Tom Paine Warned About America’s Perpetual War

Around the globe, the United States faces more enemies than ever before.

American troops are deploying to Syria and Libya, and returning to Iraq to combat maniacal ISIS terrorists, among others.

American forces are shipping out to the Baltic States and Ukraine to contain a revanchist despot in Russia.

America’s navy is steaming into the South China Sea to curtail the territorial claims of an expansionist Communist regime.

The list goes on and on. Never in its history has America confronted so many adversaries at once. It’s unprecedented. Even World War II, with 50 times the number of US military casualties, had only two theaters of operation.

New foes pop up faster than old ones can be dispatched. An entire generation of American soldiers is fighting twice as long to liberate Afghanistan from tyranny as it took their forefathers and mothers to liberate themselves from the tyranny of a British king.

Which means George Washington couldn’t help even if he were raised from the dead. None of the Founding Fathers could have foreseen the full spectrum of threats assailing the country today to offer anything but a process and some vague principles to follow. The variety, voracity, viciousness and sheer volume of villains imperiling America on several fronts is beyond anyone’s experience – past or present – to address conclusively.


Maybe. However, in the same way one puts more faith in the words of a religion’s founder than its present practitioners, odds are if you could wake up Thomas Paine for advice on the current crisis, he’d holler at you to shut the light and let him sleep.

He wrote everything you need to know about today’s hostilities and hazards some 225 years ago in “The Rights of Man.”

The attention of the government…appears…to have been so completely engrossed and absorbed by foreign affairs, and the means of raising taxes, that it seems to exist for no other purposes. Domestic concerns are neglected; and with respect to regular law, there is scarcely such a thing.”

Had governments agreed to quarrel on purpose to fleece their countries by taxes, they could not have succeeded better than they have done.

If the miseries of war, and the deluge of evils it spreads over a country, did not check the desire of pleasantry, or did not change the desire of laughter into grief, the frantic conduct of the government would only excite ridicule.

Yup, if good old Tom Paine were around today, he’d instantly recognize the operations against ISIS, al-Qaeda and its assorted derivatives, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and the whole panoply of America’s opponents as mere parts of a single response to a single menace toward a single end.

It seems the government has at present fixed up posting [notices], signifying it is in want of an enemy; for unless it finds one somewhere, it has no longer any pretext for the revenue and the excessive imposts and taxes which are actually necessary to it.

Therefore the government appears to say to the universe, or to say to itself, ‘If no one will be so kind as to become my foe, I shall no longer have occasion for navies or armies, and shall be forced to reduce my taxes. . . .Unless I make an enemy, the harvest of wars will be terminated.’”

Makes you want to reach across the aisle to shake hands, don’t it? Throw in an “amen” for good measure.

Paine nailed it, even though he was describing conditions and issues at the end of the – ahem – 18th century!

No one ever accused Paine of being a pacifist. After arriving at Philadelphia in December 1774, Paine picked up his pen to eloquently inspire an American Revolution, but unlike others merely writing about it, he also picked up his musket to join the fighting.

Paine knew reason alone doesn’t convince the powerful to give up their plunder and privileges. It takes a little bloodshed; sometimes a lot. While some of the Founders couldn’t be bothered to get their wigs dirty, Paine was taking aim at and dodging fire from blokes whom he possibly toasted in some pub months earlier.

Paine recognized that it was ordinary people – the “nation” as they were called at the time – who do most of the bleeding on both sides of a conflict. That observation led him to appreciate an important divergence.

It will be necessary to consider the interest of Governments as a distinct interest to that of Nations.

Paine pitied the lot of the common soldier; fighting battles and getting maimed or killed in exotic places which had nothing to do with the daily chores of regular folk trying to make a living back home. Who’s in charge of a distant land matters only to the few who might make a ton of dough on the outcome; not to the average Joes and Josephines that pay the price regardless of outcomes.

What inducement has the farmer, while following the plough, to lay aside his peaceful pursuit, and go to war with the farmer of another country?. . . .Does it add an acre to any man’s estate, or raise its value? Are not conquest and defeat each of the same price, and taxes the never-failing consequence? — Though this reasoning may be good to a nation, it is not so to a government. War is the card-table of governments, and [people] the dupes of the game.

Oh those 18th century beatniks. What are dupes? Is that a word for winners? Or heroes? Or perhaps patriots?

Dupes means “suckers”. The jargon has changed slightly since 1791. Anything else?

