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American Exceptionalism, Military Service, and Sacrifice in War

By Camillo Mac Bica

July 17, 2015 "Information Clearing House" - “We are a special people with a providential mission . . . a responsibility to the world, (that) has translated into a sense of empowerment or prerogative to determine the way the world is supposed to work, what it’s supposed to look like, and also, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing willingness to use military force to cause the world to look the way we want it to look.”1 This is the axiom of American Exceptionalism that sadly and tragically informs much of the thinking, foreign policy, and “diplomacy” of our political and military leaders. As a consequence of this mindset, the moral, legal, even practical value of an act or policy is determined not by whether it conforms to or violates domestic, International, or moral law, but by the national identity of the actor or policy maker. When the United States or one of its surrogates torture, bomb, invade, occupy sovereign nations, or covertly instigate or support coups to overthrow democratically elected leaders, these crimes are ignored, denied, or deemed humanitarian interventions, done with the best of intentions, to satisfy a providential patriarchal responsibility, and achieve some greater good. As such, despite violations of law, morality, convention, and treaty, such actions are deemed acceptable, even celebrated, as necessary and right. Should non allied nations or sub national groups, however, employ similar tactics, perhaps to ensure their religious autonomy, territorial integrity, political sovereignty, and national security, or should they attempt to develop a nuclear weapons capability as a deterrent, it is deemed “terrorism,” indicative of their barbarism, and a threat to the United States and its allies. In response, our political leaders bribe, intimidate, and coerce others in the international community into a coalition of support for sanctions, embargo, bombing, drone missile assassinations, invasion, occupation, and regime change. Even as the illegality, immorality, brutality, and futility of the wars/interventions in such places as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, have become apparent, the cost in lives, treasure, and reputation have been made palatable to a compliant and vulnerable citizenry made fearful by dire predictions of catastrophe and cataclysm, imagery of mushroom clouds over American cities, and by reference to the mythology of American Exceptionalism.

Sometimes, however, war is a myth breaker. Many veterans who have experienced the horror and insanity of the battlefield have realized the deception and treachery prosecuted upon the American people and the world by our political leaders. Some of the more courageous among them henceforth referred to as “Veteran Activists,” have recognized their moral and civic responsibility to speak out regarding their experiences, the realities of war, and the hypocrisy, arrogance, and mythology of American Exceptionalism and the militaristic foreign policy it inspires and sanctions.

The “Patriot’s “Argument: the Honor of Military Service

Not everyone, however, views such truth telling, candor, and forthrightness as admirable or acceptable. Whether from an avid nationalism, a blind patriotism, or because they take comfort in or benefit from this mythology, some self-proclaimed “patriots” choose never to question American Exceptionalism and militarism. Rather, they celebrate it and demand that others do so as well. As may be expected, perhaps, they have responded to the Veteran Activists’ public criticism and dissent with intolerance, contempt, and ad hominem attacks, questioning their patriotism, courage, honor, strength of character, understanding of and appreciation for the nature of military service, war, and the realities of the world in which we live.2

While all would prefer, of course, to peacefully coexist, the “patriot” reminds us that the world is a violent and dangerous place inhabited by nations, sub-national groups, and individuals intent upon doing us harm. To meet this threat, the military is charged with the difficult and daunting task of maintaining order, furthering our personal and national interest, and defending the freedom, lives, and well being of the citizens of our nation and of the world. Consequently, enlistees into the military, henceforth referred to as “soldiers,” upon undergoing basic training, are conditioned to understand and accept some basic realities regarding the nature of military service. First, waging war inevitably involves the use of violence, even deadly force. Second, in the performance of their duties, it may be necessary to injure, even kill, other human beings deemed the enemy. Third, war is such that they, their comrades, and on occasion, innocent civilians, may be injured or killed, the latter accidentally and unintentionally – collateral damage. This is the “patriot’s” view of the world and of military service, and soldiers should not be surprised by what they are asked to do, nor feel guilt, shame, or remorse for their actions – suffer moral injury.

While the “patriot” may regard Veteran Activists as misguided, unpatriotic, even treasonous, he is not insensitive to the effects of war. He recognizes that despite the intense and sophisticated operant conditioning techniques utilized during basic training, not all soldiers adjust equally well to the intensity of the war environment and, in his view, due to personal weakness or inadequacy, some may be troubled by the experience. As a consequence, they may suffer “internal conflict,” become disenchanted with military service and the war, entertain doubts regarding its legality and morality, believe they had been lied to regarding its purpose and necessity, and become skeptical that their sacrifices benefit only the few, primarily the wealthy war profiteers. While the “patriot” may sympathize with the plight of these “troubled” individuals and encourage them to seek medical and psychological services offered by the Veterans Administration, he is adamant that they remain silent and respectful and avoid criticizing the war effort and denigrating their comrades who continue to serve and sacrifice with honor, dedication, nobility, and pride. In most cases, the “patriot” alleges support not only for members of the military but for American Exceptionalism and the war itself. One notable exception is Andrew Bacevich.

