War and the Capitalist Press

During the war on Iraq, and the one before that on Afghanistan, the Wall Street Journal predictably became the noisiest mouthpiece for the War Party. Readers of this publication have noted how much more passionate the paper is on that subject than on economic themes. One easily gets the impression that war socialism is a far greater priority in their halls than a free commercial sector.

The following is a speech I gave in 1999 at a Rothbard-Rockwell Report conference, during a time when the Journal was whooping it up for another war. It strikes me how closely the propaganda war on Iraq mirrored that of the Clinton wars, particularly that against Serbia. Some people complain that the WSJ is partisan, but the following demonstrates that this criticism is unfair. When it comes to uncritically backing war, the WSJ is truly non-partisan.

To make a case against the Nato killers who have laid waste to Yugoslavia, it might be enough to simply quote Bill Clinton. “Our children are being fed a dependable daily dose of violence,” the president said. “And it sells.” Further, it “desensitizes our children to violence and to the consequences of it.”

But in these comments, presumably, he wasn’t revealing the essence of his war, and its convenient effect of eclipsing Monica as his legacy to the world and its dreadful consequence to imparting an example of violence and bloodshed to anyone who still looks to the government for moral example. Rather, it turns out, he was leveling an attack on the private sector, which entertains us with movies and video games. He says it is the movie and video-game industries, not real-life war, that is corrupting morals.

And yet the violence being inflicted and the blood being spilled by the troops Clinton commands are real. It is foolish to believe that this does not have an effect on the children of this country. It is sadly true that the behavior of the president still has an undue influence on those who yet believe the civics-text lie that the office is the most morally exalted in the land. The most corrupt media mogul does far more good, and far less harm, than the president.

But for those who still believe in the modern civic religion, it is the president who sets the moral tone, and the boundaries of right and wrong. It is no wonder, then, that one of the killers at Columbine had widely proclaimed his desire to drop some bombs on Serbia. Neither should we forget that the man convicted of bombing the Oklahoma City federal building received his training in how to kill during the war on Iraq ordered up by the last madman to hold the office.

But it is not only the killers themselves who must be held accountable. It is also those who would attempt to put the best possible spin on the killing machine, trying to make its actions morally justifiable and putting in print calls for wartime escalation rather than peace. They serve as handmaids to the warfare state and as megaphones for the leviathan state, and I don’t care if their politics are from the left or the right: they must be held to account.

Two unfortunate facts undergird the thesis and argument of this talk. First, the Wall Street Journal is seen the world over as the preeminent capitalist organ of opinion, one that is seen to speak for the American tradition of free enterprise. Second, of all leading publications, it has proven to be the most aggressive in its promotion of the blood-soaked war on Yugoslavia. Since the war began, the Journal has been unswervingly enthusiastic, tolerated no dissent against its pro-war position in its news, its editorial pages, or its op-ed pages. Its content wouldn’t have been different if the most hawkish division of the State Department had been exercising full editorial control.

How can these two disparate positions of free enterprise and imperialism be reconciled? The Left has a ready answer. In the Leninist tradition, Marx’s failure to predict the overthrow of capitalism can be explained by reference to the international policy of the capitalist nations. Once the capitalists had fully exploited the workers at home, they would seek out foreign markets to exploit and impose their will using war and imperialism.

Thus ran Lenin’s analysis in August 1915:

“Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, one that has been reached only in the twentieth century. Capitalism began to feel cramped within the old national states, without the formation of which it could not overthrow feudalism. Capitalism has brought about such economic concentration that entire branches of industry are in the hands of syndicates, trusts, or corporations of billionaires; almost the entire globe has been parceled out among the ‘giants of capital,’ either in the form of colonies, or through the entangling of foreign countries by thousands of threads of financial exploitation.

