As I continue to read Michael Sandel’s Justice and listen to the lectures through justiceharvard.org & iTunesU, I admit a nerve has been struck when the discussion has turned to military service.

The question has been posed: if you own yourself (libertarianism) do you have the right to sell your yourself? Into servitude, parts of your body, your womb. And if you do have the right to sell yourself, are you doing the same thing by either a) paying someone to serve in the military for you or being paid to serve for someone else b) does the government have the right to conscript you if drafting you into the military violates your rights to self ownership or c) letting the market determine who will serve (today’s volunteer army).

Essentially the choices are: Conscription, Conscription with the option of paying someone else, or Volunteer and the illustrative points are comparing the Iraq War with the way the Union Army used a mix of conscription and allowing someone to have someone else serve in their stead.

Of course, this struck a nerve when I hear the upper socio economic kids sitting in the lecture hall talk about how ‘well, the military isn’t really a death sentence so its not fair to say that you will die if you go in’ (true but if that’s the case, why aren’t you serving? Oh yeah, Harvard) and ‘if most people in the military are from disadvantaged back grounds or parts of the country where they can be coerced into serving because of patriotism’ (really? Don’t you mean the redneck hillbillies who don’t know any better than to be patriotic (insert sarcasm here)).

The whole conversation of military service and whether today’s volunteer army is any different than mercenaries – the distain that some in the audience showed for values such as civic duty or patriotism notwithstanding – however, is very interesting. If there is no compulsion to serve, if there is no obligation to provide for the common defense of our nation with your own blood, then are you truly committed to the society in which you live? Granted, everyone cannot serve. A, there aren’t enough positions in the military for everyone to serve. B, some simply aren’t fit due to being sick, lame, limp, lazy or crazy. C, military life really isn’t for everyone (but I do think that everyone could benefit from a little dose of reality that military life forces you to confront).

But the greater question that has been raised is if – as is assumed by the lecture and by Sandel’s book – the military is made up of lower socio economic members of society who also hold values such as civic responsibility and patriotism and a willingness to die for this country, how do you explain people like Pat Tillman? Was he simply noticeable because he gave up a life of luxury to sacrifice, an ideal that many of those praising him could not even fathom? How do you explain men like McCrystal and Chiarelli and Odierno and Petreaus who are great leaders and great thinkers who could easily depart the military and serve in a fortune 500 company making many times the pay they could make in the military. How do you explain the fact that millions continue to serve despite the war, despite the family hardship, despite the ‘risk of certain death’? If the military is no better than mercenaries because we volunteer and are paid, then why is it that people stay? Through thick and thin, war and peace, people stay and sacrifice to continue to serve.

I don’t believe that we are mercenaries but I do believe we, as a nation, must confront the issues about civic responsibility and is it truly ethical if you reap the benefits of this nation and only have to pay a few dollars (in taxes) not to have to give anything up. Hell, when we were attacked on Sept 11, we were told to go shopping instead of changing our way of life to ease our dependency on the very oil that financed the attacks.

I fear that a nation that raises a generation of citizens who look down on those who serve as poor ignorant hillbillies (my words to illustrate the point) who can be coerced into believing in things like patriotism (which then assumes that patriotism is a bad thing not a genuine belief) is losing part of its soul. If there is nothing worth sacrificing for, if there is nothing worth fighting for, then what’s the point? Why is America so great if America isn’t worth fighting for (this is not a commentary on either war but on the values across American society). And if you can simply write a check and forget about civic responsibility, then are you truly invested in the welfare of this nation or are you simply able to get a service without a relationship as Zizek defines money?

I ask these questions because I don’t have the answers. I don’t know that everyone at the Ivy League schools look down on those of us in the military but I do hazard a guess that many of the people sitting in that lecture on justice have the luxury of saying that stealing is always wrong because they have never been hungry enough. I believe they have the luxury of saying that killing is always wrong because they have never seen a good friend die or had to fight for their own survival or the survival of their families. I believe many (not all) of them can sit back and say that a person has no obligation to provide for the common good of the nation because they have never been put in a situation where they have to work together TO SURVIVE.

Ethics and philosophy are fascinating. I love the subjects. But I think at a certain point in human life, when desperation and fear and hunger are the overriding factors influencing your decisions, those discussions may become irrelevant. Maybe I’m wrong. I know I’ll still enjoy having the conversations and listening to the lectures. I’m learning a lot.

And as always, it’s a good debate.