Shooting Elephants

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Who won America’s wars? The libertarian answer is that the state won them because, as Randolph Bourne said in World War I, “War is the health of the state.” War made the state big. That is a piece of the answer that libertarians like to stress, and they should. But Bourne’s answer is part of a larger picture.

America would not have been without war. War secured its independence from Britain and extended its territory to the Mississippi. Thomas Jefferson took advantage of another war, which he kept the United States out of, to buy the Louisiana Purchase from France. War with Mexico brought Texas, California, and the Southwest. Under the slogan, “54-40 or fight,” presidential candidate James K. Polk threatened war with Britain in order to press a claim to the Pacific Northwest. And much of the country was made available for settlement by warring with Indian tribes.

From the perspective of nations, which is where this dis- cussion mostly starts and ends, America won all its impor- tant wars. It was America that wrote the post-World War II constitution for Japan, and not Japan that wrote one for America. America won bases in Germany, Italy, and Japan, and not vice versa. America won a veto in the U.N. Security Council, and became a superpower, and the losers of World War II did not. America dethroned gold as the world’s money and replaced it with the dollar, which it alone can print. Of all the sovereign states, only America emerged from World War I and World War II stronger than when it went in.

Let’s not pretend America didn’t win its most important wars. In the simplest and most obvious sense, it won them,

and in the war that it had with itself, the side favoring union won.

Now look through an individualist lens. The people who died in wars lost. Also people who had their homes destroyed, workplaces wrecked, family members killed. But set them aside, and focus on deaths. The “Infoplease Almanac” lists America’s battle deaths, in all wars, at 651,008, and non-battle war deaths at 539,254. All those indi- viduals lost. Then consider the foreign dead from U.S. bullets and bombs. Some 2,000 American soldiers have died in bat- tle in Iraq, but a civilian British study estimated total war- related deaths at 100,000 on the Iraqi side. The study used an expansive definition of war-related deaths, so the total is arguable. The U.S. estimate is closer to 30,000. In any case, many more foreigners have died in our wars than Americans, and they were losers, too.

Now consider economics. War depreciates currencies. That helps borrowers, including the #1 borrower during war, the government. It hurts savers. Buyers of U.S. war bonds came out of World War I all right because they were repayable in gold dollars. After World War II they were not, and they came out behind. Holders of Confederate paper money and bonds came out with nothing.

By wrecking things, war raises the value of the unwrecked. War also raises hugely the demand for munitions, fuel, transport, and many other things, stimulating business. World War I pulled millions of men off the farm in Europe, and farm output there fell. Appetites remained, and as a result, the price of wheat in the United States rose tremendously, reaching $2.58 per bushel in 1919, the year after the war ended. That was in gold dollars, the equivalent of almost $25 per bushel today, about six times the current price.

War causes more ore to be mined, oil drilled, trees cut down, factories raised up. There is waste in it, and also profit. War is the reason a road was built to Alaska, and it is

Let’s not pretend America didn’t win its most important wars.


a useful road still. War stimulates invention. War created the atom bomb – and nuclear power. War brought us the computer, whose first use was the calculation of artillery trajectories. War caused the Germans to build the first jet aircraft.

War creates a shortage of labor. In 1917 in my hometown, Seattle, skilled shipyard workers won a 31% pay increase, to $5.50 a day, in gold dollars. By late 1918 they were demanding another 45% increase, to $8 a day. In World War II, when government put cash wages under control, companies invented the employee medical benefit. Labor shortage also helps unions, a~ does the government’s need to manage labor costs and labor peace. During World War I, union membership in Seattle quadrupled. The two high points of union membership in America were World War I and World War II, including the decade that followed it.

The Civil War freed the slaves. Every slave liberated was a winner. Some historians have argued that slavery might have been ended without a war, meaning that liberation could have come with fewer losers. Perhaps so, but the slaves were winners still. World War II liberated the Jews and other prisoners that survived in the Nazi camps, and increased the political freedom in Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, and Greece. It also brought the Communists to power in Eastern Europe for 40 years.

The Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all came with conscription. Every citizen conscripted is, in that sense, a loser. He cannot choose whether to work in a shipyard or in a pillbox. The state chooses for him, and its choice may cost him his life.

War is a subspecies of tribalism. It exalts the nation at the expense of the provincial. The Civil War was about states’ rights – and the states lost. Before it, all paper money in America was issued by state-chartered banks; after it, all paper money was issued by the Treasury or by national banks. War unifies and demands loyalty. Consider the Pledge of Allegiance. It was written in 1892, and languished

for 25 years. It became part of the national pantheon in World War I. Early in World War II, the Supreme Court ruled that students who refused to say the Pledge could be expelled from government schools. The 8-1 opinion came in June 1940, when German tanks were rolling across northern France. It was written by Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Jewish emigre from Vienna who was particularly horrified by Nazi advances. The Court reversed that decision three years later, when the war was going our way and the Court could think twice about the persecution it had unleashed. Finally, it was during the Cold War with the officially atheistic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that Congress added the now- contentious “under God.”

