What Political Communities Owe Their Military Members

During the opening years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, some military members felt their equipment did not provide reasonable protection from threats and did not provide the capability they needed to accomplish their missions. At a town hall meeting in 2004, Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, was questioned by Specialist Thomas Wilson, a National Guard Soldier, about the lack of armored vehicles for forces fighting in Iraq. The soldier told Rumsfeld: “We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that has already been shot up, dropped, busted—picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to go into combat. We do not have proper armament vehicles to carry with us north.”[1] He then asked, “Why don’t we have these resources readily available to us?”[2] Rumsfeld replied: “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time. You can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee, and it can be blown up.”[3]

Rumsfeld was criticized for this response because it seemed callous and indifferent to Wilson’s concerns. Wilson’s complaint was not that he was exposed to harm. It was that he and other military members faced unnecessary risk due to not having equipment that provided adequate protection and hindered their ability to accomplish their mission. Wilson’s concerns suggest he believed the political community was not fulfilling its obligation to its military members.

Concerns of the type offered by Wilson and others highlight an important question: What obligations do political communities have towards the military and its members? Military members play an essential role in defending political community members’ rights and securing the political community itself, and they risk a great deal doing so. Because of this, political communities incur special obligations towards military members. Before identifying these special obligations, it is necessary to consider what political communities owe their citizens since military members are, before anything else, elements of the political community.

One way to understand the political community’s obligations to its citizens is by considering John Locke’s thoughts on the social contract. Like other philosophers, Locke employs the idea of a state of nature to describe life before the existence of a formal political community. The state of nature, even if it never actually existed, provides an approach to thinking about the purpose of political communities, what people gain and lose from being members of them, and what these communities owe their members. Locke is not as pessimistic as Thomas Hobbes regarding what life would be like in a state of nature. Hobbes, in a frequently cited passage, wrote that in the state of nature there would be “no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the Life of man, solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short.”[4]

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. (Wikimedia)

Locke believes that in a state of nature people are in a “state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.”[5] The consequence of this is that everyone “has a right to punish the offender and be an executioner of the law of the transgressors of that law [law of nature].”[6] Life in the state of nature, for the most part, is not terrible; there is, however, the possibility of frequent hostilities (called the state of war) because some people will unjustly employ force against others. This violence undermines security and makes the state of nature potentially unstable. Locke writes, “To avoid this state of war—wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders—is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society and quitting the state of nature.”[7].

In joining a political community, people give up perfect freedom, agreeing to respect others’ rights and accept the judgment of the community’s authorities. This provides a level of security not possible in the state of nature. Once the community is formed, though, it is not only the members’ individual rights that must be protected; the political community itself has rights to defend if the community is to be sustained. Michael Walzer suggests the rights of political communities “derive ultimately from the rights of individuals.”[8] These rights, according to Walzer, are territorial integrity and political sovereignty Territorial integrity is the right of a political community to the territory on which it exists; its physical space should not be violated by other political communities. Political sovereignty is analogous to a person’s liberty. Political communities have the right to determine their destiny through elections or other means without interference from others; community members have the right of self-determination.[9]

One way political communities protect territorial integrity and political sovereignty is by forming and resourcing military forces. Members of the political community join their community’s military forces either as volunteers or to fulfill their obligation as members of the community (e.g., via a draft). Military members are then “...citizens with a stake in the society they have vowed to defend.”[10] They are members of the political community who have assumed the responsibility of defending the community’s rights, and they join the community’s military forces “...to serve the larger community, to help accomplish its purposes and objectives, and to protect its way of life.”[11]

As mentioned above, in the state of nature, whether this is theoretical or actual, people decide to join together to form political communities to enhance their safety and secure their rights. They are willing to give up some of the freedom they would have enjoyed in the state of nature in exchange for additional protection of their rights. Serving in the military, which entails the possibility of risking one’s life and accepting additional restrictions on one’s freedom, seems to contradict the purpose of joining and being a member a political community. Members of the military engage in training, some of it dangerous, and then prepare to or actually participate in combat where they are at risk of being killed, seriously injured, or captured. In addition, military members give up certain freedoms during their service. Examples include diminished rights to such things as free speech and political participation and limitations on where and when they may travel. Because of this, and because their service is so vital to the sustainment of the political community’s, political communities have special obligations towards members of the military.

