled by the due-process of law whenever possible. If I am under threat from my neighbor, I must call the police. I may only use force in self-defense if I am able to justify the immediacy of this need before an impartial court of law. Otherwise, I am liable to be convicted of a crime myself. Only under these circumstances, can I legitimately engage in self-defense as a morally autonomous human being (see Martin 2018, Chap. 8.5).
None of this obtains in military service under the system of nation-states. There are no democratically legislated world laws that determine individual rights to self-defense under certain circumstances. Each nation decides for itself what is self-defense in a lawless world without democracy or the enforceable rule of law.
As an individual, as we have seen, I can morally engage in the use of force in self-defense under certain circumstances. As a member of a military organization, I cannot. Militaries decide to use the self-defense argument whenever the political leaders of the nation believe it is in the national interest. There is no objective court or rule of law with binding authority over individuals to determine the moral or legal legitimacy of these decisions.
If, as an individual under the rule of law, I decide those in the next community are out to get me, how am I to behave? I believe I see them preparing the weapons or logistics to attack me and destroy me and my family. If I take a machine gun and wipe out the entire community using a self-defense argument, an impartial court of law will hold me accountable and guilty. However, individual members of a military organization are not even party to such “self-defense” decisions. I am a robot commanded to obey orders no matter what. Hence, any action I take involving force or logistical support for those using force (which includes all military jobs) is not morally justifiable under the “self-defense” argument.
Does the self-defense argument work for the decision makers? If I am a political or military decision-maker for the military machine, and I decide to attack some perceived enemy using this same self-defense argument, there is no democratic world-law to hold me legally accountable. Hence, my “self-defense” argument is invalid. There is no way to distinguish the use of force in “self-defense” from the use of force in my self-interest. I have simply acted as police, judge, jury, and executioner all in one. In a lawless world, my moral duty is not to defend myself against all perceived enemies by settling down with military force within the barbarism and chaos, but to create the rule of enforceable law. Only under the rule of democratically legislated law is the self-defense argument cogent or valid.
A third decisive reason for not serving in the military of any nation is because all militaries are inherently terroristic. In other words, there is no essential difference between terrorism as engaged in by non-governmental groups and the kind of force and violence engaged in by military organizations of nation-states (see Martin 2016, Chap. 5).
Since terrorism has become such a well-known political and moral issue in the past few decades, this fact has emerged repeatedly in the literature. Scholars commonly speak of “state-terrorism” (when nations use direct military force out of self-interest) or “state-sponsored terrorism” (when nations sponsor terrorist organizations to promote their perceived self-interest). State forms of terrorism, as is often pointed out, are many more times as vicious and destructive as terrorism by non-governmental groups since military organizations have such vast resources for violence and destruction at their command.
Naturally, individuals within military forces are not allowed to decide between state-terrorist actions and some idea they may have of legitimate self-defense actions because they have given up their moral autonomy. However, we have already seen that the “self-defense” argument itself fails to justify military violence. There is no legitimate reason for the claim of the military that it operates in self-defense, for “self-defense” by definition is whatever actions a military decides to undertake. “Self-defense” becomes just another word for “self-interest” and the rule of might makes right.
The U.S. FBI definition of terrorism, issued in 1999, reads as follows: Terrorism is “the unlawful use of force or violence committed by a group or individual, who has some connection to a foreign power or whose activities transcend national boundaries, against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance or political or social objectives.”
We can see that this definition applies to the militaries of nation-states as much as to non-governmental terrorist groups. Militaries are “international” in that they threaten the use of force between nations. Their actions are not lawful, since there is no world law to govern their actions. Third, their actions always use force or the threat of force to achieve political or social objectives. Even “defending the motherland” is the use of force or the threat of force with regard to all other nations to achieve the political/social goals of preserving this nation with its institutions, customs, etc.
Therefore, since we live in a world without democratically legislated laws over all peoples and nations, the very existence of any military satisfies this FBI definition of terrorism. A military organization is precisely the perpetual threat of force, outside the rule of law, to achieve political and social objectives. Morally autonomous persons do not use force or the threat of force to achieve political or social objectives. They use discussion, voting, writing, meetings, democratic organizational structures, and other non-violent means. Hence, to be a member of a military organization is to be part of a terrorist organization. This is absolutely, morally forbidden. No one and no organization has the right to use force or the threat of force to achieve their political or social objectives.
Each of the above three reasons why military service is morally wrong is decisive. Together they represent the foundations of a new world order and new level of human civilization. For under the present world order military service is accepted and acceptable, even lauded as patriotic or as service to one’s country. Few young people have the courage or moral autonomy that makes them capable of resisting this morally deadly form of employment. As long as there is a system of sovereign nation-states in a lawless world, there will be militarism with its vast violation of human dignity and moral integrity.
Implicit in the above arguments, however, is the moral demand for all human beings to live under the rule of democratically legislated and enforceable law. Only such law, applied equally to all human persons, can enhance as well as respect human dignity. These arguments show that there is a new level of human civilization on the horizon, for implicit in our moral capacity and human dignity is the demand for universal democratic laws over all persons and nations. In fact, at the dawn of the 21st century, the world is experiencing a global movement to create non-military democratic world government under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
World government under this constitution will move humanity to a new level of moral autonomy and growth. War and all forms of militarism are progressively and carefully outlawed by the Constitution. This is not just some idealistic formulation extraneous to world government under the Constitution. No world government can be democratic and founded on the principles of human rights and human dignity if it includes a military. This conclusion is a direct consequence of the above three arguments why military service is immoral. In a pacified and decent world economic and political system, no military would be necessary because due process of law would apply to all individuals on the planet, and not to abstract collective entities called “nation-states.” So-called international law both accepts and requires militarism.
The institutions of a free society encourage moral autonomy and responsibility in individual citizens. (They do not lay down the content of morality—what is specifically right or wrong—but institutionalize the form of morality, which is the free capacity of individuals to make moral choices.). They are legitimate to the extent that they do this.
Since all military service necessarily destroys individual moral autonomy, our obligation is to create a world free of military service. Insofar as any person pays taxes in any society that fund militarism, they are complicit in the destruction of the rule of law and autonomy in the world. They are complicit, as we have seen, in fostering state terrorism. Our obligation is to create real democratic law in the world enforced by police forces responsible to the common good of all human beings, for the rule of law can only be universal if it rises above militarism and terrorism.
Under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, all nations joining the Earth Federation will be required by law to progressively disarm and disband their militaries. All weapons of war are outlawed, from the manufacture, to the transport, to the sale or deployment of such weapons. Morally decent people do not engage in such activities. For the first time in the history of civilization, human moral autonomy will be respected by the laws of the Earth. For the first time in history, human dignity will be respected upon the Earth.
This can only happen through non-military democratic world government. We can all contribute to bringing about this new level of civilization, first, by refusing to serve in the military of any country (see Martin 2018, Prologue and Chap. 1). This is the first and absolutely crucial step—to see that it is wrong to give up our moral autonomy to any institution. The second step involves working for non-military democratic world government, for only in this way can governmental institutions serve the autonomy and dignity of all citizens. The only fully legitimate democracy is world democracy. Hence, our moral obligation as free citizens is to work to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth (www.earth-constitution.org).
Martin, Glen T. (2010). Triumph of Civilization: Democracy, Nonviolence, and the Piloting of Spaceship Earth, Appomattox, VA, Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
Martin, Glen T. (2016). One World Renaissance: Holistic Planetary Transformation through a Global Social Contract, Appomattox, VA, Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation.