Twenty years ago, as I was completing my freshman year in college, I was a full-blown neoconservative. Except I didn’t know it. Having concluded that I was not a leftist, I simply decided by process of elimination that I must be a Rush Limbaughian.
Like most people, I was unaware that any alternative to those two choices existed, or that in some ways they were two sides of a common statist coin. In particular, I embraced a neoconservative foreign policy with gusto. The way to show you weren’t a commie was by supporting the U.S. military as it doled out summary justice to bad guys all over the world. And frankly, it was exciting to watch it all unfold on TV.
I never gave the human cost of war a second thought and became impatient with anyone who did. War was like a video game I could enjoy from the comfort of my home. Devastation and human suffering were quite beside the point: the righteous U.S. government was dispensing justice to the wicked, and that was that. What are you, a liberal?
The Persian Gulf War of 1991 was the first U.S. conflict of my college career. During the months-long U.S. military buildup in the Gulf known as Operation Desert Shield I eagerly promoted the mission to anyone foolish enough to listen.
When war came, it was swift and decisive. Very few American casualties were suffered, while the Iraqi forces were destroyed. Some 100,000 were burned alive by a chemical agent or buried alive in the desert while making a retreat.
Believe it or not, that actually bothered me, in spite of how voracious a consumer of war propaganda I was. No one defended Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which he launched in response to that country’s slant oil drilling, but was the outcome of the Persian Gulf War not a terrible tragedy for the Iraqi people — virtually none of whom had had anything to do with Saddam Hussein’s fateful decision — all the same? A far poorer country than ours suddenly had a lot more widows and orphans, not to mention a great many civilian deaths to grieve over and much destruction to repair.
Mothers and fathers were crying themselves to exhaustion over children they had lost, or who, worse still, were dying agonizing deaths before their very eyes. There is no worse anguish for parents than to watch their children suffer and to be helpless to do anything about it.
Was it really right that we Americans should meanwhile be celebrating with a Bob Hope special, and — on cue — flattered by the ceaseless reminders that ours was the awesomest country ever?
It later transpired that the Kuwaiti government had hired a public-relations firm in the United States to sell the idea of military invasion to the American people. We later learned that the major atrocity story — that Iraqi troops had removed Kuwaiti babies from incubators and thrown them onto hospital floors — had been a fraud: the emotional young woman who testified to that effect in Washington turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States.
Although I had strongly favored military action by the U.S. government from the start, in the wake of George H.W. Bush’s declaration of victory I could not stop thinking about the lopsided casualty counts, the waves of killing rained down on a ramshackle army facing the greatest military machine in the world. Now these were soldiers, not civilians, so by the logic of war I was supposed to hate them or at least not care about them, their deaths being cause for celebration rather than regret.
I was having trouble doing that.
I went to see my European history professor, Charles Maier, to discuss my misgivings about the war. Maier, a liberal in the New Republic mold, suggested I read a recent article in that magazine making the case for the war. I did, and (believe it or not) that helped to suppress any contrary thoughts for a while.
I was already beginning to read libertarian literature by the early 1990s because of my support for the market economy. My reading of the economic works of Murray Rothbard led inevitably to his philosophical works. The Rothbard essay “War, Peace, and the State” leaves an impression on the mind one can never quite shake.
Rothbard famously observed that one could uncover the libertarian position on X by imagining a gang of thugs carrying out the state action in question. If thugs can’t just grab your money, for instance, neither can a well-dressed group of thugs calling itself “the state.”
“War, Peace, and the State” takes that analysis and applies it to war. If you steal my TV, I can take it back from you. But I may not walk down the street firing a gun every which way and harming third parties in order to make you surrender my TV. Likewise, even assuming a warmaking state to be absolutely in the right, it has no greater moral entitlement to harm third parties in pursuit of its ends than a private individual does.
Simply because some politician utters the word “war,” we have been conditioned to believe it just and good that the rights of everyone within the confines of an arbitrary border are abruptly cancelled. What would in any other circumstance be murder and atrocity becomes an antiseptic matter of public policy.
