"There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong...." ~ James Madison
Serving One's Country - Correspondence with a Cadet
I received this letter today, 26 October 2004, from a Cadet at the United States Air Force Academy:
After reading your article Losing the War on Terror, I feel compelled to ask, how a man who was a "Distinguished Graduate" of such a fine institution like the united States Military Academy, a man who once served his country in Desert Storm, and a man who, by taking the oath to defend this country against "all enemies foreign and domestic," was willing to die for his country now speaks such blasphemy against it. I realize that I will, one day, be fighting to ensure that you have the right to believe this and I fully support your right as an American to do so. However, the fact that a former military man could ever utter and even publicize such malicious words about a country and its leadership that you once swore to uphold baffles me. I find it immature that you feel the need to take such an insulting tone when writing your political agenda against the President of the United States and my Commander and Chief. You have every right to disagree with him and to voice your political opinion in hopes of swaying votes to your side for the nearing election. However, I should have hoped that you would have been taught better than to insult and degrade those you disagree with, especially when the individual you are disagreeing with is your superior. Surely you learned that at West Point . It leads one to wonder why and how you ever wore the uniform of the United States of America.
Thank You for Your Time and Consideration,
Edwin (ed. name withheld)
Cadet Squadron 27 - Fabulous Thunderbirds
United States Air Force Academy
Many years ago, I was at the stage of development you now occupy, so I understand your point of view, and will attempt to answer your question. Because I have been there, I have serious doubts you will finish reading my reply, but you did take the time to write and I reply in hopes that you will learn something from my experience and perhaps avoid some of my mistakes and wasted time. In the interest of simplicity, I will attempt to address your points in order.
Before beginning, I will note that because you are young, you lack a certain degree of personal experience. The particular views you espouse are based on ideas that have been taught to you and for whatever reason, you believe more or less without question. The best advice I could offer you as you go through life is to take nothing for granted, and to continually try to square your beliefs with reality. In that way, you will progressively approach the truth rather than constantly be forced to rationalize fantasies about life.
You start your letter with just such an act of self-deception by calling me "Sir"--a sign of respect--yet the content of your letter certainly does not reflect respect for my views or me. Why bother? Even if I felt you sincere in saying 'Sir,' (which I don't) I don't act as I do because I am trying to gain your respect. I do what I do because I believe it to be the right thing and would do it even if you do not respect it (which you don't). In using "Sir," you are being dishonest, but the only one you are fooling is yourself. At best, you are wasting time and effort on useless formalities.
You say, "a fine institution like USMA," yet you offer no support for such a statement. (I may or may not agree, but that is not the point here.) You simply assume it to be true. I would like to know the facts you believe support this statement. This is rhetorical--I do not wish to waste time debating this point. I only want to point out that you seem to be under the impression that your views are unassailable and you do not even bother to offer any support for them. You must realize that not everyone shares your particular sense of self-righteousness. When you do realize this, you will begin to understand why the whole world does not operate as you see fit, and you will be much less frustrated as a person.
You describe me as a man who "once served his country in Desert Storm," yet again you offer no support. Beyond knowing that I actually did follow orders to go to Saudi Arabia, I doubt you can describe one thing I did in detail that would actually fit your definition of "serving." Does "serving one's country" consist of no more than following the President's orders to move one's body from one place to another? This sort of service is trivial and hardly something to be proud of. What constitutes "my country"? What about all those people, and there were many, who disagreed with Desert Storm and did not want me or anyone else to participate in it? Was I serving them by following orders or resisting? More importantly, what was the right thing to do? Who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong? Do you do that, Edwin, or is your President also your God? Should the majority rule even when the majority is wrong? I aspire to a higher standard than that, and I believe that attempting to live up to such a higher standard is a service to the rest of humanity, and that would necessarily include "my country," however you define it.
You write, "I realize that I will, one day, be fighting to ensure that you have the right to believe this and I fully support your right as an American to do so." In fact, you don't "fully support" me. Your letter is simple evidence of that. You might argue somewhat weakly that you tolerate me, but again your letter gives the impression that this tolerance is not sincere, but grudging and insincere, given only because it is the law. Let me make myself clear. I do not accept that you know better than me what is good for me. Therefore I will tell you right now that I do not want you fighting in some mistaken belief that it will "support my right," as you say. Your fighting, in certainty, will ensure nothing and support nothing other than your fighting.
Most of the rest of your letter consists of personal insults and opinions that require no specific reply. You closed by saying, "It leads one to wonder why and how you ever wore the uniform of the United States of America." Edwin, "the uniform" is cotton, perhaps nylon, etc. clothing designed originally to distinguish friend from foe on the field of battle, but more realistically in the present day, to distinguish military from non-military and at times, different units from each other. That is the reason to wear the uniform. You suggest that the uniform represents some sort of pseudo-religious belief in your personal opinion of what constitutes the "United States of America." Your letter implies that this "United States of America" consists of everyone who shares your views (this would hardly be a "free" society). But it is even worse than that because you feel obligated to do as you are ordered out of some misguided sense of service--thus rendering your personal views (which might otherwise be valuable) worthless. In fact, if you were ordered to do so, I have no doubt that you would give me a "21 gun salute" in spite of the views expressed in your letter.
In the end, it all amounts to this: You would have me act in a way that conforms to your personal views. You call this "service," and those who do that "your country" or "The United States of America." The irony here is that you yourself would act in opposition to your personal views if you were ordered to do so. This leads to my final question to you, Edwin. If you were to follow orders (and I know you would) to act in opposition to your personal and moral views, would I be "serving my country" by (A) acting like you, or (B) opposing you and acting in support of your personal views and moral beliefs?
Edwin, I believe that option (B) is the best choice. I would not respect, nor want to live in a country where option (A) was the universal response.