A sample of one doesn’t prove anything, but it may at least fail to disprove some theories and raise new questions. A fascinating but terrible the wall street journal report tells the story of Daniel Swift, a Navy SEAL who had deserted and died fighting in Ukraine earlier this year (“‘War is fun’: The Navy SEAL who went to Ukraine because he couldn’t stop fighting», May 12, 2023).
After deployments to Afthanistan, Iraq and Yemen, Swift was unable to adjust to mainstream social life. “War is fun,” said one US Army veteran. In many ways, Mr. Swift’s story is consistent with the economic way of looking at individual choices, including those involving violence.
UCLA Economist Jack Hirshleifer reminded us that there are two great options in life: peaceful cooperation or violence. Swift’s life story confirms that some people have a comparative advantage in violence, whether biologically innate or learned or a combination of the two. A comparative advantage describes what one can do comparatively better than others and therefore specialize. Adam Smith believed that comparative advantage was achieved: “The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and an ordinary doorman,” Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “seems to derive less from nature than from habit, custom and upbringing”. One problem is how, in a free and civilized society, some accommodation can be found with people prone to violence. One way is to punish them when they are found guilty of unwarranted violence. Another is to bribe them with drinking opportunities if they remain peaceful.
Whether Mr. Swift was drawn to the Special Forces because he already had a comparative advantage in violence or whether he primarily acquired it there, I don’t know. Regarding the other army veteran already mentioned on the pleasure of war, the the wall street journal also reports:
Civilian life, he added, does not offer the same camaraderie or sense of purpose: “War is easy in many ways. Your mission is clear. You are here to eliminate the enemy.
But what did people like him and Mr. Swift learn in school? Haven’t they somehow learned that life is more complicated than camaraderie in ordained missions? Looking at the memoirs that Swift self-published under a pseudonym after his defection (and available on Amazon), it is not clear that he learned anything other than sports and wrestling in high school, although his book is gripping. The dysfunctional families he and many of his childhood friends lived in certainly didn’t help. He wants us to believe that neither does his wife, but it’s easy to understand that long deployments are difficult for everyone in the family.
After Swift returned from his last deployment, he faced what psychologists call “adjustment disorder.” He was arrested for domestic violence and charged with forcible confinement, child endangerment and domestic assault. His wife was granted a protective order and received much of his salary. He couldn’t see his four children, whom he seemed to love, although perhaps awkwardly. In his book, he denies the accusations of violence. A felony conviction would have ended his military career, which is the only thing he knew. He deserted before his trial.
Another reflection is necessary, often neglected in pacifist circles. Men who have some comparative advantage in violence are useful in protecting others from unjust violence. Unjust violence will always exist. Protecting even imperfect freedom has value. And, of course, the soldiers are not all, and should not beviolent brutes (“killing machines”, as trump proudly said of “our boys” from the bottom of his wisdom). But even when a (defensive) war and its methods are just, it remains a difficult challenge in a free (or more or less free) society.