Andrew Bacevich: The Value of Military Service

Andrew Bacevich is a West Point Graduate, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, veteran of the Vietnam War, and a Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University. He is also an articulate and outspoken critic of American Exceptionalism, military adventurism, and what he terms the “sacred trinity” of the operational military precepts of global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism.3 In a recent interview, respected journalist and PBS talk show host Bill Moyers asked Professor Bacevich, given his criticism of this “new American militarism,” whether the lives and well being of American servicemen and women were being squandered in the Global War Against Terrorism and whether their service and sacrifices in places like Iraq and Afghanistan had value or merit. In response, though not specifically addressing the issue of veteran protest and dissent or choosing to attack the integrity of Veteran Activists, Professor Bacevich does disappointingly, given his clarity of vision, mental acuity, and courage in speaking truth to power, offer a rather nuanced, though equally misleading and problematic version of the “patriot’s” argument. “Soldier’s are sent to serve,” he tells us, and in this service they sometimes pay the ultimate price, they “die for their Country.” Like the “patriot,” Professor Bacevich makes the point that “Soldiers don’t get to choose the war they fight” and concludes “The value of the sacrifice is inherent in the act of sacrifice itself and independent of questions about the merit of the policies that sent the soldier into harm’s way in the first place.” Interestingly, however, his perspective on military service does not influence his analysis of American Exceptionalism and foreign policy – oppose the war, support the warrior.

Unpacking the “Patriot”/Bacevich Argument

Foundational to the arguments offered by both the “patriot” and Professor Bacevich are the following premises (though they are implied rather than explicitly stated):

  • The soldiers’ job is to fight, kill, and possibly to die for their country.

  • Soldiers are warriors not diplomats, politicians, lawyers, or moralists.

  • Soldiers are not in a position to, nor is it their responsibility to make legal and moral judgments or determinations of necessity regarding the war.

From these premises they draw their conclusions:

  • While soldiers may bear responsibility for their actions IN war, they are morally and legally guiltless for the war itself. "We know enough if we know we are the king's men. Our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us."4

  • Consequently, the honor, merit, and nobility of the soldiers and the value of their service and sacrifice depends not upon the legality, morality, or necessity of the war – the “merit of the policies that sent the soldier into harm’s way in the first place” – but is contingent upon their willingness to selflessly serve their Country, to follow orders, to do their job proficiently – to kill and destroy – without question or complaint.

This assessment of the legal and moral status of the soldier, his lack of personal responsibility for the crime of war, though perhaps poetic, is rather outdated, naïve, and misguided. This misconception may reflect the understanding that many, perhaps a majority, of young men and women who join the military are uninformed about the true cause of the war they are being made to fight, perhaps even deceived into believing it to be necessary and just. Or, that many recruits may be coerced, physically or economically, into military service. That is, in many cases, they are the “most marginalized people (who) see the military as their only route out of poverty.”5 This argument is perhaps most attractive to veterans and to family members of those killed in battle as embracing the mythology of heroism, nobility, and honor may appear to some an asset to healing as living with the effects of war or the loss of a child is difficult enough when there is value and purpose in the service/sacrifice/loss, intolerable if the war was misguided, unnecessary, and criminal.

Why this Argument is Flawed

The tenets of the “patriot”/Bacevich argument may seem plausible to some, perhaps even attractive, when considering the behavior of one’s own nation and military. The flaw in the reasoning becomes apparent, however, when applied to those with whom we have less of an attachment, for example to the actions of the Nazis who exterminated millions of human beings during World War Two or to the the members of al Qaeda who prosecuted the heinous and tragic attacks of September 11th.

It is reasonable to assume, I think, that the Nazis believed themselves to be honorably serving their Homeland and following orders, and the 9/11 attackers believed themselves to be the holy warriors of Islam, Jihadists; that both believed their cause to be just, and their actions a perhaps unfortunate, though necessary and legitimate act of war. Consequently, at least from their perspectives and from the perspectives of others of their ilk, they acted with good intentions.

These Nazis and jihadists were trained, motivated, and conditioned to fight and then “sent to serve in a war not of their choosing.” In this service many perished, “paid the ultimate price,” unselfishly sacrificing their lives for their nation, religion, values, and community, demonstrating a “strength of character” that enabled them to face danger, fear, and death with courage, steadfastness, perseverance, and resolve.

Yet, despite this seemingly positive assessment and their having satisfied the criteria established by the “patriot”/Bacevich argument, the actions of the Nazis and those of the September 11th hijackers were unjust and immoral. They were war criminals and terrorists, not heroes. Despite their good intentions or their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others and for a cause in which they believed, their behavior and sacrifices were not honorable, courageous, or noble. Nor were they worthy of approbation.

