welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Armistice Day Reflections

Bob Sharpe asks what it is to die for one’s country.

When, twenty years ago, during the Falklands War, the British sank the ageing Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, drowning some six hundred men, mainly conscripts, an eminent philosopher was said to have remarked “At least they had the satisfaction of dying for their country.” Whether we take the statement that they died for their country in either of the two ways, ‘they died in the interests of their country’ or ‘they died to protect their country’, it seems false. But more generally, what does the phrase ‘he died for his country’ mean and when is it true?

The problem is that ‘died for’ is ambiguous. It may mean ‘voluntarily risked or sacrificed his life to save the lives of others or in their interests’ – as a man who throws himself on a hand grenade to save the lives of his comrades died for them. Or it may mean ‘lost his life for’ which does not entail that it was an action of his. It may have been engineered by somebody else.

Firstly, in one important way, dying for one’s country is hardly necessary because countries are difficult to destroy anyway. The land will remain unless massive geological changes take place. The nation will probably survive; sometimes it may be reduced in power and extent as Austria was after the first world war. It might even disappear, but more often than not, after a few years, it is back in the same land as it previously occupied. Poland was restored after a gap of a hundred years, though it has shifted west a bit; Germany has been reunited. If by ‘country’, you mean the people viewed as a continuing group, then genuine attempts at genocide are rare and have not been historically totally successful – unless you take the view, nowadays generally rejected, that the disappearance of Neanderthal man was due to the first act of genocide by homo sapiens.

Let’s turn to the idea of the country as the collection of people who live in it at the time of conflict and let’s begin by thinking of the cases in which I do something for somebody else. I help my neighbour to stack hay or I help another motorist to change a wheel at the side of the road. Two things stand out in these examples. First of all, my action is voluntary. Secondly, I achieve something. In the end the hay is stacked and the wheel is changed. Doing something for somebody else is what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle might have called ‘an achievement phrase.’ If there is an analogy between doing something for somebody else and dying for them, then we expect that something is achieved through that death. It is a means to an end. My previous case of where a man throws himself on a hand grenade to save his fellows is an example; it might well be that only by somebody’s death could these men have been saved. But such cases are exceptional. Still, what we can very reasonably say is that if a threat can only be dealt with by conflict and if, in the nature of the case there are bound to be casualties in such a conflict, and if the successful ending of the conflict preserves the lives and liberties of their countrymen, then those who died, died for them. The justification of such conflicts belongs to the matter of what constitutes a just war and that question is not my question. Suffice to say that I subscribe to the Catholic Just War doctrine which, with its emphasis on proportionality and right intention, seems to me to give as decent an account as we are likely to get of when a war is just. But although I am not concerned with questions of justification but rather with what counts as dying for one’s country, I shall suggest in my closing remarks that the mantra ‘they died for us’ is generally used to stop questions of justification from being discussed.

Now, of course, somebody who finds himself unwillingly in a conflict – an unwilling conscript, perhaps – may nevertheless act bravely at a particular juncture. He might risk or lose his life to save a comrade though it might be inaccurate to say that he had died for his country rather than for his comrade. I want to make a distinction between cases in which men or women die honourably and cases in which it is proper to say ‘they died for their country.’ The French priest in Chabrol’s Adieu, mes enfants died honourably and heroically in an effort to save Jewish schoolchildren from the concentration camps. He did not die for his country. It is important to reserve a place for honourable deaths in a conflict without necessarily re-describing all such cases as ‘dying for one’s country’ or ‘dying for us.’ Sometimes men and women may die honourably in the mistaken belief that it is their duty to give their lives; for example, they may fail to make the distinction between on the one hand dying to save their country or dying in the interests of their country and on the other hand dying to save a politician’s hold on power or dying to ensure that she wins the next general election. As I shall argue later the customary conflation of ‘dying honourably in conflict’ and ‘dying for one’s country’ serves a political purpose.

Consider again the case of war and of dying for your country. The situations where somebody dies virtuously for his country are pretty rare though there are all sorts of cases where a death is futile and/or where a man’s life is generously donated by somebody else. The thousands who died on the Somme in 1916 did not, as far as I can see, give their lives for their country. Their country’s interests did not benefit from their death nor was their death an indispensable means of preventing the deaths of people in Britain, France or Germany. Furthermore, many of them were conscripts. The cases where one is coerced do not count as acts of virtue. So much will be readily agreed. The unwilling conscript, though he may die for his country, does not die virtuously for his country though he may well, and presumably often does, show all sorts of virtues such as care for his comrades and fortitude in dreadful circumstances. If we are to be reasonably exact about this then we will also not describe as dying for their country those who died incidentally of disease whilst in the theatre of war such as Byron or Rupert Brooke nor the cook in the field kitchen who dies when his oven blows up.

