What You Should Think About Abraham Lincoln

June 2, 2011

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

–Abraham Lincoln

Unlike most U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln faced economic hardship as a child.  His father had been a prosperous Kentucky landowner, but young Abraham, at the tender age of 7, watched his family lands taken away due to a legal technicality.  Having resettled in Indiana, he was able to study briefly and sporadically under a series of traveling teachers.  Even so, the bulk of his learning was a function of self-education.  Over time, he grew into a strong laborer.  He did not take every job on offer, but he was often quick to trade his services for the loan of books he had not previously read.

When he was 21, his family relocated once more, to the state he would consider his true home — Illinois.  He soon obtained a loan in order to join a partnership running a mill and general store in New Salem.  Contemporary accounts depict him as an able shopkeeper, but the store did not prosper, and he had to leave the business.  When a battle-hardened Native American known as Black Hawk rallied hundreds of warriors to reclaim his ancestral homeland on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, Abraham Lincoln remedied his unemployment by volunteering for the Illinois militia.  He was particularly honored to have been elected captain of his militia company.

Though young Lincoln did not engage in actual combat, he repeatedly arrived in the aftermath of a clash and undertook the duty of burying the dead.  He would learn much about the costs of war even without experiencing the heat of battle.  He would re-enlist several times, accepting the role of an ordinary private, as his units would be mustered out of service.  He was awarded a land grant for his efforts, though perhaps more valuable were the many new friendships that would prove assets during the start of his political career.  His time in the militia spanned less than four months.  A horse theft on the eve of its conclusion would afford him ample time for reflection as he walked much of the distance from northwest Illinois back to his New Salem home.

Soon after, Abraham Lincoln turned the full force of his energies to politics and the law.  His 1834 bid for a place in the Illinois General Assembly would be his second run for political office and his first campaign victory.  He was the second youngest in a particularly young class of legislators.  Here he kept quiet long enough to live up to his own aphorism, “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”  By the time he was ready to do more than observe and vote, he had such a command of the process that many others turned to him for help in crafting and promoting their own legislation.  Though his Whig party was a shrinking minority, Lincoln’s efforts at leadership did much to help move their agenda through the bicameral Assembly.

During this same time, he also sought and obtained a license to practice law in the state of Illinois.  In 1837, both the capital of the state and the man himself relocated to Springfield.  There Abraham Lincoln formed a law partnership with an old acquaintance from his time in the militia.  In his time as a prairie lawyer, Lincoln would participate in over 5,100 cases.  Among his most notable was the defense of an accused murderer, acquitted after a witness who claimed to have seen the crime by moonlight was impeached with an almanac entry indicating the Moon was in an unsuitable position to provide illumination on the night in question.  He also successfully defended a railroad against claims that its bridge over the Mississippi was a hazard to navigation.  This established a precedent that advanced the cause of economic development extending westward.

Of course, modernity knows Abraham Lincoln best as a critic of slavery and a wartime President who restored the United States after our nation’s only great schism.  He had already served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he failed to win election to the U.S. Senate.  After a lifetime of promoting obedience to the law and working with traditional political institutions, Lincoln abruptly embraced challenges to the status quo.  He found the infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford to be deeply offensive.  He recognized that many state governments were unlikely to yield to the moral objections against slavery and abandon that institution in his lifetime.  He lent his intellectual force to an increasingly fiery abolitionist movement.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln became a prominent figure in the emergent Republican Party.  He asserted that the compromises perpetuating slavery were failures of the Founding Fathers and all subsequent American leadership.  With oratorical skills honed before countless juries then popularized by events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he developed a reputation as just the sort of man who could catapult this fledgeling party into a strong position on the national stage.  After winning the Republican nomination for President of the United States, he also emerged victorious in an unusual race that saw the Electoral College of 1860 split four ways.

Before the year was out, secession had begun.  The newborn Confederacy had the benefit of a more skilled body of officers, but its largely agrarian economy would prove an enormous liability.  The great cities of the north, with their industrial capacity, higher standards of education, and technological sophistication would provide a power base that the south could not hope to equal.  The Union Navy acted quickly to inhibit trade, doing much to strangle the Confederate economy that was so dependent on cotton exports.  Quelling the fighting spirit of the rebels was another matter.  President Lincoln went through one senior commander after another, frequently unsatisfied with his generals’ ability and/or willingness to undertake offensive actions.

Ultimately, harsh action was required to restore the nation.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman performed the heavy lifting that brought the Confederacy to the point of surrender.  After years of bloody give and take, Grant’s masterful offensives dealt his enemies a string of painful defeats.  Dealing out pain was also a hallmark of Sherman’s actions.  Most remarkably, after securing the city of Atlanta under his control, his forces set fire to all government buildings.  The resulting conflagration was the one of several he would ignite in order to devastate the cities of the south.

Abraham Lincoln himself became no stranger to harsh measures.  His government suspended basic Constitutional rights in order to suppress disloyalty within the Union.  He imprisoned Confederate sympathizers and even some opposition politicians without due process.  He authorized military spending without Congressional approval.  He fully supported the bloody and brutal tactics his most successful generals employed to end the conflict.  Yet he was no barbarian.  As forceful as he was in putting down the rebellion, his intentions were gentle for dealing with the south in the aftermath of the war.

