The impressive Allan C. Carlson of the Howard Center has written extensively on the effect of wars on the homefront, especially on returning soldiers’ ability to adjust to civilization and the civilizing institutions that nurture it. Although most eventually make this transition, it is not easy because it means undoing the dehumanizing culture necessary for conducting war.
This culture is necessary for soldiers to shoot and kill their fellow man, and sometimes their families, without conscience. The armed forces, therefore, place much effort on training soldiers to follow simple abstract "rules of engagement" and to think of their targets as something less than human, and a threat.
If successful, such training convinces soldiers that the enemies of the state are not people, but subhuman Krauts or Gooks or (like in Star Wars) simply clones.
These thoughts came to mind recently when a colleague and I discussed a local man who recently returned from Iraq. A member of the Special Forces, his job, as he saw it, was to kill as many "bad guys" as possible, a job he evidently carried out with relish. To hear him talk, he has killed hundreds of Iraqis since 2003, many of them in houses and mosques that military intelligence believed hid so-called insurgents — a blanket term for anyone who dared rebel against a foreign occupying army.
In many cases, the rules called for killing every adult male found in a targeted house or mosque, as well as any women and children perceived as threatening. The overriding, yet implicit, rule was to do your job, protect your buddies, and return alive. One gets the impression that he wasn’t very discriminating about whom he pointed his gun at when he barged into houses in the various non-green zones that characterize most of Iraq.
Perhaps his blunt-talk was his way of obtaining the redemption one normally receives in the confessional, but he gave no indication that he cared. His job (as he put it) was "to kill as many of them over there before they kill us over here." In other words: It’s not murder if it’s self-defense.
Based on what one hears on talk radio nowadays, his comments seem pretty mainstream. But they deserve criticism.
First, they presuppose an agreement with the policies of the U.S. government in Iraq, granting them a sort of democratic imprimatur and absolving him of his actions. One problem with this type of reasoning is that whether he agrees with policies or not is irrelevant. He is just another form of federal employee, albeit one with a decent pay grade, and like any federal employee, he is simply carrying out politicians’ policies. The difference between him, on the ground in Iraq, and a civil servant working in the Social Security System, is one of degree. Does anyone care if they agree with policies? In both cases, they are paid to follow orders.
Second, the idea that freedom requires such killing does not stand up to critical analysis. Actions such as his, multiplied across a region as a matter of policy, feed terrorism and cause blowback that make us less safe. Such policies create long-standing hatreds and acts of vengeance, so that a defense of freedom today results in actions that require more defense of freedom in the future. It is a deadly circle — a circle with the same end as those described by Dante.
What’s more, what good is fighting for freedom abroad if doing so results in less freedom at home? The great irony of our time is that the expansion of the warfare state, even when justified for the defense of freedom, has the effect of expanding the welfare state. It is no mistake that the growth of government since 2001 has been compared to that of the 1930s. That is the trade-off, and it explains why military empire and socialism go hand in hand. Spare us such defenses of freedom.
Finally, his comments reminded me of Hitler’s words from almost 70 years ago, on the Nazis’ need "to bring up a violently active, intrepid and brutal youth." Military empires nurture people who can kill with no conscience. Their very existence, deployed in over 100 countries around the world, should make freedom-loving Americans stop and take notice how far we have moved from republic to empire, a transition much feared by the Founding Fathers.
They might start by reading the words of Allan Carlson, from his essay in the 1997 book, The Costs of War:
[I]t is time for persons of the political right to cast off lingering delusions about the "conservative traditions" of the military — traditions such as cultivation of the "arts of war," a sense of duty, and manhood, or defense of one’s family and inherited way of life. Over the last 50 years, these principles have had ever-diminishing influence. Rather, we face in America at the end of the 20th century something closer to Cromwell’s "New Model Army," one being used to re-engineer our society to serve the total state, which in turn engages in a perpetual social and moral revolution.
Carlson echoes the concerns of Ludwig von Mises in his 1944 book Omnipotent Government. Offensive war is good for little more than the spread of the total state. And as that grows, civilization itself is corrupted.