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…Pro Patria Mori

January 10th, 2008

At the Distributed Republic, Jonathan Wilde asks:

Can militaries be effective if soldiers are allowed to opt out of missions they disagree with? Do soldiers have an obligation to carry out missions they disagree with after they join?

This inquiry is in response to the death of milblogger Andrew Olmsted whose last post was published by a friend shortly after his death. Olmsted makes no apologies for his untimely demise, his commitment to the army or his mission. After all:

I have a duty to obey the orders of the President of the United States as long as they are Constitutional. I can no more opt out of missions I disagree with than I can ignore laws I think are improper… I raised my right hand and volunteered to join the army.

Jonathan’s inquiry cuts to the heart of the matter. It asks the following question, not just of war-hawks and soldiers, but of everyone: Can legislation (i.e., Constitutions and Presidents) alter morality?

I think the answer to this question is a firm “No,” at which point we are presented with another problem, “If morality does not change with the political winds, under what circumstances can I be obliged to ignore, or to act in violation of my own moral judgement?”

IMO, the answer to this question is an obvious “Never.” But Olmsted apparently subscribed to some variant of what There Is No Government Like No Government refers to as the unspecified rule, “I give permission to someone else to rule me in an unspecified way, i.e., ‘Whatever law you write, I give you permission to force me to obey.'”

Governments do all sorts of shit that is morally reprehensible, and they get away with these things because people are afraid to use their own moral compass to override the Government’s orders. A duly elected government could order you to put a bullet in the head of every Jew you encounter, but that wouldn’t make it right, and no reasonable person would consider that a valid obligation. A duly elected government can hold that it’s ok to treat people like property, as long as they’re brown. Surely there exist orders which one should be morally obligated to disobey, but the unspecified rule turns a man into a de facto slave.

As No Government argues, the unspecified rule is nothing short of nonsense, and should be overriden by morality in all cases:

[The unspecified rule] still cannot give you an obligation to forego your own judgment in favor of [the government’s], which is nice, since it is impossible to forego your own judgment in favor of anything. Also, if [the government] has the power to override your judgment, [it] doesn’t need your “consent.”

If, as Olmsted says, he had a “duty” or an obligation to fulfill his military commitment, at this point his consent is no longer relevant. If you can’t choose not to participate in something, then you haven’t really chosen to participate, either. You’ve been presented with the illusion of choice under the guise of “volunteering” for the greater good. The government has conned you into believing that you’ve “consented,” and once you believe this lie, you’ll believe the other Old Lie, you’ll do just about anything, you’ll bend over backwards to rationalize something to which (deep down inside) your moral compass ought be diametrically opposed.

In Olmsted’s case, he alleges to have consented to what can only be considered an unspecified an unfettered military obligation. Wherever, whenever, and whatever. But you simply cannot consent to an unspecified an unknowable obligation! To what, exactly, are you consenting, when you consent?




  • Gary Farber says on: January 10, 2008 at 3:40 pm


    Olmsted. Not “Olmstead.”

    [Thank you. I’ve corrected the misspelling throughout. — David Z]

  • Francois Tremblay says on: January 10, 2008 at 5:11 pm


    What the fuck are they talking about? The Iraq war was not even constitutional.

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