March 4, 2003
the Real Key to Our Freedom?
been doing a bit of radio lately, sometimes brought on as one of
those curious folks who question this war and should be examined
like a pinned butterfly, sometimes by hosts who seem grateful to
have an antiwar spokesman who doesn't think it all goes back to
Mumia. (Your local station can reach someone to set up bookings
with me and some others through Antiwar.com.) In the process I've
dealt only briefly with a question that deserves more serious consideration.
"Your dissent undermines and shows disrespect
for our soldiers who don't set the policies or decide where they're
going to be sent," say some callers and some hosts. "And
if it weren't for the willingness of our fighting men and women
to put themselves at risk, you wouldn't have the freedom to speak
out and criticize our government the way you do. Don't you think
you should be willing to tone it down a bit out of respect for what
those people are willing to risk on your behalf?"
to disrespect, I don't believe I have ever shown any, at least not
personally – although others may certainly interpret what I do or
say differently. Since the end of conscription, those who have joined
the armed forces have done so as a matter of personal choice, and
there's no reason for any American to disrespect or denigrate those
choices. They knew those choices entailed risk and the evidence
is that few shrink from that risk; those who have criticized the
idea of war with Iraq tend to be retired military people, usually
from the upper ranks.
Those being deployed seem to have the same kinds
of apprehension, eagerness and ambivalence that soldiers about to
experience combat have had for centuries. For the most part they
are dealing with the prospect of doing their duty bravely and with
It's impossible, of course, to know for sure how
many were influenced by the kind of recruiting techniques the military
still uses in its TV ads – promoting the idea that this is "an
army of one" where you can experience personal development
and gain skills that will give you a good career later in life rather
than emphasizing being sent into a kill-or-be-killed environment.
We might find out later that a reasonably hefty
percentage were quietly shocked or disappointed, figuring they wouldn't
be called into a real war. But they are brave and they no doubt
believe they are doing the right thing. Considering what a rotten
ruler Saddam Hussein is, that's not all that difficult a belief
for whether criticism of administration war plans undermines the
capacity of Americans in the military services to do their jobs,
I find this concern a bit overblown. A time might come when antiwar
protesters try physically to block troop trains or prevent military
units from moving about or receiving supplies. But it hasn't happened
were a couple of efforts to disrupt military mobility back in the
Vietnam war, but they were generally short-lived and not especially
effective. If anything, they might have steeled the resolve of military
people and those who supported them. In addition, it was genuinely
if modestly potentially dangerous for the protesters, and was difficult
to sustain. Given that this war is likely to be over fairly quickly
– at least the outright battle part of it if not the subsequent
occupation – that kind of physical effort to disrupt military
activities is unlikely.
be sure, during the latter stages of the Vietnam War there were
instances of military people being treated rudely and more. Some
Americans called military people "baby killers" or worse,
insulted them or spat upon them. I found that indefensible at the
time, and I hope if it happens in the near future that I will be
one of the first to criticize it. We can make our points without
But even if the war stretches on for a considerable
period of time, it is unlikely that healthy and even vigorous dissent
will actually undermine what the military are doing. The "human
shields" in Iraq might complicate tactics, though I suspect
few of them will hang around when bullets and grenades are flying.
I talk regularly with a former Navy Seal who thinks
I'm just naive and unrealistic to be so dead-set against this war.
Interestingly, however, while he thinks the antiwar protesters are
bozos, he is most dismissive of those few who turn out in counterdemonstrations
with "Support Our Troops" signs. "That might be mildly
helpful to a 90-day recruit," he sniffs, "but those who
are well-trained and professional don't need a few housewives and
retirees to make themselves feel useful with a few signs. It's almost
insulting to think our military would need that."
I was at a conference last week where ABC-TV veteran
Sam Donaldson spoke, and the subject of aggressive war reporting
that might tip off the enemy about plans or tactics came up. He
argued, as have others, that those who raise this possibility can't
come up with a single instance of a U.S. war reporters reporting
planned troop movements or the like that would put U.S. troops in
jeopardy. I've never heard of such an incident; if anything, once
war starts correspondents tend to identify almost solely with those
on the ground and to take a long time before they let their critical
faculties have any reign at all. By "embedding" reporters
in military units, the Pentagon seems set to reinforce this tendency
and make instances of critical reporting difficult and rare.