World War I included disloyalty hunts, and was followed by the Red Scare, when Emma Goldman and others were deported to Russia. World War II was followed by a hunt for Reds who had infiltrated the government during the alliance with Stalin.

There is an egalitarian aspect to war. War disrupts and undermines civilian hierarchies. World War I leveled the aristocracies of Europe and replaced them with mass democracies – and dictatorships. World War II ended the production of private cars and brought the century’s last large increase in the use of public transit. George Orwell noted that in Britain, war austerity had killed frivolity and style- consciousness. He was a socialist, and appreciated that. The labor shortage in World War II brought American blacks into high-paying factory jobs, many of them for the first time, and set the stage for the decision in the late 1940s to end racial segregation in the military.

War has a relation to the welfare state. In any given year the two are usually opposed, because they compete for resources, with the military interest represented by Republicans and the welfare interest by Democrats. Yet the first

The more our national politics turn on conflicts and threats abroad, the less the room for liberty. 


seed of the welfare state in America was veterans’ pensions. The opening wedge of federal aid to education was the G.I. Bill. The two ideas go together: we fight for the state, and the state takes care of us.

War promotes sacrifice. Most obvious is its celebration of bravery, which has been the subject of endless propagandistic movies. But consider a film not often so labeled: “Casablanca,” made in 1942. In it, the hero meets his lost love and unexpectedly has a second chance for happiness. At the movie’s end he throws his happiness away to fight the Germans. He not only gives up the woman he loves but saddles her with a man she considers second-best. He sacrifices himself and her. At the human level, his decision is preposterous, but it is what war demands, and what we celebrate.

Now arrive at the libertarian point. A war may promote a libertarian end in the long run and it may not; but in the short run it negates liberty. War makes private citizens into state employees, puts them into uniform, and requires that they kill people they don’t know, for purposes chosen by the political authorities. War is a government program; you might think of it as the ultimate government program. It is entirely parasitic 011.’the private sector, and essentially destructive. It spawns loyalty oaths, censorship, suppression of dissent, propaganda, and lies. Also spying, arrests, intern-

Some politician may say he’s making you safer when he’s not. But you’re also running a risk when some antiwar leader says a war is useless.


ment, and summary punishment. Some wars are worse than others, but all expand state power, including its nonmilitary respects. War allowed Woodrow Wilson to put Eugene Debs in prison and Franklin Roosevelt to put Japanese Americans into camps. It allowed Wilson to seize the railroads and Harry Truman to seize the steel mills. War allowed George W. Bush to order Jose Padilla taken from a civilian jail and put into a military brig. War allowed Abraham Lincoln to suspend habeas corpus and put the editors of Copperhead newspapers in jail.

Most of these things end with the war, and sometimes the people say, “never again.” In that sense there may be some profit in war, just as there is sometimes a blessing in defeat. Free speech is more secure today than it was under Wilson. The internment of an entire ethnic group, accepted with hardly a peep when Roosevelt ordered it, would not happen today. The Supreme Court told Harry Truman he could not seize the steel mills on his own authority. In 2004 the Supreme Court handed George·W. Bush a partial defeat in the Yasser Hamdi case, and in late 2005 the threat of an adverse ruling caused .him to release Padilla to the civilian courts.

But precedents go the other way, too. Woodrow Wilson’s Trading with the Enemy Act was used by Franklin Roosevelt in his confiscation of private gold. The Quirin decision of 1942, in which the Supreme Court accepted the military trial and. swift execution of would-be German saboteurs, was cited by the George W. Bush administration as reason for the extrajudicial internment of Hamdi and Padilla. The Wickard decision of 1942 allowing federal control of farming set the precedent for the Raich ruling of 2005, which allowed federal control of medical marijuana. And so on.

World War I raised the top rate of income tax from 7% to 70%: World War II raised it to 94%. It is back down to 35%, which is a big improvement, but it took a long time to get it there. And it has not gone back to 7%.

A century ago the federal government took 3% of the nation’s economic output.: Now it takes 20%. Defense and

war amount to only about 4% of GDP, but for a long time .it was more than that. War took the territory, and social welfare colonized it.

Consider war from another angle. In 1990, when I was working in Hong Kong, Iraq invaded Kuwait. .The Americans in the office asked each other, “What should” we do about this?” – meaning, of course, what should our government do. The Australians and Canadians wondered what our government was going to do, knowing that their governments would be asked to follow along. The Malaysians also asked what “we” were going to do, but not from any idea that their country would be a part of it. Their view of American motives was cynical, arguing that American moralistic pronouncements were fronts for economic interests. Then there were the Hong Kong Chinese. They were not interested enough in the moralistic pronouncements to be cynical about them. They were interested in how currencies would move, and how the war would affect their investments.

One day I looked out from my high-rise home, and warships were going by below my living room, the sailors lined up in white uniforms. They were American. I felt pride that my country could make this show of power. I also felt annoyance that it was expected, and that I was paying for it and my Canadian, Australian, and (British) Hong Kong colleagues were not.