“Free trade and competition have been superseded by tendencies towards monopoly, towards seizure of lands for the investment of capital, for the export of raw materials, etc. Capitalism, formerly a liberator of nations, has now, in its imperialist stage, become the greatest oppressor of nations. Formerly progressive, it has become a reactionary force. It has developed the productive forces to such an extent that humanity must either pass over to Socialism, or for years, nay, decades, witness armed conflicts of the ‘great’ nations for an artificial maintenance of capitalism by means of colonies, monopolies, privileges, and all sorts of national oppression.” (Socialism and War, Chapter 1, 1914)

Now, before we all convert to Leninism, let’s admit that he was not wrong on the facts, but remember that he made a grave categorical error, as explained by Ludwig von Mises in his 1922 book Socialism. Free trade and free enterprise are not aggressive; they are the global font of cooperation and peace. When conflicts do arise in a free market, they are settled based on the terms of contract. So long as the State does not intervene, private property and free enterprise insure peaceful cooperation among men and nations. What Lenin identified as attributes of capitalism were in fact attributes of the State, particularly the State which claims to be master of economic affairs. As Mises explained:

“Military Socialism is the Socialism of a state in which all institutions are designed for the prosecution of war. It is a State Socialism in which the scale of values for determining social status and the income of citizens is based exclusively or preferably on the position held in the fighting forces. The higher the military rank the greater the social value and the claim on the national dividend. The military state, that is the state of the fighting man in which everything is subordinated to war purposes, cannot admit private ownership in the means of production. Standing preparedness for war is impossible if aims other than war influence the life of individuals…. The military state is a state of bandits. It prefers to live on booty and tribute.”

Pairing the Leninist with the Misesian position on the ideological basis of imperialism helps illuminate the crucial framework for understanding this war. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe has explained, the great intellectual error of classical liberalism was its Hobbesian concession in favor of what it believed could be a limited State. In reality, the State is far more dangerous in a productive, capitalist society than it is in an impoverished, socialized society, simply because it has far more private resources to pillage and loot for the State’s own benefit. Availing itself of the vast fruits of private production, the State engages in self-aggrandizement, expansion, and, inevitably, imperialism.

By way of illustration, in the US today, we have two economies, one free and one unfree. The free one has given us the great abundance of consumer goods, the widest distribution of wealth, and the fastest pace of technological innovation known in the history of man. The unfree one — characterized by the two trillion dollar federal budget and the more than one-quarter of that spent on apparatus that builds and administers weapons of mass destruction — has produced what we have been reading about in the headlines for the last two months. Military Socialism, which exists by pillaging the free economy, is responsible for a brutal and immoral war on a civilian population halfway around the world — the destruction of hospitals, churches, nursing homes, residential neighborhoods, and town squares.

In an ideal world, the daily newspaper focusing on American economic life would celebrate the free economy, which the Wall Street Journal does on occasion, but also condemn the unfree one, which the Wall Street Journal does not. There is a reason why this is not the case. The horrible reality is that the unfree economy may be murderous and wasteful but it also makes many people very rich. The stocks of the companies that build the bombs and enjoy the booty after the war is over, are publicly traded, in the same manner as the stocks of real capitalist companies. When the Journal celebrates this war, it is speaking on behalf of the companies that stand to benefit from the war.

But that doesn’t innoculate the newspaper from moral responsibility for backing the bloodshed. And it doesn’t shield it from open displays of confusion, as when the paper’s support for free enterprise conflicts with its support for military socialism. For example, the paper recently editorialized about the Clinton administration’s drafting of pilots and technicians in the form of an order prohibiting their leaving. Think of it as the nationalization of talent, or simply a stop-gap measure to stop the drain from the public to the private sector.

Incidentally, the pilots in the armed forces should be allowed to resign for the private sector anytime they want to. Actually, these pilots have a moral obligation to resign. They must not use their considerable flying talents to commit the war crimes they are being ordered to commit. They have a moral obligation not to murder and destroy property, a moral obligation not to aggress. By prohibiting them from changing jobs, Clinton is coercing these pilots into committing gravely evil acts.

But somehow, even though pilot resignations would benefit the private sector, the editors at the Wall Street Journal couldn’t bring themselves to condemn Clinton’s tyrannical action. Instead, it suggested various incentive programs that would cause pilots to be less likely to abandon their nation-building, or nation-destroying, actions. The paper suggested higher pay and a greater clarity of mission. In this case where the interests of the free and unfree economies collide, the Wall Street Journal sides with War Socialism.

