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Thank Goodness We Can Ignore the Wars

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New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman laments that most Americans are disengaged from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During a recent radio appearance, 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.) It is 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. Why? Because 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.” 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 as he issues orders that inevitably kill innocents in foreign countries. Making enemies disserves one’s country.

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 Sens. John McCain and Barak 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. For those who fight, a nondefensive war is 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 or 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 for common causes and 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 cause. 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.

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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.