John Wilkes Booth saw to it that history would never learn firsthand of Lincoln’s intentions for the defeated Confederacy.  Formal surrender had occurred just days before the actor-turned-assassin put a bullet in the head of Abraham Lincoln.  Yet Lincoln’s spirit would help to guide his successor in the restoration of the United States as a single coherent nation.  Penalties for war crimes were only imposed on Confederate officers guilty of horrific abuses, like the deliberate starvation of Union captives in the Andersonville prison.  Even the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was a free man no longer facing treason charges within four years of his initial arrest.  Both Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, understood that healing the nation required viewing even the most ardent rebels as U.S. citizens, entitled to the same levels of fairness and respect due any Yankee.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents.  Though his time in that office was dominated by the Civil War, his success at restoring the Union was an incredible feat achieved in the face of growing public unrest about the costs of war.  Subsequent leaders have made pretense of facing “an existential threat” to the United States of America, but Lincoln confronted an actual threat that grave.  His willingness to do what had to be done, knowing full well what it was like to arrive on a battlefield littered with corpses, holding in his heart a passionate commitment to due process and the rule of law, is what made him a truly exceptional leader.  A far cry from twenty men with boxcutters, he had to deal with the loss of nearly half of the nation, and deal with it he surely did.


What You Should Think About George Washington

May 30, 2011

“Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind. Not only does your pocketbook suffer for it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved.”

–George Washington

The United States of America was forged in battle.  Yet this nation was neither created nor conceived to become a dominant military power.  To the contrary, it was our founders’ ability to defy a military superpower that gave rise to the most authentically populist form of government the world had seen since ancient Greece lost its original democracies.   Extraordinary leadership and unwavering determination made all the difference.  Neither the manpower of the Continental Army nor the skill and equipment of allies opposing the British Army were overwhelming.  The decisive outcome of the Revolutionary War would not be predicted by any purely military analysis of the capabilities each side was prepared to field in when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Even the legendary leader behind this outcome, George Washington, was no great conqueror.  His early military experiences as an American officer fighting for British interests were fraught with misadventure.  In 1754 Colonel Washington surrendered his militia to the French, negotiating a bloodless withdrawal from a hopeless position.  By the end of 1755, his greatest accomplishment involved minimizing losses during the retreat of the disastrous Monongahela expedition.  He emerged from the crucible of defeat as a strict disciplinarian and a cautious tactician.  He went on to promote the prosperity of Virginia by defending the colony’s western frontier with impressive efficiency.

By the time revolutionary sentiment was strong among British possessions in North America, George Washington had already established himself as a commander gifted in the transformation of uneducated and undisciplined volunteers into effective fighting forces.  Yet the ranks of these forces only measured in the hundreds.  His only decisive victories had been won against indigenous tribes equipped with few, if any, firearms.  In 1775, when the Continental Congress asked him to take command of their army, he was selected more by default than acclaim.  The delegates did not recognize how perfectly suited he was to lead an army of underdogs, but they did recognize that he was one among very few prominent American revolutionaries with real experience at military command.

So it was that the fate of our aspiring nation was placed in the hands of a man best known for mitigating the damage from past military defeats.  War had already erupted with the clashes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusettes.  Yet Continental forces amounted to little more than impromptu militias.  Even the core of the army was only committed to single year terms of service.  General Washington immediately set about organizing the military — clarifying chains of command and insisting on rigorous drilling to maintain cohesion when forces were not otherwise engaged.  He held his ground when it was wise to do so, yet he employed his considerable experience at retreat in maneuvers that did much to preserve the modest combat assets of a fledgeling nation.

This leadership went beyond uncommon exercise of military caution.  Washington eventually overcame political resistance in order to restructure the Continental Army as a more stable and durable institution.  Disease and the elements claimed one quarter of his forces during the winter at Valley Forge, but the survivors emerged as tough disciplined professionals on par with the veterans of European conflicts.  Yet even when equipped for plausible victories, he continued to show restraint.  He would strike when the British blundered into a position of extraordinary vulnerability.  Otherwise, he dedicated himself to the preservation of the army and the maintenance of rebel control over an overwhelming majority of colonial territory.

By fighting only the most favorable battles, General Washington bought the revolution time enough to succeed.  Diplomatic achievements, first in France and then elsewhere, forced the British to deal with bigger threats than the loss of American colonies.  He reminded the world that having more men and better equipment does not insure victory.  When he went on to promote adoption of the Constitution and serve as the first President of the United States, he continued to emphasize the value of caution and restraint.  He warned against the costs of lengthy military commitments abroad.  He was openly hostile to the emergence of partisan politics.  He only embraced conflict when he believed doing so was crucial to the survival of the nation.  For example, he personally took command of state militias in order to put down a violent rebellion sparked by one of the federal government’s earliest efforts to raise revenue.

This makes it all the more ironic how George Washington is viewed in some circles today.  Know-nothing fools imagine he would be quick to rebel against federal taxation, when in fact he did not hesitate to put down such a rebellion through force of arms.  Right-wing ideologues imagine he would support costly and deadly exercises in foreign regime change and nation-building, when in fact one of his most clear admonitions was a directive to avoid such entanglements.  Jingoistic bombasts imagine he would take pride in America’s overwhelming military might, when in fact he dedicated much his life to achieving victories while minimizing loss of life and public expense.  It is unlikely that George Washington the man, general, and President would have any respect for the George Washington of Tea Party folklore.

As this Memorial Day comes to a close, I believe it is wise that we ask ourselves, “are we remembering those noble and honorable people who have served this country at great personal risk, or are we celebrating the elective violence and hyperactive warmongering that now consumes over $1 trillion of our $14 trillion national economy?  If we are to truly remember and honor those who were selfless in service to our nation, do we bear no obligation to act against those who engage in the manipulation of political processes and world events for the sake of personal enrichment?”  I believe George Washington would be proud to know that the United States commands the strongest military on Earth.  I believe he would be horrified to know that we only manage to realize that goal by spending 40% all the money the entire planet spends on military procurement.

