What’s the Real Key to Our Freedom?

I‘ve been doing a bit of radio lately, sometimes brought on as one of those curious folks who question this war and should be examined like a pinned butterfly, sometimes by hosts who seem grateful to have an antiwar spokesman who doesn’t think it all goes back to Mumia. (Your local station can reach someone to set up bookings with me and some others through Antiwar.com.) In the process I’ve dealt only briefly with a question that deserves more serious consideration.

"Your dissent undermines and shows disrespect for our soldiers who don’t set the policies or decide where they’re going to be sent," say some callers and some hosts. "And if it weren’t for the willingness of our fighting men and women to put themselves at risk, you wouldn’t have the freedom to speak out and criticize our government the way you do. Don’t you think you should be willing to tone it down a bit out of respect for what those people are willing to risk on your behalf?"


As to disrespect, I don’t believe I have ever shown any, at least not personally – although others may certainly interpret what I do or say differently. Since the end of conscription, those who have joined the armed forces have done so as a matter of personal choice, and there’s no reason for any American to disrespect or denigrate those choices. They knew those choices entailed risk and the evidence is that few shrink from that risk; those who have criticized the idea of war with Iraq tend to be retired military people, usually from the upper ranks.

Those being deployed seem to have the same kinds of apprehension, eagerness and ambivalence that soldiers about to experience combat have had for centuries. For the most part they are dealing with the prospect of doing their duty bravely and with dedication.

It’s impossible, of course, to know for sure how many were influenced by the kind of recruiting techniques the military still uses in its TV ads – promoting the idea that this is "an army of one" where you can experience personal development and gain skills that will give you a good career later in life rather than emphasizing being sent into a kill-or-be-killed environment.

We might find out later that a reasonably hefty percentage were quietly shocked or disappointed, figuring they wouldn’t be called into a real war. But they are brave and they no doubt believe they are doing the right thing. Considering what a rotten ruler Saddam Hussein is, that’s not all that difficult a belief to sustain.


As for whether criticism of administration war plans undermines the capacity of Americans in the military services to do their jobs, I find this concern a bit overblown. A time might come when antiwar protesters try physically to block troop trains or prevent military units from moving about or receiving supplies. But it hasn’t happened so far.

There were a couple of efforts to disrupt military mobility back in the Vietnam war, but they were generally short-lived and not especially effective. If anything, they might have steeled the resolve of military people and those who supported them. In addition, it was genuinely if modestly potentially dangerous for the protesters, and was difficult to sustain. Given that this war is likely to be over fairly quickly – at least the outright battle part of it if not the subsequent occupation – that kind of physical effort to disrupt military activities is unlikely.

To be sure, during the latter stages of the Vietnam War there were instances of military people being treated rudely and more. Some Americans called military people "baby killers" or worse, insulted them or spat upon them. I found that indefensible at the time, and I hope if it happens in the near future that I will be one of the first to criticize it. We can make our points without being abusive.

But even if the war stretches on for a considerable period of time, it is unlikely that healthy and even vigorous dissent will actually undermine what the military are doing. The "human shields" in Iraq might complicate tactics, though I suspect few of them will hang around when bullets and grenades are flying.

I talk regularly with a former Navy Seal who thinks I’m just naive and unrealistic to be so dead-set against this war. Interestingly, however, while he thinks the antiwar protesters are bozos, he is most dismissive of those few who turn out in counterdemonstrations with "Support Our Troops" signs. "That might be mildly helpful to a 90-day recruit," he sniffs, "but those who are well-trained and professional don’t need a few housewives and retirees to make themselves feel useful with a few signs. It’s almost insulting to think our military would need that."

I was at a conference last week where ABC-TV veteran Sam Donaldson spoke, and the subject of aggressive war reporting that might tip off the enemy about plans or tactics came up. He argued, as have others, that those who raise this possibility can’t come up with a single instance of a U.S. war reporters reporting planned troop movements or the like that would put U.S. troops in jeopardy. I’ve never heard of such an incident; if anything, once war starts correspondents tend to identify almost solely with those on the ground and to take a long time before they let their critical faculties have any reign at all. By "embedding" reporters in military units, the Pentagon seems set to reinforce this tendency and make instances of critical reporting difficult and rare.

