When someone uses the term "the military" is it implied they are talking about the military of the current country they are in, or any military? For example I sometimes see on application forms "Have you ever served in the military?" wouldn't it be more correct to have "Have you ever served in a military?" or "the US military"?

Is this an idiom in English that "the" refers to "any" in this context?

Another way to formulate this question: how would one phrase a question if they wanted to know if someone has actively been part of any military, regardless of which country they served for. For example if you were in the US and had a conversation with a man who appeared not to be from there (e.g. he spoke with a Russian accent) would it be more correct to ask "have you ever served in a military?" as it is probable that he hadn't served in the US one.

  • Unless you are a mercenary or in the extraordinarily special forces (mostly for ceremonious or security unit), I don't think there is any country which hires a non-national into their armed forces. In other words, each country has only one military and that's the military.
    – user140086
    Apr 28, 2016 at 11:43
  • 1
    In general, the meaning is context-dependent. On an application form it would be ambiguous, though (if I couldn't ask for clarification) I would take it to mean the US military, as US military service has some implications with regard to employment "preference", etc.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 28, 2016 at 11:44
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    @Rathony yes but an emigrant could have served in his original countries military, therefore the answer to the question "has he served in the military" may be different than "any military".
    – Celeritas
    Apr 28, 2016 at 11:44
  • @Celeritas Well, then it means "the military of a country where you resided before immigration". The answer would be "Yes, in (a country name)".
    – user140086
    Apr 28, 2016 at 11:46
  • @Rathony my father, a Dutch citizen with permanent residency in the US, was subject to the draft during the Vietnam War. American Samoa citizens are not US citizens, yet a high number serve in the US military.
    – user662852
    Apr 28, 2016 at 12:06

3 Answers 3


Its not an idiom. The "the" here is not synonymous with "any". "The" is the definite article. It refers to a specific military. Which one in particular will have to be determined by context. Generally it would be the military of the country you are in, but it may also be the military of the country you are talking about. For instance Americans in America are probably referring to the US Military, but Americans in, say, Thailand might be talking about the Thailand Military.

  • How could it be reworded to mean any military, for example is it good English to say "served in any military"? I guess so but it sounds strange to me.
    – Celeritas
    Apr 28, 2016 at 13:22
  • Actually "served in any military" is perfectly fine. That makes it clear that you don't care which military, as long as it was some branch of some country's armed forces. Doesn't sound strange to me at all.
    – senschen
    Apr 28, 2016 at 13:43

My assumption would be, when seeing this in a United States setting, that most people in the USA do not venture outside of America (aside from vacations and assignments). So by saying "the military", it is referring the United States military and has very high inclusion rate while using as little space as possible.

It's kind of like address information where they ask you street and state, but do not ask country because it's assumed if you are putting state then you are in America.

Real life does not operate with 100% inclusion.

If you were in the Khmer Rouge, I would just leave it at circling Y and not going any further into detail.


"The military" is synonymous with "any military", or "the armed forces", which when viewed this way, would include all of the world's different armed forces.

"Military" can be a plural noun, meaning "all the militaries" ("all the armed forces"), or an adjective, meaning "belonging or relating to an armed force".

This isn't an idiom.

You would say "Have you ever served in the military?" or "Have you ever served in the armed forces?"


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