When we look at the way George W. Bush and Barack Obama launch wars, there is a dramatic contrast.  The former indulged in radical spending increases, made a profound national commitment, ineptly managed alliances, refused to articulate precise objectives, and seemed to believe that merely having an exit strategy was the same thing as accepting defeat.  The latter engaged in modest spending, made a cautious national commitment, harmonized smoothly with allies, and expressed a single clear goal.  The exit strategy for U.S. involvement in Libya remains fuzzy, but otherwise the contrast is dramatic.

First names aside, it is unmistakable which of these leaders is more like the first man to hold the office of President of the United States.  If the entire electorate could be bothered to actually remember the first and greatest of our military commanders, our nation could enjoy a clear path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. As the foremost of our Founding Fathers himself once observed, “experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.”  There is no shortage of hard work ahead for modern day patriots intent on taming the beast of runaway military and security service spending.  Yet it is work that must be done if we are truly to honor the memory of those who made this country great in the first place.


What You Should Think About Experience

July 2, 2008

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war.  Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin.  But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

–Ernest Hemingway

The past few days have seen interesting public debate about the role of military experience in national leadership.  Since long before this Presidential bid, Senator John McCain upheld his military service as a credential applicable to political leadership.  In doing this he perpetuates a long-standing tradition linking military service to political leadership.

Dozens upon dozens of generations ago, civic-minded Romans were inspired by tales of Cincinnatus.  Perhaps the ultimate citizen-soldier, the man discovered he had been selected to serve as dictator in time of crisis when a VIP delegation arrived unexpectedly at his humble farm.  Bold leadership turned into legend as he was credited with preserving and strengthening early Rome while it was under attack by rival factions on the Italian peninsula.

Ever since, Western civilization has placed a premium on military service as a credential for political leadership.  In brutal primitive times, with ordinary citizens constantly facing threats from nature and warmongers alike, there was some sense in this.  Orienting governance around security policy was often necessary and appropriate.  Ancient peoples really did inhabit a world where quality of life could not be sustained without regional military supremacy.  Fortunately for us, the 21st century is not a world fraught with turf wars and pillaging hordes.

Yet it seems not all of us are mentally up to the challenges of inhabiting more enlightened times.  For some Americans, the aggression of nineteen men with boxcutters justifies a perpetual siege mentality every bit as extreme as the militarism of the Roman Empire.  Our quality of life in the modern United States is more gravely undermined by the expenses of militaristic governance than any plausible consequences of ending a unilateral arms race.  That is not to say we should leave our nation defenseless or even abandon plans to expand the numbers of active duty troops in our armed forces.  However, it is to say that an entire society deeply dedicated to military supremacy is a society that fails to engage adequately on a wide range of issues each more crucial to quality of life than new high tech weapons systems conceivably could be.

Still, the citizen-soldier archetype resonates in Presidential politics.  On one level perhaps it should.  Honorable military service reveals character traits that many voters legitimately demand of their leaders.  It is foolish to contend that military service is the only way to become a good person.  However, the crucible of war is a meaningful test.  Integrity, loyalty, and determination are difficult to fake on the battlefield.  Courage and selflessness may also be evident (though history is thick with tales of courage and selflessness that ultimately turn out to be propaganda pieces rather than events that actually occurred.)

There is no doubt that Senator McCain served honorably in wartime, endured much abuse as a prisoner of war, and went on to fulfill command responsibility.  The value and dignity of his service is only questioned by those setting up straw men — no significant critic of McCain has characterized his military record as less than honorable.  His supporters raise the specter of that criticism because it galvanizes their movement to believe he has been “attacked” in this way.

The worst of what has actually been said by anyone of consequence was a remark General Wesley Clarke made in response to a question about this link between military service and political leadership.  In a moment Senator Obama accurately characterized as artless, the general said, “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”  The response from McCain’s supporters has been intense.  Yet what precisely is their concern?  Did John McCain never ride in a fighter plane?  Did he never get shot down?  Did General Clarke overlook something in the Constitution about military service as a credential for the Presidency?

While that remark was crude, it seems insane to reject a crude truth in favor of elegant spin.  In reviewing the documentary Carrier, I was struck by the apolitical nature of life among naval aviators.  Whenever the subject of justification arose, an overwhelming majority of pilots (as with the ship’s crew) took an agnostic view.  Rightly, military personnel in time of war do not agonize over the nuances of foreign policy.  They do their duty because it is their duty, not because the majority of them have strong opinions about which flavor of foreigners deserves to be bombed under order of the current regime. The order alone is all that is needed to act.

Provided that orders are not sadistic or inhumane (like running an extermination camp or a torture chamber,) the morality of military service demands fulfillment of duty.  Military culture frowns upon questioning orders, though questions and discussion that do not interfere with diligent and prompt fulfillment of orders do no harm (and sometimes quite a bit of good.)  Still, my broader point is that a history of being a good soldier only proves that one may retain characteristics of a good soldier.  When Senator Jim Webb attempted to clarify a crucial distinction between executive leadership and front line combat, he too was denounced for attacks on McCain’s service that Webb did not actually make.

