War and Our Duty: Should We Volunteer?

On April 25th, the Australian Home Affairs Department Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, wrote an email to his staff where he said: "Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war". In Australia and around the Asia-Pacific region, there is an increasing awareness that storm clouds are gathering and the long peace of the Pax Americana may be coming to an end.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become increasingly assertive of its perceived interests as its economic and military power has grown under Xi Jinping (习近平). The PRC has aggressively sought to alter the line of actual control with India in the Himalayas, it has illegally annexed the South China Sea inside the nine-dash line, and it is asserting its claimed seventy over Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands of Japan. This should have come as no surprise as Xi laid out his aims clearly in what he called the China Dream.

The China Dream

This is unambiguously a program to return China to its ancient role of the centre of the world or the middle kingdom, where all of East Asia would be supplicants to China, with China and the Chinese having a controlling stake in the economic and political life of each of the peripheral nations. The below map illustrates the bounds of this China Dream:

Figure 1: The China Dream

It would be a mistake to paint this as a conflict between good and evil or right and wrong. Instead, it is perhaps better seen from the point of view of the self-interest of the PRC’s government and perhaps that of its people. From this viewpoint, it can be understood as logical for a rising power to seek to change the status quo in its own region, from one that is perceived as benefiting the current global power (the United States) to one that favours itself. Leaving aside the contentious argument as to if the current rules-based system is tilted in the United States’ favour or not. I believe we can agree that the Chinese dominated system, which the PRC aims to replace it with, is highly unlikely to be to the benefit of the non-Chinese residents of the Asian-Pacific region.

As such, for those of us who live in the Asia-Pacific region, we are faced with a stark choice—submit to the harmful hegemony of the PRC or resist. As I write this, my nation, Australia, seems to have chosen to resist and is standing with the United States, Japan, India and others in resisting (somewhat ineffectually) the aggression of the Chinese Government. I will touch on the mistakes we are making in resisting in another post, but for now, the threat of war forces us to confront an uncomfortable question. If war comes, should we volunteer to fight?

Before we go on, I feel it is important to mention that I am a veteran. I served for almost eight years in the Australian Defence Force. However, I feel conflicted when I consider what action I personally should take if war breaks out. I am conflicted as I am a father of four young children, and as such, have an absolute responsibility to them. Yet at the same time, if I were to stay home, would I not also be betraying them by failing to fight for their futures? This is a problem anyone who is cursed to live through a period of war must face. Where does their duty lie?

War is a complex phenomenon that is not usually as clear-cut as the defence of one’s home from an aggressive enemy bent on domination or extermination. Each side is generally motivated by the self-interests of the elites of their society, which are generally only tangentially related to the welfare of the average members of their society who bear the costs of the war (Rand Corporation, 2014). This historic truth should lead us to be wary of war and to demand that the burdens and benefits of the war be shared equally. Yet the lessons of the world wars and the internecine small wars of the post war period point us to the conclusion that our societies have never equitably distributed these burdens or rewards.

In every war—major or minor—the majority of those who fight are poorly compensated for their sacrifices, while those who possess money, power or position are generally able to leverage their positions to profit from the sacrifices of the commons. While this is, of course, a generalisation, it is irrefutable that in war, as war material is needed in large quantities, manufacturers stand to make large profits even as the commons are often impoverished. It is for this reason that before we can answer whether or not we should fight; we should answer why the war needs to be fought at all.

Does the War Need to be Fought?

This is not intended to betray a pacifistic leaning, but to take a step back from blind patriotic emotion and instead apply the moral decision-making framework. Asking, when we are faced with the choice between resistance or acquiescence, how each choice will affect the welfare of our families and our communities. If giving ground will lead to the best outcome for our families, then give ground, we must. If fighting, killing and perhaps dying will lead to a better outcome, then we must fight. This standard is that of enlightened self-interest, asking in all things, including war, if the price is worth the benefit to our families and communities.

This equation must be calculated by each individual, not just those at the apex of society. If the whole community is to be called on to bear the horrendous burden of war, then surely it should only be undertaken for the communal benefit. This is likely only possible if we reform our systems of government to embrace a more direct form of democracy such as the councils of the hundreds, etc. Otherwise, the interests of the decision-makers (however well-intentioned) will trump that of the commons, and those who control the machinery of the state will be able to use compulsion to force the members of their society at large to fight and sacrifice even if their interests are opposed to the war.

In the case of the aggressive expansionism of the PRC, the question of should we fight is a complex problem whose answer depends on the questioner’s physical location. For those in Taiwan, the question is different from those in Australia, Japan or the United States. Reunification of Taiwan by the PRC in its modern form is likely to be harmful to the Taiwanese only in so much as the rule of law and civil liberties are eroded through integration into the mainland system. Economically excepting the effect of international sanctions, the impact would probably be positive. The PRC sees Taiwan as an integral part of their country inhabited by their kin, not as an alien nation whose subjugation or destruction is desirable. Thus, for the Taiwanese, the question is, in reality, one of the value of individual freedom and rule of law vs. physical security.

