In Veterans’ Day ceremonies throughout America, the word “sacrifice” will repeatedly be invoked to hail our heroes’ finest actions.
While our veterans deserve the highest praise and deepest admiration, that term, however well-intentioned the sentiment may be, is simply innocently misused when describing the deeds of those who defend freedom. To illustrate how it might look to consistently accept sacrifice as an ideal, imagine receiving this letter regarding a loved-one in the military:
Dear Sir (Ma’am),
I am Johnny’s commanding officer and I will soon lead him into combat. I just want to assure you that I am encouraging him and all my other men to selflessly sacrifice their lives on the battlefield.
My personal desire is to see that my soldiers return home alive. But I have sacrificed personal desires. Looking out for my troops is to my self-interest. But I have sacrificed my self-interest. Getting my men killed does not benefit me; I gain nothing from it. I have selflessly sacrificed such petty considerations as personal benefit and gain.
Are we not taught to love our enemies and turn the other cheek? Well, what better way to do that than to sacrifice our lives for the enemy’s sake?
Make Johnny’s funeral arrangements pronto.
Now, you might be thinking, “I’m not for that kind of sacrifice!”
But what other kind is there? A sacrifice is surrendering something you value for something you value less or don’t value at all– the opposite of pursuing self-interest.
Imagine applying that standard, say, to the choice of saving either your child or Osama bin Laden. What would it mean here to sacrifice? Well, your self-interest is to save your loved-one– you value him and not a mass murderer. A true sacrifice would be to save bin Laden and let your child die– an act devoid of self-interest.
The same goes for other rational values, including freedom. It’s to your self-interest to preserve liberty. A sacrifice would be to cheek-turn while you and the people you love are enslaved– which is precisely what our brave veterans didn’t do. They took up arms when the freedom they valued needed defending, and many paid a heavy price, some with their lives. We owe them our gratitude.
But self-sacrifice? That’s our enemies’ gig, not ours. The Germans who spawned Nazism, for example, held that the individual is merely an agent of sacrifice for the nation and the race. Hitler was the result. The Russians who swallowed communism accepted that the individual is nothing but a sacrificial lamb for the proletariat and the “greater good.” Stalin was their prize. And today, Islamic fundamentalists preach that the individual is nothing more than a vessel of self-sacrifice for religious faith, for Allah. Tyrannies have been their reward.
Whether fascists, communists, and fanatic religionists, self-sacrifice is their common theme song.
But America was based on the enshrinement, not the sacrifice, of the individual. We sing a song of self-interest (though sometimes off key). Indeed, possessing the inalienable rights to one’s own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is simultaneously (but not coincidentally) the most selfish and the most sacrosanct American ideal– an ideal that doesn’t evaporate upon donning our nation’s uniform.
As a former captain in the US Army, I can attest that I never encountered anyone who joined because of some masochistic yearning to transform himself into a sacrificial animal. To the contrary, our fighting men and women hold liberty in such high esteem that they are willingly to undergo some hardships, to potentially lose life and limb, to protect it. For such patriots, safeguarding freedom merits risking death, but death is not their goal. Literal sacrifice– the shirking of a higher value for the sake of a lower one or of a non-value– is nowhere on their agenda.
Our soldiers had much rather engage in selfish activity, like killing terrorists– you know, those lovely darlings who do things like fly commercial airliners into buildings full of innocent people, sacrificing everyone’s lives for Allah.
Triumphing in the war on terror requires that we be selfish. It requires pulling out all the stops. It requires that our political leaders be more concerned with preserving innocent Americans than with sacrificing our interests to preserve alleged innocents in terrorist nations, or with appeasing queasy “allies,” or with kowtowing to the UN.
I can think of no better way of celebrating Veterans’ Day and honoring our heroes than by committing to unequivocal victory.