Saturday, January 24, 2015

We Who Dared to Say No to War, edited by Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

This is a collection of American anti-war writings, which begins with Daniel Webster arguing on the eve of the War of 1812 that the draft is unconstitutional and ends with Jon Basil Utley arguing in 2007 that the time has come for a “Left-Right” political alliance against war. After reading them and all those in-between, I find myself agreeing with the simple sentiment the authors express in their short introduction.

What the reader of this book will discover is that what we have endured over the past five years in the Iraq campaign is not unusual at all. The history of American wars is littered with propaganda, falsehoods, a compliant media, the manipulation of patriotic sentiment--everything we’ve seen recently, we’ve seen before. Time and again.

Indeed, the reader can pull passages out of many of the essays and speeches annotated in this book, present them in their full context, and completely lose the sense of which particular war is being discussed or railed against. An example:

On our entrance into the war there were many persons who predicted exactly this derangement of values, who feared lest democracy suffer more at home from an America at war than could be gained for democracy abroad. That fear has been amply justified. The question whether the American nation would act like an enlightened democracy going to war for the sake of high ideals, or like a State-obsessed herd, has been decisively answered. The record is written and cannot be erased. History will decide whether the terrorization of opinion, and the regimentation of life was justified under the most idealistic of democratic administrations. It will see that when the American nation had ostensibly a chance to conduct a gallant war, with scrupulous regard to the safety of democratic values at home, it chose rather to adopt all the most obnoxious and coercive techniques of the enemy and of the other countries at war, and to rival in intimidation and ferocity of punishment the worst governmental systems of the age. For its former unconsciousness and disrespect of the State ideal, the nation apparently paid the penalty in a violent swing to the other extreme. It acted so exactly like a herd in its irrational coercion of minorities that there is no artificiality in interpreting the progress of the war in terms of herd psychology. It unwittingly brought out into the strongest relief the true characteristics of the State and its intimate alliance with war…

That was written by Randolph Bourne regarding World War I, but it could just as easily have been written today about the War on Terrorism. The essay it is taken from is, in fact, the essay, famous in libertarian circles, that elsewhere proclaims that war is the “health of the state,” and, in that sense, Bourne is indeed writing about all wars, not just the last one he lived to see.

And there is, in fact, a lot of libertarian fire and brimstone in this volume.

If their object had really been to abolish slavery, or maintain liberty or justice generally, they had only to say: All, whether white or black, who want the protection of this government, shall have it; and all who do not want it, will be left in peace, so long as they leave us in peace. Had they said this, slavery would necessarily have been abolished at once; the war would have been saved; and a thousand times nobler union than we have ever had would have been the result. It would have been a voluntary union of free men; such a union as will one day exist among all men, the world over, if the several nations, so called, shall ever get rid of the usurpers, robbers, and murderers, called governments, that now plunder, enslave, and destroy them.

This from Lysander Spooner, writing at the time of the American Civil War, in which he presents, as many of the other essayists do, the idealized libertarian non-State as the overarching panacea for all of society’s ills--in his case, slavery.

And it is Spooner who, in this volume, first exposes one of Leviathan’s essential tools. The control and devaluation of the money supply. No Federal Reserve Bank existed in 1867, but in railing against the National Debt, Spooner evokes the same accusations of duplicity and perfidy espoused by today’s “End the Fed-ers.”

As long as mankind continue to pay “National Debts,” so called--that is, so long as they are such dupes and cowards as to pay for being cheated, plundered, enslaved, and murdered--so long there will be enough to lend the money for those purposes; and with that money a plenty of tools, called soldiers, can be hired to keep them in subjection.

This provides an illuminating historical perspective for me, who, as of late, has become something of a student of libertarian thought. Unfortunately, the libertarian rhetoric captured here at times drifts into incomprehension, as when David Lipscomb, a Church of Christ minister, writing in 1889, tries to make a biblical case for a voluntary society along libertarian lines.

To the Ruling Authorities of the State of Tennessee:

WHEREAS, A large number of the members of the Churches of Jesus Christ feel a deep sense of the responsibility they are under to recognize the Bible in its teachings, as the only infallible guide and authoritative rule of action, and as being of superior authority to, and more binding upon the subjects of the kingdom of Jesus Christ than any human rules or regulations, they would most respectfully represent.

(1) That they recognize the necessity of the existence of civil government, so long as a considerable portion of the human family fails to submit to the government of God.

