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The Good and Bad News about the Bush Wars

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There’s good and bad news about the two American-initiated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The good news is the American people are largely disengaged from them.

The bad news is the American people are largely disengaged from them.

How can the same piece of news be both good and bad? Let’s see.

New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman laments that most Americans are detached from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During a recent radio appearance on the Don Imus Show, Friedman cited comedian Bill Maher’s complaint that “the enemy” has had to fight only 140,000 Americans rather than all 300 million of us.

You hear this a lot. Commentators seem to long for World War II, when “the whole country was at war.” They criticize President Bush for letting most Americans shirk their responsibility. When he’s queried about what sacrifices he’s asked of the American people, Bush says they have forgone peace of mind and paid higher gasoline prices. Naturally, this does not satisfy his critics.

Let me suggest that Friedman and Maher couldn’t be more wrong. (Neither could Bush, of course.) In one sense, it’s a good thing that the current wars are not total wars and that most Americans are disengaged from the horrors inflicted by the U.S. government on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Total war has terrible effects even on the belligerent whose society is not directly involved. If most of us have been able to avoid being sucked into that vortex, then I say, “Thank goodness.”

Total war brutalizes a society. It brings out bloodlust and hate. It stimulates an ugly nationalism (gussied up as patriotism) which boasts that “we” are better than “them.” It distorts vision, causing people to see something honorable in being slaughtered and maimed — as long as the dead and disabled are “our guys.” (The other side’s dead and wounded aren’t even worthy of counting.) It distorts judgment too, making people think that killing strangers who have never threatened us is heroic.

War makes people say stupid things. For example, they tell members of the armed forces, “Thank you for your service to our country,” when they aren’t serving their country at all — they’re serving the hack politicians and bureaucrats who send them to war. The same soldiers are told they are fighting for “our freedom,” when in fact the commander in chief they are obeying is destroying our freedom and endangering us by making enemies and creating hatred.

War makes people afraid to think the truth. Heaven help the person who believes the lives lost were lost in vain. Look at what happened when Senators John McCain and Barack Obama used the word “wasted” in connection with the casualties in Iraq. They were slammed and had to retreat.

But of course the lives lost and ruined by Bush’s wars were lost and ruined in vain. The deaths in an elective, nondefensive war are the epitome of waste. Without the Bush lies about weapons of mass destruction and revenge for 9/11, who would have volunteered to go to Iraq? What American possessing knowledge of U.S. intervention in the Middle East and the inevitable terrorist blowback, would have volunteered to fight in Afghanistan? Who would have chosen to finance those wars?

War also makes people collectivists. In a free society people go about their own peaceful business, freely joining with others in common causes for mutual benefit. In total war the people become a herd lorded over by the state. It takes most of their incomes, rations their food, and perhaps conscripts them. They are told this sacrifice is necessary because they are all part of a great crusade. Those gulled by the politicians feel good about their regimentation and deprivation. But the war and its sacrifices are only for the glory of rulers. The people gain nothing and lose much.

Having said all this, the idea that it is good that most Americans are not directly touched by Bush’s wars is not the whole story.

Our rulers could have forced us to be more involved. They could have passed a special war tax, launched a high-profile “Buy War Bonds” campaign, and found other ways to demand “sacrifice” in the name of patriotism and victory. They could have staged more events featuring “our brave heroes who risk everything to preserve our way of life.” They even could have started conscription if only for symbolic reasons.

But our misleaders have not done any of that. Why not?
War is a political program

To understand, we need to think about the nature of war as a political instrument — for at its core, that is what it is.

In a lecture last year Prof. Joseph Salerno of Pace University pointed out that war is a device by which a ruling class not only expands its power and access to wealth, but also distracts the domestic population from the exploitation perpetrated by its government. The welfare-warfare state does not exist primarily to serve and protect “its” people. It does those things to some extent, of course, but only for the same reason the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” fed the goose that laid the golden eggs: to sustain the exploitation as long as possible.

No, in its primary role the welfare-warfare state is a grand scheme to enable a ruling class, through its complex bureaucracy and ideological smokescreens, to transfer wealth from the industrious classes to itself. This system deceives and compels the taxpaying producers to support a tax-consuming aristocracy, which includes the bureaucracy and corporations that depend on government contracts for their existence.

War can be highly useful to this cause because in time the taxpayers may begin to catch on to the scam that drains their wealth. If they can be made to fear that an external enemy threatens their safety, they will happily trust their rulers with more power and money and ignore the occasional overt corruption. Nothing better serves this purpose than a foreign war. First, of course, the warmakers must persuade the people that a threat really exists. This can be pulled off all sorts of ways. Phantom weapons of mass destruction served quite nicely in 2003. Foreign intervention that provokes murderous retaliation (terrorist “blowback”) also does the trick.

But this method of keeping the domestic population alarmed is not foolproof. Rulers can overplay their hand. Under some circumstances, asking too much sacrifice of too many people may cause them to call the whole scheme into question, risking the aristocracy’s hold on power.

That could be why the Bush administration has asked so little directly of most people. It spends $7 billion a month on war but has cut, not raised, taxes. How can that be? Government borrowing lets the warmakers spend now and tax (young and unborn generations) later. But there is no free lunch even in the present, because the borrowing shifts wealth from fulfilling the purposes of consumers to fulfilling the purposes of the warmakers. As a result most of us are poorer.

Thus, in one respect it’s good that most of American society has avoided the ugliness and spiritual rot that war wreaks. But in another respect, it has permitted the war party to continue its imperialist policy of occupation and murder largely unmolested, while milking the people in covert ways.

Paradoxically, there might be more war opposition if the empire imposed greater burdens on the home population.

This article originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.