“I Would’ve Served, But…”

If you’ve been in the military, you’ve had this conversation before:

“Oh, you’re in the Army? That’s cool, I almost joined up once, but…”

Random excuse follows.

(Caveat: unless it is a medical issue, because there are those who desperately want to serve in the military but can’t because of medical issues, and that can be really awful to have to live with).

Maybe it’s a friend, maybe it’s a stranger who sees you in uniform, maybe it’s a random person online. Regardless, it’s a comment that we hear a lot. It seems to be going around a bit more on social media these days for some reason. And it’s infuriating.

But not for the reasons most people think.

Yes, it does feel disrespectful, as if they are basically throwing your life choice into the wind of hypotheticals and invalidating your choice to serve. Yes, it is ridiculous, because if they could’ve served, but didn’t, well, that one’s on them. We all make life choices, and we all have to live with them

But really, the frustrating thing is their need to explain why they never served. We aren’t asking that question of them; it’s something that they force upon themselves. Although if someone is in the military service and is judging those who aren’t purely on that basis, cut it the hell out. Because look, most people haven’t served. Like, 97% of the population.

And that’s fine.

It’s more than fine, in fact, because you don’t want everyone serving in the military; that would be ridiculous.  Loads of people are not suited to the military and the military isn’t suited for them. In fact, society needs non-military service in the same way that it needs the security and safety that the military provides. What use is safety and security if we have a society that has nothing good in it, nothing of worth?

The military is just one small way that people can serve the country and their fellow people. Tons of people serve the nation in different ways other than by being in the military. Nurses, firefighters, aid workers, EMTs, teachers, social workers, cops, the list goes on and on. Not to mention all the silent heroes; like the child who takes care of their elderly parent for decades, foregoing much of life. Or the people who dedicate their lives to the aid of others. Service is not the monopoly of the military.

Recognizing that profound service can be found everywhere in life is hard for some people since we in the United States place a premium on military service, making it paramount to all other kinds. And some people take it a step further – mainly males – and equate military service with some kind of masculine rite of passage. Because apparently violence and aggression are the sole property of males – a ridiculous concept if ever one was aired. This kind of equation flies in the face of the decades of service from women in uniform, who fight against this stereotype nearly daily in addition to doing their jobs.

So, what is the underlying issue here? Is it the over-valuation of military service in the United States to the exclusion of others? Personally, I would argue that it is. And as a military member it harms us more than it helps us. Placing the military above all other types of service places us on a pedestal and sets unrealistic expectations of the military institution. It automatically assumes that those who served in the military are somehow superior to those who did not.

The reality is much more complex: the military is a microcosm of society at large. We have good people, bad people, hard workers, slackers, liars, thieves, paragons of integrity, douchebags, winners, losers, leaders, followers, shirkers, malcontents, liberals, conservatives, socialists, hedonists, religious zealots, atheists, and – a few – heroes. The heroes aren’t the ones who tell you they’re heroes, by the way. In short, the military is human and its members perform a necessary service. But it should not be elevated above all else; hero worship helps neither the worshiped nor the worshipers.

So when someone says, “I would’ve served, but…” they do a disservice to themselves and to those who are in the military- and really to society at large. Valuable and meaningful service can be found everywhere in life.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.





15 Replies to ““I Would’ve Served, But…””

  1. Yeah, I generally just say “well, there are plenty of ways to serve the country” and leave it at that. Truth is, I stumbled into military service without any grand plan and it worked out well for me.

    Same sort of thing when people thank me for my service. I usually say “it’s been my privilege”. Because it has.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. This post reminds me of Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s memoirs. Mosby wrote about another man who, on the eve of the Civil War, boasted to Mosby that he would “see him on the fields of Philippi.” After the war, Mosby saw the other man, and remarked: “He called upon me in Washington…As he was about my age and didn’t go into the army, I was tempted to tell him that I did go to Philippi, but did not meet him there.”


  3. Thank you for saying that.
    I am a Reserve Force Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. My job is to run a cadet squadron (cadets are a youth organization sponsored by the CAFv, like Scouts but with drill). So I’ll never be deployed or put my life on the line (unless I guess my cadets are in a bus crash). But I took my cadets on a tour of a large airport and as we’re going through security to get swabbed for explosives residue the tiny middle aged women on the security detail thanked me for my service. But she probably does more to keep Canadians safe than me every day.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wanted to be a pilot but my nearsightedness was a nonstarter. I do not understand why even people who had LASIK still couldn’t be pilots but I suspect there is a good reason.

    Note: this was late 1980s when pell grants and other financial aide was more abundant than today and the GI BILL while lucrative wasn’t the only means to go to college.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Icarus, I think it was because the procedure was still new, and the military wanted to see the long-term performance before spending $1M training a new pilot only to have their eyes revert after a year in the fleet. They now allow LASIK/PRK recipients become pilots as long as there are no serious complications and the corrected vision is good enough.


  5. I’ve always hated it when people feel the need to try and ingratiate themselves with service members by doing the whole ‘I almost joined, but…’ spiel. I agree wholeheartedly with PPTSAPPER.