And just so that we are clear on how bad things have gotten at the Journal, let’s sample some of the analysis that it has printed over the last several months. No journalist today has provided analysis of the high-tech world as trenchant as that of the Journal’s regular columnist George Melloan. When he writes about the free economy, he is usually level-headed and morally sound. But on the matter of war, he has epitomized the capitalist-imperialist mode denounced by Lenin.

Melloan writes that the purpose of this war is “something far more ambitious than pacification. It is trying to civilize Serbia.” If this be civilizing, God save us from barbarism, and from warfare statists masquerading as advocates of free enterprise.

What about the US bombing of the Chinese embassy, which would have been perceived as a world-historic crime and act of war if a US embassy had been the target? “The [embassy] bombing,” Melloan writes, “was clearly the kind of accident that happens in war.” Besides, he further opined, “the Chinese government clearly gives aid and comfort to the Serbian barbarian, Slobodan Milosevic. It has joined with Russia to try to sway United Nations Security Council votes in his favor.”

Well, clearly then, murder and destruction are just what the State orders for anyone who would give aid and comfort to the Serbian barbarian. In fact, can’t we say that anyone who isn’t on board with this war is giving aid and comfort to the enemy? Shouldn’t their voices be quelled? Can we really say they don’t deserve to be bombed? It’s all part of the civilizing process.

The day after the bombing, there was no time for regrets at the Wall Street Journal. No, the editorial page used the occasion to spread the war fever. After all, the Journal said of the bombed embassy, “War is dangerous, and while NATO has sought to avoid civilian casualties, clearly people have died on the ground. [Catch the responsibility-shedding passive voice?] An obvious question may dawn on Chinese people eventually,” the Journal continued, “Why, in the middle of such a war, did their government choose to keep all those people in its embassy and potentially in harm’s way?”

Imagine that. The US never declared war on Belgrade. The State Department never demanded that all diplomats leave the city. It promised at the outset only to hit military targets of the Yugoslav army. And yet when the US bombs the Chinese embassy, according to the Journal, it is the fault of the Chinese diplomats in Belgrade.

Along these lines, imagine further the future of death coverage in the Journal. Those kids in the Littleton High School: what were they doing there anyway? Don’t they know that school can be dangerous? Those people murdered by an immigrant on the Long Island railway: didn’t they know the New York metropolitan area is a place not unfamiliar with killing?

This is the moral reasoning of a blunted conscience, one no longer struck by the pain of human suffering and the evil of violence except when affecting the appearance of shock serves a political purpose. This illustrates a broader point: in American public life today, there are two kinds of death. Death caused by the US government is justifiable, as Madeleine Albright tells us about the death of children in Iraq. Only death caused by enemies of the US government is considered an atrocious and intolerable act that cries out for vengeance. The operating principle here is not the sanctity of life but the sanctity of the nation state that determines which kind of life is valuable and which is not.

And yet this cannot be the entire answer to the mystery of why bloodshed would be overlooked by the Journal. We’ve all been struck by the mystery of how otherwise sensible people could come to support a massacre to achieve their own view of political utopia. I can’t say I have the answer. How were US communists able to reconcile themselves with the mass bloodshed wrought by the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath? How were German intellectuals and religious leaders able to justify in their own minds the bloodshed wrought by the Nazi dictatorship? How were US citizens able to observe the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the mass ethnic cleansing of German civilians after World War II, and call it patriotism in action?

It will always be something of a mystery, but if you want to see the same moral blindness at work right now, look no further than the early column by Max Boot, whose usual beat is the litigation explosion. Writing on the Journal’s op-ed page which he edits, he praised this war on grounds that “humanitarianism truly is in the driver’s seat.” He speaks for many in the pundit class, who regard this war as uniquely motivated by a moral end. Similarly, Robert Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post the other day that “Kosovo may represent the first war in US history that has been undertaken mostly for moral reasons.”

