Ordinary Philosophy Recommends: David Morris on the ‘Volunteer’ Army and the History and Science of PTSD

In this fascinating podcast, former Marine infantry officer David Morris explains to host Indre Viskontas what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) really is: a little bit medical diagnosis, and a whole lot moral/political argument. To understand PTSD, we need to consider not only why some suffer from PTSD and why others don’t, but what war means to us as a society.

Besides being fascinated by what I learned about the science and history of PTSD specifically (as I hope you will by listening to the podcast!) I was particularly struck by what Morris’s remarks on the institution of our modern ‘volunteer’ army (starting at about 19.17). He points out how our nations’s leaders, along with most Americans, are almost entirely removed from the consequences of the wars we start since the de facto end of conscription in the 1970’s.

It seems that allowing all soldiers the choice to enlist, rather than forcing them to do so, is the only fair and just way to go about fighting a war, right? Seems shameful, undemocratic, even downright un-American, to force people to kill who don’t believe in killing.

Yet Morris makes this excellent point: rather than allowing us to ‘choose for ourselves’, which sounds democratic, the volunteer army system allows us to vote in favor of war, or stay at home and do little or nothing to stop it, while avoiding most of the burden and all of the danger.

So we start wars, or allow them to be started in our name, at little or no cost to most of us. As a nation, we all too often rush into war with too little consideration of the long-term consequences, or little understanding of the underlying cultural and historical causes of the turmoil in the first place (hmm, can we think of any modern wars that belong in that category?). Meanwhile, the President who calls for declaring war, the Congress who votes in its favor, we who vote these leaders to office, and the rest of us who do little or nothing about any of it, can rest easy knowing we don’t have to pay the costs. We don’t have to be soldiers, or to send our friends and loved ones off to do the fighting, unless we want to. We can shout our opinions to the heavens, take a righteous stand on one side or another, and forget about it the next day.

So the ‘volunteer’ army of paid soldiers bear the burden, face the danger, take the bullets and suffer the pain, while the most of the rest of us go about our relatively wealthy, secure, and comfortable lives, forgetting there’s a war on at all. How is this democratic? How is it any more fair or just to let the entire burden and danger of our war fall on the tiny percentage of Americans who enlist, and on their loved ones?

Morris offers what I think is a very good solution: if we do go to war, every able adult must be eligible for drafting into public service: we can choose to join the armed forces, or we can choose to dedicate hours working for the public good, at a non-profit, or with the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or other public works project. That way, we can require each other to become full participatory citizens once again, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. If we truly believe that all killing is wrong, or that this particular war we’re engaged in is unjust, we won’t be forced to betray our principles, but neither will we be able to escape our civic duty to involve ourselves in the all-important matter of war and peace. And our leaders will be encouraged to make more responsible decisions about the wars they vote for, knowing once again that whatever they decide, they and their own families and friends will have to bear the burden too.

Sources and Inspiration: 

Morris, David J. ‘The History and Science of PTSD’. Inquiring Minds podcast #73, Feb … 2015

Wikipedia contributors. “Conscription in the United States.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_in_the_United_States

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