The only real attack here, an attack entirely justified, is an attempt to change thinking about the relationship between being an effective warrior and being an effective national leader.  The very issues that naval aviators habitually avoid deliberating are those that merit tremendous time and attention from a U.S. President.  If anything, the “my country, right or wrong” attitude that helps combatants stay strong while pursuing nebulous objectives or dealing with incompetence spilling down the chain of command is an attitude that weakens one’s ability to exercise sound judgement in an executive role.  I believe even the most jingoistic Americans would, all other things being equal, rather see U.S. policy in the right than in the wrong.  A dutiful President must agonize over nuances of political decisions in precisely the ways a dutiful combatant must not.

One aspect of legitimacy in the tale of Cincinnatus is that he was a patrician with a history of political activism.  Though he was virtually conscripted to serve as head of state, his selection was not a consequence of skill with sword and spear.  It was because he had demonstrated thoughtful judgement and sound leadership in previous efforts to shape Roman policy.  His service was noble and selfless, but it was informed far more by his past political life than his past military activities.  It was the strength of his wisdom, not the strength of his belligerence, that preserved Rome during a time of great troubles.

Perhaps the closest analogs in American political life would be John Fitzgerald Kennedy and John Kerry.  They both seemed influenced by the perception, especially common among young men, that miltiary service builds reputations useful in later pursuit of public office.  That perception remains valid even today.  However, at its heart is a prejudice like the belief that tall men make the wisest leaders — an archaic misconception that resembles racism without race.  It is a prejudice that allows ignorance to be substituted where enlightenment belongs.  Still, both men risked life and limb, sustaining injuries that would cause lifelong pain, to make good on a promise to serve this nation in time of war.  That merits honor to be sure, but does it have anything at all to do with positions on security policy and foreign affairs?

The disturbing aspect of the experience debate is not that someone dared to raise such questions.  It is that the very idea of suggesting military service does not equate with executive excellence was so easily mischaracterized as a personal attack.  It is a question most civilized nations have long since asked and answered, liberating them from perpetual militarism for its own sake.

In assessing the character of a candidate, performance under fire is certainly a legitimate factor.  In assessing the quality of a candidate’s politics, performance under fire is entirely irrelevant.  So long as a contrary view remains popular, voices in the public square do well to attack it.  Real men do not cower behind the ad hominem defense when it is so clearly their opinions, not their persons, that are subjected to withering critique.  To employ that unresponsive evasion fails to address the attack even as it reveals something else — the poor character of the man who would employ such a tactic.


What You Should Think About Pacifism

November 29, 2007

“From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence — and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.”

–Gloria Steinem

Even in more tranquil times, there is no shortage of commentary meant to remind non-violent citizens that legions of trained killers stand at the ready to provide security for the nation. No doubt much of human history reveals that force of arms provides a means to keep a hostile enemy out of a nation’s heartland. Yet more circumspect analysis also demonstrates that force of arms provides a means to produce hostile enemies. Could it be that there is more to achieving a security goal than having the most guns or the best fortress?

The bizarre state of the world in the aftermath of America’s “headless behemoth” foreign policy provides a new perspective on some old ideas. From the earliest clashes in military history, there have been questions about the justification for war. No one remotely acquainted with the realities of warfare could carry on without any doubts about the endeavor, even if military culture vigorously promotes thoughtlessness in this arena.

To be fair, soldiers in the thick of it are more effective if no weighty political cogitations distract from the urgent business at hand. Yet this same culture so useful in the field also has drawbacks. Once the fog of war has cleared and some opportunity for reflection presents itself, this mindset creates difficulty reconciling doubts raised by the experience of waging war with political justifications for the violence.

Since ancient times, it has been common for a head of state to have extensive personal experience with military service. Thus the entire history of governance is heavily influenced by, if not a “might makes right” attitude, at least a “having might is more important than being right” attitude. In Europe (sans Switzerland and a few other pockets of exceptional thoughtfulness,) from the Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th century, it was accepted that a genuinely defensive stance was inadequate. Responsible governance was presumed to include cultivating enough military might to fight alongside allies, lend credibility to aggressive posturing, and project force to distant lands.

Even today, blatantly stupid ideas like “war is good for the economy” or “war is essential to driving technological progress” are widely believed. Centuries upon centuries of social paradigms make it such that questioning or contradicting these unsound assumptions is regarded as a sign of weakness. It may be that the negative response is as much primal as it is cultural. Yet it surely is not intellectual.

There may be a subset of human beings who are best able to achieve their potential in some context provided by war. Yet to promote war as a means of promoting human achievement is downright senseless. Many of those who have achieved great things in a wartime context were just as capable of achieving great things in some peaceful pursuit. More to the point, surely that portion of humanity inclined to thrive in warfare is not a strong majority. Then, even if I were mistaken about that point, how much innocent blood may be spilled in the name of creating a militant environment for human achievement? Could the inspirations of war ever exceed the lost loves and labors of lives cut short by the consequences of combat?

War for war’s sake is only a good thing to the degree that someone has developed a profoundly misguided notion of “good.” Yet there remains the matter of defense. Wherever there is prosperity or power available for the taking, there is the risk that aggression will occur. George Orwell is known to have asserted, “we sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence upon those who would do us harm.” To someone just beginning to attain the first glimmers of enlightenment, such a statement seems to suggest that peace and prosperity rest on an essential foundation created by awesome military forces ready to lay waste to prospective national enemies.

