November 9, 2001


Giving Real Meaning to Veterans Day

Honoring our past soldiers requires that we ask our future ones not to sacrifice their values, but to uphold them.

By Edwin A. Locke

Veterans Day arouses three emotions in most Americans: solemnity, because it celebrates the veterans who have defended our great country; sadness, because so many have lost their lives in the process; and pride, because they have fought so well.

The supreme value that our veterans have fought and died for (with some tragic exceptions) from the American Revolution to the Civil War to two World Wars is—freedom. America is the country of freedom. We were the first to declare that government exists to serve men; men do not exist to serve government. We were the first to proclaim that all men are equal before the law. We were the first to say that each individual has inalienable rights—the right to his life, his liberty, his property, and the pursuit of his happiness.

There is no more precious possession than one's own life. But without political freedom, human life is empty. Man cannot exist in any meaningful sense as a serf. The New Hampshire state motto says it perfectly: "Live Free or Die."

Because human life is so precious, war should never be undertaken unless our rights are threatened. It is often said that our soldiers must sacrifice themselves for our country. This is precisely what we must not ask them to do. A sacrifice entails the surrender of a greater value for a lesser one. But if a man risks his life on the premise, "I would rather die than live in slavery," it is a tragic loss—but it is not a sacrifice. Such a man is acting in his own interests, to protect his most precious values.

On the other hand, it is a sacrifice to send our soldiers to a country that has no connection to their interests and values. An example is Somalia. Many brave American soldiers died there—for what? To supply food to warlords who were perpetually seeking to kill one another.

In contrast, the "war" with Afghanistan is a proper war—in self-defense against vicious death-worshippers who seek to destroy our country. But even this war will be tragically sacrificial unless our soldiers are allowed to take all the actions needed to win a total victory.

Our heroic fighting men and women are not to blame for these disasters. It is the politicians who are responsible. It is they who believe that our soldiers are sacrificial fodder to fulfill the politicians' desire for "prestige-enhancing" adventures. They believe that our armed forces can be sent to aid Somalia—or Haiti or Bosnia—in order to be able to show the world how "humanitarian" the politicians are.

But politicians desperate for prestige to assuage their self-doubts should be informed that they may not utilize our armed forces as the tool for obtaining it. And they should be told we have no duty to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of any country in need of our assistance. Our soldiers are sovereign beings who have a right to their own lives.

Furthermore, our armed forces should consist only of volunteers. It is an ugly contradiction to claim that we must protect freedom—by coercing people to fight. If the cause is just and the American interests clear, there will be no shortage of enlistments. In fact, a volunteer force helps make sure that our soldiers do battle only when serious threats to our interests are at stake. A volunteer force will prevent politicians from involving us in senseless wars.

We must be proud of our soldiers, but it is equally true that they should be proud of the cause they fight for. It is terrible to die in war, but there is one thing worse: to die in a war that has no meaning, a war that offers no reason for risking one's life.

The best way we can honor our veterans and give real meaning to Veterans Day—aside from ceremonies honoring their past and present dedication and bravery—is to promise that we will go to war only when America's interests as a free nation are threatened. Which means that we will ask our soldiers not to sacrifice their values, but to uphold them. We will ask them to fight only when it is in the rational self-interest of each of them to do so.

Then, instead of saying "My country right or wrong," every American could proudly declare, "My country, because it stands for the right."

Edwin A. Locke, Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation at the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, at College Park, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Send comments to

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