Brian Orend (Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs)

Brian Orend provides some insights on these special obligations. Orend proposes military members have the right to personal security, which means “sound and serious military training; to be free from severe and dangerous inaugural or hazing rituals; to be free, as female soldiers [male soldiers should be included as well], from sexual assault and harassment; and to have good functional equipment and weapons which enable them to perform their job.”[12] The first and last items highlight one of the unique obligations the political community has to military members. Political communities must ensure military members are properly trained and equipped so they can perform tasks necessary to fulfill their function and have reasonable protection during training and combat. Political communities must do this because military members are also members of the community.

It is important to note, however, that resources for training and equipping military forces exist in a constrained environment; infrastructure, the welfare of community members, and internal security also require resources. Yet, political communities must spend a reasonable amount in balancing these with training and equipping their forces. If they do not, they are not adequately providing what their forces need to secure the communities’ right to territorial integrity and political sovereignty. They are also exposing military members, who are also members of the political community, to unnecessary risk.

Orend also identifies subsistence as an obligation political communities have to their military members, both during and after the member’s service. Given the risks military members face and some of the necessary restrictions on their freedoms, political communities should ensure military members are able to acquire the basics for subsistence, such as housing, food, and health care. Regarding their life after military service, Orend suggests, “Though a soldier’s life will never be the road to riches, it does seem that governments may have some work to do assisting soldiers, to a greater degree than presently, with subsistence after their enlistment ends.”[13] After their military service is complete, military members should be provided what they need to integrate back into the community in a way that enables them to enjoy the freedoms and pursue opportunities available to other members of the community who have not joined the military.

Preventing a Military Dictatorship, Plate 14 from the Bicentennial Pageant of George Washington portfolio (Albert Edward Sterner)

Military service should not undermine a person’s ability to enjoy the benefits of the political community. Additionally, those injured during their military service should be supported in a way that enables them to enjoy the benefits of the political community as closely as possible to how they would have had they not been injured during military service. Families of those who die during service should be supported. The exact scope of support during and after service should be determined by the political community. Recent reports, “Nearly 1 in 4 children at DOD [Department of Defense] schools are eligible for free meals” and “about 23,000 active-duty service members rely on SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps] benefits” are examples of issues that the political community should consider when determining what these special obligations require.[14]

It is also important for community members to recognize the significance of military service.[15] This goes deeper than people thanking military members for their service and offering discounts. It involves the political community recognizing the military institution’s role in defending the political community and the risk and diminishment of rights military members incur through their service. It involves teaching citizens the value and necessity of the community’s territorial integrity and political sovereignty. It also requires community members to ensure conflicts are worth the cost, both human and financial, of fighting them.

People are willing to give up some of their freedom to form political communities and make their rights more secure than they would be in a state of nature. This means one of the political community’s purposes is to secure its members’ rights, and members of the military are members of this community. Because of the risks associated with military service and the needs of a functioning military, military members are not able to fully enjoy the rights other members of the political community enjoy. This is, along with the military’s role in defending political communities, why political communities have special obligations towards their military members. These special obligations include effective training, good equipment, subsistence, and the ability to enjoy the full benefits of the political community once their military service is over. The specifics of these special obligations should be discussed by the political community and should account for changing conditions.

Chris Mayer is a U.S. Army officer and an associate professor of philosophy and associate dean for strategy, policy, and assessment at the United States Military Academy. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A formation of armored vehicles, manned by U.S. soldiers and Marines, stand ready to lead a convoy of coalition forces through the parade grounds established for the 50/20 celebration in Kuwait City, Kuwait, Feb. 21, 2011. (U.S. Army Photo/Sgt. M. Benjamin Gable)


[1] PBS Newshour, “Troops Question Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about Armor,” December 9, 2004.

[2] Eric Schmitt, “Troops Queries Leave Rumsfeld on the Defensive,” December 9, 2004,

[3] PBS Newshour, “Troops Question Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about Armor,” December 9, 2004.

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 89.

[5] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, Ed. Thomas P. Peardon (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), 4.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 53.

9. Ibid., 53-54.

[10] United States Department of Defense, The Armed Forces Officer (Dulles: Potomac Books, 2007), 1.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Brian Orend, The Morality of War. 2nd Edition (Buffalo: Broadview Press, 2013), 144.

[13] Ibid., 145.

[14] Dorian Merina, “When Active-Duty Service Members Struggle To Feed Their Families,” National Public Radio, April 19, 2017.

[15] Brian Orend, The Morality of War, 147.