A relative called me early on the Fourth of July to thank me for serving my country. She was referring to the four years I spent on active duty as an Army officer, and the two years I spent in ROTC before that. While I appreciated the gesture, especially since only a few people have ever done so, I also thought it was pretty amusing.
A popular radio talk show host in Atlanta almost always responds with “Thanks for serving your country” if a caller tells him that he is a veteran or is in the military. That’s the common perception: People who serve in the military serve their country. If someone had asked me during the late 1980s why I wanted to join the military, I would have said, “Because I want to serve my country.” At the time, I thought that every able-bodied male should serve their country by serving in the military. I thought I owed a debt to others (especially those who fought in the Revolutionary War) and needed to “stand my watch.” Two of my favorite quotes at the time were “Freedom isn’t free” (which the Army incorporated in a great TV commercial) and “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I was very idealistic and naïve.
Towards the end of my tour on active duty, I began to realize just what I was: a pawn on a geopolitical chessboard, with Clinton calling the shots and moving the pieces. A large crowd (most of the civilized world) was at this chess match, watching CNN’s Christianne Amanpour report from various hellholes on the chessboard, and would demand that Clinton “do something” about them, which invariably meant sending in troops (moving pawns like me to another square). When my division got the mission to prepare to deploy to Bosnia in the spring of 1993, I didn’t know of a single soldier who wanted to go. But if we actually had deployed (we never did), I’m sure that no one would have refused to go, because every soldier knows the deal: They must obey every “lawful” (not moral) order issued by their chain of command. As Tennyson wrote in The Charge of the Light Brigade :
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die
At the top of the chain of command is the President. (To reinforce the point, pictures of the men in the chain of command can be found in every Army headquarters at the battalion level or higher.) Congress appropriates the funding and exercises oversight, but the President is the Commander-in-Chief. So is serving the President by obeying his orders the same thing as serving your country?
Voter turnout in the 1992 Presidential election was 55.19% . Clinton received 43.28% of the vote, so he was elected by only 23.89% of the voting age population, or 17.73% of the total population. How about Congress? Voter turnout in the 1992 Congressional elections was also 55% (which is actually the highest it’s been since 1972). If we assume that the average winner won with 55% of the vote, that means those Congressmen were elected on average by only 30.25% of the voting age population, or 22.48% of the total population. Were the people who voted for winning candidates my countrymen? Of course not. And the actions of the President and Congress reflected the will of that 23.89% or 30.25% of the voting age population in only a crude sort of way, since (1) most voters had only one or two options in the voting booth, so the correlation of their views with those of the politician they voted for may not have been high; (2) many voters didn’t know or were misled about various politicians’ positions on the issues; and (3) a politician might have changed his position on an issue (or even his party) after he was elected. Additionally, some of the people who voted (such as dual citizens living in a foreign country) I would not consider my countrymen, while other people who lived in America but couldn’t vote (say, because they had been convicted of a victimless crime) I would. So people who vote for victorious politicians are not my country, and the actions of the politicians they elect don’t reflect the will of my countrymen.
What is a country, then? This is a question I’ve been pondering in recent months. My dictionary provides several definitions, including: (1) a large tract of land distinguishable by features of topography, biology or culture; (2) a nation or state; the territory of a nation or state; (3) the people of a nation or state; (4) the land of a person’s birth or citizenship. We are trained and conditioned to think of our country as everything within the geographical area over which the federal government exercises its monopoly on legal coercion. But if the State is a social construct, a fiction, a figment of the imagination, then so are its invisible, made-up boundaries. I’ve been trying to get myself to ignore the State’s boundaries and think of my country in terms of the first and last definitions above. Yes, it’s not as cut-and-dried, but that’s the way it would be in real life if we didn’t have a government and nationalist sentiment.
When I think of my country, I think of people who live on the same landmass as me, people who generally speak American English and look similar to me, and people who believe in basic American values. This might include some parts of Canada but exclude some parts of the U.S. There is no reason for a country to be defined by a specific geographical area unless a government exists. In that case, the government needs to stake out its turf (the same way a street gang does) and determine where it needs to lay the minefields and build the walls. Think about it: Wouldn’t there be fewer wars if maps looked like this one , with just the names of places and no political boundaries?
Now some of you might say that someone needs to serve in the military to protect us from foreign invaders. I agree that we need to protect ourselves from such people (although Canada and Mexico don’t pose a threat, and the oceans on the east and west coasts make a pretty good moat), but that doesn’t mean that the government is the best or only candidate for the job. See Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s The Private Production of Defense  (.pdf file, 26 pages) or the second part of Bob Murphy’s short book Chaos Theory .
So did I have a moral obligation to serve my country (here I mean the non-political definition of country, not the political one)? Well, my countrymen never did anything for me, and I never entered into a contract with them. Although we have some things in common and belong to the same affinity group, as far as I’m concerned, they are simply other human beings, other citizens of the world. The fact that the U.S. government claims them as subjects makes no difference to me. Their status as Americans does not magically transform them into people whose lives are worth more than those of non-Americans.
If you want to serve others and reduce nationalism and the incidence of war, don’t serve your country, serve your fellow man, regardless of his nationality. How? Offer him a product or service he wants. Cater to his wishes. Anticipate his needs. Supply his demand. Increase his satisfaction. Make him glad he did business with you. The beauty of the market is that even if you’re selfish and care only about yourself, if you want to be able to buy food, clothing and shelter, you have to spend about 40 hours per week putting the needs of others ahead of your own. The only way that you can get what you want is by serving your fellow man.
Serving and trading with others, regardless of nationality, makes war more costly since trade is disrupted and profits and utility are lost. That’s why, when politicians want to go to war with another country, the first thing they do is try to stop people in their country from trading with people in the other country by imposing tariffs, sanctions, embargos and blockades. If trade between people in the two countries is no longer possible, it reduces the costs of going to war. Once war is imminent, politicians will urge their subjects to “serve your country,” by which they mean the State. War would not have been possible if people had simply ignored the State and continued to serve their fellow man, regardless of nationality.
The difference between serving your country and serving your fellow man is the difference between war and peace, between devastation and prosperity. When you serve "your country," you are really taking orders from the State to kill, maim and destroy. But when you serve your fellow man by participating in the market, you take orders from consumers, which results in peace and prosperity.