Stay Free to Be All That You Can Be
by Dan Sanchez
May 24, 2016—Dear high school senior considering a military career,
Graduation is coming up. You’re probably looking forward to a relaxing summer vacation, enjoyed with the peace of mind that your next few years are pretty much covered. Maybe you’re going to enlist soon, and then be off to basic training. Or perhaps you received an ROTC scholarship and will be starting college and officer training.
It may feel very comforting to know exactly where you’re headed. I’m writing to challenge you to question that feeling: to be wary of being lulled into something that feels like security, but which in reality endangers, not only your physical safety, but your career and happiness. If all you have done at this point is sign a confirmation with ROTC, you are not yet legally bound to fulfill your term of service. You can still back out.
There are many reasons why it is immoral to place yourself in a position in which you are compelled to kill on command, or to facilitate such killing. But in this letter, I will focus on why, even if you accept the morality of war, you should stay out of military life for the sake of your own personal development and flourishing.
Consider why having the future “taken care of” might be so comforting. Since your first day of kindergarten, you’ve been deprived of both freedom and responsibility. Your life has been regimented and prescribed. You’ve been trapped in secluded camps called schools in which the activities that fill your every day have been decided for you. You’ve been riding an institutional conveyor belt that has moved you through every stage in your life, from classroom to classroom, grade to grade, school to school.
Now, for the first time, the conveyor belt has brought you to a juncture. You finally have an exit option. You can choose to be dropped off onto the ground, where you must make your own way in the world. But the belt is the only thing you’ve ever known. The thought of being dumped onto the cold earth with its disorienting multitude of possible directions may terrify you. And so instead you’ve chosen to be transferred to yet another conveyor belt.
That is the choice that many make when enrolling in college. High school graduates delay shouldering the responsibilities of adult life for at least another four years by immersing themselves in yet one more institution. Military life is an even higher plane of institutionalization. The military is school-plus, with even more regimentation, more direction, and more seclusion. This has been the military ideal since ancient times. Read the philosopher Plato’s prescription for military life, which he believed should be the model for childhood and society in general:
“Military organization is the subject of much consultation and of many appropriate laws. The main principle is this—that nobody, male or female, should ever be left without control, nor should anyone, whether at work or in play, grow habituated in mind to acting alone and on his own initiative, but he should live always, both in war and peace, with his eyes fixed constantly on his commander and following his lead; and he should be guided by him even in the smallest detail of his actions—for example, to stand at the word of command, and to march, and to exercise, to wash and eat… This task of ruling, and being ruled by, others must be practised in peace from earliest childhood…”
Indeed universal compulsory schooling was invented in order to condition youth for military service. (For more on this, see my recent column, “How Schooling Leads to War.”)
Through years of forced conditioning, you have had dependency and docility drilled into your mind, and your soul purged of initiative and self-reliance. That is why “the real world” frightens you, and why you seek refuge from it in the institutional confines of college and/or military life.
But self-commitment in a never-ending series of asylums will never make you truly happy. Ask yourself this. Why does it take so many years of all-day conditioning for the institutionalized mindset to take hold? It is because regimentation doesn’t come naturally to the human spirit, which can only thrive in conditions of freedom. It takes that long for the system to “break” the inmate: to smother his or her natural inclination toward freedom and independence.
But take heart. Your capacity to be free is not dead, but only dormant. You can resuscitate it: but only if you get off the conveyor belt. You must strike out on your own into the wide world, and break out of the environments that are keeping you dependent, servile, and unfree.
Use the upcoming summer to begin de-institutionalizing yourself. Get a summer job and throw yourself into it. Become passionate about value creation. Impress the hell out of your employers. Start a web site or social media account for them. Research how to make money online. Apply for internships. Start building a professional network. Pick up skills by taking online courses or in-person technology workshops. Start building online portfolios documenting value creation and proven skills: a LinkedIn profile, a GitHub account, a work experience blog, etc. Strive to depend less and less on your parents for financial support.
Other people have been keeping you trapped in an extended childhood for far too long. It is time to defy them and forge a path toward emancipation and full adulthood. The military life is often said to be a path toward discipline. But it is only a continuation of the kind of “discipline” you’ve already been subjected to at school: the discipline of a prison camp. True discipline is self-discipline, which can only be attained by independently pursuing the opportunities, and braving the rigors, of the real world: by embracing both freedom and responsibility. It takes being independent and free to truly be all that you can be.