If even fairly aggressive reporting is unlikely
to undermine U.S. military efforts, a few protests back home – or
even a massive antiwar movement – are unlikely to undermine them
to any appreciable degree. You might argue that antiwar activities
give some solace to enemy soldiers and might improve their morale;
while morale is important, however, military engagements are usually
decided by force, personnel and equipment. The goal of such protests
is generally not to undermine or denigrate military people in the
field, but to try to reach their civilian masters or higher-ups.
The willingness to do so might even serve as a reminder that America
is still the relatively free and contentious place that makes it
for the big question. Has it really been the willingness of American
fighting men and women that makes it possible for those of us who
have different opinions from the mainstream – or from the government,
which is not necessarily the same thing – to speak out? The question
is seldom dealt with critically.
The underlying assumption of such a question is
that without the various wars in which this countries has engaged
it would have been overrun by some other government that would have
suppressed freedom of speech and a lot of other liberties. That's
a rather shaky assumption.
Perhaps you could argue it in the case of World
War II, when the major enemy in Europe was the totalitarian Nazi
regime. Although there are perfectly respectable historians and
analysts, completely untainted by anti-Semitism or Nazi sympathies,
who make the case that it was unnecessary or harmful to American
liberties to get involved in World War II, let's give that argument
the benefit of the doubt.
Even if it is true that U.S. intervention was necessary
to ensure the defeat of Nazism as an armed ideology, it does not
necessarily follow that without such intervention the Nazis would
eventually have taken over America and imposed their ideology. They
would probably have been a persistent threat to be watched, but
one of the more unattractive aspects of Nazism was precisely its
Eurocentrism. Hitler might well have lusted for world domination,
but would he have been able to conquer the United States after conquering
Europe? If he could have achieved a military victory on United States
soil, would he have been able to implant Nazism? These are at least
But let the advocates of the Good War have that
one. There is one example of a war whose loss – and perhaps the
failure to fight – might have led to the imposition of more controls
on the United States by a foreign power.
You could also argue that the communists, with
whom the West conducted a long twilight struggle, also lusted, perhaps
more than Hitler, after world domination. Even if you accept that,
however, it's difficult to argue that failure to intervene in Vietnam,
for example, would have led to the triumph of communism and subsequent
restrictions on civil liberties in the continental United States.
In fact, given that communism eventually crumbled from within and
was kept in check for decades by the strategy of containment that
involved only occasional brushfire wars, you could argue that our
liberties were better protected by a decision not to wage an all-out
war with the Soviet Union.
Look at the brushfire wars of recent times. Was
it the American tradition of free speech being endangered that made
it necessary to intervene in Grenada or Panama? Was the First Amendment
at stake when U.S. troops were sent to Lebanon or Somalia or Bosnia
or Kosovo? Would failure in any of those wars – or failure to send
troops – have had any deleterious impact on American liberties?
DANGER TO LIBERTIES
we need to look at the other side of the ledger. The most comprehensive
case regarding the United States in the 20th century
was made in Robert Higgs' 1984 book, Crisis
and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government.
In it, Higgs argues that times of crisis, but mainly wars, give
government license to invoke emergency powers, increase the size
of departments and the number of bureaucrats available to harass
us and eat out our substance, all of which limits American liberties.
After the crisis or war is over, government power
recedes somewhat, but never returns to its original limits. Thus
a "ratchet effect" is set in motion whereby each subsequent
crisis leads to further growth of government and diminution of liberty.
I count larger government, which requires more taxes, as a diminution
of liberty since it constricts our choices, but I know not everybody
does. The restrictions are always more concrete and specific, and
once they are in place they become accepted, which Higgs calls a
forced change in ideology.
