Buying the Farm: A Veteran’s Reflection on Desiring Peace

“You are just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war.” — Robert Heinlein

Recently reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, I ran a cross a common phrase in the military, “He bought the farm.” It is a polite phrase to express the death of a service member in action. While the exact origins of the idiom are in question, it is worth the time to ponder the scope of this expression. It may offer far more meaning than what we first perceive.

One possible origin of this expression is found in military life insurance policies. When a service member dies in war, their family receive a large insurance payment. This payment is often used to pay off the family mortgage. I find the use of this phrase in this context to be rather uplifting. As service members are majority male, this becomes an expression of the fulfillment of the traditionally masculine virtue of providing for one’s family. It reflects not on a moment of failure (being killed by accident or by enemy action) but positive fulfillment of a masculine norm. The phrase is not a negative expression of loss of life but a positive acknowledgement of fulfillment of duty. In short, the phrase asserts the death had meaning. This may assist the surviving service members build meaning the loss of life that can greatly assist in the process of grieving.

“I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.” — George Washington

There is another origin theory that the phrase comes from veterans’ desire to seek peace in nature. Having seen the horrors of war, they seek the small tightknit communities and self-reliance to escape the worst aspect of humanity. It doesn’t take much to find quotes from veterans wanting to return to the healing aspects of nature. They seek comfort in the “honest labor” of working the land. And maybe to find a place to be forgiven for their actions or inactions in war. No long do they desire to be a servant of a nation but their neighbor.

“That night, I thanked God for seeing me through that day of days [D-day, invasion of Normandy] and prayed I would make it through D plus 1. I also promised that if some way I could get home again, I would find a nice peaceful town and spend the rest of my life in peace.” — Richard Winters

In the modern era of smart phones, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle, there is a lot to be said about detaching from our technology to build stronger bonds at home. While we collect “friends” and contacts through the use of social media, we find ourselves utterly lacking the true neighbor that would show up at our doorstep in a time of need. While the reach of our relationships may now span the globe, we long for the depth of relationships that would come to our rescue when needed. For those that grow up and live in little farming communities, find that the harsh reality of the farming profession often leads to deep bonds with their local community. Neighbors become far more than just individuals that live across the property line.

“We will be soldiers, so our sons may be farmers, so their sons may be artists.” — Thomas Jefferson

The self-reliance a farm offers may be the greatest gift of moral courage. How many of us in the modern era find ourselves totally dependent on other for our basic needs such as food and water. Lacking the ability to provide for ourselves, we are truly vulnerable to political and social pressures. We find ourselves backing down when we should be standing up and speaking out. Not many would believe that a garden is a source of moral courage, but yet it is. Without the fear of losing the ability to provide for one’s family, we are free to act with total moral courage in our daily lives. We can interact with those that share our values or, when necessary, reject a broken society.

“Nature itself is the best physician.” — Hippocrates

From Antiquity to the present, philosophers have been writing about the healing aspects of nature. Modern science has confirmed the health benefits from reductions of blood pressure, muscle tension, and heart rate to improvements in emotional wellbeing. Living on a farm also provides better understanding and visibility of the cycle of life. In modern society, we often hide death. Yet it is impossible to hide on a farm. Livestock are born, raised, and slaughtered. Unintended loss of life also occurs. As a result, those that live on farms have the opportunity to frequently reflect on the stages of life. This constant reminder of death and its outright visibility in many ways can help an individual understand their own mortality and reduce their fears of the future.

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” — Douglas McArthur

The exact origin of this phrase may never be discovered. With many other idioms, the meaning they contain can grow over time. Reflecting on the deeper meaning of this phrase gives us the opportunity to explore the hopes and realities of service members.

Reaching the tail end of a military career, I understand the bittersweet meaning of this phrase. It captures both the hope for the future and the tragic reality of hopes unfulfilled. It brings tears to my eyes wishing all those I have known that were lost in war were now living happily on some peaceful farm. Thoughts of having my own small farm often occupy my thoughts. But yet I know that wars are easily kindled and once started have a way of fueling themselves. I pray I have the opportunity to one day fade out of the public eye into a tiny community. But one way or another I will buy the farm.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense or its components.



Franklin C. Annis is a researcher in the fields of military history & education theory. On Twitter @EvolvingWar and

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Franklin Annis

Franklin C. Annis is a researcher in the fields of military history & education theory. On Twitter @EvolvingWar and