Since 1973 the United States has relied on an all-volunteer military. The end of conscription was greeted with relief, as Jeff McMahan observes in his lead essay in this issue’s forum. More recently, however, critics have raised serious concerns about volunteer military forces. McMahan, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and author ofKilling in War, focuses on a moral question at the core of voluntary service.
Volunteers put themselves at risk of unjustly killing people by fighting in unjust wars. Soldiers cannot, McMahan says, evade moral criticism of their conduct by pleading that officials alone are responsible for the decision to go to war. He argues for policy changes that would mitigate the risks by increasing the information and options available to soldiers. Militaries should provide instruction about just war and, more controversially, recognize a right of conscientious objection to particular wars.
The respondents—experts within the military and outside of it—all agree that soldiers face difficult moral choices. But they disagree deeply about the culpability of individual soldiers. Some put the burden back on American citizens and the governments they elect; others worry about the difficulties in judging the morality of a war—for soldiers, citizens, and even leaders.
The challenges of making principled choices—and facing their consequences—emerge elsewhere in this issue. In “Man of Action,” Stephen Phelan recounts the life and work of Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentine writer whose 1957 book Operation Massacre is newly available in English. A crime writer and investigative journalist who committed himself to telling the stories of victims of political violence, Walsh was murdered in 1977 in a shoot-out with secret police moments after he released an open letter to the military junta then ruling the country. In the introduction to the original edition of Operation Massacre, he wrote: “I happen to believe . . . in the right of every citizen to share any truth that he comes to know, however dangerous that truth might be.”
In “Whose Character?” Lelac Almagor looks at character education, a current darling of education reformers who view it as the key to success, especially for low-income children. As a teacher in a school that embraces such a curriculum, she considers what goes wrong when we try to teach children things like integrity and grit.
Finally, we are delighted to introduce a new writer, E. H. Dalton, with her debut short story “Cop and Robber.” And congratulations to Scott Coffel, winner of our 16th annual poetry contest. Judge Linda Gregerson, commenting on the poems’ exuberance and rigor, says: “You need to read these poems. Have a ball.”