There are several problems with this theory, aside from the fact that the families of the 2,000 civilians killed do not likely consider their deaths the consequence of humanitarianism. First, the Clinton regime has made an appeal, not only to the well being of the Kosovars, but to American interests as well. Clinton himself says we all have an interest in a stable world where Europe is not embroiled in war. On Memorial Day, he even vaguely suggested that if we don’t stop Milosevic now, he and his armies will someday come attacking US shores.

Second, no one can convince me that charity and love are the driving forces behind a war in which tens of billions may eventually be transferred from taxpayers to the merchants of death. Perhaps greed also plays a role?

Third, every war I can think of, as far back as you look in US history or world history, has been justified under some moral theme. The enemy must always be demonized and the home government sanctified, if only to provide a necessary ethical coating to the nasty business of mass murder. The pundits who say the moral themes of this war are unique are only displaying their historical ignorance.

Finally, Boot’s phrase about humanitarianism reminds me of Isabel Paterson’s brilliant chapter in her book, The God of the Machine entitled “The Humanitarian With the Guillotine.” She argued that the great evils of holocausts and mass slaughter could not thrive anywhere in the world unless they were given a benevolent public face.

“Certainly the slaughter committed from time to time by barbarians invading settled regions, or the capricious cruelties of avowed tyrants,” she wrote, “would not add up to one-tenth the horrors perpetrated by rulers with good intentions.” She pointed to the example of Stalin: “we have the peculiar spectacle of the man who condemned millions of his own people to starvation, admired by philanthropists whose declared aim is to see to it that everyone in the world has a quart of milk.”

In a similar way, we are rattled on a daily basis by the atrocities committed by our own government, justified in the name of ending atrocities. Asked about the mounting civilian casualties — first denied, then called mistakes, later dubbed military targets — Nato spokesman Jamie Shea finally if implicitly admitted the existence of the bloodshed that has shocked the world. “There is always a cost to defeat an evil,” he responded. “It never comes free, unfortunately.”

Doing evil so that good may come of it, using evil means to accomplish good ends — these are condemned by the Western religious tradition, particularly in light of the rethinking of public morality after the rise and fall of totalitarianism. Hence, many around the world are already comparing the US with Hitler’s army, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I wonder why? Perhaps because Gen. William Odom, director of the National Security Agency under Reagan, urged copying German military tactics in a ground invasion of Belgrade. Also, writing — where else? — in the Wall Street Journal, the general praised the Nazis who “swept down this corridor in World War II, taking the whole of Yugoslavia in a couple of weeks.”

The Journal editors were similarly jingoistic as the prospect of peace raised its ugly head. They raise the horrible prospect, only recently considered an essential feature part of the democratic system, that Milosevic “will remain in power unless his own people throw him out.” The Journal just presumes that it is somehow up to the US to decide who gets to be president in far-away sovereign countries.

One wonders how it is possible that in wartime, all the normal rules of civilized life, all the lessons learned from history, all the checks on power that have been established over the centuries, are thrown into the trash heap. It’s a question to ask Carlos Westendorp, who calls himself the “High Representative of the International Community for the Civil Implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords.” Also writing in the Wall Street Journal, he says that after the Serbs have been defeated “a full international protectorate is required. It may last for a few years. Yes, this disregards the principles of sovereignty, but so what? This is not the moment for post-colonial sensitivities.”

There we have it. It is not just democracy; the very principle of sovereignty itself that is reduced to a mere “sensitivity” not suitable in emergency times such as these. Thus the Wall Street warriors were among the first to call for arming anyone but Serbs, and, in this war, demanding that the US put together an invasive army to conquer the country and overthrow the government — a plan now summed up as “ordering up ground troops.” By calling for ground troops, and criticizing anyone who might be skeptical of the idea, the Journal is able to maintain its anti-Clinton posture and appeal to what it believes is the latent hawkishness of its readership.

On the very day that the New York Times reported progress in the desperate attempt by non-British European governments and Russia to broker something of a peace agreement, the Journal at last conceded that too many innocents were dying in this war. “Of its nature, war is about suffering,” the comfy editors typed into their word processors.

