Reportedly, the president told Myeshia Johnson that her husband, Sergeant La David Johnson, “knew what he was signing up for.” Set aside Gold Star father and retired General John Kelly’s claim that Trump spoke based on Kelly’s counsel, and hold off on the important discussions about whether this entire episode was inappropriately politicized. Instead, consider whether what President Trump reportedly said to a grieving widow is what much of the country actually believes about military service. Consider whether we are all too casual about the ultimate sacrifice that service sometimes requires.
To say that soldiers know what they’re getting into is to acknowledge that ours is an all-volunteer force. Members of our military are not conscripted, but consciously choose a profession that involves physical risk. And we, as taxpayers and citizens, hire those professionals to perform that dangerous work. We outsource the necessity of security to a subset of the population. We believe that we compensate those serving us at fair market price and that, because they accept that price, our role in the transaction is over. And we have begun to act as though we are entitled to that service by virtue of paying the bills.
But to think about our sociopolitical contract with the military in purely transactional terms dramatically limits how we understand our responsibilities to each other. This is not a customer-company relationship, but one between citizens equal before the same constitution, vulnerable to the same threats, sharing the same interests. The fact that only some Americans defend those interests at risk to their own lives in order to benefit all of us elevates national military service beyond being a mere market solution to a labor problem. It makes it a moral debt. We pay some; they pay more, and differently.
To be sure, many Americans have a sneaking sense of this uncomfortable fact. But that is why telling ourselves that “they signed up for it” is so reassuring. How many Americans have seen the names of the dead on television and paused for just a moment before changing the channel to shift from discomfort to entertainment? How many have marveled that anyone could have signed up for a job that gets them sent to Iraq? How many have read the stories about the four men killed in action in Niger on October 4 and felt badly but not known what to do and therefore done nothing? Very many. That’s the social contract we have with our all-volunteer military: They sign up, and we busy ourselves elsewhere.
It is true that they signed up. Military professionals are professionals. As a profession, it is fulfilling and sometimes demoralizing. We should not dismiss sacrifice, but neither is the point to pity those who have suffered in the course of work the country depends on. The point is that we should also feel invested in it. The point is that it is work we should acknowledge through more than just taxes. We should pay some attention. We should care about what these men and women are doing.
In the grind and rush of our daily lives at home, many of us don’t think very hard about where we are sending our fellow citizens. Many people are asking what our soldiers were even doing in Niger in the first place, as if U.S. counterterrorism efforts had never been covered by the news, discussed in congressional hearings, or explained on the Africa Command website. Why did we have to lose four soldiers before we all began to pay attention to where they’d been?
There has been a lot of debate recently about the quality of our democracy. One of the measures of that quality is whether all citizens engage in the gravest decisions our government makes. It is both ethical and healthy for those who don’t fight to reflect on the service done on their behalf. It isn’t sufficient simply to adjust our rhetoric or occasionally thank a Marine for her service. We must pay attention. We must try to understand. If there is no sense of debt nor reflection on our responsibility to the soldier and his widow and his orphan, then the service and its outcomes are taken for granted and thought of as unrelated to how we live our own lives. People in uniform do indeed know what they sign up for. So should those of us who do not serve.