Declaring Our Independence From War

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

It’s Independence Day in America, so it seems like a good day to declare our independence from the insanity of war.

Sadly, since the presidency of George W. Bush if not before, it’s become routine for U.S. commanders-in-chief to boast of having the world’s finest military in all of history. Obama did it routinely, and Biden recently said the same during his disastrous debate with Trump. Few Americans stop to think about the implications of boasting about having the world’s greatest military – is such a boast truly consistent with democracy, liberty, and freedom?

Certainly, empires rely on strong militaries. Think of the Roman Empire or the Mongol Empire, or the Third Reich (Empire) of Nazi Germany. Do we want to be like them?

Those empires lived by the sword (quite literally so with the Roman Empire) and died by it as well. Their militaries, I would argue, were also more effective than the U.S. one, which hasn’t won a major war since 1945, the latter with a lot of help from our “friends” like the Soviet Union. The Roman, Mongol, and German empires are no more, worn down in part through the constant costs and demands of war. We need to learn more from history than the “fact” that America’s military is supposedly the world’s best since forever and a day ago.

I’ve been reading Oriana Fallaci’s Nothing, and So Be It, in which she recounted her time reporting on the Vietnam War. Two conversations with U.S. troops in Vietnam caught my attention. On pages 22-23, she recounts a conversation with Army Captain Scher, during which Scher confesses his disgust with war:

God, how disgusting war is. Let me say it – I’m a soldier. People who enjoy making war, who find it glorious and exciting, must have twisted minds. There’s nothing glorious, nothing exciting; it’s just a filthy tragedy you can only cry over. You cry for the man you refused a cigarette to and who didn’t come back with the patrol. You cry for the man you bawled out and who is blown to pieces in front of you. You cry for the man who killed your friends…

Later in the book, she interviews a Marine Lieutenant whose surname is Teanek (pages 174-75). Here’s what he had to say:

Teanek: “Men have been saying that [we should abolish war] for thousands of years, and with the justification that they’re abolishing war, they’ve soaked the greatest periods of their civilization in blood.”

Fallaci: “That’s no good reason to keep on doing it.”

Teanek: “Theoretically, you’re right, but in practice what you’re saying is very silly. It’s like convincing yourself – as I bet you do – that when you describe people dying in war you’re helping to abolish war. On the contrary. The more you see people who’ve been killed in war, the more you want to go on fighting wars: it’s a mystery of the human soul.”

It is indeed “a mystery of the human soul” why we humans persist in killing each other in such vast numbers through war. Of course, it’s partly because we glorify it, when we should recognize, as Fallaci does on page 187, that “War is a madhouse.”

One of my favorite scenes in any war film came in The Big Red One, a World War II movie by Samuel Fuller starring Lee Marvin as a grizzled Army sergeant of the 1st Infantry Division. It’s a scene in which U.S. troops liberate an insane asylum.

The unforgettable part of this scene for me is when one of the madhouse residents picks up a submachine gun and starts blasting away, crying “I am one of you. I am sane!”

We need to declare our independence from that.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.