Modern war, the editors continued, is particularly irritating because “we now live in an age in which television brings the inevitable ruins of war into everyone’s living room every night.” This has forced a national conversation about whether blowing up civilian infrastructure is morally wise. Further, the publicity given to civilian killings — no thanks to the Journal here — is "creating divisions inside Nato itself." Interesting how the Journal can muster more moral pathos over divisions within an aggressive military pact than over the death of 2,000 innocents, and the destruction of the property of millions.

So how does this bit of soul searching on the part of the editors end? With — you guessed it — another call for ground troops, which they now claim would have prevented civilian casualties. “What the American people do not want are casualties for no purpose,” says the Journal. Besides, “going to Belgrade and throwing out a war criminal is not going to lose elections. And while it would involve casualties, it would bring the destruction and killing to an end.”

The use of language here is strange: note the supposed distinction between mere casualties and killing. That one sentence is a case study in the language of imperialist propaganda. Opposite the editorial page on the same day, a pollster named Humphrey Taylor mulls over the question of popular support for the war, noting that this one has been seriously lagging in that area. The reason, he concludes, is that there have actually been too few casualties on our side. He ends with this stirring call to arms: “It’s quite possible that casualties could strengthen, not weaken, American resolve to defeat Slobodan Milosevic.”

Yes, it’s true. This sentence appeared in a respectable newspaper, the voice of capitalism in our times. Thank goodness for the pollsters and their advice!

You know, I’ve been thinking. Clinton says he needs to draft pilots to conduct his war, but this is bad for morale. Shouldn’t those who are most enthusiastic for ground troops be the first ones forced into combat? If we are to reinstate the draft, I say let’s start by drafting the people who write this drivel and give them the opportunity to become the war heroes they so badly want to be. Let’s institute another Lincoln Brigade, staffed by the Journal’s own editors, that will make all the necessary sacrifices to save the world for social democracy.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the Journal’s two-month-long campaign for US war. True, I have left out the pretentious prattle of a certain Margaret Thatcher, who wrote on its pages in favor of “the destruction of Serbia’s political will, the destruction of its war machine and all the infrastructure on which these depend.” She could have just summed it up by calling for a wholesale ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Serbia.

Also, I have left out the ridiculous parodies written by some British fellow calling himself Winston Churchill, Jr., who appears to be trying, without success, to turn some history-making phrase. In sum, let me say that in these last 70 days, the only truthful statement on the war from the Journal’s editorial page came on May 13: “Propaganda, especially in wartime, knows no bounds.”

All this war propaganda might be expected from the likes of the New Republic. But for the Journal to beat the drums louder than anyone does great damage to the cause of free enterprise. It links capitalism and imperialism in the public mind, and fans the flames of Leninist theory in the academy and abroad. This damage is deepened by the broader problem that it is not just the Journal that is perceived to be a defender of economic freedom; the US itself, particularly at the end of the Cold War, was, until recently, perceived to be the standard bearer of liberalism.

Here is where this war has been so costly. Liberal reform movements in China, Romania, Greece, Serbia, and many other places in the world, have suffered serious blows to their credibility, because their cause is treated under the general rubric of Americanization. The bombs that fall on innocents have the indirect effect of fanning the flames of anti-Americanism, which translates into anti-liberalism. To the extent that America still represents the hope of freedom in the world, this war is very harmful to the cause of liberty, free trade, and human rights.

How can such a result benefit Wall Street? Well, there’s another side effect of the defeat of liberal reform movements in such places as Serbia and other European and Asian states. The end result of this war is likely to be the rearming of the world, after a period in which it appeared that we were in for a long period of disarmament. You can only imagine yourself as the head of any State that has had difficult relations with the US in the past — and that is most. You might draw from this experience the crucial lesson that States without nuclear weapons, such as Yugoslavia, are vulnerable to the most brutal forms of imperial assault.