Debs was imprisoned during the First World War (sadly called the
Great War at the time but dwarfed by subsequent conflicts) for speaking
out against war, and many were intimidated (though all too many
intellectuals turned courtier readily enough). Every war has brought
on calls for limits on the freedom of speech and expression and
some actual limits. Every war has brought on forced allocation of
resources. Some have led to conscription, which some of us call
selective slavery. And it is precisely in time of crisis, when the
three-part division of labor among branches of government, the system
that's supposed to protect us from overweening power from any one
branch, should be most active, becomes less protective. The courts
tend to roll over and let the executive have its way during wars
As Mr. Higgs wrote recently for the Independent
Institute, during World War II "the government built an awesome
command economy, suspending many individual rights. Ten million
men were conscripted. The Supreme Court refused even to review challenges
to the draft. Some 110,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them
American citizens and not one of them proven guilty of a crime,
were herded into concentration camps, losing their liberty and sustaining
property losses estimated at some $400 million. All quite constitutional,
said the justices.
Raw materials and plants were allocated by government
order; production facilities, sometimes entire industries, were
seized and operated by the government; many consumer goods were
rationed. None of thee actions elicited so much as a ruling from
the Supreme Court." After the war most of the emergency wartime
statutes were repealed, but more than 100 wartime statutes remained
in place and the draft carried over into peacetime and eventually
came to be seen as "normal" by most Americans.
you doubt that Americans have lost liberty in large part because
of the wars our government chose to involve us in during the 20th
century? Consider this:
1914 an American could pass through life without ever being particularly
aware of any branch of the government except the post office. He
or she could travel abroad without any need of a passport or permission
from the government. Immigrants arrived with virtually no restrictions
except tests for infectious diseases. There were no country quotas
or overall quotas for immigrants, and no necessity for any immigrant
to report to any government official once here. Tariffs were low
and were used for revenue only, not for reinforcing foreign or economic
policy. There was no income tax. The national government paid no
attention whatsoever to foreign currency exchanges and had almost
no influence on the economy.
Most Americans today would view such freedoms as
quite unusual, and many would see them as alarming. Any serious
effort to restore all those freedoms that Americans once took for
granted would be seen by most Americans and certainly most of the
media as dangerously radical. These changes in attitudes – from
regarding the freedoms described above as perfectly normal and taken
for granted to viewing them as potentially subversive – represents
a massive ideological change in America.
Yet while the era from 1865 to 1914 was hardly
utopian, the problems associated with the era were almost invariably
not due to the "excessive" freedom. And this period saw
the flowering of the industrial revolution, the filling in of much
of the West, and steady increases not only in the national economy
but in personal incomes. Inflation was virtually absent. In terms
of the number of hours needed to be worked to be able to acquire
various goods and services, the prices of almost everything declined
fairly steadily during this period. Not perfect, not idyllic, but
and courtiers often want to articulate lofty ideals for which military
people are called to fight. But even as there are no atheists in
foxholes, there are few avatars of lofty ideals either. Thousands
of war memoirs have told us that while those in the trenches or
on the front lines might have a larger care for American ideals,
when the bullets start flying you are fighting not for your country
or even your neighborhood or your family, but for your buddies,
for those with whom you share the dangers and occasional glories
of war. Insofar as lofty ideals might lead you to lose focus on
the task at hand, they can even get you killed.
As a practical matter, soldiers are sent to battle
not to further specifically the lofty goals of democracy and liberty
about which most Americans (and most servicepeople) really do care,
but to serve the interests of those who are in effective power at
that moment. The interests and concerns may be roughly contiguous
with the interests of the country at large, but seldom at all points,
and seldom with the more abstract demands of concepts like liberty.
And sometimes the leaders may be at odds either with the short-term
interests of the general population or with the more long-term interests
of advancing and protecting personal liberty.
Insofar as wars almost always lead to some limitations
on liberty, some of which will become more or less permanent, you
could make a respectable case that by engaging in war American servicepeople
are actually engaging in the systematic limitation of American liberties.
Few of them look at it that way, and some might even quit if they
became convinced that was what they were about. It isn't those in
uniform who limit liberties, however, but their political commanders.
the very least, then, the notion that the goal of American servicepeople
fighting abroad is to protect our liberty – and that those
who question their missions unwittingly undermine or put at risk
or abuse their own liberty – is nowhere near so obvious as
the keepers of our civic religion would have it.
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