What I find problematic is the case where the death of the individual in fighting does not contribute to the successful outcome of a conflict. It is not the case that the man who dies must be the very individual whose death makes a difference. It might be that if he had not died somebody else would have died instead; then the death of the latter would be the means instead whereby his country wins rather than loses. Might we not say as well that a man died for his country even if the casualties could, by better management, have been fewer than they were? Perhaps we might. Whether we can relax the condition of success and say that somebody died for his country in a vain attempt to prevent an invasion, I am not so sure. If we can, even given that his life was wasted, then we can say that he died for his country. But my intuitions are rather that, though his death may be honourable, he does not die for his country. For the outcome was the same had he not died. He achieved nothing as far as the defence of his country was concerned.

The soldiers and sailors of the General Belgrano died neither to protect their country nor in its interests. It was merely a pointless slaughter. As far as British casualties in the Falklands War are concerned, a good, if not complete, answer to the question ‘for what did they die?’ would be that they died to help Margaret Thatcher win the following general election. This is not a particularly critical remark. Politicians find it difficult to disentangle their own interests from the public interest; indeed, it is of prime importance that they confuse the two, if they are to be excused greater crimes on the assumption that they deceive themselves. (There is a memorable passage in one of Solzhenitsyn’s novels in which the ageing Stalin muses “However will they manage without me?” Most politicians regard themselves as indispensable.)

Armistice Day is not a time to remember those who ‘died for their country;’ the phrase is too ambiguous and the range of cases is too great to be comfortably brought under a single rubric anyway. Rather it is a time to reflect with sadness on those young men, for they were almost always men, who were deprived of the opportunity to live the full span of the one life that any one of us has because political leaders thought it in their own interests to sacrifice the children of other people.

What is important here is that so many of the cases in which the official rhetoric speaks of those who ‘made the supreme sacrifice,’ ‘died that we might be free,’ ‘died for their country,’ ‘died for us,’ ‘gave their lives for us’ and who are our ‘glorious dead’ are cases which are rather peripheral to the central case where it is blindingly obvious that a man died for somebody else. If we think of a paradigm example like throwing oneself on to a hand grenade to save one’s comrades, the other cases proposed as examples of dying for one’s country, such as dying on the Somme, dying in the Budapest uprising or dying in the General Belgrano, seem unclear. You may think that somebody may die for his or her country in a situation where nothing either was or could have been gained. For example, Budapest citizens in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising threw Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks in futile acts of rage, frustration and despair because their city was being invaded and they were shot down. I can understand somebody thinking in the heat of the moment, or even on reflection, “I would rather die than go on living under this tyranny with the inevitable daily acts of compromise which will result.” But if you count this as ‘dying for one’s country,’ then you are stretching the concept. The more our talk is extended in this way, the nearer such talk gets to language whose roots have been torn up and replanted in a new patch – much as happens with religious language. We are dealing with a case where rhetoric has generated a language game whose phrases and pretensions have come to operate more and more on the periphery, farther and farther from the central cases until they have become more like metaphors enshrining an ideology which conceals and corrupts.

It is part of the job of philosophers to point this out. It is important in this case because politicians, national leaders and ideologues use talk of ‘our glorious dead’ to cast a veil over or justify their enterprises. When a man dies in warfare, his relatives will usually be comforted by the thought that he ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’ and ‘died for us’ or ‘died for his country.’ That puts questions about the justification of the conflict on the back burner. After all, if the conflict was not justified, if we were not under threat, then the lives of these young men were thrown away. This holds true even if they died honourably. It is easy to see, then, why the bereaved are not eager to separate these issues and why it is not in the interests of our leaders to draw the distinctions which would undermine their rhetoric. The latter is not so much intellectual laziness as corruption. But as philosophers, we inherit the Socratic obligation to attempt to clarify where unclarity serves the interests of the powerful.

© Prof R.A. Sharpe 2002

Bob Sharpe is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

(I first read this paper to the philosophy seminar at the University of Wales, Lampeter, the views of whose more vocal members astonished me and terrified the many students present. Nevertheless I am grateful for their comments.)

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X