Serving the Nation ≠ Serving the State

While discussing my summer plans recently, the subject of a large rally of Vietnam veterans which is scheduled to occur in DC over the Memorial Day weekend rather oddly came up.  I noted that I thought it was a silly event to have, because although many of the individual veterans are undoubtedly people worthy of honor, having fought in this aggressive foreign intervention was hardly worth celebration.  One of the participants in the conversation strongly objected, arguing that whatever my opinion of the war, I should still understand a desire to commemorate these veterans’ brave service to their country.

Brave though some of our soldiers may have been, what they engaged in was not service to our country; it was service to the state…and I see no reason to commemorate that.  The state is not the same as the country, and the two’s interests rarely converge.

What exactly does this mean?

Well, to begin let me expand on the difference between the state and the country, or, to use a more formal term from political science, the nation.  A state is a government, a bureaucracy, a formal political organization over a territorial region.  A nation is a group of people with the same culture or self-identity.  Some nations — the Kurds, for instance — have no states, and some states, like the Israeli government, preside over more than one nation.  In short, keeping these two concepts separate is important even outside of geeky political science posts like this one.

So soldiers serving their nation would be those acting to defend their homes and fellow citizens from an aggressor.  Unlike those serving the state, they would not be engaged in immoral wars which result in the deaths of thousands of Americans — not to mention estimations of more than a million Vietnamese deaths. 

They would not be engaged in wars which we cannot afford, the bills of which will remain for future generations to pay.  

They would not be engaged in illegal wars, which violate our Constitution and set the precedent for future illegal conflicts (ahem! Iraq and Afghanistan). 

They would not be engaged in unnecessary wars which are unrelated to their proper role as defenders of their homeland. 

They would not be engaged in wars which allow the government to violate the 13th Amendment by instituting a draft. 

And they would not be engaged in wars which are none of our business, located on the other side of the world in a country where we have no authority for involvement.

None of these actions are service to our nation; they are service to the state.  In this as in every case of aggressive and interventionistic military action, war is only “the health of the state,” not of the citizens.

Now, I do not mean to sound as if I am condoning communism or displaying some sort of moral relativism by arguing that America should not have intervened in Vietnam.  Far to the contrary.  Communism is a brutal and immoral system, and I am as firmly against it as the most devout cold warrior.  But our military involvement in Vietnam was immoral, illegal, and otherwise inappropriate.  We should fight evil, but not with further evil:  Two wrongs don’t make a right.  (Of course, that is not to say that private American citizens could not have been justly involved in that conflict — they could, like Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War, fight of their own accord on the side they considered right.  That would have been reasonable, and perhaps even honorable.)

Individuals who fought in Vietnam and other episodes of foreign adventurism may deserve to be honored for many reasons — for their kindness, their charity in their communities, their valor, or their honesty.  And they may understandably wish to mourn those they lost in war or remember what was surely a signifcant time in their lives.  But commemorating their involvement in an unjust war which should never have occurred is truly honoring to no one — arguably not even to the veterans themselves, many of whom signed up to serve their nation and instead found themselves the tools of a warmongering state.

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