(2) That while God demands of his servants that they should submit cheerfully and heartily, to the government under which they may live, in all cases, except when compliance with the requirements of civil government, involves the violation of God’s law, they are deeply impressed with the truth that when there is a conflict between the requirements of civil government and the law of God, the duty of the Christian is, upon peril of his eternal well-being, to obey God first, let the consequences be to him what they may.

There are five more points that follow these first two, but two was enough to twist my mind into illogical knots. If God’s law is superior, then why should we obey man’s? Because God told us to? Why did He do that, if it’s inferior to God’s own law? And not, evidently, when civil government compels action that is contrary to God's law. Who decides that?

But although I don’t agree with every philosophical or political position expressed by every author, there are still some passages that speak powerfully to me--mainly those that address the duplicity and human misery that accompanies war and war-making. The following section from a 1916 speech by Helen Keller is a good example. In it, albeit through her unrepentant socialist ideology, she describes the way people are used and manipulated by a system they are taught and trained to support, thinking that it is responsible for their freedom and liberty.

All the machinery of the system has been set in motion. Above the complaint and din of the protest from the workers is heard the voice of authority.

“Friends,” it says, “fellow workmen, patriots; your country is in danger! There are foes on all sides of us. There is nothing between us and our enemies except the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. Look at what has happened to Belgium. Consider the fate of Serbia. Will you murmur about low wages when your country, your very liberties, are in jeopardy? What are the miseries you endure compared to the humiliation of having a victorious German army sail up the East River? Quit your whining, get busy and prepare to defend your firesides and your flag. Get an army, get a navy; be ready to meet the invaders like the loyal-hearted freemen you are.”

Will the workers walk into this trap? Will they be fooled again? I am afraid so. The people have always been amenable to oratory of this sort. The workers know they have no enemies except their masters. They know that their citizenship papers are no warrant for the safety of themselves or their wives and children. They know that honest sweat, persistent toil and years of struggle bring them nothing worth holding on to, worth fighting for. Yet, deep down in their foolish hearts they believe they have a country. Oh blind vanity of slaves!

The clever ones, up in the high places know how childish and silly the workers are. They know that if the government dresses them up in khaki and gives them a rifle and starts them off with a brass band and waving banners, they will go forth to fight valiantly for their own enemies. They are taught that brave men die for their country’s honor. What a price to pay for an abstraction--the lives of millions of young men; other millions crippled and blinded for life, existence made hideous for still more millions of human beings; the achievement and inheritance of generations swept away in a moment--and nobody better off for all the misery! This terrible sacrifice would be comprehensible if the thing you die for and call country fed, clothed, housed and warmed you, educated and cherished your children. I think the workers are the most unselfish of the children of men; they toil and live and die for other people’s country, other people’s sentiments, other people’s liberties and other people’s happiness! The workers have no liberties of their own; they are not free when they are compelled to work twelve or ten or eight hours a day. They are not free when they are ill-paid for their exhausting toil. They are not free when their children must labor in mines, mills and factories or starve, and when their women may be driven by poverty to lives of shame. They are not free when they are clubbed and imprisoned because they go on strike for a raise of wages and for the elemental justice that is their right as human beings.

It is of course a reminder of how bad worker conditions were at the start of the 20th century, but it is also a dissection of a dynamic that continues in some ways to this day. In yesterday’s worker whipped into a frenzy to fight “the Hun”, I think we can see shades of today’s Tea Partier, voting to curtail the very benefits that support and sustain their way of life.

And indeed, this cry of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” did not begin with World War I. Another famous socialist, Eugene Debs, reminds us…

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose--especially their lives.

And, when necessary, there is conscription to compel what Debs calls the subject class to fight. Although declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, it is difficult to see how conscription--or “the draft”--can be viewed by the authors in this collection as anything but an outrage against the rights of the individual. Libertarian founding father Murray Rothbard gives a typical opinion.

A final word about conscription: of all the ways in which war aggrandizes the State, this is perhaps the most flagrant and most despotic. But the most striking fact about conscription is the absurdity of the arguments put forward on its behalf. A man must be conscripted to defend his (or someone else’s?) liberty against an evil State beyond the borders. Defend his liberty? How? By being coerced into an army whose very raison d’etre is the expunging of liberty, the trampling on all the liberties of the person, the calculated and brutal dehumanization of the soldier and his transformation into an efficient engine of murder at the whim of his “commanding officer”? Can any conceivable foreign State do anything worse to him than what “his” army is now doing for his alleged benefit? Who is there, O Lord, to defend him against his “defenders”?

