As we take a too-infrequent moment to honor the service of our men and women in uniform this Veterans Day, let us consider our language and test whether it does them justice.
Commonly, we refer to the contribution made by those who serve in the military as a sacrifice. Our veterans have given up relatively comfortable alternatives to place themselves in harm’s way and protect our liberties. When we call that a sacrifice, we mean it honorably. Nevertheless, we may be selling our now and future veterans short by continuing to think of their choice in that way.
What is a sacrifice? It’s one of those words, like “love,” which has many nuanced meanings depending upon the context in which one uses it. For our purposes in this discussion, let’s settle upon this definition: a trade of value for something of lesser or no value. In order for something to be sacrificial, it must leave the giver worse off than they were before, right? How often do we lift up as virtue the notion of doing something for others without any expectation of receiving something in return?
Yet many of the things we commonly refer to as sacrifice do not fit that definition. When a college student passes on a night out with friends to stay in and study for a big test, he hardly ends up worse off for the trade. Yet, we call it a sacrifice. When a parent prioritizes the needs of their children above her own personal needs, she rarely thinks of the trade as a loss. Yet we think of that as sacrificial too.
In truth, many if not most of the things we call sacrifices actually stand as rational value judgments. Studying for an important test has greater value than a single night out on the town. Providing for one’s children has greater value than indulging yourself to their neglect. We make such choices in pursuit of our values, not at their expense.
The same applies to our men and women in uniform. Enlistment rationally values the nation’s security and individual liberties above mere safety. That is what makes it so honorable! That is why we stand in awe of our veterans and offer them our thanks, because the choice to protect what the rest of us take for granted declares something of their character. It tells us what they value, and how much they value it. I imagine few if any enlist hoping to lose life or limb as a “sacrifice.” Rather, they accept the risk to life and limb as an affirmation of that which they value — life in a free country. As the beneficiaries of that choice, we ought not diminish it by calling it a sacrifice.