Left and Right Against War

News Abroad

Mr. Polner is HNN's chief book editor.

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.  We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”--General Omar Bradley

“Canada must be ours [say the war hawks]. We have nothing to do but to march into Canada and display the standard of the U.S., and the Canadians will immediately flock to it.”--Rep. Samuel Taggart, whose antiwar article during the War of 1812 revealed how similar the prowar arguments then were as false as they were before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The United States of America is historically addicted to war, more so than ever today with its vast “national security” apparatus, almost one thousand  military bases, and a nation torn between those who believe in military intervention for humanitarian causes and those who extol wars as a way of maintaining the country’s worldwide hegemony. Now we are faced with endless wars in the Middle East while the drums are beating for war against Iran in Washington, Jerusalem and western European capitals.

Several years ago Thomas Woods, Jr. asked me to collaborate with him in a book we titled We Who Dared Say No To War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now  (Basic Books). We intended to portray a broad American antiwar tradition often absent from classrooms, films, TV and the new media. Tom is a libertarian and conservative and I a left liberal and believer in nonviolent activism. We differ on some things but not on our opposition to our nation’s reliance on war and conquest -- not to mention our mutual support for civil liberties.

We have no illusions that our book can deter contemporary warmakers or outwit the fabrications and manipulations of governments and propagandists past and present. We were (and are) instead motivated by the hope that arguments for war should be critically examined as the men and women of different political persuasions we quote in the book have done. As we wrote:  We intend the book to be a “surprising and welcome change from the misleading liberal-peace/conservative-war dichotomy that the media and our educational establishment and popular culture have done so much to foster.”

During our efforts to find appropriate, acute, essays, speeches and documents, I turned to Americans who had shaped my own thoughts about war: Randolph Bourne, the physically handicapped prophet who died far too young at age 32 but memorably wrote that “war is the health of the state"; Robert A. Taft, bitterly assailed as an isolationist—in truth, he was very suspicious about military interventions --- who rightly condemned the undeclared entry into the Korean War, where some 38,000 GIs died, many more were wounded in body and mind and several million Korean civilians were killed, saying “the President has no right to involve the United States in a foreign war"; Russell Kirk, the founder of postwar American conservatism urging “a policy of patience and prudence” against “preventive war” and decrying how “A handful of individuals…made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; and a man I proudly voted for in 1972, George McGovern who publicly excoriated his senatorial prowar colleagues by saying each of them was “partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave." This chamber,” said this onetime WWII bomber pilot unforgettably, “reeks of blood,” adding as well, Edmund Burke’s cautionary words: “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.”

 Unsurprisingly, we found that the same arguments used in all our wars are still used. We began with Daniel Webster’s speech in December 1814 after the war hawks (the term was coined during America’s aggressive war to capture Canada) urged a draft: “Where is it written in the Constitution,” he asked, “in what article or section is it contained, that you make take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly of the wickedness of Government may engage it?”

During our war of aggression against Mexico in 1846-48 we found the abolitionist William Goodell who called President Polk’s invasion a “war for slavery.” And many others:  Rep. Abraham Lincoln’s denunciation of the Mexican War, describing Polk’s war message as “the half-mumbling of a fever dream,” and Polk a “bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.” Before the U.S. entered WWI,  Eugene Debs, the Socialist labor leader, spoke truth to power:  It is “the working class who freely shed their bloods and furnish the corpses”--his words a crime in Woodrow Wilson’s eye and for which Debs received a ten year prison sentence.  Senator George Norris, the progressive Republican from Nebraska (the Midwestern states once had many such Republican politicians) who condemned U.S. entry into WWI and their advocates: “Their object in having war and in preparing for war is to make money” (117,000 GIs died in the war and 206,000 were wounded). Think, too, of contemporary war profiteers who have made so much money in Iraq and Afghanistan while a threatened war with Iran promises untold riches as well). War is a racket, angrily said Norris. And we noted the hysteria generated during the Cold War, a frenzy which consistently and deliberately exaggerated Soviet military capabilities while frightening many Americans. (See, for example, the declassified documents released in September 2009 by George Washington University’s private National Security Archive.)

 Tough words, echoed by so many men and women (Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, Rep. Barbara Lee, Gold Star mothers, etc.) whose words we rescued from obscurity. Had we had the room we would also have written about the military decimation of our Native American tribes and the habitual interference in the affairs of Caribbean and Central American states.

What we learned in writing this book was that lies, deliberate manipulation of patriotic feelings, scare tactics, a compliant, often indifferent media, and bribery of legislators kept and keeps the war machine oiled and too many decision makers in clover. Virtually everything heard in the past is still heard today. We quoted William Jay’s observation after the invasion of Mexico: “We have been taught to ring our bells, and illuminate our windows and let off fireworks as manifestations of our joy, when we have heard of great ruin and devastation, and misery, and death, inflicted by our troops upon a people who never injured us, who never fired a shot on our soil and who were utterly incapable of acting on the offensive against us.” And we concluded, “Everything we’ve seen recently, we’ve seen before. Time and again.”

