There has never been a better time to be vegan. From plant-based options popping up at national restaurant chains to faux-leather fashion on the runway, anything you can do, we can do vegan — including go to war?
It sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true: painting itself as plant-based is the new favorite tactic of the international war machine. On January 1, Democratic Majority for Israel made a tweet bragging about the many alternatives to animal products utilized by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in 2020. VegNews, the biggest vegan outlet in the world, rang in the new year with praise of the South Korean military’s recent decision to offer meatless meals to enlistees.
This trend started long before 2021. Though the U.S. military has been reluctant to explicitly appeal to vegans, its enlistees frequently do advertising of their own: PETA shared an interview with a vegan soldier in 2011. VegNews routinely runs articles in praise of militaries around the world, from Switzerland to Finland to, again, Israel. Israel is particularly adept at marketing to vegan tourists, and the IDF has followed suit with its soldiers.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that armed forces around the world are using veganism and environmentalism to appeal to young people. Video games, Hollywood blockbusters, alluring promises of sign-up bonuses and free education: these are recruitment tools of global militaries, and the United States armed forces in particular, that respond to the desires and trends popular with young people. Given that veganism is an increasingly popular movement and one that is both aesthetically appealing and deeply rooted in emotion, it’s a natural choice for the military’s next big marketing campaign. What is surprising, however, is that it appears to be working.
How can one rationalize being vegan and serving in the military? An officer of the British Royal Navy told Forces.net that “veganism fits well with the military ethos and in no ways compromises it.” A member of the U.S. Army told the Guardian that “choosing not to be violent in my everyday life when I don’t have to be is something I wholeheartedly say falls in line with my religious beliefs and military values.” This cognitive dissonance — choosing both a diet that avoids violence and a career in war, and ignoring their incompatibility — is shocking. The only explanation is that the PR and marketing experts enlisted by the U.S. and other militaries are doing their jobs exceptionally well.
There are a million ways to be a good vegan, but joining the military is not one of them. The contradiction between ethical veganism and military service should be obvious: someone who chooses veganism out of respect for animal or human rights should seek to do no harm in all areas of their life, not just their diet. And any role in the military is, by definition, doing harm. Even non-combat roles or jobs in “community-serving” branches like the National Guard still enable the armed forces of the world to continue their reigns of terror, imperialism, and human rights abuse. No matter how many pairs of non-leather boots or portions of meatless rations a member of the military consumes, they are still choosing every day to support violence. Vegans motivated by environmental concerns should also think again before joining the military, as war is one of the biggest contributors to environmental destruction, from greenhouse gas emissions to deforestation to pollution.
This debate is complicated when considering countries with compulsory military service. What should vegans living in these countries do? If a country is forcing its citizens to join its military, isn’t accommodating their lifestyles the least it can do? Putting aside the ethics of mandatory military service in the first place, the most morally correct thing for vegans in this situation to do is to refuse to serve.
Conscientious objection has likely existed as long as war itself, and indeed appears to be finding new life in Generation Z. Just a few days after Democratic Majority for Israel’s tone-deaf tweet, +972 Magazine reported on sixty Israeli teenagers declaring their refusal to complete their mandatory military service and condemning their country’s occupation of Palestine. Conscientious objection should not be taken lightly: it typically results in a prison sentence and could severely impact a young person’s life. But doing the right thing is rarely easy. It is the same principle as forgoing the convenience and taste of animal products, only on a much bigger scale.
Veganism has been steadily on the rise for years, and with close to 10 million vegans in the U.S. alone, it’s clear the plant-based movement is here to stay. As more and more people rethink their consumption of animal products, it is inevitable that the world’s military forces will increasingly use veganism to appear progressive, trendy, and virtuous. My plea to my fellow vegans: don’t fall for it. There is simply no room for war in ethical veganism. Commit fully to nonviolence — toward your fellow humans as well as animals.