I thought of an old essay by Orwell called “Shooting an Elephant.” It was about an ‘experience he had had as an imperial policeman in Burma. An elephant had been chained up because it was in heat, and had broken the chains and gone rampaging through the bazaar, knocking down bamboo stalls and upsetting a garbage truck. Orwell was sent after it, and soon discovered that it had trampled a man who had not been nimble enough to step aside. Orwell reached the elephant, which had calmed down. He did not think it necessary to kill it. But he had an elephant gun, and was surrounded by a crowd that expected him to use it. As an individual, he might decide not to shoot it. But he was acting as a representative of the British crown; he had a duty to act in the crown’s interest, which meant acting like the Burmese expected an imperial policeman to act. It was his job to .kill the elephant, and he killed it.

War has put America into the position of killing elephants. Not all of the elephants are harmless, and not all elephant kills are without self-interest. Still, the force of expectation is similar. A bad thing is done – Iraq invades Kuwait, Serbia unleashes “ethnic cleansing” on Albanian Kosovars, Rwandan Hutus start chopping Tutsis with machetes – and an expectation arises that the United States of America will act. In Kuwait and Kosovo it did; in Rwanda it did not, and we now have a movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” to make us feel guilty about it. It is a fine movie. The viewer cannot fail to feel sympathy for the victims, to want them to survive, and to admire the heroic Rwandan hotel manager. And yet the company that owns the hotel, which has the clearest duty to get its people out, is Belgian. The former imperial connection, which may imply a duty and may not, was with Belgium. In the movie the foreign military officer on the scene is a Canadian working for the United Nations. Yet the movie was made by Americans and has a message for Americans: You should have been here. At least that is the message many Americans have taken from it.

In the distant past, the expectation was that if Americans were not threatened by some foreign deviltry, their government would steer clear of it. Now if a friendly nation is threatened, or oil is involved, or aid workers are being killed, or American students threatened, or there is a hint of chemical or biological weapons, or a nuclear program, or a substantial economic interest, people think the Americans will go in. Maybe if there is a massacre entirely of locals, Americans will go in. Perhaps if there is a democracy to be created for geopolitical purposes, Americans will go in. Once we get used to war, and more comfortable with our duties regarding it, more reasons offer themselves.

The more our national politics turn on conflicts and threats abroad, the less the room for liberty. When your national security is at stake, or when you think it is, liberty will appear to be a liability. More voices will be heard want-

Orwell had a duty to act in the crown’s interest, which meant· acting like the Burmese expected an imperial policeman to act. It was his job to kill the elephant, and he killed it.

ing to limit it. Also, the Constitution places foreign affairs mostly in the hands of the president, and makes a virtual king of him. In the 1990s, the interregnum between communism and “Islamofascism,” the Republican Party came to have a libertarian-conservative element, focused on such domestic issues as limiting welfare, preserving private health insurance, issuing school vouchers, privatizing Social Security, limiting government spending, and cutting taxes. But in foreign affairs the Republicans are America’s nationalist party, and after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they signed up for war, including one against Iraq. More Republicans began quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt, the war president. The Republicans still have some libertarian-like ideas, but none to implement during what they think of as a war on terrorism.

Some wars are good and some bad: the Revolutionary War was justified to create American independence, as was the War of 1812 to preserve it. But it is my belief that overall, wars have been a net loss for America, despite its victories in them. At the margin I have to admit that this is a faith-based argument. There is an argument the other way, that Pax Americana has made the world safer, that democracy and the rule of law have flowered under this umbrella of safety, and that it is all a net political and economic benefit to the United States.

That is also a faith-based argument. I’m suspicious of it, particularly when it’s applied to wars that I think are started for myopic American reasons. And yet I cannot lay down a principle about the benefit from war. Security is not a question of principle; it is a question of fact. It involves judgments about tradeoffs. The immediate effect on the liberty of Americans is not the only consideration. You are better off giving up some of your liberty if it keeps you alive, and maybe even if it keeps you safer, depending on how much liberty and how much safer.

And yes, I know, some politician may say he’s making you safer when he’s not. We’ve seen it done. But you’re also running a risk when some antiwar leader says the war is useless. Maybe he’s wrong. Each time, you have to decide. Each time, people with their own reasons make arguments they think will fetch you, and their arguments may not be the ones they believe themselves.

Being an American is not like being a member of an ordinary, normal country. I saw that when I lived overseas. Malaysia was a normal country; it could decide what to do based on what it wanted. It didn’t have a lot of capabilities, but it certainly had the freedom not to get involved. America had a lot of capabilities and was expected to use them. It had a shooting-an-elephant problem.

Who won America’s wars is a question of hindsight. But with the next war, or the current one, there is a question of foresight about who will win and who will lose. In foresight also comes another question, which is not about who will win, but about whether it is morally proper to jump in or to stay out. On that question, the older I get the more I am inclined to tighten the qualifications, requiring an ever-stronger case before I sign on to the government’s most dangerous and costly program.

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