Thomas Paine on War and Empire

This past weekend, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the JCS, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria for another few years, ostensibly to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and that troops would also continue to fight the Afghan War for several years to come. This should have been been big news, but in an America now distracted by a public impeachment circus, endless wars are greeted with a collective shrug within the media.

Thomas Paine would not have been happy. Famously outspoken for writing “Common Sense” at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Paine had some choice words about war and empire that Americans would do well to read and heed today.

“If there is a sin superior to every other,” Paine wrote, “it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of Hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”

Paine then wrote that “We leave it to England and Indians [allied with England] to boast of these honors; we feel no thirst for such savage glory; a nobler flame, a purer spirit animates America.”

Imagine an America today that felt no thirst for the savage glory of war!

Paine supported only defensive wars, for Freedom and against Tyranny, as he put it. Remind me how keeping troops in Syria to secure oil is a just war for freedom? Remind me how prolonging the Afghan War (now in its 18th year) by several more years is necessary for America’s defense and in the cause of freedom?

Paine further had choice words for empires that were foolish enough to wage ruinous wars far from home. Naturally, he had Britain most in mind:

“If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain … Bless’d with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished by a vast extension of dominion with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘Thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get; –like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodagality [sic] sake.”

Making war our sport while idolizing our “thunderous” military – isn’t that an apt description of much of US foreign policy for the past few decades?

But Paine wasn’t finished. He made a dire prediction:

“All countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.”

No empire lasts forever – certainly not one that engages in endless and largely pointless wars. Paine warned Britain about the high costs of war with America and how British forces were fated to lose, and he was right.

In a country that supposedly respects and even worships its Founders, isn’t it time Americans listened to Thomas Paine on the horrors of war and the perils of empires blinded by power and greed?

End the wars, America. Bring our troops home. And restore freedom to our land.

Quotations from Paine are from “The American Crisis” as published in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, pp. 108, 165-66, written originally in 1777 and 1778.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at wastore@pct.edu. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.