There are people who spend their time arguing that being "pro-life" this year means voting for an obtuse ignoramus who thinks it’s a laugh riot to sing, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." A savage who jokes gleefully about the inevitable creation of widows and orphans — that’s the person the official pro-life movement wants as its public face for four years. Gee, a coherent, non-contradictory message like that is just the way to win people over.
I have not once gone wrong by taking what John McCain says about foreign affairs and assuming the exact opposite to be true. (Here’s a small sample of McCain’s insights, and here’s CBS News getting caught by MSNBC cutting and pasting bits of an interview in order to make him look better informed.) No one can know for sure what McCain’s combination of belligerence and ignorance means for the American people and the world, but we can take a good guess. His only criticism of previous presidents’ foreign adventures is that they didn’t expend more American forces and treasure. McCain is "bellicose," says Pat Buchanan, and putting Georgia on a fast track to NATO membership, as McCain favors, is "a fast track to war" — with a nuclear power. True to the Orwellian script all major presidential candidates must read from, there is no propaganda line pursued by any previous administration that McCain has not dutifully adopted himself.
We’ve just lived through eight embarrassing years of a sloganeering buffoon posturing as a conservative, blundering from one disaster to another, and mouthing the most excruciating propaganda the whole way — and if McCain’s candidacy is any indication, that’s just the way some Americans like it.
And this is the area — laughingly called "national security," as if these wars had something to do with protecting you and me from the bad guys — in which McCain is supposed to be at his best, where he is most in his element. Kind of like his crazy and ignorant foreign-policy adviser Max Boot, whose saving grace is supposed to be a vast knowledge of warfare and the military — but who can’t even get that right.
The more I’ve thought and written about war these past eight or so years, the more the obvious has finally penetrated my thick skull: it is not "liberal" to describe war as a life issue. War involves the taking of human life on a massive scale. To make matters worse, the American political class, and John McCain in particular, support a string of wars that can be supported only on the basis of the crudest propaganda.
There was a time in my life when I thought accepting whatever the president and the TV told me about a foreign conflict was what made someone a good American. (Only a "liberal" might be so impertinent as to ask a question.) Many Americans think the same way. In 1996, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she thought the price had been "worth it" when she was told the sanctions on Iraq had killed half a million children. Had a Chinese premier said such a thing, we’d never have heard the end of it. An American official says it and the herd’s first instinct is to deny she said it, then deny the statistic — and then, when the statistic turns out to be true, to explain why this atrocity really wasn’t so bad.
And these are the people who lecture the world about moral relativism!
That’s one of the reasons I decided to collaborate with a friend on the Left, Murray Polner, on a collection bringing together the most incisive antiwar writing in American history. We Who Dared to Say No to War tears the lid off the lies, the phony emotional appeals, and the bipartisan, media-endorsed propaganda that have incited war fever among the American population since 1812. For every major war we have uncovered the most merciless and devastating denunciations and exposés.
Here’s Russell Kirk, one of the intellectual architects of postwar conservatism in America, rebuking the future neoconservatives in 1954: "A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions, taken simply on the assumptions of worldly wisdom. And the conservative can urge upon his nation a policy of patience and prudence. A u2018preventive’ war, whether or not it might be successful in the field — and that is a question much in doubt — would be morally ruinous to us."
Here’s what Senator George Norris had to say, at the outset of U.S. involvement in World War I, about the economic prosperity we’re told will accompany war:
To whom does war bring prosperity? Not to the soldier who for the munificent compensation of $16 per month shoulders his musket and goes into the trench, there to shed his blood and to die if necessary; not to the brokenhearted widow who waits for the return of the mangled body of her husband; not to the mother who weeps at the death of her brave boy; not to the little children who shiver with cold; not to the babe who suffers from hunger; nor to the millions of mothers and daughters who carry broken hearts to their graves. War brings no prosperity to the great mass of common and patriotic citizens. It increases the cost of living of those who toil and those who already must strain every effort to keep soul and body together…. By our act we will make millions of our countrymen suffer, and the consequences of it may well be that millions of our brethren must shed their lifeblood, millions of brokenhearted women must weep, millions of children must suffer with cold, and millions of babes must die from hunger, and all because we want to preserve the commercial right of American citizens to deliver munitions of war to belligerent nations.
And listen to Randolph Bourne, whose dictum "war is the health of the state" has become part of the American political lexicon:
The moment war is declared…the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men….
The herd coalescence of opinion which became inevitable the moment the State had set flowing the war attitudes became interpreted as a prewar popular decision, and disinclination to bow to the herd was treated as a monstrously antisocial act. So that the State, which had vigorously resisted the idea of a referendum and clung tenaciously and, of course, with entire success to its autocratic and absolute control of foreign policy, had the pleasure of seeing the country, within a few months, given over to the retrospective impression that a genuine referendum had taken place. When once a country has lapped up these State attitudes, its memory fades; it conceives itself not as merely accepting, but of having itself willed, the whole policy and technique of war. The significant classes, with their trailing satellites, identify themselves with the State, so that what the State, through the agency of the Government, has willed, this majority conceives itself to have willed.
All of which goes to show that the State represents all the autocratic, arbitrary, coercive, belligerent forces within a social group, it is a sort of complexus of everything most distasteful to the modern free creative spirit, the feeling for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. War is the health of the State. Only when the State is at war does the modern society function with that unity of sentiment, simple uncritical patriotic devotion, cooperation of services, which have always been the ideal of the State lover….
It isn’t just that the contributors to our volume possess great insight into the subject of war. They also cut through the propaganda behind every one of these wars, revealing the string of hidden truths that the regime distorted, papered over, or suppressed.
Nobody ever makes much money on an anthology, so appearances notwithstanding, this isn’t some crummy sales pitch. These voices have been ignored long enough. I’d just like people to hear them.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is co-editor (with Murray Polner) of We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now and co-author, most recently, of Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush. His other books include Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards), and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.