Why It (Really, Really) Matters Who Gets to Serve in the Military

Trump’s divisive decision to ban transgender individuals from serving has re-opened debates around the nature of military service. Many have argued that military service is not an inalienable right in the same way that freedom of speech or religion is, instead characterizing it as a privilege or a duty. There is some truth to this, as limitations are put on military service—factors like age, fitness and skill come to mind—in a way which is not true of our fundamental democratic freedoms. This simple characterization, however, masks the complex relationship between public service and basic civil rights.

In many Western democracies, the armed forces are viewed as almost a necessary evil—with little thought given to the essential role which public service, including military service, plays in the political life of a nation. But military service, especially in democracies, has traditionally been linked to political rights and participation.

Lauren Anderson

In ancient Athens, rights did not just mean the right to be left alone by the state—it was better understood as the right to participate in the political life of the polis. The rights to vote and participate in politics were tied up with the privilege or duty to defend the polis in times of crisis, as well as basic liberties such as economic freedom and the right to fair trial. Only free men had the right to join the army, and only free men had social and political rights. A core reason that slaves and women were excluded from military and public service was because affording them the privilege of service would entail also providing them with a full range of rights and liberties.

Casting public service as a heavy burden best shouldered by educated and propertied men has long served as a way of disguising patriarchal and racist systems behind a veil of duty. This tactic remains pervasive in our society.

If we trace the extension of the rights of women in western society we can see how closely these are tied to public and military service. While women are still excluded from some frontline roles, they have often served their country in medical and support roles—notably during the American Revolution and Crimean War. The controversial involvement of female nurses during the Crimean war helped to pave the way for women to take on greater roles in the public life, with Florence Nightingale becoming an inspiration to British feminists in the 1920’s and 30’s. Furthermore, the role played by women both at home and abroad during the World Wars helped to challenge long held assumptions about gender roles, allowing women to participate more both economically and politically. As women participated more and more in public service, including the military, it became impossible for governments to deny them the basic economic and political rights afforded to men.

These periods of military service were born out of crisis, and did not provide women with new rights and liberties overnight. There were attempts to push back against advances, with women often leaving the services and workplace and returning to their previous roles. However, these women helped to break down barriers and lay the groundwork for what the women’s movement was to achieve later. By showing that women could serve their country as courageously and effectively as men—as nurses or mechanics or munitions workers—they changed the face of western society.

The same could be said of black Americans, whose military service helped to break down racial barriers in fits and starts from the Revolution to desegregation. Despite the vital service of black troops in the U.S. Armed Forces, it took until 1948 for the army to be desegregated. Racists fought to disenfranchise and oppress the same people who fought for their freedom during two World Wars, with no black soldiers being awarded the Medal of Honor for their service in WWII. In 1947, black Marines were forced to choose between leaving the service or becoming food provision stewards. These attempts to delegitimize and belittle the contribution of black Americans shows that the denial of public service is a shameful part of the strategy used by bigots to deny civil liberty to other groups in society. Ultimately though, it proved impossible to deny civil rights to a group of people who contributed to much to their nation.

Trump is using the language of military effectiveness to ban trans service, claiming without evidence that transgender troops will degrade the nation’s military capability or put too high a burden on the military budget. However, the reality is that he is using the military as a cover to attack the trans community and push back on their recent gains in the fight for LGBT equality. Trump is prodding his political opponents into a divisive culture war, and in doing so he is willing to deny the contributions made by transgender people who serve their nation in the military.

The right to participate in public life through military service has often gone hand-in-hand with the basic civil rights we consider an essential foundation of democracy. We should see Trump’s ban on trans service for what it is: not an attempt to improve effectiveness and not a cost-cutting measure, but instead, a cynical and sickening attempt to disenfranchise thousands of brave people who have agreed to risk their lives for their country in a way that he never did.

This may not be seen as a direct attack on civil liberties, but it is chilling because it functions as a way of othering and scapegoating a group of people. This othering is a standard tactic of authoritarian governments, and it never ends well.


Daniel Odin Shaw is a graduate student at the Central European University. He has written for Global Politics and The Unprofessionals, and hopes to pursue research on women's rights in times of crisis.