That assessment comes from an ignorance of the interconnectedness of all things. Did a sniper stuff the pillows on which this peaceful sleep occurs? Did a gunboat pilot assemble the frame of the bed? Was the mattress put together by an artillery crew? Is the heating and plumbing that makes our homes comfortable first invented by a team designing killing machines? Were our city streets planned and paved with the oversight of combat-hardened generals? To turn the simple-minded interpretation of Orwell on its head — dedicated warriors eventually find safe places to sleep away from the battlefield because most everyone else stands ready to perform constructive and creative activities on their behalf.

For too long, the darkness of tribalism and barbarism has lingered in our modern institutions. In the halls of power, even from the lips of those who avoided service themselves, characterizations of military forces as “the backbone of our society” are sincere. Yet they are also archaic and misguided. If we accept that military organizations are the essential core of strength our society possesses, then we define our greatness chiefly by our power to kill and destroy. I would think even an overwhelming majority of military personnel would hope for a more noble perspective from national leaders. Alas, this affliction remains severe in the United States, and it is hardly absent from other nations in the modern world.

Even amongst warriors, the trait of being peace-loving is correctly regarded as a virtue. Yet when it comes to absolute pacifism, hawks, chicken hawks, and plenty of doves all seem willing to agree that it is foolish. Personally I agree that there are plausible scenarios in which defense of others or defense of self justifies actions intended to neutralize a real and imminent threat. Yet no small part of the pacifists’ wisdom is understanding how incredibly rare these situations are if you do not make it your business to instigate or escalate hostilities.

An absolute pacifist runs the risk of doing wrong by failing to take the most effective course of action in protecting the innocent. Everyone else runs the risk of doing wrong by performing willfully destructive actions that do not serve any protective purpose. Which is the greater risk?

In the personal context, fluid situations and instantaneous needs can lead to situations where thoughtful reflection is not an option. Within limits both reasonable and practical, there should be some tolerance for honest mistakes. In an international context, however fluid the situation, opportunities for contemplation are usually abundant. To go to war when the underlying facts are not subject to thorough investigation or the stated cause(s) are unreasonable or the overall plan is unrealistic is to perpetrate the very worst sort of mistake. Only a team of lazy minds paired with dark hearts could let the desire to order an army to do violence take priority over the moral imperative to avoid unnecessary warfare.

Perhaps absolute pacifists are fools. Yet if we see clearly, then we see that life makes fools of us all. There is much more to be learned from the fool who thinks differently than from the fool who echoes our own thoughts. When we cut through useless divisiveness, we are left recognizing that abhorring violence is innately rational, perhaps even innately good. While we who are not absolute pacifists set about establishing the grounds on which we would support acts of violence, there is much benefit to be found in considering the very best arguments against those acts. If we cannot even face the questions of those who condemn all violence, how can we possibly believe our own justifications for it are legitimate?


What You Should Think About Military Service

November 11, 2007

“I am a soldier. I fight where I am told, and I win where I fight.”

–General George S. Patton

Though I would not compare it with something as tragic rising body counts, another unpleasant side effect of watching our nation wage a pointless war is the rise of contempt for personnel serving in its armed forces. Many is the time I’ve read a compelling blog entry or heard a persuasive public speech only to be see its appeal marred by hostile language directed at a broad category of Americans, most of whom are decent human beings willing to make a particularly difficult sort of personal sacrifice on behalf of the entire nation.

Of course there are some soldiers driven to war by hatred of others, and that is not laudable behavior. Yet most uniformed military personnel, even those serving on the “wrong” side of historic conflicts, believe that they are doing work that is vital to protect their homeland from some sort of real threat. Generally speaking, the British did not open fire on Continentals because they hated American upstarts. Confederates had much more pressing reasons to shoot at Yankees than fears that slave labor might end. Even Wehrmacht forces defending the beaches of Normandy believed their actions were necessary for the protection of Germany.

Generally war does not break out unless warmongers are involved. The modus operandi of a successful warmonger is to portray a potential enemy the source of an urgent threat to a people’s way of life, rally a nation behind an agenda of aggression, then denounce dissenting voices as traitors to that nation. The entire process is a political exercise that combines the highest levels of effectiveness with the lowest levels of ethical conduct.

Misunderstandings, even skirmishes, can occur naturally as a result of complex international relationships. Full out warfare only occurs because leader(s) make it their business to advance an agenda of belligerence. Only after such historically malicious behavior has taken place do conditions exist where dutiful military personnel are called upon to kill people and break things. Much of this destructive activity is itself unethical, but then again it is also unethical to knowingly and willingly take an oath only to break it when faced with a moral quandary.

Perhaps more to the point, from a soldier’s perspective, ordinary wartime activities are not unethical. A policy of military aggression is normally presented as something urgently needed to insure a society’s survival. Fending off foreign invaders may actually be a matter of survival. Either way, out on the battlefield a “kill or be killed” mentality may be rooted in actual circumstances. Even when it is unethical to go to war, once deployed the ethics of following the chain of command, including orders to fight, become crystal clear.

Any nation with substantial resources invites disaster by refusing to maintain some sort of military capability. Perhaps there will come a time when this is no longer true, but on Earth in the early 21st century it clearly is true. Of course, there are many ways to go about achieving this goal. I’ve always admired the Swiss approach — neutrality in foreign matters, but if anyone tries to take their land and their homes by force, a nation full of trained and equipped militia will fight relentlessly to make the invaders’ incursion as brief and painful as possible. Insofar as “peace through strength” makes any sense at all, I believe it is in military doctrines like those that shape Swiss policy.

Unfortunately, rank and file soldiers have little say in the policies of a democracy, and even less if they should happen to inhabit an undemocratic society. Where a person is born does not change the merits of acting in defense of family and friends. As such, the political and military institutions of most societies expose soldiers to the possibility that they may be called to serve without an actual grave threat to home and homeland. When moral imperatives come into conflict like this, how should one respond?