    From the British perspective (British as I am), we’re – that is the Armed Forces – traditionally less visible than most professions in the UK, and when people do think of us, its usually through the lens of a news article lauding an action in WWII, or the tourist-mobbed Guards on parade outside Buckingham Palace. The reality of course is that on the whole I work a relatively well paid 8-5 (usually) job, that happens to be more physical than most and neatly proscribes what I can and can’t wear to work. Deployments are rarer than they used to be (I miss Afghanistan when the paperwork piles up), and contrary to popular opinion we’re not doing drill for 12 hours a day.

    So to me – and I’d argue most British soldiers/sailors/airman/marines – I just do a job.

    So when, as PPTSAPPER states, people put us up on a pedestal and try to make themselves closer to us through wheedling comments; it is supremely awkward. I would go loco doing some of the jobs I see people doing in the civilian sector, and I’d argue that the perception of civilian service to society could do with something of a renaissance.


  6. “because you don’t want everyone serving in the military; that would be ridiculous.”

    And yet it was one of the foundations of classical republicanism, one not much talked about today except by historians, perhaps because in a world with firearms it doesn’t make any sense and because we have been made ashamed of the imperialism it supported. It was part of the Renaissance idea of resurrecting the greatness of Rome; Machiavelli wrote about it, advocating a universal militia on the Roman model in Florence. Machiavelli’s militia lost to one of the many Papal leagues, in a battle so minor it rates only a few lines in the histories I looked at, and Florence fell but the idea did not die. Instead, it made its way to Scotland, where Andrew Fletcher wrote it into his 1698 A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias (which apparently contains the first use of the phrase “well-regulated militia”) and then into the Second Amendment and the Militia Acts of 1792.

    The idea that military service is in some sense a validating activity, and one that (at least men) ought to be ashamed of not undertaking has a long history in the modern West.


  7. I was in the Air Force. I stayed in 5 years, because of a bunch of random circumstances. My husband is a career officer. I think the most offensive thing about that question were when spouses and other women would ask me, “When I was getting out to have a family?”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. If you are my age, it is a surreal discussion. I am 59. When I showed up at college in the summer of 1976 and wore either my National Guard uniform or ROTC uniform I was not well received. No one spat at me (probably because I was a center on the football team and I would have kicked their ass) but I was sneered at and made fun of by other students. It became readily apparent during Rush Week at the fraternities & sororities that ROTC cadets were not welcome to rush. It was still recent enough after Viet Nam that the atmosphere on campus towards the military was, at best, contemptuous. The ROTC cadre were not treated as peers by the staff and faculty at the school….despite all having either master or doctorates.
    Oh and this was at West Virginia University.
    Yeah, not exactly a bastion of liberalism.
    So I went along in school, often getting in arguments with my history & polis ci professors. I was told, regularly, that I was throwing my life away. Politically, I was a what I liked to think of as a Sam Nunn Democrat…strong on defense but also fairly liberal on social issues. Fortunately my advisor was a veteran and helped me deal with it.
    And then a tectonic shift occurred.
    In short order the Russians invaded Afghanistan and the Iranians took over our embassy. And the Desert One smashed into our consciousness. And the wonderful, glorious Miracle On Ice happened (USA!!!!USA!!!!USA!!!!)
    And then suddenly it was cool to be in the military. STRIPES came out while I was IOBC.
    And then I started to hear “yeah, I thought about joining the…but…”.
    A LOT
    In my early days I’d say something snarky like “Well you probably couldn’t hack it so probably better you didn’t.” But as I aged I mellowed. I went through the stage of “It’s not for everyone.”
    Now I’m more likely to say “Well there are more ways to serve.” And leave it at that.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Would you rather be revered or spit on? Society never EVER takes an measured and even keel on any subject.
    I think it better that the military is regarded better than it deserves rather than being crapped on by pop culture.


  10. I had a friend in Germany who had two sons.
    One was in the German Army, the other was confined to a wheelchair.

    The son in the German Army was there because it is mandatory, and he kinda liked it.
    The son in the wheelchair was of age but could not serve himself, but would have liked to.

    I always felt like so many in the US could benefit from compulsory service, and of any type.
    If you can be of service according to your abilities, that would be a smart way to make America greater.


  11. I appreciate the intent and perspective of this article but just a comment that I think helps illustrate a challenge with this topic in general. “…most people haven’t served. Like, 97% of the population” is not factually accurate. In the U.S. 24% of men and 2% of women are veterans, actually have served in the military. So depending on how one calculates this stat, i.e. don’t count the population under 18 who are ineligible to serve, the institutionalized population, etc, anywhere from 10-15% of the population actually have served in the military. I know that’s not the point of the article, but let’s get that right first. This stat frequently gets misquoted by many, usually senior active duty officers, and confused with the number of less than 1/2% who actually serve today, on active duty, reserves, etc. As a retired sapper myself, and now an active advocate for veterans, we should do a better job of understanding the actual demographics of our society and conditions in which we currently exist, then go from there. GEN McChrystal recently wrote a great article on universal service that’s worth a read.


    1. You also have people who wanted to serve and couldn’t for other reasons beyond their control. I got caught up in a friend’s legal troubles and because I was 17 and scared to death of prison, I took a plea that kept me out of the military later.


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