To many war seems glorious, which is to say that people are often envious of the soldiers who fought in justified wars, like the first and second world war. Partly this could be because of the dramatic music they play during war documentaries. But I suspect the feeling has other roots as well. Specifically I think it has its basis, in part, in peoples’ longing to have a meaningful life. As I described previously we might mean any one of a number of things by a meaningful life. But one of those things is to be part of something larger. And a war is definitely something larger.
But of course we don’t feel the same way about an office worker, even though they too are part of something larger. I think this is because of the perceived importance of the war. A company is important to some people at some times, but it isn’t important to everyone, and it isn’t usually remembered as being important after it has gone out of business. In contrast wars seem more important. Everyone is affected by the outcome of the war, and the war is remembered for a long time. Thus the war seems really significant, and thus the people who participated in it may be seen as important too, via their contribution to something of real importance.
Now we could debate whether the contributions of a single soldier really contribute enough to the war as a whole to make the average individual soldiers important, but let us just grant that this is the case. A more interesting question to ask is whether it makes sense to be envious of them. In other words, we might grant that individual soldiers are important in some sense, but that leaves open the question of whether their lives are desirable. Is the life of a soldier really a good life, or are their lives really no better, on average, than ours?
Let us set aside the possibility that going to war has some beneficial secondary effects on the character of the individual person (for example, making them more self reliant). These secondary benefits may lead to living a better life after the war is over, but considering them here is a distraction from the real question. First of all we have no way of determining what those secondary benefits are. And secondly we could very well have those character traits already, or the ability to acquire them through different means, and could still ask whether going to war is part of a life that is more likely to be a good one.
Given that we are setting those secondary effects aside the only thing that matters about being a soldier is whether it gives the individual what they want out of life, or, in other words, satisfies their desires. Now it could be that someone wants to be part of something that is universally recognized as important, and a war is one of the few things that is. Or someone may deeply desire to defeat that particular enemy. In their case then being a soldier may be an essential part of leading a good life. However, I do not think most of us share these desires. Certainly most people don’t wish be part of the defeat of some foreign nation. It may seem more plausible to hold that many people want to be part of something important, but I think this is a bit of a misjudgment. I think people want to be recognized as important, not just to be part of something important. Now let us assume that being part of a war does actually make you important. Even so it will not help you in being recognized as important; most soldiers who participate in the war are basically anonymous, only a select few end up featured in documentaries. On the other hand this does explain, to some extent, why people envy soldiers; because the soldiers they hear about are, by being remembered, recognized as being important. But this is a misconception; for most people becoming a soldier will not result in them being remembered as important.
So, for most of us, it seems reasonable to conclude that going to war will not in fact help us lead the good life. And in turn this means that it isn’t rational to be envious of soldiers. Going to war wouldn’t help us fulfill our desires, and actually reduces our chances of satisfying them, since it is rather hard to satisfy your desires when you are dead. Of course we might still admire soldiers, just as we admire anyone who sacrifices in order to give us something. But, despite admiring them, it seems foolish to want to switch places with them, unless you want to be the kind of person who is admired in general (instead of being admired as an individual).