For an overwhelming majority of military personnel, there is nothing to do but follow orders. This goes beyond aversion to potentially severe punishments brought on by willful dereliction of duty. Below the highest echelons of command, the ability to carry out orders as given is required to insure combat effectiveness. A nation might as well have no defenses as to let them to be contingent on whether or not front line troops are personally inclined fight on a particular day.

It may be wise to question policy, and surely it is wise to temper a combatant’s fervor with enough reflection that every act of violence is also an exercise in reluctance. Yet both the duty of a citizen to protest bad policy and the duty of a human being to avoid victimizing others must take a back seat to the duty of uniformed military personnel to cause death and destruction on command. Exceptions to this come only in the form of truly extreme abuses, like an order to decimate harmless civilians or an order to torture a defenseless captive. If it is plausible that a properly issued command serves a legitimate military purpose and there is no opportunity for discussion, then it is right to take action.

Yet there is another realm of exceptions beyond orders calling for the deliberate abuse of non-combatants. At the highest levels of military command, it is inevitable that national policy will become part of the discussion. Even if President Bush never actually listens to contrary opinions from the top brass, his public insistence that he defers to the judgement of commanders in the field invites efforts to establish healthy channels of feedback percolating up through the chain of command. Heck, even in a dictatorship, senior military personnel should be able to speak candidly with the potentate. Anything less creates a disconnect from reality that exposes combatants in the field to greater danger while diminishing the prospects for success of the overall military mission.

When I encounter schadenfreude regarding the hardships faced by today’s active duty military personnel, I see that as an ugly sentiment. No doubt there is an element in the services that did volunteer just so that they could “go kick some raghead ass.” Yet I am confident an overwhelming majority of those unfortunate Americans find themselves risking real danger for reasons that are more wholesome than sinister. On this Veteran’s Day I want to extend my thanks for their contribution to the strength of the United States of America.

I would rather my nation be strong than be weak. Yet I would also rather my nation would be right than be wrong. The only component of military condemnation I can support is criticism of senior military commanders associated with existing Iraq policy. Except for Gen. Shinseki, I am not aware of any top tier officers willing to end their careers in order to speak truth to power regarding the planning and conduct of that disastrous misadventure.

Going to war without question because your commanding officers do not want to hear your questions, or even because you’ve been led to believe the war effort really is sound defense policy, is merely the fulfillment of duty for almost all positions in the armed forces. On the other hand, supporting a war effort when your position carries with it the duty to raise concerns, being educated and informed enough to know better than the civilian leadership in this matter, is disgraceful conduct.

I can appreciate that speaking out means being denied access to a defense industry gravy train that could insure a general’s grandchildren’s grandchildren are born wealthy. That form of corruption comes with a powerful lure. Yet officers atop the military hierarchy should have greater moral fiber than to think so selfishly. Brave men and women serving so far from home will pay for that enrichment with spilled blood, lost limbs, addled minds, or even the ultimate price.

To those vaunted few with the position to speak truth to power regarding the folly of ongoing Iraq policy, I urge you to take this time to reflect on your duty to front line combatants as well as your duty to the nation as a whole. Think about the virtues attributed to you at ceremony after ceremony throughout your career. Ask yourself when is the last time you showed real courage and made real sacrifices for the good of the country. It is not too late for you to get back on the right path.

As for everyone else out there who does serve in some branch of the U.S. armed forces yet doesn’t have the ear of POTUS or VPOTUS or SecDef, I thank you for your service. Your work is among the most difficult work imaginable. You honor this nation by doing your military duty, often under downright traumatic circumstances. I only wish more of us could manage to honor you by doing our civic duty to support better political leadership.


What You Should Think About Conscription

November 6, 2007

“. . . a draft or draft registration destroys the very values our society is committed to defending.”

–Ronald Reagan

The decline of the Roman Empire was a complex phenomenon involving many factors. Yet the case can be made that foremost among these factors was the decline of Rome’s citizen-soldier culture. From the days of the early monarchs until well after the time of Julius Caeser, physically fit Roman citizens were bound by duty to a term of military service, typically four years in length. In limited contexts, outsiders had been involved with the Legions. Yet so long as Rome thrived, so did reliance on the citizens of Rome to provide manpower to fight for the interests of the state.

In fact, it was traditional for Roman mothers to send their adolescent sons off to war with the directive, “come back with your shield or on it.*” This sort of universal conscription (keeping in mind that women were never eligible for Roman citizenship while foreigners in annexed territories as well as freed slaves were normally given a lesser form of citizenship) served a number of purposes. Citizens from different families and different cities might serve side by side, learning to view the state and life itself from fresh perspectives. More importantly, all the sons of Rome were put in peril by any military aggression. This dramatically changes the context of public debate about warfare.

As hindsight grants more and more clarity over time, it is fair to ask if a Pyrrhic victory was won by the peace movement protesting Viet Nam era policies. When all was said and done, America marginalized conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force. No more would reluctant or even unwilling citizens be compelled to train and fight, sometimes also losing life or limb, to provide manpower for the armed forces of the United States in time of war. In many circles ending the draft was considered a great advance in the march of peace and enlightenment.

Was it so? The events of this century crystallize one aspect of this issue. “They all signed up knowing this could happen,” is an argument that dramatically lowers the threshold of justification for military action. Perhaps even in time of conscription, America offered up loopholes to shelter reluctant sons of Senators from combat duty. Still, at least 99% of the nation felt pressures to closely scrutinize American war efforts. Those pressures are now much less intense and widespread.

