Why Can't Soldiers Quit Their Jobs?

By - December 3, 2013

Note: This post and others in the months to come are meant to pose questions that are rarely asked. I'll answer them in my own way or address the issues that are raised. In other words I'll be thinking at the keyboard, and maybe annoying readers who are easily offended by challenges to the way things are and the way things are "supposed to be" according to the dominant culture around them. I'm going to call the resulting posts my Uncommon Questions Series.

At first glance it seems that there might be too much chaos if soldiers were allowed to quit when the going got tough. On the other hand, those who glorify anything in a uniform as heroic should be fine with the idea. After all, all of these youngsters who are magically changed into heroes by the donning of a certain type of clothing and a few magic words certainly wouldn't cut and run when the fighting started, would they?

I want to point out a couple things here that will make some readers uncomfortable. The founders of the United States thought there are inalienable or natural rights which are part of being a human. Well okay, some part of the minds of those white, slave-holding, wealthy males was too stupid to recognize that women and people of other colors and social status were human, but their conception of rights was quite profound in any case, and is held by many of us today. The thinking then (and now) was that you can't sell or trade away fundamental natural rights, which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thus, for example, you can't sell yourself into slavery. If you contractually agree to be a slave, the contract is unenforceable. You can contract to sell your services, but if you stop providing them the buyer can't force you to continue. The limit of his power in this case is to sue you for financial damages. In other words, you can quit your job even if you promised on paper to keep at it for two years or the rest of your life. Even a football player can walk away from a $30 million contract if he doesn't mind losing the money and possibly getting sued for what he's already been paid.

So why can't a soldier quit? Why is it that the only time we allow a person to sell himself or herself into slavery involves working for the government?

I think it comes from the underlying idea -- which is contrary to any reasonable conception of human rights -- that society owns the individuals in it through the governments they elect. Democratic slavery is more palatable. This provision for letting young people enslave themselves also indicates a very deep distrust of freedom. Most people love the idea of freedom for themselves, but they never really think those "other people" are ready for it, like when they believe they can handle whatever drugs are desired (legal or not), but that laws are needed for all the rest of the citizens, who are clearly not as responsible.

Now, I know that most readers will claim military service is different than a normal job, and that allowing soldiers to quit isn't "practical," especially during wars. Of course the enslavement and forced duty makes it very different, given that when a normal boss orders an employee to do something morally objectionable the employee can refuse and/or quit, while a soldier can be jailed for refusing to kill innocent people, if that's what his superiors order. As for the practicality argument, yes, it is not very practical to allow soldiers to quit if you want them to do things that are not morally proper. They might refuse.

On the other hand, if soldiers are paid well -- high wages are surely deserved given the dangerousness of the job -- and you have them engaging in truly defensive measures that protect the people of their home land, I doubt there would be as much of a problem as people might think. Not convinced? Pay soldiers big bonuses at the end of each tour of duty, but conditional upon doing what is asked of them. Few will leave in the face of the inevitable ostracizing by their comrades in arms, and the loss of the bulk of their pay. But the few who object to any given war or battle will be free to leave.

By the way, private military companies like Blackwater Worldwide (formerly Blackwater USA and now called Xe) do not seem to have a problem retaining their employees, even in places where the risk of death is high. If money and camaraderie alone is enough to keep men and women working (and fighting) in dangerous places, I doubt that those who think they are defending freedom and American values (whether or not they judge this correctly) are likely to be quitting in large numbers.

One "problem" with a truly volunteer force (where the volunteering is potentially a daily choice, as in the rest of the work-world), has to do with the rate of resignation, which I suspect, sadly, would always be below 10% or so. You see, that rate might indicate truths about the "on the ground" experience -- truths that military and political leaders would prefer to hide from the public. For example, if soldiers could quit we might have news reports on how many soldiers are quitting in any given war or military campaign, which in turn could lead to questions about the nature of and validity of the war or action. Of course, that's only a problem for those who seek more power to do what the public they represent doesn't want to be done.

Is it too scary to allow actual freedom for young enlistees in a "free" country? I don't think so. Perhaps those of us who are older and more financially established (the middle class and beyond) are afraid that if we cannot force kids to fight and die we might have to defend the country ourselves someday. But I suspect any just war of defense will have all the volunteers necessary. And most wars do not qualify for that definition, so who cares if there are not enough people to fight them?

Other Pages

Weapons of Moral Hypocrisy

The Richest in the World?

Soldiers Quit