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Memorial Day -- But Don't Call It a Sacrifice

05/22/2015 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Memorial Day -- Don't Call It a Sacrifice

As an Objectivist, I oppose the idea that self-sacrifice is the right way for people to deal with one another. I don't believe you have a moral duty to subordinate yourself to others. Another person's need should not create a moral claim against you merely because you are able to satisfy that need. Human relations should not consist of one person's gain coming at the price of another's loss. People should interact not through sacrifice but through honest trade, by offering each other value for value, to mutual benefit.

It may surprise some to learn that I nonetheless applaud and admire the efforts of those in our armed forces. Not because they are performing acts of sacrifice, but the opposite: because they are acting to properly further their self-interest.

The term "sacrifice" needs to be correctly understood. To sacrifice means to endure a loss. It means to give up that which is worth more to you for the sake of that which is worth less. It means putting someone else's needs above your own. It means doing without a new suit or a new car, so that your neighbor can get a subsidized mortgage, or his mother can get free health care or the inhabitants of Bangladesh can receive foreign aid. To sacrifice is to suffer so that others might benefit.

But this is not what characterizes -- or should characterize -- our military activities. In a free country, soldiers who fight against an actual threat to America are not sacrificing what is most important to them -- they are upholding it. They are acting to preserve their freedom. They are risking their lives because they are unwilling to allow an enemy to undermine their way of life. They are acting selfishly -- in the proper, rational sense of the term. That is, they are concerned with their own well-being, which includes being committed to the political system -- America's system -- under which human life flourishes. They are pursuing their own long-range interests. They value liberty and do not want to surrender it. They choose to fight because of their allegiance to their own ideals.

When America confronted the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II, those who voluntarily enlisted -- and military service should only be voluntary --were not sacrificing. They went to battle in the name of their personal values. They refused to allow even the possibility of their having to live under some form of tyranny.

By contrast, when our soldiers are used on so-called humanitarian missions, they are sacrificing. When they are sent to intervene in some distant tribal conflict, a conflict that has no bearing on their own freedom, they are being treated unjustly by our political leaders. That is, they are being made to act selflessly.

In today's world, it is plainly in our soldiers' interest to combat the threat posed by Islamic jihadists (though not by means of the ineffectual, unwinnable type of war we are now conducting). This is a battle not to protect Iraq or Syria or Yemen -- but to protect America. It is a mission not of altruism but of self-interest, which is the only its only moral justification.

Our country was founded on the tenet of individualism -- the tenet that the citizen is not an object to be sacrificed and disposed of by the state, but is rather a sovereign being with the inalienable right to his life, his liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness. So let us praise the legitimate efforts of our troops, and let us memorialize those who have died in the effort to preserve America's founding principle. And the best memorial we can offer them is to stop calling their actions a sacrifice -- and to insist that whenever our soldiers are asked to fight, it is for the selfish purpose of defending their freedom.