For Australia, Japan and the other nations of the Asia-Pacific, the question is more acute. Chinese domination of the region in the past has led to detrimental outcomes for the non-Chinese residents of the region. The Chinese communities throughout South-East Asia have long dominated business and trade in the region and would only increase their dominance if the PRC could increase its power in the region. The PRC has also shown itself willing to demand that nations in thrall to it adjust their legal and social framework to better protect its interests. Thus, for the residents of this region, the question if war came is different depending on if they identify as ethnically Chinese or not. For the non-Chinese, the war would be a question of freedom or slavery (national and economic if not individual). The chance to choose their own path or to have it dictated to them. Preservation of security through avoidance of a hegemonic power in the region and preservation of the nominally rules-based international order.

For those who are considered ethnically Chinese, the question would be more complex, having to factor in the possible benefits of a PRC victory with the consequences of a defeat. In nations like Malaysia, where the Chinese Minority, while economically prosperous, faces official discrimination, they may see their interests as being aligned with that of the mainland as opposed to that of their titular homelands.

For nations outside the region, the question is less immediate being based more on the assumption of whether a victorious PRC would be likely to act in a way that would benefit or harm their interests in the long run. For the United States, its interests lie in preserving the strategic primacy it possesses in Asia through its bases and allies in both the first and second island chains, which it can use to restrict enemy access to the Pacific and Indian oceans and secure international maritime commerce which underpins Globalization.

Figure 2: First and Second Island Chain (Defence News, 2016)

Whether or not this is worth fighting and dying for depends on if you subscribe to the view that Globalization and American supremacy is beneficial to the American Commons or not. As well as an assessment of exactly what the PRC actually seeks and if those aims pose a threat to the security and welfare of the American commons or not.

Depending on where you are and how you answered these questions, you will know if the war should be fought or not. If you have determined that it should not be fought, then the answer as to should you volunteer to fight or not is a clear no. In your judgement (at least), giving ground or acquiescing to the conceivable demands is preferable to fighting. If in your judgement, given the situation, it is better to fight than give in, then you still need to decide if it is your duty to volunteer or not.

Should We Volunteer to Fight?

By volunteering to fight, you are signalling a willingness to risk life and limb for the defence of your family and community. You have determined (using the moral decision-making framework) that defeat would be likely to bring greater harm to you and your family than your potential death would. For a person without children, the choice is relatively straightforward. If the war needs to be fought (in your view), i.e., it is essential for your family’s long-term benefit, then it is your duty to volunteer to fight.

If you have children, then the choice is far more fraught. To volunteer means to willingly take on risk, which you are not forced to assume. As you do not only have yourself to consider but the welfare of your children, you are restrained from volunteering unless the risk to them was greater from not volunteering than it would be if they were deprived of your care and support. In essence, this means that if you have dependent children, you should not volunteer to fight unless you could be sure that the welfare of your children would be protected.

Unfortunately, as things currently stand, this requirement is unlikely to be met if you are not of the working poor. The widows and orphans’ pensions (in Australia) amounts to only around 30% of the average weekly earnings. The military superannuation death and disability coverage, while relatively generous, is insufficient to cover the average mortgage. While the legal exemption for insurers to waive private death and total permanent disability (TPD) cover during war means that, especially for higher-income earners, if they are killed or disabled, their families would lose everything. The combined effects of these factors make the choice to volunteer almost impossible for the average citizen who has dependent children. In a real way, volunteering to fight when you have dependent children is, in most cases, a betrayal of their interests.

I will admit that writing these words leaves a bad taste in my mouth. While I fear war, I also recognise its necessity in the preservation of freedom and the maintenance of the welfare of our families. As a patriot and a veteran, I believe that the welfare of my nation and my community are my personal responsibility. Yet as a Codist, I know that my duty is to my family first of all. It is clear that to volunteer to fight would be to betray them, while to stay at home would be to invite the stain of cowardice. Allowing another to go in my place while I hid at home, another to suffer while I was secure.

Alas, what is right is not easy, for those of us who honestly seek to achieve our purpose in life and promote the welfare of our family and our communities, we must seek after the benefit of our families always. We must put aside our own preferences and choose what our logic and reason tells us is right. If we have no dependents, then we must put aside our fear and volunteer. If we have dependent children, we must put aside our pride and stay at home, contributing to the defence of our homes in some other way.


(2014, 01 14). Retrieved from Rand Corporation: https://www.rand.org/news/press/2014/01/21/index1.html

Figure 2: (2016, 02 01). Retrieved from Defence News: https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2016/02/01/powers-jockey-for-pacific-island-chain-influence/

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