Honoring the Common Bond of Military Service
On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month — the guns fell silent on the Western Front.
On Veterans Day, we honor all those who wore a military uniform for our nation. But the significance of the day is rooted in a much deeper recognition of the common bond of service that connects all veterans.
The armistice that silenced the guns on the Western Front in 1918 brought to an end the most destructive war mankind had ever experienced. Soldiers on all sides made enormous sacrifices, with millions killed or permanently scarred by the experience.
These men did not choose to fight and almost never influenced the decisions that imposed the immense burden they were required to bear. While the nature of warfare has certainly changed dramatically since then, bearing this burden is a thread that connects veterans throughout history.
Indeed, most veterans will tell you that the greatest reward of their service — often the thing that kept them in uniform — was being part of an organization with a common and unquestioned commitment to selfless service.
It is this devotion to duty and willingness to face immense mortal risk at the call of political leaders that we honor on Veterans Day.
This bond transcends national borders; soldiers who serve together in coalition operations see first-hand that while their uniforms and equipment may look different, the core ethos of service is indeed a common foundation of respect. Even former enemies often forge bonds of respect that grow from the one thing that connected them: devotion to duty.
When I reflect on the many bonds that defined my 21 years of experience in uniform, my mind goes to many friends and colleagues whose uniforms bore the flags of different countries. Indeed, I was often in awe of the professionalism of soldiers I encountered who served other political masters. This has always been especially true of my many friends and colleagues who served or continue to serve as military legal advisors.
My respect for these veterans resulted from the moral courage they consistently displayed, and how this ethos enabled them to speak proverbial “truth to power” in relation to the myriad of complex legal compliance issues they routinely encountered when advising military leaders.
It might seem odd that my reflection on selfless service would gravitate toward law and lawyers, but in fact, the responsibility of such uniformed public servants is increasingly central to the legitimacy of the causes their armed forces are asked to fight for.
War, or more specifically participation in war, involves the use of immense destructive power and the infliction of undeniable human suffering. But the authority to inflict that suffering is not unlimited — and this principle is the foundation of the legal regulation of war.
War gives the appearance of condoning almost everything, but soldiers must live with their actions for a long time afterward. A leader has to help them understand that there are lines they must not cross. This is their link to normalcy, to order, and to humanity. Understanding and respecting those lines is the essence of duty, and embodies the principles of selfless service and professionalism in arms.
Military duty is, ultimately, far more complex than merely obeying orders; it is the requirement to retain an innate sense of morality in an inherently immoral endeavor. Every man and woman who has been called to walk this complex tightrope is worthy of the respect central to this national holiday.
Professor Geoffrey Corn is a publishing Contributor at the MirYam Institute. He is the Gary A. Kuiper Distinguished Professor of National Security Law at South Texas College of Law, Houston, and a retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel. His Army career included service as both an intelligence officer and a military attorney.
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