The lingering effects of war can inspire callousness even after the guns have fallen silent. Many of us have seen the notorious clip from 60 Minutes in which Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and soon-to-be U.S. secretary of State, declared that the price of half a million dead children as a result of the sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s had been “worth it.” Note that she did not dispute the figure. She looked the interviewer in the eye and said that the deaths of half a million kids were worth it in pursuit of one man she and her colleagues didn’t like.
Now suppose the Soviet Union, during the height of the Cold War, had killed half a million children in the course of a sanctions policy. We would never have heard the end of it.
One of the great triumphs of the government propaganda machine in self-described democracies is the “we are the government” line. It makes the subject population somewhat more compliant than it might be if a particular family passed down the power to govern from one generation to another, with no chance (short of outright revolution) that anyone else will ever hold the reins of power. More important, criticisms of their government’s foreign policy now come to be seen as personal affronts. We are the government, after all, so how dare you criticize “our” foreign policy!
For that reason, opponents of American foreign policy should, when speaking on this topic, eliminate the pronoun “we” from their vocabulary. “We” did not kill those Iraqi kids. In 2002 and 2003 “we” did not repeat transparent untruths about the alleged threat posed by a devastated Iraq. “We” did not lay waste to an already-suffering country, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing four million others.
They did this. The American political class. We did not.
What some Americans did do, though, was to make sorry excuses for their political overlords. Some Americans defended a series of policies which, if pursued by the Soviet Union 30 years ago, they themselves would have condemned as grotesque violations of basic standards of morality. But with the U.S. government as the perpetrator, everything was different. They were as gullible on foreign policy as left-liberals are on domestic policy. They dutifully searched for evidence to corroborate their leaders’ claims, even when their leaders had long since abandoned those claims. They accepted the most transparent propaganda without batting an eye.
The insensibility to suffering
Until 1991, I had done pretty much the same thing. But following the Persian Gulf War I began to have doubts. Within a few years I had come to regret my laziness, and the readiness with which I accepted foreign-policy propaganda from the very people I knew I couldn’t trust when it came to the economy, the Constitution, or pretty much anything else.
The 19th-century writer Elihu Burritt noted the great sympathy the human race extended to those who have been the victims of misfortunes: famine, shipwreck, railway accidents, whatever. He then invited his readers to “compare the feeling with which the community hears of the loss or peril of a few human lives by these accidents with which the news of the death or mutilation of thousands of men, equally precious, on the field of battle is received.”
How different is the valuation! how different in universal sympathy! War seems to reverse our best and boasted civilization, to carry back human society to the dark ages of barbarism, to cheapen the public appreciation of human life almost to the standard of brute beasts…. And this demoralization of sentiment is not confined to the two or three nations engaged in war; it extends to the most distant and neutral nations, and they read of thousands slain or mangled in a single battle with but a little more humane sensibility than they would read of the loss of so many pawns by a move on a chessboard. With what deep sympathy the American nation, even to the very slaves, heard of the suffering in Ireland by the potato famine! What shiploads of corn and provisions they sent over to relieve that suffering! But how little of that benevolent sympathy and of that generous aid would they have given to the same amount of suffering inflicted by war upon the people of a foreign country! This … is one of the very worst works of war. It is not only the demoralization, but almost the transformation, of human nature. We can generally ascertain how many lives have been lost in a war. The tax-gatherer lets us know how much money it costs. But no registry kept on earth can tell us how much is lost to the world by this insensibility to human suffering which a war produces in the whole family circle of nations.
I was once blind to the effects of war on my own moral compass and to how callous I had become toward entire countries and the fellow human beings who inhabited them. When I collaborated with Murray Polner on We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now (Basic Books, 2008), it was in a spirit of contrition and reparation for having once cheered on what I now know to be evil.
“I am getting more and more convinced that the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business,” Rothbard noted privately in 1956. I am equally convinced. If we can’t get this right, who cares about the Department of Education or the minimum wage?