The old lie
“You are so, so beautiful”, gushed he.”You lie”, she protested demurely.
“No — that was Horace”
“The Latin poet who declared that it is sweet and honorable to die for the Fatherland”
This is perhaps the only appropriate use of “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — to aid a delicious flirtation. Over the years, it has been used to encourage much carnage, and is accompanied by the glorification of the profession of arms, itself aided by shiny uniforms, schoolboy-pleasing songs, and stylized, rehearsed rituals.
Soldiering, as a profession, commands a high reputation, seen as a bastion against the barbarian, in spite of often being itself used as an instrument of gross injustice and murder.
Are some professions indeed intrinsically better than others? Professions change with time, and some die out. There are alive today those who remember seeing the water-carrier on his rounds — he had a physically strenuous job, carrying potable water from its source to his customers multiple times a day, and, although it was little respected, it was an essential one, extinct now.
The borders between some other professions have become less clearly defined. Our already complex supply chains imply that people with varied skills are involved in almost every significant endeavor, and that not all may be aware of the consequences of the products and services they directly or indirectly support. She who develops algorithms to identify a gathering of humans even from grainy satellite images is perhaps as guilty of cold-blooded murder, or as innocent, as the drone operator who actually clicks the button which releases the thundering missiles onto a crowd of people whose only established crimes are to look dodgy and be foreign. On the other hand, even within a given armed forces, we might find various professions: the veterinarian, the communications expert, the sapper, and the nurse.
The term ‘battlefield’ has little meaning these days, for the battles are fought everywhere — through indoctrination, hacking attacks, bombs in urban areas, and trade sanctions. Similarly, the romantic notion of the guileless warrior defending his wife, hearth and hamlet against the evil stranger has become a piece of fiction. Modern warfare, the vocabulary of which is strewn with collateral damage, Snowden’s revelations of mass espionage, suicide vests, preemptive strikes, energy security, mass rape, and Guantanamo Bay, has little use for emotion — except when it comes to carefully-planned media campaigns, to aid the narrative of a just invasion.
Perhaps we can use money or wealth generation as a metric. However, that would imply that those who enrich themselves through arbitrage and speculation might be at the top, and this might be prima facie reprehensible, especially if we consider that the negative externalities of food insecurity through commodity trading, drug and weapons proliferation, and artificial price manipulation of vital supplies, are starvation, addiction, war, terrorism and death.
Is popularity an appropriate measure? Underwear models, actors, religious leaders, CEOs, professional sport players, commercial musicians, and politicians would be high up on such a list — and that these have feet of clay has been too often proven. What of mathematicians, philosophers and artists — those who work with intangible ideas, and whose orbit of work might exclude many? What of hygiene inspectors, prostitutes and tax accountants — how shall we compare the one to the other?
Perhaps all occupations are necessary, proven by the sheer fact of their existence. The garbage-disposal professional, the lady at the checkout counter, the traveling salesman, the soldier in the training camp — all are needed.
Tentative conclusion: a profession, in itself, does not confer any special status on its members, and it does not absolve them of responsibility for their individual actions.