If even fairly aggressive reporting is unlikely to undermine U.S. military efforts, a few protests back home – or even a massive antiwar movement – are unlikely to undermine them to any appreciable degree. You might argue that antiwar activities give some solace to enemy soldiers and might improve their morale; while morale is important, however, military engagements are usually decided by force, personnel and equipment. The goal of such protests is generally not to undermine or denigrate military people in the field, but to try to reach their civilian masters or higher-ups. The willingness to do so might even serve as a reminder that America is still the relatively free and contentious place that makes it worth defending.


Now for the big question. Has it really been the willingness of American fighting men and women that makes it possible for those of us who have different opinions from the mainstream – or from the government, which is not necessarily the same thing – to speak out? The question is seldom dealt with critically.

The underlying assumption of such a question is that without the various wars in which this countries has engaged it would have been overrun by some other government that would have suppressed freedom of speech and a lot of other liberties. That’s a rather shaky assumption.

Perhaps you could argue it in the case of World War II, when the major enemy in Europe was the totalitarian Nazi regime. Although there are perfectly respectable historians and analysts, completely untainted by anti-Semitism or Nazi sympathies, who make the case that it was unnecessary or harmful to American liberties to get involved in World War II, let’s give that argument the benefit of the doubt.

Even if it is true that U.S. intervention was necessary to ensure the defeat of Nazism as an armed ideology, it does not necessarily follow that without such intervention the Nazis would eventually have taken over America and imposed their ideology. They would probably have been a persistent threat to be watched, but one of the more unattractive aspects of Nazism was precisely its Eurocentrism. Hitler might well have lusted for world domination, but would he have been able to conquer the United States after conquering Europe? If he could have achieved a military victory on United States soil, would he have been able to implant Nazism? These are at least open questions.

But let the advocates of the Good War have that one. There is one example of a war whose loss – and perhaps the failure to fight – might have led to the imposition of more controls on the United States by a foreign power.

You could also argue that the communists, with whom the West conducted a long twilight struggle, also lusted, perhaps more than Hitler, after world domination. Even if you accept that, however, it’s difficult to argue that failure to intervene in Vietnam, for example, would have led to the triumph of communism and subsequent restrictions on civil liberties in the continental United States. In fact, given that communism eventually crumbled from within and was kept in check for decades by the strategy of containment that involved only occasional brushfire wars, you could argue that our liberties were better protected by a decision not to wage an all-out war with the Soviet Union.

Look at the brushfire wars of recent times. Was it the American tradition of free speech being endangered that made it necessary to intervene in Grenada or Panama? Was the First Amendment at stake when U.S. troops were sent to Lebanon or Somalia or Bosnia or Kosovo? Would failure in any of those wars – or failure to send troops – have had any deleterious impact on American liberties?


Now we need to look at the other side of the ledger. The most comprehensive case regarding the United States in the 20th century was made in Robert Higgs’ 1984 book, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. In it, Higgs argues that times of crisis, but mainly wars, give government license to invoke emergency powers, increase the size of departments and the number of bureaucrats available to harass us and eat out our substance, all of which limits American liberties.

After the crisis or war is over, government power recedes somewhat, but never returns to its original limits. Thus a "ratchet effect" is set in motion whereby each subsequent crisis leads to further growth of government and diminution of liberty. I count larger government, which requires more taxes, as a diminution of liberty since it constricts our choices, but I know not everybody does. The restrictions are always more concrete and specific, and once they are in place they become accepted, which Higgs calls a forced change in ideology.

Eugene Debs was imprisoned during the First World War (sadly called the Great War at the time but dwarfed by subsequent conflicts) for speaking out against war, and many were intimidated (though all too many intellectuals turned courtier readily enough). Every war has brought on calls for limits on the freedom of speech and expression and some actual limits. Every war has brought on forced allocation of resources. Some have led to conscription, which some of us call selective slavery. And it is precisely in time of crisis, when the three-part division of labor among branches of government, the system that’s supposed to protect us from overweening power from any one branch, should be most active, becomes less protective. The courts tend to roll over and let the executive have its way during wars and near-wars.

