Every Veterans Day, I try to do something special
to remember or honor a veteran. I don't like the standard flag-waving event
that this day has become for many people. In many Veterans Day speeches, the
speakers talk about the hundreds of thousands of American veterans who gave
their lives for our freedom. The problem with that is twofold: (1) Very few
of those who were killed in war literally gave their lives but instead had
their lives ripped away, and (2) very few of them fought for our freedom. So
my tribute this time is to a veteran who did not give his life and knew that
he wasn't fighting for our freedom. That veteran is Richard H. Timberlake,
Dick Timberlake, who has become a personal friend, is a fairly
well-known monetary economist and a veteran of World War II. Timberlake's
Never Saw Me Then is his account of his time in World War II, first
training to be a pilot in the United States and then being a co-pilot of a
B-17 on bombing raids over Germany. The book ends with his being wounded in
one such raid and then recuperating in hospitals in England and the United
States. The title of his book, he explains, comes from the thought that he
and his buddies had about their wish for various friends, relatives, and "enemies":
"Boy, if they could see me now." But because they couldn't see him
then, he writes, his recourse is to tell the story himself. He tells it well.
One thing that is clear throughout the book is that Dick Timberlake had one
main goal during the war: to preserve the life of Dick Timberlake. And, he
points out, this was the norm. He quotes from Arthur Hoppe, a journalist for
the San Francisco Chronicle: "I suppose there were a few in World
War II who were fighting for freedom or democracy, but in my three years in
the Navy I never met one of them. … [W]e were fighting to stay alive. And that
is the true horror of war."
Arthur Hoppe, writes Timberlake, "had it right."
But if this is how everyone thought, what makes Timberlake's book special?
Not mainly that he's a good writer, but that he is willing to speak out about
the horror of war. It helps, also, that Timberlake is a free-market economist
who understands the harmony that markets lead to and the chaos and destruction
that war causes.
We often hear about soldiers in World War II trying to go after Hitler. But
Timberlake recognizes the reality. He writes:
"All of my fellow airmen and I knew that Hitler and his henchmen were
atrocious and loathsome examples of the human race. Yet, any U.S. soldier or
airman who thought even briefly about his job of trying to kill and destroy
'the enemy,' knew that he was not within range of damaging Hitler and other
Nazi leaders. We could not reach their personal environments or influence their
decisions; our activities were many magnitudes removed from hurting them. We
could only chip away at the peripheries of their domain and hope that they
would realize the futility and fallacy of their ways. To do so, we had to try
and kill our enemy counterparts with whom we had no personal quarrel at all.
We aimed our bombs at their strategic war-making industries and infrastructure,
but in the process we knew that we could not avoid hitting churches, schools,
and innocent people. Many of us thought that a better way must exist. Fifty-six
years later, I still think so."
Reading the line about killing counterparts with whom he had no personal quarrel,
I thought of a vignette I read years ago:
General: "Men, we're surrounded, but the enemy has the same number of
soldiers we do. So some man out there is going to try to kill you, and your
job is to kill him first."
Private: "General, could you point to the man you want me to kill? I
believe that he and I can make another arrangement."
Timberlake gives a pithy statement of the essence of war: "War is the
mutual destruction of capital, both human and non-human."
Timberlake also recognizes the cause of war. He writes:
"Finally, in their external affairs governments must resist any temptation
to intervene in the affairs of other peoples. It takes a government to wage
a war. So governments must take the same oath of nonintervention – live-and-let-live
– with other governments as each individual observes with other individuals.
The model for this point-of-view is the political system the Founding Fathers
put together when they wrote the Constitution of the United States."
So what do we owe our veterans on this Veterans Day and, indeed, on all days?
Timberlake has an answer:
"Surely, if societies owe anything to the veterans of former wars
and the innocent soldiers and people destroyed in these catastrophes, it is
a responsibility to avoid further warfare by every practicable means. So far
as I can see from my vantage point, societies and governments are not following
my simple prescription – or any other effective strategy – for preventing wars
of all varieties. In not doing so, they are betraying the trust that my wartime
colleagues, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and I reposed
Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint
should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.