Opponents of the war in Iraq sometimes give the impression that it is unusual for Americans to be sold a war on false pretenses, with government propaganda and a complicit media exploiting people’s patriotic sentiments. But in fact there’s nothing unusual about it at all. That’s one of the unavoidable conclusions of We Who Dared to Say No to War, the new book I’ve just written with Murray Polner.
Murray (a man of the left) and I come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Our aversion to mass murder was the common personality quirk that drew us together, and we decided that that was a pretty good basis for a fruitful collaboration. It’s a privilege to know Murray, and I’m happy to say our joint efforts have borne some good fruit indeed. We have brought together some of the best and most compelling antiwar writing — articles, book excerpts, speeches, poetry, and more — in American history, proceeding one major war at a time, from 1812 to the present.
We’ve chosen the selections with an eye to making this a collection you can read straight through. The contributors are all over the map. A sample: Daniel Webster, John Randolph, John Quincy Adams, Charles Sumner, Julia Ward Howe, Lysander Spooner, Stephen Crane, William Graham Sumner, William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette, Randolph Bourne, Helen Keller, Jeanette Rankin, David Dellinger, Robert Taft, Murray Rothbard, Russell Kirk, George McGovern, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Butler Shaffer, Country Joe & the Fish, Andrew Bacevich, Pat Buchanan, Bill Kauffman, Paul Craig Roberts, Howard Zinn, and Lew Rockwell.
Ever read Congressman Samuel Taggart’s speech against the War of 1812? Neither had we. The arguments Taggart had to answer, though, have an eerily familiar ring: the Canadians, who are terribly oppressed, will jump for joy when their American liberators arrive — and if they don’t, they’re a race of debased poltroons who deserve whatever American forces choose to shell out to them, etc.
We Who Dared to Say No to War consists of seventy selections, along with LRC contributor Butler Shaffer’s list of great antiwar films. William Goodell tells the truth about the Mexican War. Alexander Campbell makes one of the most compelling Christian arguments against war I’ve ever read. Antiwar abolitionists Ezra Heywood and Lysander Spooner have their say, as does Clement Vallandigham, the Ohio congressman who was exiled for his peace advocacy during the Civil War. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, was the only person to vote against American entry into both world wars, and our pages feature her defense of those votes. If you’ve never actually read Randolph Bourne (of "war is the health of the state" fame) before, expect to be blown away. More recently, Professor Andrew Bacevich writes about losing his son in the Iraq war, a war he had opposed for years.
(Oh, and Anthony Gregory, call your office: this is a book you can innocently give to a left-liberal friend, who will enjoy it while being incidentally exposed to some excellent libertarian arguments.)
Ever heard of Elihu Burritt? I sure hadn’t until this project. This forgotten nineteenth-century writer noted the great sympathy the human race extended to those who have been the victims of misfortunes: famine, shipwreck, railway accidents, whatever. He then invited his readers to "compare the feeling with which the community hears of the loss or peril of a few human lives by these accidents with which the news of the death or mutilation of thousands of men, equally precious, on the field of battle is received."
How different is the valuation! How different in universal sympathy! War seems to reverse our best and boasted civilization, to carry back human society to the dark ages of barbarism, to cheapen the public appreciation of human life almost to the standard of brute beasts….
And this demoralization of sentiment is not confined to the two or three nations engaged in war; it extends to the most distant and neutral nations, and they read of thousands slain or mangled in a single battle with but a little more human sensibility than they would read the loss of so many pawns by a move on a chess-board. With what deep sympathy the American nation, even to the very slaves, heard of the suffering in Ireland by the potato famine! What ship-loads of corn and provisions they sent over to relieve that suffering! But how little of that benevolent sympathy and of that generous aid would they have given to the same amount of suffering inflicted by war upon the people of a foreign country! This…is one of the very worst works of war. It is not only the demoralization, but almost the transformation, of human nature. We can generally ascertain how many lives have been lost in war. The tax-gatherer lets us know how much money it costs. But no registry kept on earth can tell us how much is lost to the world by this insensibility to human suffering which a war produces in the whole family circle of nations.
What a devastating observation, the kind of insight Murray and I are trying to rescue from undeserved obscurity. This one hits home for me in particular, for in my brief neoconservative period (as a high school and early college student), when I was too ill educated even to realize I was a neocon, I never gave the human cost of war a second thought, and became impatient with anyone who did. War was like a video game I could enjoy from the comfort of my home. Devastation and human suffering were quite beside the point: the righteous U.S. government was dispensing justice to the bad guys, and that was that. What are you, a liberal?
These writings are so moving, so wise, so devastating to the propaganda we’ve come to expect around war. They are the voices we rarely hear in history classrooms, which cannot seem to tear themselves away from the great war speeches of our heroic presidents. Do I agree with everything in this book? No, and neither does Murray. But every single one of these selections is morally serious and worth reading. The classic oratory of war, the saccharine promises of war, the myths and propaganda that have driven war — all these things have enjoyed the spotlight long enough. The sane people deserve to have their say.
And for 352 pages, they do.
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.