The thing is, war itself has not changed nearly as much as the political context of it. In a jungle where draftees are getting shot to pieces, “support the troops” is not at all easily equated with “support a policy of open-ended military occupation.” In a desert where volunteers are getting shelled and ambushed, “support the troops” is more easily confused with “support the war policy.” In the absence of a draft, it becomes easier for national leaders to equate political hawkishness with national loyalty.

That equation is always bogus — there has yet to be a war waged with such perfection of justification, planning, and oversight as to eliminate all legitimate grounds for loyal criticism. Yet political discourse so often does not take place at a level where that understanding given due consideration. The blurriness of debate is made even worse by some confusion about the ambitions and experiences of actual soldiers in time of war. Eagerness to kill is never truly a good thing. In some battlefield contexts it can become a useful thing, but no sane combatant craves bloodshed for its own sake. An agenda that actively promotes death and destruction never serves the actual interests of soldiers. Yet this too is sometimes overlooked without the context provided by conscription.

The end result plays into a dangerous theme evident in all of history’s military superpowers — the glorification of violence. There is legitimate debate about removing Andrew Jackson from American currency because his deeds, both as a commander in the war of 1812 and later as a President orchestrating Native American genocide, were not at all heroic. A real hero, even in time of war, is defined by the assumption of personal risk for the purpose of protecting comrades and/or bystanders from harm. Jackson was more involved with putting others at risk than assuming it himself. His most significant acts and policies brought about deaths that were not at all necessary to accomplishing any defensible purpose. Yet he has stood tall in American history for such a long time, as less enlightened generations failed to distinguish between the real heroism of courageous self-sacrifice and the bloody grandstanding of killing merely for the sake of killing.

Could the war in Afghanistan have been put on a better course if a number of draftees had been called up to assist in combat operations since the fall of the Taliban there? Would the war in Iraq ever have occurred if the prospect of widespread conscription motivated more Americans to be attentive to pertinent facts during the rush into that debacle? Would pundits and media outlets profligate with outright lies leading up to the war still enjoy so much respect and attention if a portion of the fallen were reluctant draftees? Clearly being drafted is not a good thing for a majority of conscripts. Yet the lack of conscription seems to be an especially useful thing for irresponsible warmongers.

Thus we might also ask if a lack of conscription is an especially bad thing for our own nation. Rich with spoils from a vast empire, weakened by rampant corruption in the halls of power, and suffering from the protracted stagnation that often accompanies a sense of supremacy, Rome eventually abandoned the draft. Citizens still had a duty to support the army, but those with money were given the option to hire mercenaries as an alternative to personally fighting for their nation.

It would not be long after that policy change that the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed. Foreigners hired to fight the Romans’ wars soon became strong enough to fight on their own behalf. Romans increasingly detached from their citizen-soldier roots were losing both the will and the means to defend their own interests. The greatest power in the history of Western civilization, according to legend founded by the wolf-suckled twins Romulus and Remus, officially came to an end after a captive teen, Romulus Augustus, abdicated his position to the barbarian Odoacer.

It is hard to imagine Rome would have declined so precipitously if its citizens remained much more actively involved in military affairs. It is worrisome to imagine what awaits America as we continue to separate the interests of our ordinary citizens from the plight of our professional combatants. My medieval history professor grabbed attention artfully by beginning his first lecture with a warning that America was doomed. As it turns out, no great society has thrived for more than a few generations while relying chiefly on volunteers for military service. I hope he was mistaken, and I do believe modernity presents a different context than Europe at the end of the classical period. Yet I also believe it is imperative that modern life does not prevent us from considering the examples of unraveling superpowers, moving with startling swiftness from unchallenged dominance to the pages of history.

*Many seem to associate this line with the Spartans. I am in no position to categorically disprove that. However, I am troubled by the logistics of it. The standard Spartan shield was not large enough to be effective as a corpse-hauling implement. Roman shields were made large in order to facilitate a number of distinctive tactics like the testudo. A well-made Roman shield would have been large enough and strong enough be serve as a stretcher or sledge even while carrying the weight of an adult human.  Also, that language is recurrent in Roman literature.

What You Should Think About Saddam Hussein

October 3, 2007

So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and humiliate their Muslim neighbors.”

–Osama bin Laden
(in a 1998 fatwa, predicting the U.S. invasion of Iraq)

The executive branch, backed by overwhelming legislative majorities, rushed this nation into Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the time, American media utterly failed in fulfilling a civic duty to keep the public informed. There was no shortage of content addressing the issue. Alas, there was a near total failure to let that content be shaped by findings of fact. Wild speculation was presented as undisputed truth. Even obvious deceptions were presented as one of two equally valid opinions.

Unprovoked military aggression seemed insane to much of the rest of the world. Nations eager to provide strong support for operations in Afghanistan were openly critical of the effort to invade Iraq. The policy only seemed sane to the American public because of a crucial distortion where traditional journalism collapsed under the weight of “balance” defined by equal attention to hawk rhetoric and dove rhetoric. From shady sources to implausible assertions to outright lies, nothing was defined as out of bounds in some sort of perverse game to generate public support for a White House wet dream.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I have no idea what inspires George W. Bush’s nocturnal emissions. However, I do know that the motivation for war could not have been based on genuine concern about the “mushroom cloud” scenario. This is not a gut impulse or even a close call, but the obvious conclusion to be drawn from plenty of solid givens the politically astute ought to have already known.