As Mr. Higgs wrote recently for the Independent Institute, during World War II "the government built an awesome command economy, suspending many individual rights. Ten million men were conscripted. The Supreme Court refused even to review challenges to the draft. Some 110,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them American citizens and not one of them proven guilty of a crime, were herded into concentration camps, losing their liberty and sustaining property losses estimated at some $400 million. All quite constitutional, said the justices.

Raw materials and plants were allocated by government order; production facilities, sometimes entire industries, were seized and operated by the government; many consumer goods were rationed. None of thee actions elicited so much as a ruling from the Supreme Court." After the war most of the emergency wartime statutes were repealed, but more than 100 wartime statutes remained in place and the draft carried over into peacetime and eventually came to be seen as "normal" by most Americans.


Do you doubt that Americans have lost liberty in large part because of the wars our government chose to involve us in during the 20th century? Consider this:

Before 1914 an American could pass through life without ever being particularly aware of any branch of the government except the post office. He or she could travel abroad without any need of a passport or permission from the government. Immigrants arrived with virtually no restrictions except tests for infectious diseases. There were no country quotas or overall quotas for immigrants, and no necessity for any immigrant to report to any government official once here. Tariffs were low and were used for revenue only, not for reinforcing foreign or economic policy. There was no income tax. The national government paid no attention whatsoever to foreign currency exchanges and had almost no influence on the economy.

Most Americans today would view such freedoms as quite unusual, and many would see them as alarming. Any serious effort to restore all those freedoms that Americans once took for granted would be seen by most Americans and certainly most of the media as dangerously radical. These changes in attitudes – from regarding the freedoms described above as perfectly normal and taken for granted to viewing them as potentially subversive – represents a massive ideological change in America.

Yet while the era from 1865 to 1914 was hardly utopian, the problems associated with the era were almost invariably not due to the "excessive" freedom. And this period saw the flowering of the industrial revolution, the filling in of much of the West, and steady increases not only in the national economy but in personal incomes. Inflation was virtually absent. In terms of the number of hours needed to be worked to be able to acquire various goods and services, the prices of almost everything declined fairly steadily during this period. Not perfect, not idyllic, but hardly chaotic.


Intellectuals and courtiers often want to articulate lofty ideals for which military people are called to fight. But even as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few avatars of lofty ideals either. Thousands of war memoirs have told us that while those in the trenches or on the front lines might have a larger care for American ideals, when the bullets start flying you are fighting not for your country or even your neighborhood or your family, but for your buddies, for those with whom you share the dangers and occasional glories of war. Insofar as lofty ideals might lead you to lose focus on the task at hand, they can even get you killed.

As a practical matter, soldiers are sent to battle not to further specifically the lofty goals of democracy and liberty about which most Americans (and most servicepeople) really do care, but to serve the interests of those who are in effective power at that moment. The interests and concerns may be roughly contiguous with the interests of the country at large, but seldom at all points, and seldom with the more abstract demands of concepts like liberty. And sometimes the leaders may be at odds either with the short-term interests of the general population or with the more long-term interests of advancing and protecting personal liberty.

Insofar as wars almost always lead to some limitations on liberty, some of which will become more or less permanent, you could make a respectable case that by engaging in war American servicepeople are actually engaging in the systematic limitation of American liberties. Few of them look at it that way, and some might even quit if they became convinced that was what they were about. It isn’t those in uniform who limit liberties, however, but their political commanders.

At the very least, then, the notion that the goal of American servicepeople fighting abroad is to protect our liberty – and that those who question their missions unwittingly undermine or put at risk or abuse their own liberty – is nowhere near so obvious as the keepers of our civic religion would have it.

Read more by Alan Bock

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock’s Waiting
to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana
(Seven Locks Press, 2000).

Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange
County Register
. He is the author of Ambush
at Ruby Ridge
(Putnam-Berkley, 1995).