The only way to forestall this result would be for Congress to take a drastic step and eviscerate the military budget, refusing to pay for this or any future war. But this will not happen, due to a deep intellectual incoherence at the heart of the Republican Party. It was only days after the GOP voted not to endorse the war that it voted to double the fiscal outlay to pay for the war. But this is no different from scolding the local gang for their pillaging while giving it the key to a weapons stockpile. If the warfare state has funding and armaments, it is naturally going to go looking for enemies on which to use them. Every bureaucrat knows that he must justify this year’s budget in order to position himself for next year’s budget battles.

Isn’t it time the Republicans fundamentally rethink their pro-military bias? Hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear some conservative spokesman, GOP presidential hopeful, or right-wing commentator complain about how Clinton has supposedly gutted our defenses. But look at the facts. The US will spend more than $300 billion on the military this year. The second highest military spending in the world comes from Russia, which spends the equivalent of $60 billion. Scary imperialist China spends $37 billion. Just from looking at these numbers, the US could slash the military budget by two thirds, and still spend well more than any other country.

The conservative attachment to militarism has doomed the program to cut government in the entire postwar period. The Journal’s own editorial position — favoring huge tax cuts and equally huge spending increases — illustrates the problem. This view is rightly denounced as hypocritical by the Left who point out that the American Right is only for limiting government spending when it goes to the wrong people, but all for the tax and spend agenda when it buys military hardware.

The usual response to this in the past is that defense is a legitimate constitutional function, whereas welfare redistribution is dubious at best. But there is nothing constitutional about the biggest and most destructive cache of weapons of mass destruction ever held by a single government, much less controlled by a single man we call the president.

The original constitutional vision was of 50 states that protected themselves from invasion through local militias. The function of the federal government was to intervene only when this proved insufficient in the case of an invasion. There is no more constitutional justification for the warfare state than the welfare state.

In the past, we have been able to count on a large peace movement to oppose US foreign policy adventures. But for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, the soft left has gone AWOL in its responsibilities, leaving only the truly principled Left and the truly principled Right to stand up against the massive nuclear arsenal of the world’s biggest power. But it can be done, provided we don’t shrink from our responsibilities.

Some people have complained that in condemning the US intervention in the Balkans, the antiwar movement has ignored the atrocities of Milosevic. In the first place, it is very difficult to verify claims in wartime, though since Milosevic is both a nationalist and an avowed socialist of the old school, not to mention an elected politician, I can readily believe he is capable of doing all that he is accused of doing.

Similarly, I am also quite willing to believe the worst that is said about the US head of state. People in power are not like the rest of us. In their careers, the ordinary vices and evils are rewarded as political successes, an incentive structure that tends to insure that the higher you go in politics, the less you believe you are bound by the moral tenets of the mortal class.

At the same time, I do not believe that we, as Americans, have an obligation to denounce all tyrants with equal moral passion. No foreign tyrant ever killed anyone while invoking my name and my heritage. But a long string of American presidents has done so, and one is doing so now.

As citizens of this country, as a part of our civic duty, if not as the sum total of our civic duty, we must do our best to denounce and restrain our own tyrants. We cannot stop bloodshed in Rwanda or ethnic conflict in Turkey, but our voices can make a real difference in what our own government is allowed to get away with. When a regime that rules in our name engages in any form of mass killing, the primary question that will be asked of us is: did you speak out against it? Did you do all that you could do to stop it? Or did you remain silent?

Near the turn of the last century, two months into the US war on Spain, Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard gave an address that ended this way:

“My friends, America has been compelled against the will of all her wisest and best to enter into a path of darkness and peril. Against their will she has been forced to turn back from the way of civilization to the way of barbarism, to renounce for the time her own ideals. With grief, with anxiety must the lover of his country regard the present aspect and the future prospect of the nation’s life. With serious purpose, with utter self-devotion he should prepare himself for the untried and difficult service to which it is plain he is to be called in the quick-coming years. Two months ago America stood at the parting of the ways. Her first step is irretrievable. It depends on the virtue, on the enlightened patriotism of her children whether her future steps shall be upward to the light or downward to the darkness.”

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