Serving Whose Country? The Ethics of Naturalisation Through Military Service in the USA.

The use of the military by enlistees as a tool for gaining citizenship and civil rights raises some interesting ethical questions. In the United States, people who serve in the military while living in the US on a Green Card can be eligible for fast-tracked citizenship, originally either after serving one year in peacetime, or immediately when serving in combat. A programme was initiated in 2009 to allow enlisted soldiers to naturalise after completing basic training. In 2012, 7257 service men and women became US citizens.

Guadalupe Denogean’s episode of the ‘I am an American’ video series, on gaining his citizenship through military service.

The United States has a long history of allowing naturalisation through military service and it has been a powerful tool especially by African, Irish and Asian Americans to challenge societal prejudices and gain recognition within society:

Central to military naturalization is a powerful symbolic message: those willing to fight and die for the United States are worthy of its citizenship. For immigrants historically considered “racially distinct,” military naturalization afforded an opportunity to challenge preexisting conceptions of citizenship that equated color with country.

The practice has strong ties to the concept of the citizen-soldier, a figure who fights for their country as a part of their duty as a citizen of that country. Offering legal citizenship to those who fight is seen, in this sense, as a kind of natural justice. There is also evidence to suggest that minority groups who are able to serve in the military, in societies which value military service, gain an important tool in their struggles for greater rights and recognition.

An RT News segment discusses some of the issues with military naturalisation

In contrast to the many positive aspects of military naturalisation, the tradition of allowing US residents who serve to become legal citizens exists alongside a long history of promoting a racialised concept of citizenship, showing that only ‘certain kinds of foreigners’ have historically had guaranteed access to it. It also seems problematic that those in society who may already be seen as less grieveable because of their race, ethnicity or nationality, are prompted to join the military as a way of gaining recognition, allowing more privileged members of society to more easily avoid military service. Migrants, especially undocumented ones, already experience higher levels of ‘precarity’ than documented residents and citizens, so it may be that it is easier to send them to fight (and die) in war.

Sexism and homophobia in the military may also act as limitations on who gets to be eligible for naturalisation through military service, though hopefully the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy from Uniform Code and the recent decision to allow women to hold frontline combat positions will help to begin lessening this risk. Citizenship gained through military service can also be revoked for ‘bad behaviour’ under some circumstances, a rule which most certainly does not apply to soldiers who were born in the US.


President Barack Obama meets newly naturalised service men and women

Various measures aimed at opening up military naturalisation to undocumented migrants have been proposed in the US, raising some prickly ethical questions about coercion. Offering people with few other options the chance to risk death for a country that may otherwise deport them seems problematic, much in the same way that allowing desperate people to sell their organs on the black market is problematic. After all, the benefits of citizenship can only be enjoyed if one lives long enough to enjoy them.

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‘Unaccommodated Man’ – categorising and un-categorising people in warfare.

King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4 (1).

King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4.

When King Lear had his famous epiphany upon a heath in the middle of a storm, he was struck by the perceived lack of humanity in the beggar without shelter or garb, without place or purpose; a man stripped to nothing but the bare requirements of living. While the “poor naked wretches”  of his speech were those who lived outside of feudal society, Lear’s description of poor Tom the beggar as barely human is reminiscent of the kinds of normative frameworks used to describe the plight of civilians in warfare, especially during the recent War on Terror.

The original actors in violent conflict, as defined by law, are the combatant and the civilian; clearly defined, demarcated categories with rights and duties associated with them. Since the War on Terror began (and in fact long before that), the labels given to people involved in armed conflict have multiplied. Prisoners of war are now ‘battlefield detainees’, civilians taking part in hostilities are ‘unlawful combatants‘ or, even more emotively – ‘abusive civilians’ . In his discussion of Just War Theory, Alex Bellamy uses the somewhat enigmatical term ‘enemy non-combatants’  ostensibly to describe the civilians of ‘enemy’ states. This term appears to fly in the face of current understandings of the laws and norms of warfare: by virtue of being civilians, these people are not supposed to be considered enemies – they are hors de combat.

Combatants and Civilians

Combatants and Civilians

If the defining actors in conflicts are combatants and civilians, the people designated these labels are the ‘Other’. These Others have been conceptualised in many different ways by scholars preoccupied with the ethics of war. Judith Butler describes them as ‘ungrieveable’ – their lives are already unliveable, they are unreal and dehumanised and because of this their deaths are not deaths at all. Kinsella emphasises their lack of agency, their inability to act as political beings, stemming from traditional norms of civilians as ‘women and children’, in need of protection and incapable of action. Agamben refers to this state of ‘otherness’ as ‘bare life’, human life that is completely politicised and is therefore apolitical.

For Agamben, the concentration camp is a physical ‘state of exception’ – the realm of the apolitical, those things that exist by virtue of not-being.  A slightly easier concept to wrap one’s head around is Ignatieff’s ‘heath’ – the space of madness and chaos that Lear inhabits when he encounters the beggar. This is a space outside of the very ordered society in which Lear lives – here Lear is not a King and Tom is not a beggar, because these categories no longer exist. This metaphorical state of exception only exists because it is excluded from ordered, ‘civilised’ life; it is a physical and ethical space in which bare life exists. A current real world example of this physical space is Syria – often described as ‘war-torn’. Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay is another.

The denizens of these spaces of exception are ‘enemy non-combatant’, the ‘unlawful combatant’ and the ‘abusive civilian’. Civilised wars are defined by their targeting of combatants and their protection of civilians , so these bare lives necessarily have to be defined out of this structure. Even when these Others do count, they are seen merely as potential lives  – lives that will become liveable after the liberating and civilising military actions of the just warrior.

The #NotABugSplat campaign aims to humanise drone victims.

The #NotABugSplat campaign aims to humanise drone victims.

While the state of exception remains unspoken and unexamined, even those attempts to make bare lives count will fail to effectively subvert these normative frameworks. A recent example of an attempt to bring the realities of drone-attacks in Pakistan to international attention reproduces the conceptualisation of Pakistanis as agency-less victims, their lives unbearable and unliveable. We can see their faces, but they remain beyond description, beyond politics; they are ‘the thing itself’.