Some say that every war America has fought was based on a lie. Whether or not that’s the case, there are clearly some who believe they were lied to, and that their support of one of America’s wars was therefore erroneous. One powerful testimonial in the latter case is W. D. Ehrhart, a former U.S. Marine, who delivered the following remarks about his involvement in Vietnam to high school students in 1982.

I was not even drafted; I volunteered. I based my decision on every responsible source of information I had available to me at that time. According to the information I had--information disseminated by my government and all the major news media--Communists from North Vietnam, supported by the Russians and the Chinese, were waging a terrible war of aggression against the free Republic of South Vietnam. Moreover, not only was the freedom of the South Vietnamese at stake, but because Vietnam was part and parcel of the Communist conspiracy ultimately to take over the world, my country’s freedom and my own freedom were at stake. It was something called the Domino Theory.

This was all taking place about the time I was your age, and I believed sincerely that if we did not stop the communists in Vietnam, we would one day have to fight them in San Diego. I had no reason up to that point in my life to doubt either my government or my high school teachers or the New York Times. I believed in my country and its God-given role as leader of the Free World--that it was the finest nation on earth, that its political system and its leaders were essentially good, and that any nation or people who opposed us must be inherently bad. Furthermore, I valued my freedom, and took seriously the notion that I owed something to my country. The draft was already cranking into high gear in the spring of 1966 when I decided to turn down four college acceptances and enlist in the United States Marine Corps. I was 17 years old, nine days out of high school.

What follows in a list of all the actual truths Ehrhart discovered in Vietnam, truths that directly contradicted the information he had been told by his government and in his media, and truths that wound up eroding the esteem in which he held his nation. This, I think, is one of the neglected consequences of war, especially wars fought on false or whitewashed pretenses, and is likely why the anti-war movement was so vigorous during Vietnam.

But there were many who supported the war in Vietnam--just as there have been many who have supported every war America has found itself in. Why people do this is an interesting sociological question, because I think it can be argued reasonably well that very few people actually benefit from most wars. As Lew Rockwell describes in a 2005 essay:

Why the bourgeoisie back war is another matter. It is self-evidently not in their interest. The government gains power at their expense. It spends their money and runs up debt that is paid out of taxes and inflation. It fosters the creation of permanent enemies abroad who then work to diminish our security at home. It heads to the violation of privacy and civil liberty. War is incompatible with a government that leaves people alone to develop their lives in an atmosphere of freedom.

Nonetheless, war with moral themes--we are the good guys working for God and they are the bad guys doing the devil’s work--tends to attract a massive amount of middle-class support. People believe the lies, and, once exposed, they defend the right of the state to lie. People who are otherwise outraged by murder find themselves celebrating the same on a mass industrial scale. People who harbor no hatred toward foreigners find themselves attaching ghastly monikers to whole classes of foreign peoples. Regular middle-class people, who otherwise struggle to eke out a flourishing life in this vale of tears, feel hatred well up within them and confuse it for honor, bravery, courage, and valor.

The libertarian emphasis on individual rights is a frame that is fundamental in understanding Rockwell’s comments--and the comments of many of the other authors in this book. If one does not hold them in pristine primacy, than many of the arguments presented may seem short-sighted or downright daffy.

My own struggle--as it is with many libertarian perspectives showcased in this collection--is not with the viewpoint that war is essentially an immoral endeavor. I believe that it is. Rather, I chafe against the assumption of intentionality that is all-too-often expressed. They, the government, is deliberately deceiving and manipulating us to trick us into fighting their lucrative wars for them. As I may have expressed before, I question how many puppet masters there actually are and how much string pulling they’re actually doing. A more plausible--but far less satisfying to the conspiracy-minded--explanation is that countries fight wars because that’s what countries do. The system that we call our government will inevitably come into conflict with other such systems, and war is the instinctual tool that is has to resolve those conflicts.

Although there have clearly been politicians throughout history who have been much more Machiavellian about the whole affair. As a 2007 essay by Sheldon Richman reminds us:

On their own, people do not go to war, and without compulsion they would never pay for it--they have better things to do with their money. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, understood this: “Of course the people don’t want war … But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it’s a democracy or a fascist dictatorship of a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”

It’s something that even Abraham Lincoln noticed. In 1848, as a member of the House of Representatives, he spoke out against the confusing Mexican War policy of James Polk, accusing him of trying to…

...escape scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory--that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.

Now there’s a man who knew how to turn a phrase.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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