An Individualist in Wartime

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The Individualist in Wartime

by Daniel McCarthy

The anti-statist, whether he calls himself libertarian, conservative, individualist, or something else, is facing a dilemma right now. He’s under pressure to pick a side in the run-up to war with Iraq, and the choice isn’t pretty.

To one side of him are anti-war Communists and near-Communists. Across from them are respectable-looking militarists. Normally a sane man who values peace and prosperity would not want anything to do with either camp. But there’s something about being caught between the two that makes him feel compelled to choose a side, when the only side he ought to choose is that of his own conscience.

Consider the two factions vying for the anti-statist’s allegiance, starting with the pro-war group. Its members may look normal enough but their arguments, such as they are, make no sense. No good case has been made for invading Iraq. In rare moments of candor, even the war’s supporters admit that it isn’t necessary. Saddam Hussein may well be violating UN Security Council resolutions and developing whatever he can in the way of "weapons of mass destruction," but that doesn’t mean he poses a threat to the United States, let alone an imminent threat. Saddam Hussein is not suicidal, he is not about to launch a pre-emptive WMD attack against the United States. Nor does he, a secular dictator with Christians serving high in his regime, have good reason to trust al Qaeda with WMDs. No credible evidence has linked Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, and none has come to light to suggest he plans to attack the US. The planned invasion of Iraq is not a defensive war, it’s aggression. It should be clear why any decent person should oppose it.

Iraq, however, is very far away from where most of us live and work. Not so the anti-war protesters, at least if you live in a major city. The evils of the attack against Iraq are not immediately before our eyes, but those of the anti-war protests are. And what are those evils? A local example may serve to illustrate. The main library of my university, Washington University in St. Louis, is undergoing renovation. A wooden wall has been erected around the building’s perimeter to keep students from wandering onto the construction site. The university administration has made the wall available to students and student groups who would like to paint it as a form of publicity. Anti-war groups have taken advantage of the opportunity. Here are four of the slogans they’ve put up:

  • "Do we use cellphones, or do cellphones use us?"

  • "Cigarettes are for Capitalistas."

  • "America is Nazi Babylon."

  • "Hunt the Rich."

Not all anti-war activists, even on the Far Left, are as stupid or downright evil as these graffiti suggest. But quite a few are. Neocons at National Review Online and, interestingly, a couple of writers at The Nation, have been hammering away for months now on the point that many of the anti-war protests have been organized and led by unreconstructed Communists, and that among their rank-and-file are legions of Mumiacs and anti-globalization types. There is enough truth to the exaggerated charges of the anti-antiwar press to do the movement real damage. Sane people, even those with solid anti-war principles, do not want to associate with Communists and loons. What’s worse, I know of one person, a thoroughgoing libertarian and devout Christian, who has been so repulsed by what he’s seen of the anti-war movement that he’s now having second thoughts about his own opposition to the war. I suspect my friend is not alone. And he’s an extreme case, someone who is a self-identified libertarian. Less ideologically committed people — that’s most of middle America — are bound to be even more turned off. It would be easy to criticize my friend for wavering and going on a basically emotional reaction against the anti-war movement, but most people do let their emotions color their reason. Even libertarians cannot always avoid it.

My friend’s problem, and the problem of those like him, is that he finds it hard to be anti-war without being part of the anti-war movement. Since he cannot accept the latter, he moves away from the former. He thinks he only has two choices: to oppose the war alongside the Far Left, or to oppose the Far Left alongside the war’s supporters. This perception on his part is reinforced by rhetoric from both factions, each of which makes claims to the effect that "those who are not with us are against us" or "those who do nothing [i.e., don’t join the protests] are as guilty as those who take part in the invasion." Such declarations are intended in part to polarize, to force the individual to choose between the two extremes — misleading extremes, in this case. They are also intended to associate belief with action. If you’re not protesting, you must not be anti-war; or conversely, if you’re not supporting US aggression against a sovereign nation, you must not be against terrorism.

The unstated assumption behind such arguments is the collectivist doctrine that everybody has to pick a team, or indeed that everybody already belongs to a team by default. To stake out an independent position, this doctrine holds, is both untenable and immoral. It’s untenable because the individual, acting alone, cannot possibly be effective. And it’s immoral because the man who believes in something owes it to his cause to be effective. It follows, then, that if he holds any principles at all, he must work with a movement. To go it alone is a waste, and to do it out of principle is "ideological preening." It’s sheer vanity.

This fundamentally collectivist idea, implicitly promoted by the Far Left, the center-Left and so-called conservatives alike, has become part of the background against which Americans (and others) today make decisions. One might say that it has seeped into the "collective subconscious," although I think I would prefer to say that it has seeped into subconscious of many an otherwise sane person. It’s an idea that has to be examined and rejected. No earthly movement has a God-given right to anyone’s loyalty. For a man to be morally obligated to one, he has to have given his allegiance freely.

In concrete terms, that means one should not feel implicated in the idiocies and villainies of the anti-war movement simply because one is anti-war. You’re not a draftee in Ramsey Clark’s army just because you’re not with Bush, and by the same token repudiating Ramsey Clark doesn’t have to mean accepting the attack on Iraq. The individual’s only obligation here is to his own conscience. That doesn’t necessarily make things easy: there’s still the question of what the civilized man can do about the war. It may be that the best thing for him to do is nothing at all; simply minding his own business and refraining from supporting the war. Or it may be that the best thing he can do, according to the dictates of his reason and his conscience, is to join the anti-war protests. But that’s for him to decide; nobody else can tell anyone how best to use his time and talent, and certainly nobody else has any moral claim upon either. To say otherwise is to undercut the entire point of anti-statism. It would be a bitter irony indeed for someone who’s against the war because he’s against collectivism to become a collectivist in order to oppose the war. One does not become a collectivist merely by associating with them — collectivism is not like fleas — one becomes a collectivist by adopting collectivist doctrine. And that, unfortunately, is what otherwise sensible people are doing when they feel compelled to make a choice between absurdities, when all along they ought to follow their own principles.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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