Is service in the U.S. military still an acceptable choice for Catholics? I have been asked this question by young Catholics—and sometimes by their parents—who are considering service in the U.S. military.
Typical concerns fall into four categories:
the general moral climate within the military, the possibility of being sent to war, the compulsion to execute illegal orders or to serve in an unjust war, and the impact of military service on family life.
This article will briefly examine each of these questions and provide some insight based on more than 20 years of active duty service. Unfortunately, because the U.S. military is an organization of enormous breadth, there is not a clear yes or no I can offer to inquiring Catholics. It will be necessary to generalize somewhat, and then leave it to your judgment if you are presented with the details of a specific opportunity for service.
First, one should consider military service to be, of its nature, an honorable profession. Soldiers are depicted in the Gospel under a generally favorable light; nowhere in the Gospel does Our Lord criticize or condemn soldiers. The centurion’s Domine, non sum dignus is included in the very Canon of the Mass. The conversion of the Roman soldier Longinus is traditionally viewed as among the very first fruits of Our Lord’s Passion. Indeed, the idea of offering oneself up for something larger than oneself is inherently a noble act, which, of course, echoes Our Lord’s own Sacrifice. This does not mean, however, that all soldiers in all times have been honorable, or have fought for justifiable causes. Discernment is critical.
From a distance, it might appear as if the U.S. military is becoming the lead organization in a social revolution. In recent years, civilian leadership has imposed certain ideological projects on the military, such as absolute gender equality and the official sanctioning of homosexualism. Without a doubt, these initiatives have made some inroads into a military culture that has hitherto seen itself oriented solely towards fighting and defeating an armed enemy, not as a vehicle for social change.
However, you should not overestimate the impact of social engineering initiatives on the U.S. military. Beneath its politically neutral and officially secular veneer runs a deep strain of political and moral conservatism that has silently resisted and partially blunted social engineering. In practice, the actual impact of these initiatives on a military member is limited to an occasional mandatory training session (usually of overwhelming banality), which is usually met with subtle eye-rolling, frustration at the waste of time, and unenthusiastic compliance. To be sure, within some military sub-cultures there are pockets of social activism, but these tend to be overridden by the powerful and dominant conservative military culture.
Additionally, when you consider the overall moral climate within the military, ask yourself: compared to what? Politically correct policies, social indoctrination, “alternative” lifestyles: there are few corporations, businesses, sports teams, or other organizations in the U.S. today where you can completely escape these trends. In terms of overall moral climate, the military compares well against many other career fields.
Probably, yes. For the last half century, the United States has been involved in nearly continuous warfare. The future promises more of the same. The fact is, however, that in the long, simmering, irregular, and proxy wars we have fought recently, only a small percentage of military personnel are exposed to actual danger —ground combat units, special forces, helicopter pilots—and the casualty rate among these units has been quite low by historical standards. If you are in a support unit, such as logistics, supply, communications, or intelligence; or on a ship or submarine; or in any of a number of air, space, or maritime units, you are likely to be far removed from the battlefield. The danger of injury or death is always there, but you are more likely to be injured or killed in a training accident than by enemy action.
However, in the case of a full scale, state-on-state war (against Russia or China, for example), all bets are off. Such a conflict is likely to be highly destructive with global effects. In this case, you may not be immune from the war’s impacts, including death and destruction, even if you are sitting in your kitchen in Anytown, USA. Paradoxically, you actually may be safer in a military unit, equipped and resourced for survivability under extreme conditions, than you would be as a civilian.
At any rate, Catholics should not shrink from the duty of defending the nation, despite the risk of death. Duty in war is the fulfillment of the military’s essential purpose. The deeper question may be, am I risking myself truly to defend the nation? Or am I risking myself in the conduct of an “optional” war of discretion, not one of necessity?
I have never been given an illegal or immoral order, nor do I know anyone else who has. The U.S. military adheres scrupulously to the Law of Armed Conflict and other international standards that govern the legality and proportionality of armed force. The authorities and rules of engagement that govern the use of force are drawn directly from U.S. legal codes, not from the whims of a commander, not even from the commander-in-chief. (This is why presidents and other policy makers have often turned to other government agencies to execute operations that may be of debatable legality or questionable morality.)
The professional code of ethics among officers is so deep and permeating, that departures from those standards (My Lai, Abu Ghraib, etc.) are shocking. In my opinion, it would be quite extraordinary for the U.S. military today to depart from its legal and Constitutional bases, or from its professional ethics, in the conduct of war. When the military has done so, it is viewed universally as an aberration, methodically investigated, and those responsible held accountable.
The just war question is not as clear-cut. The military does not decide whether to go to war; the president or Congress does. One can reasonably debate whether some of the numerous interventions and conflicts the United States has undertaken in recent years have met the Catholic criteria for a just war. In many cases, technology has enabled distant adversaries to threaten the United States itself, causing leaders to calculate that intervention abroad is a form of pre-emptive defense of the homeland. There is a great deal of subjective judgment to be applied here; much depends on your view of an imminent threat, and of the consequences of inaction. This article is not the space to analyze each of our recent wars against just war criteria. If this is a matter of conscience for the individual Catholic, then he should make an informed assessment before committing to military service.
Catholic moralists always presume the justice of the war, given the fact that soldiers and inferior officials are scarcely able to judge competently. Moreover, once you are in uniform, it becomes very difficult to opt out of a war that may be unjust. In questionable wars, deferral to the judgment of superiors, rather than a decision to desert, is probably the best course of action. It is certainly true that a soldier can act morally and justly even within the larger context of an unjust war. He may provide medical care or other humanitarian assistance, for example, or search and rescue. He may even find himself in a position to mitigate non-combatant casualties or limit collateral damage.
There is no sugarcoating it: military life is very difficult on families. Although leaders take pains to emphasize the importance of the military member and his family, the mission always takes precedence over family considerations. This means, in practice, the military member will spend lots of time away from home for training and deployments. The schedule will change continuously. There will be numerous family moves, on average of once every 2-3 years, and often with little choice of location. The frequent moves require a continual assessment of school options for the children, not to mention the possibility of having to travel far to the nearest Mass. It can be an exciting life, but it is inherently unstable. A strong marriage and a very supportive spouse are necessary. If marriage is an important near-term goal for you, you must ensure that you and your future spouse are clear-eyed about the reality of military life.
Military service can help to form a young man with habits of discipline and self-sacrifice. However, military life makes unique demands. The military is a world unto itself, with a distinct culture, rules, and way of life, and you cannot easily “quit” if you find that continued service clashes with your Faith or personal plans. For these reasons, I strongly recommend you take the time to deliberate, and consult your parents, your priest, and others who know you well. A well-instructed Catholic of solid character, who has weighed the various aspects of contemporary military life and elected to serve, will undoubtedly serve his Nation honorably, avoid moral harm, while providing a shining example of the Faith to other service members.