Wartime Habits of Mind

As the bombs fall, buildings collapse to the ground, entire divisions of troops are slaughtered, and violent power reigns supreme, our thinking begins to change. War on this scale produces intellectual fallout, and we are all inclined to go along, unless we know the lies and their refutation.

War is a great achievement. We all have friends and family members who are for this war. Of course they quickly correct that characterization. They say they are not for war as such; they only believe it to be a regrettable necessity given the circumstances. Once having assured us that this is true, they go back to watching Fox and cheering the destruction on display in daily Pentagon briefings.

Always in wartime, as the days pass, reluctant warriors become full-blown members of the cheering section. There is the tendency to regard the government’s enemy as one’s own enemy, and one’s government as a force for liberation. Thus do people begin to see violence as a productive enterprise, a tool for vanquishing the great foe to make way for the triumph of good — perhaps in the same way we see the surgeon’s knife as a tool for removing cancer.

It is through incremental steps that our hearts and minds go from loving peace to celebrating war. Once this final stage is reached, the one where we smile and cheer at mass bloodshed, the embrace of violence becomes imperious. Generals and strategists, not entrepreneurs and scholars, become our heroes. Soldiers instead of the clergy become our models of sacrifice. We begin to see society and history in terms of large conflicts and not the struggle for human cooperation. We mentally divide the world into warring tribes and forget about individuals and the essential brotherhood of man.

These habits of mind affect the way we act. They shape national political culture. They change what we teach our young, the books we buy, the movies we watch, and the way we engage each other in our communities. Make no mistake about where the love of war takes us: straight to the demolition of civilization itself. War is no greater an achievement than any other act of destruction and killing. It represents the unleashing of the basest impulse in man.

Dissidents help the enemy. Those who adopt the warlike spirit are anxious to fight in some way, to feel at one with the soldiers in the line of battle. Those protesting the war make obvious targets. Already, Internet polls show huge support for rounding up dissidents. We hear the mere expression of contrary opinion called “seditious.” Who could doubt that the likes of Donald Rumsfeld would be pleased to see dissidents in camps (another innovation of war)?

A few weeks from now, I can easily imagine that most Americans would tell pollsters that open opponents of this war should be silenced. Already Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky has called for Peter Arnett to be tried for treason. The same demands dominate talk radio, militaristic websites, and other sectors of opinion. We are told that war dissidents are the most insidious of foes because they somehow help the enemy. In fact, Rumsfeld has said as much. But those who uphold the ideals of liberty, free enterprise, and peace when they are most under attack embrace the real America, as versus its most dangerous enemy, the warfare-welfare state.

(A quick note on the Arnett case. Imagine if an Iraqi reporter went on CNN to say that the war is not going well for Iraq, and this reporter were fired from his job and an Iraqi politician called for him to be jailed. The Bush administration would quickly cite this as evidence of Iraqi despotism and intolerance of dissent.)

My country, right or wrong. Pat Buchanan and other people who used to oppose this war say that now is the time to rally behind the president and his bombs, and root for a victory. But what does a victory mean? It means that the US will destroy every active opponent of the occupying power in Iraq. That is not something we should wish for. It means the imposition of a US military dictatorship on Iraq. That is not something we should wish for. It means that the American president, as commander in chief, will be the absolute ruler of another country. That is not something we should wish for. It means that this war will be repeated in country after country in the Gulf and Middle East regions. We shouldn’t wish for that either.

The line between domestic and foreign policy is politically arbitrary, and the reality of US imperial ambition makes it more so. If you believe that politics should end at the water’s edge, it makes sense that it should end before the water’s edge. If criticizing a government’s foreign policy during wartime weakens national resolve, surely criticizing domestic policy does the same. After all, if we are to pretend all is well when the government is trying to run other people’s countries, why say otherwise when it tries to run our own?

The claim that we should back the government once it gets in a war also sets up bad incentives for statesmen. It conveys the message that the way to deal with war opposition is to forge ahead and go to war. It is like promising a politician that you will no longer criticize him provided that he does the opposite of what you want. In short, it makes no sense and makes wars more likely. The time to blast the state is precisely during war, because it is during war that it proves most threatening to its own population as well as others.

We are the government. The canard is routinely employed by democratic socialists, as if the government were the embodiment of all our individual wills. In normal times, the use of the plural pronoun to describe government policies is a sure political indicator. When someone says, “We instituted Social Security to protect the aged,” or “Our inheritance taxes are designed to prevent dynasties of privilege and wealth,” his politics rings clear as a bell. But somehow, in wartime, the use of the plural pronoun becomes absurdly ubiquitous.

People freely say: “We are going to overthrow Saddam, we are going to install a new government, and we are going to bring freedom to Iraq.” Americans today speak as if what the US military is doing is an extension of the national will. This is an extremely dangerous linguistic habit. Indeed, it helps clear the path for the total state.

Believe the government. Always in wartime, the government is the primary source of information. In fact, the war planners work hard to make this so. The US bombs the enemy’s information agencies and tries to silence contrary points of view at home. All non-government sources of information are at a disadvantage, always being drowned out by official sources. The government is always in the position to confirm or deny any stated story. All negative stories can be dismissed as Internet gossip or the work of the enemy.

The habit that develops here is believing the government to an extent impossible in peacetime. When a politician promises to make us all healthy, happy, and wise in a period of normalcy, the tendency is to dismiss the claim as propaganda. But when the government claims that it did not bomb that hospital and that the enemy has littered the country with rape rooms, people are apt to go along. No one wants to be seen as somehow doubting the truth of government pronouncements in wartime. This habit carries over in peacetime and paves the way for the eventual success of the propaganda state.

Pray for our soldiers, not theirs. A frequent criticism of Islam is that it is supposed to regard non-Islamic life as somehow less valuable than Islamic life. The demand that we pray for the safety of our soldiers but wish death on theirs partakes of the same spirit. Carry this far enough and the temptation grows to forget that every person on the planet is precious in the eyes of God and that it is wrong to kill a life that God created. All the progress of humanity is bound up with the conviction that every human life is of infinite moral value. We dare not forget that.

In this same vein, a truly pious war monument ought to recognize not only American dead but also those who died in the service of the opposing country, and their dead civilians. For example, the Vietnam War Memorial might commemorate two million Vietnamese as well as 57,000 Americans. To the extent we do not do that, we are sending the signal that it is only American lives that count, which further suggests that it is the nation state and not our essential humanity that gives us rights.

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