The Requirement for Consistency in Application

My purpose thus far has been to refute the “patriot”/Bacevich argument regarding the responsibility and culpability – the legal and moral value of the service and sacrifice – of those who prosecute a war or the use of violence that is illegal and immoral.

If law and morality is to have any legitimacy, however, it must apply to all individuals and nations equally and fairly. To think oneself or one’s nation exempt or above the law, is hypocrisy and the arrogance that underlies American Exceptionalism. It is to exploit law and morality as a weapon of war relevant only if it serves our nation’s advantage, but to be abandoned, ignored, or manipulated should its dictates prove inconvenient to a perceived national interest or to the accomplishment of some goal or purpose deemed militarily necessary.

For all intents and purposes, there is no relevant legal and moral difference between wars of choice – aggression – prosecuted by a nation believing itself providentially empowered and above the law – the arrogance of American Exceptionalism – and the war crimes and terrorism prosecuted by the Nazis and sub-national groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS believing themselves to be defenders of their nation and religion. In each endeavor, innocent human beings are injured and killed unjustifiably, individuals who have done nothing to warrant such liability, i.e., the forfeiture of their rights and immunity under the law.

Now for the difficult part, the part that requires honesty, courage, integrity, character, and a sincere commitment to law and morality. For those, like Professor Bacevich and myself, who have rejected American Exceptionalism and have realized the illegality and immorality of American adventurism (aggression), though it may certainly pain us to do so, it makes perfect legal and moral sense to recognize that members of the American military are, like the Nazis and Terrorists, acting illegally and immorally at least in regard to the Vietnam War and the Global War Against Terror. In fact, law and morality demand it.

That the victims of the aggression/terrorism may respond utilizing violence/deadly force does not, by the way, render subsequent violence by the Aggressors/Terrorists a justifiable act of self-defense. As long as their victims respond in accordance with law and morality, they are not terrorists or insurgents but legitimate combatants and freedom fighters and, as such, do not forfeit the very rights they are justified in defending/asserting.

Understanding the Relevancy of Law and Morality to the Honor and Value

Of Military Service and Sacrifice in War

Upon entering the military, a recruit signs a contract and takes an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States.6 Despite being subject to rather sophisticated psychological, emotional, and ethical conditioning techniques during basic training intended to prepare soldiers for battle and to overcome what General S.L.A. Marshall7 identified as a natural aversion to kill (soldiers are not born killers, young men and women have to be trained and conditioned to kill), the military, at least theoretically, does not want robots, programmed automata that respond unquestioningly to superior orders. Since wars and actions within a war can be just or unjust, moral or immoral, soldiers must maintain an ability to make judgments of legal and moral value. That is, soldiers remain legally and morally responsible for their actions. In choosing military service, the soldier forfeits neither his personhood – his inalienable human rights and intrinsic value as a person – nor his autonomy and moral agency – the obligation to conduct himself in accordance with domestic, International, and moral law. Soldiers are neither “cannon fodder” nor are they above the law.

"The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

At least since the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT), soldiers are not required to obey all orders. US chief prosecutor Robert K. Jackson at the NMT declared in 1948:

"[T]he very essence of the [Nuremberg] Charter is that individuals have intentional duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience imposed by the individual state."

In addition, the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) 809.ART.90 (20) makes clear that a soldier is required only to obey the "lawful command of his superior officer." Consequently, military personnel should, in fact they are required under threat of legal sanction, to disobey a command or order they believe to be unlawful.

“If a superior insists that his illegal order be obeyed, however, the soldier has an affirmative legal obligation to disobey the order and report the incident to the next superior commander, military police, CID, nearest judge advocate, or local inspector general.”8

Further, the President of the United States, the Commander–in-chief of the armed forces; members of Congress whose responsibility it is under the Constitution to declare war; and the military leadership who oversee the actions and disposition of the armed forces, are obligated to respect the personhood, human rights, and autonomy of the soldiers and to utilize the military intelligently, responsibly, and in accordance with domestic, International, and moral law. That is, soldiers’ lives and wellbeing have value and must not be squandered, nor placed in jeopardy in pursuit of trivial, futile, or unlawful ends. Consequently, and this is critical, soldiers have a legal, moral, and contractually based expectation (a right) that the wars they are asked to fight are just and necessary.


Nations do not exist in a state of nature. All nations, including the United States and its allies, are subject to the dictates of morality, International Law, Treaties, and Conventions, which provide the parameters for human and international relations and for resolving conflicts and differences when diplomatic means have been exhausted.

"The law of war is of fundamental importance to the Armed Forces of the United States. . . The law of war is part of who we are . . . a part of our military heritage, and obeying it is the right thing to do.”

