Friday, August 30, 2013

Are They Syrious Part 2: The Crucial Variance

Quite a few correspondents have brayed nonsense at me for the previous essay. That's normal here at Liberty's Torch; certain...persons have made it their avocation, at the very least, to heap abuse on our commentators, myself especially, in the hope of silencing us. No, it doesn't work. But such individuals are hardly the quickest learners of our species.

Today's exercise in seeing the obvious -- remember what that word really means? -- concerns the observable divergence between the attitudes of sitting executives and legislators and those of private citizens when there arises a temptation to take the nation to war. It's a gap whose explanation has become imperative.

"Nations will go to war whenever there is a prospect of getting anything by it." -- John Jay

War, like other human activities, is conducted for a purpose. The purpose of a war -- any war -- is to impose the dictates of the government of one nation upon the government and people of another nation. The identities of the governments involved are utterly irrelevant.

Private citizens tend to grasp this at once, even if it must be articulated to them and for them. Politicians, supposedly more knowledgeable and insightful about the decisions of governments than are we groundlings, tend to bridle at the suggestion. They'll "yes, but" it to death: qualify it, talk around it, and in some cases dismiss it entirely. The reason was encapsulated perfectly by early 20th Century peace activist Randolph Bourne:

"War is the health of the state."

A war -- any war -- magnifies:

  • The importance of political maneuverings;
  • The government's control over economic intercourse, both domestic and international;
  • The subordination of private decisions to the decisions of the government.

Thus, whatever "objective" or "humanitarian" reasons a politician might advance for entering some war, he has at least three more than those of which he's willing to speak.

Let that sink in for a moment while I put up another pot of coffee.

"He Kept Us Out Of War" -- Woodrow Wilson's 1916 re-election campaign slogan.
"Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." -- Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The "prospect of getting anything by it" of which John Jay spoke was externally focused. But then, Jay was a politician, one of the three principal authors of the pro-strong-centralized-government Federalist Papers. He went on from the Founding to pursue (unsuccessfully) the governorship of New York, and eventually became the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was unlikely to state explicitly what every politician and aspirant to high office has known since the birth of the nation-state.

Many a nation has heard its rulers pound the war drums for reasons of the rulers' own. Indeed, in modern history, the overwhelmingly most frequent and most imperative reason for warfare has been to distract the subjects of a nation from their domestic troubles. That the distraction will be accompanied by the expansion of state power and control is not lost on those who promote war so avidly. With the sole exception of Operation Just Cause, initiated by Bush the Elder to remove Manuel Noriega from power over the republic of Panama, America's 20th Century insertions into wars occurred under America's most statist presidents:

  • Woodrow Wilson (World War I)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt (World War II)
  • Harry Truman (Korean War)
  • John F. Kennedy (early involvement in Vietnam)
  • Lyndon Johnson (continuing and greatly intensifying involvement in Vietnam)

Those wars were all but uniform in promoting the expansion of the federal government. Indeed, the sole exception, as stunning as it might seem, was the Vietnam War. That war is distinguished by having been ended inconclusively, by armistice, during the Administration of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon was the president who withdrew 90% of America's military manpower from Vietnam, forced the North Vietnamese to the conference table with Operation Rolling Thunder, and put a de facto end to military conscription, the favorite policy of Democrats from Woodrow Wilson onward.

It's difficult to argue that America was serving any American interest with its insertion into World War I, Korea, Vietnam, or Panama. World War II is distinguished from the others by virtue of the Pearl Harbor attack and Hitler's declaration of war on the U.S. in solidarity with his Japanese ally. However, FDR agitated for American involvement in World War II in many ways, seeing it as an avenue to the alleviation of America's domestic economic troubles. There are indications that, had America not experienced Pearl Harbor, he would have contrived to get us involved in the conflict in some other way.

All those wars brought about an increase in the size, power, and intrusiveness of the federal government. Would any Gentle Reader care to argue that that our political class found that outcome uncongenial?

Whoever thinks over earnestly and objectively this question of a general disarmament, and considers it in its remotest contingencies, must come to the conviction that it is a question which cannot be solved so long as men are men, and States are States. -- Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free. -- Sir John Slessor

Americans take a just pride in our nation's magnificent military, and in its record of achievement in the conflicts it has faced. Yet we complain bitterly about the loss of individual freedom we've suffered this century past. The connection is there to see for anyone who cares to look. Robert Higgs's fine book Crisis and Leviathan provides a comprehensive tour of the process by which our wars have progressively shackled us ever more straitly.

This is not an argument against ever going to war. War is sometimes forced upon a nation; when that occurs, it must respond with force and resolve. Similarly, there are American interests, such as the freedom of the seas and the inviolability of Americans' extraterritorial possessions, that can sometimes be protected only by warfare. Finally, we do have defensive alliances with other nations; an attack upon one of those nations compels us to enter the fray both morally -- we did promise -- and practically -- if we default on our given word, we would forfeit all international credibility.

But with any decision to go or not to go to war, we must learn to ask, openly and stridently, Who would benefit? We must return to putting American interests -- military, economic, Constitutional, and international -- ahead of all others. And we must be unsparing in cross-examining our political masters, whose motives for their decisions are never made entirely plain...on the subject of warfare as on every other.


lelnet said...

"Thus, whatever 'objective' or 'humanitarian' reasons a politician might advance for entering some war, he has at least three more than those of which he's willing to speak."

More to the point, even if those three are not properly counted among his _motives_, they nevertheless remain among the eminently forseeable (and indeed effectively certain) consequences of the course he advocates. Whether they are side-effects or primary effects is immaterial to any question of consequence except, perhaps, the eventual state of his immortal soul.

bobn said...

"All ... wars brought about an increase in the size, power, and intrusiveness of the federal government."

We've always been at war with Eastasia