In the end, I have personal favorites: William Graham Sumner, an irascible Yale academic who opposed the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars and the nation’s growing appetite for imperial conquest and world power; Marine Commandant David Shoup, who said of our Vietnam adventure, “Let’s Mind Our Business"; W.D. Ehrhart, a combat Marine veteran of Vietnam, who enlisted at age 18 and years later told students at a Pennsylvania school, “I am no longer convinced that what I owe to my country is military service whenever and wherever my government demands it…if I owe something to my country, my country also owes something  to me…it owes us the obligation not to ask for our lives unless it is absolutely necessary"; Howard Zinn, WWII bombardier turned pacifist,  who argues, “We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, other imperial powers of world history” and instead “assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation”;  libertarian  Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr.’s (editor of LewRockwell.com) for writing, “Do we reject war and all its works? We do reject them”; and especially, Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam War veteran, Boston University professor, and father of a son killed in Iraq, whose distressing “I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose; We Were Both Doing Our Duty” is unforgettable. 

Our book will not change the course of history. Still, it reflects our mission, our passion—to encourage debate and discussion, especially in our nation’s classrooms as well as among our compatriots, now drowning in a mass culture that celebrates trivia, “amusing themselves to death” in the late Neil Postman’s incisive words.  Tom Woods and I would like to encourage an alternative patriotism that does not goes abroad every few years to seek and destroy real and imagined “enemies” while sacrificing a new generation of our young.

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 10/12/2009

<Whither the world if the US had not "maintain[ed] the country’s worldwide hegemony" during the Cold War?>
Apocalyptic inferences are back, aren't they?
Oops sorry, but in this country they have never really subsided...
One major reason is 'cause American societal principles are not actually democratic but theocratic ones corrected and amended for the reign of her Highness/Goddess - Private Property.
The second major reason is 'cause they (those inferences) serve as one of the best and surest excuses, domestically, for contempt towards everything else (human life included)... except again for the American Private Property.
Whether the Apocalyptic predictions, made almost scientific conclusions,
account for historical reality is, however, constitute totally different issue if we refer to some the former and their respective realization.
In 1960s we were told by the same apocalyptic zealots or the predecessors of those who figure out on political arena today that if communists claim victory in South-Eastern Asia (namely - Vietnam and Cambodia) then, according to their apocalyptic "domino" theory, the Communism would not only envelope the rest of the world, including the US, but the very cause of freedom and democracy in the world will be defeated. Already in 1970s Communists
did win in Vietnam and Cambodia, but
in just 10-15 years the world communism was essentially having it last breath.
Not only US "hegemony" and agressive stance was not enough (and will never be), but it was counterproductive (by the recollections of the majority ex-communists, supported by the facts
of history) in defeating communist hardliners. In other words: the so-called socialist camp would voluntarily transform itself to a much more democratic society in the lesser time period just under the pressure of heavy internal and external problems,... if not for the forceful and often violent US/NATO interference in the affairs of other countries that invoked anger and defiance of common folks around the world.

Today's situation in the world is actually not much different than it was 30-40 years, in the sense that little changed in the US foreign policy of violent contempt either for international laws and agreements, even those signed by the US representatives or human life: from brutal and senseless sanctions that hurt and kill just common folks not the ruling elite to open aggression, killing hundreds of thousands directly or by proxy and ruining the lives of millions of others.
As it has been traditionally happening with the imperialist policies (allegedly) eliminating one or two real or trumped-up world problem, they create a dozen of others, not a least serious ones.
It reminds me of some other (out of many) apocalyptic warnings traditionally and almost exclusively coming from the US/UK/Israel apocalyptic trio: a mushroom cloud of nuclear explosion hanging over US or/and UK, unless Iraq would be attacked immediately.
And another one: the entire USA would be enveloped in puffs of marijuana and other smoked drugs, unless Panama would be attacked immediately.
And yet another one: the Western civilization itself would be deadly threatened and Libyan terrorists would rule the streets of the New York City, unless Libya would be immediately attacked.
The similar predictions were made about Sudan, after which its single nuclear, lately found to be pharmaceutical, facility was utterly destroyed directly or indirectly leading to the deaths of many thousands there.
Should I continue?
Rather not, because enemies of peace
would deny any argument/fact against war, while unbiased and less ignorant folks know practically all I may say in this regard.

Mark Reitz - 10/12/2009

I concur with your thoughts "that arguments for war should be critically examined as the men and women of different political persuasions we quote in the book have done." Such critical examinations may very well lead to the conclusion that in some instances, war is required.

Whither the world had the US acceded the Pacific to the Japanese in WWII? Whither the world if the US had not "maintain[ed] the country’s worldwide hegemony" during the Cold War?

While it is grand and glorious to aspire to the principle that “We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, other imperial powers of world history” and instead “assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation," it is also naive to act that way when indeed there are villians in the world who would use their imperial hegemony to all people's detriment.

Perhaps the answers to these questions are best reserved for the alternate history fiction writers, but it is also worth considering as one contemplates the role of the US and other countries in the world.