The moral and legal value of an act or policy is determined, then, not by the national identity of the actor or the policy maker but by whether it adheres to or violates these guidelines for the legal and moral behavior of individuals and nations. Consequently, American Exceptionalism is misguided and betrays an arrogance and hypocrisy that increases rather than lessens hatred for the United States and the threat of terrorist attack.

Further, it is not the case that “obedience to the king” wipes away the crimes of soldiers. Contra Bacevich, soldiers DO get to choose the wars they fight and how they fight it. Under International, domestic, and U.S. Military Law, soldiers remain personally responsible for their actions and decisions and as such obligated to make critical legal and moral judgments, many times under very stressful and coercive conditions, regarding whether to obey or disobey an order to participate in a particular action or war. Consequently, contra Bacevich, the value of the sacrifice is not inherent in the act of sacrifice itself nor is it independent of questions about the legality and morality of the policies that sent the soldier into harm’s way in the first place. Nor is the value of the sacrifice contingent only upon the soldier’s motivation, his dedication to the cause, to each other, to his willingness to follow orders without question, or to his proficiency to kill and to destroy. Rather, as was evident in the case of the Nazis and the 9/11 Jihadists, the virtue, honor, merit, and value of a soldier’s service and sacrifice, depends in large measure upon the legality and morality of the endeavor in which he is engaged. Consequently, Professor Bacevich’s response to Bill Moyers regarding the value of sacrifice and the “patriot’s” criticism of the Veteran Activists misunderstands and/or misrepresents the relevancy of law and morality to the nature and the responsibilities of military service. As the “patriots” have long argued, to support the soldier in her capacity as a warrior, to express gratitude and appreciation for her efforts and sacrifices, and to extoll her “heroism” while condemning and opposing the war in which she fights is illogical and makes no legal and moral sense.

While it is the case that members of the military merit no accolades or gratitude for their actions and sacrifices in immoral and illegal war, their personal responsibility and culpability for the crime of war must be mitigated by the fact that most young men and women who enlist are lied to and deceived into believing that war is justifiable, unavoidable, and necessary to preserve American values and freedom. Consequently, the brunt of the responsibility and hence culpability for the crime of war must be borne by the liars and deceivers and those who benefit from illegal and immoral war – our political, military, and corporate leaders. Also to be held to account is the mainstream media that blindly supports the war rather than investigates and questions it. Responsibility and culpability must borne as well by the American citizenry, who remains untouched by war and apathetic, and does little or nothing to stop it. In a democracy, government by and for the people, in whose names wars are fought, there is blood on all of our hands.

Establishing clarity with regard to American Exceptionalism and military service in illegal and immoral war, though distasteful to some, is critical as governments have become quite proficient at utilizing the mythology to portray war as noble and service and sacrifice as heroic in order to entice future well intentioned young men and women to become killers, cannon fodder, and the tools of imperialism and empire.

Finally, the “patriot’s” unquestioned support for American Exceptionalism and for the aggression and murder it inspires is cowardice, unpatriotic, and integral to the question they themselves pose so often but seldom answer, "Why do they hate us?" In these times of perpetual war, patriotism demands activism, both by veterans and nonveterans alike. The true patriot, therefore, does not blindly follow and obey. Rather, she becomes informed, remains skeptical, questions the actions of her leaders and, when appropriate, speaks out, dissents, and refuses to obey unlawful orders. The true patriot struggles tirelessly and courageously to bring attention to violations of International and moral law, the defilement of the Constitution, and the abandonment of the values we hold sacred. The true patriot strives to educate about the reality of war, the hypocrisy of American Exceptionalism, and the moral and legal unacceptability of the militarism it inspires. And finally, the true patriot labors to restore America's integrity and moral standing in the world by holding to account those political, military, and corporate leaders who have violated the public trust by acting not in accordance with law and morality or in America's interest, but in behalf of wealth, power, and empire.

Dr. Camillo Mac Bica is an author, activist, and teaches Philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His focus is in Social and Political Philosophy and Ethics particularly as it applies to war. Mac is a long time activist for peace and social justice and coordinator of Veterans For Peace Long Island. http://www.svaphilosopher.com/


1 Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Metropolitan Books; (August 5, 2008)

2 While most of the comments to my article “Don’t Thank Me For My Service,” were positive, some of the more critical responses provide excellent examples of the “patriot’s” argument.

3 Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (April 1, 2005)

4Henry V, 4:1, II. 132-35.

5 Maya Schenwar commenting on an earlier draft of this essay.

6 I,____________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God"

7 S.L.A. Marshall, “Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command,” University of Oklahoma Press; 1 edition (September 15, 2000)

8 International and Operational Law Department, Operational Law Handbook, (Charlottesville, VA: The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, 2011), p. 37.


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