Perhaps foremost among these givens was the nature of Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant. He modeled himself after Joseph Stalin, which is every bit as evil as adopting Adolf Hitler as a role model. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. Yet did he have to go? Why him and not any of a dozen other tyrants? I certainly cannot defend tyranny, but Iraq should be near the bottom of a 2002 cost-benefit analysis conducted by anyone intent on picking places where liberty might be achieved through forced regime change.

The administration could plead incompetence by conceding something like “irrational exuberance” when it came to this extremely bloody pet project. Yet if there was an earnest desire to spread liberty, and it was merely misdirected by inept planning, then why provide generous financial support to the secret service of Uzbekistan? A totalitarian regime uninhibited in the use of medieval torture techniques, including executions by means of boiling oil, hardly seems like an ideal partner in global democratization efforts. If that alliance, as with kowtowing to Saudi royalty, is required by realpolitik; then how credible was this idealism regarding the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq?

It is true that Saddam Hussein was enamored with weapons of mass destruction. The architects of this war understood that point from historic deployments. A cynic would say that American consultants assisting with chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war enabled Pentagon analysts to study those weapons without creating the diplomatic backlash that would result if American forces actually conducted the gassings. I would not go that far, but there is no denying that hostility toward Iran caused our nation to support battlefield utilization of chemical weapons that we ought to have harshly condemned.

When the tyrant turned the poison on his own people, it was no longer possible to remain so supportive without losing face on the world stage. It would not be until the invasion of Kuwait that Saddam Hussein would become known as an enemy of the United States. Still, a prior strong working relationship was undermined by the atrocity at Halabja.

Of course, there was much more to this man’s personality than his fascination with horrific weaponry. Any informed and competent analyst intent on honest work product would have noted that, above all else, Saddam Hussein was a survivor. Many public figures in the Middle East have good reason to fear assassins, but only Hussein went to such extraordinary lengths to deal with that situation. He maintained a substantial corp of body doubles, all selected for a natural resemblance, then carved by expert plastic surgeons to better resemble their security-conscious employer. That is just one example of the many elaborate schemes actually implemented to insure his survival in time of trouble.

Hindsight seems to validate so much criticism of the war in Iraq. Yet it was never invalid as foresight. We know now from taxicab tales and the infamous “spider hole” that Saddam Hussein was indeed a self-preservationist of the first order. We knew that going into the war for all manner of reasons, including his willingness to let weapons inspectors travel unfettered throughout Iraq.

Credible allegations held that Western spies infiltrated UN weapons inspection teams. Then there is the affront to sovereignty — how many other nations would let foreigners go anywhere, anytime, unannounced in the name of compliance with UN mandates? Could you imagine the American reaction if somehow the world came to call for unfettered inspections of our WMD stockpiles?

The fact that he complied in principle with the call for a new round of inspections reveals that his pride as a head of state, never mind his quirky fascination with exotic weaponry, took a back seat to personal survival. He may have been a megalomaniac with other psychological disorders, but he was still sane enough to think that “let the inspectors in or we’ll invade” meant that letting the inspectors in would avert an American-led invasion.

Somehow, collectively, our nation failed to exhibit even that level of mental health. From distortions implying a dangerous level of non-compliance to Dick Cheney’s outright lies about a working relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda, almost no major media outlets had the courage to challenge propaganda points. On a good day, blatant deceptions about the level of menace posed by Iraq were still presented as valid opinions . . . one of “two sides to the story.”

Sometimes there really aren’t two sides to a story. Oceans are mostly water. If someone with a different political mindset than me contends that oceans are mostly vodka, that would not create a legitimate controversy. The right way for news and information media to cover that dispute would be to point out that the vodka theory is demonstrably wrong and the water theory is confirmed by countless credible observations. The fact that a man with a secret underground lair and a cyborg heart told the nation that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda — that is a great reason to do exposés on Vice Presidential dishonesty. It does nothing to justify pieces lending credence to Dick Cheney’s bizarre assertions.

Yet even today, his body long grown cold, the pro-war machine continues to slander Saddam Hussein. Fred Thompson has taken it upon himself to tug at those strings of misguided fear, still useful for controlling all those gullible patriots who were so certain the administration was accurate in its public assessment of the threat posed by prewar Baghdad.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. However, he was a very bad man who was very much in love with the idea of staying in his own skin. His narcissism would never allow WMD development to take precedence over personal security. Anyone anywhere near the Presidency who still doesn’t get that point is far too inept a judge of human character to manage a small business, never mind a modern superpower.

So, what should you think about Saddam Hussein? As an individual his life is a case study in irony. He clearly deserved as harsh a punishment as any human authority is fit to dish out, yet his ultimate fate seems to have been sealed for all the wrong reasons. For so much of his life he was the epitome of villainous, yet in the end he died no differently than would any hero of a conquered nation.

Like other heads of state in power today, some collaborating contentedly with the U.S. government, Saddam Hussein was a monster who tormented his own people ruthlessly. Yet like those other tyrants, he was also in no way a threat to the American people. Perhaps, after stripping away the misinformation about WMD programs and terrorism, there remained some sort of case for pursuing regime change in Iraq.

If so, nothing about that case justified putting Afghanistan on the proverbial back burner or diverting assets away from efforts to neutralize the original Al Qaeda. In a century so far dominated by tragically misguided national priorities, stoking public hatred toward Saddam Hussein proved an effective way to make the American public less rational and thus, temporarily, more supportive of a bold move to take our foreign policy headlong in the direction of historic folly.