In Paine’s time, his native Englishmen were killing Frenchmen, Austrians, Spaniards, Dutchmen, Indians, Americans and a host of other peoples around the world, even though not a single one had come to England to invade it.

Although Paine found no sense IN it, he realized there was a lot of money TO it and that explained why those same nations were killing Englishmen in North America, Caribbean islands, continental Europe and elsewhere.

Governments send troops to foreign lands so you can pay for the exercise and they’ve been doing it since they figured out how.

War is the common harvest of all those who participate in the division and expenditure of public money, in all countries. It is the art of conquering at home; the object of it is an increase of revenue; and as revenue cannot be increased without taxes, a pretense must be made for expenditure. . . .Taxes are not raised to carry on wars, but wars are raised to carry on taxes.

Whatever is the cause of taxes to a Nation, becomes also the means of revenue to Government. Every war terminates with an addition of taxes, and consequently with an addition of revenue; and in any event of war…the power and interest of Governments are increased. War, therefore, as it easily furnishes the pretence of necessity for taxes and appointments to places and offices, becomes a principal part of the system of Governments; and to establish any mode to abolish war, however advantageous it might be to [the people], would be to take from such Government the most lucrative of its branches.

Got that? Even way back then, it wasn’t personal. It was just business.

When revolution hit France in 1789, Paine not only supported it like some of the other Founders but he went to France to see how he could help.

You see, Paine viewed the American Revolution as a first step toward a broader awakening among all nations into an Age of Reason; in which reasonable people could reasonably agree how and why they’d achieve more and prosper more by cooperating than by competing.

Paine understood that even if you have to fight for your liberty, it was in part to be free of fighting. That was one of his metrics for liberty. If a government can find enemies anywhere and send you to war – or the bill to pay for it – you aren’t really free.

According to Paine, war causes tyranny and those making the case for war are the tyrants.

As war is the system of Government, the animosity [between peoples] is nothing more than what the policy of their Governments excites to keep up the spirit of the system. Each Government accuses the other of perfidy, intrigue, and ambition, as a means of heating the imagination of their respective [people], and incensing them to hostilities. Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government. Instead, therefore, of exclaiming against the ambition of [elected officials], the exclamation should be directed against the principle of such Governments; and instead of seeking to reform the individual, the wisdom of a Nation should apply itself to reform the system.

For Paine, the French Revolution was the next step in the process of reforming the system. And it didn’t take him long to find a way to help.

In November 1790, English statesman and theorist Edmund Burke wrote a scathing rebuke of that process in “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Needless to say, it killed their friendship (Burke had sympathized with the American Revolution). One can imagine how the perceived betrayal spurred Paine to respond in just three months with “The Rights of Man”. He added a second part in less than a year.

At the point of publication, the French Revolution had been a relatively orderly affair with minimal bloodshed. However, Paine sensed that Burke’s verbal attack was a prelude to more violent forms of attack.

So Paine argued that the French were merely cleaning up their house. The chore was a threat to no one except those amassing vast fortunes through politics and war. They feared the example revolution might set in their country.

Paine asserted that the French cause, like its American predecessor, was the cause of all common people and a just cause as well. To convince readers, he consistently referred to the injustice of wars that everyone had to bear but none could choose.

Although Paine believed the establishment of a representative government (a radical idea at the time) would go far toward ending continual warfare, he knew that it couldn’t do the trick alone. His native England had already organized a Parliament (though only a minority of adult males could vote), yet democracy by itself had not halted the constant march to war.

Paine realized that representative government had a major flaw. It was susceptible to capture by special interests.

When there is a Part in a Government which can do no wrong, it implies that it does nothing; and is only the machine of another power, by whose advice and direction it acts.”

The military-industrial complex, foreign lobbies, corporations with massive overseas investments; Paine would’ve spotted them all.

Governments serve special interests with war but Paine also understood that wars serve government’s very special interest in preserving its power. So even when war exposes the extent of corruption in government, Paine knew that governments would always divert attention from that fact by finding enemies that require, well, attention.

Any war is harvest to such governments, however ruinous it may be to a nation. It serves to keep up deceitful expectations which prevent people from looking into the defects and abuses of government. It is the ‘Look here!’ and the ‘Look there!’ that amuses and cheats the multitude.

In other words, you can’t worry about the long term effects of smoke inhalation when you’re constantly putting out fires.

The danger to the people from enemies eliminates the danger to the government from dissent. A government’s demand for obedience masquerades as a call for unity during war. Notwithstanding democracy’s peaceful nature, when was the last time there was a close vote on war? The War on Terror? The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? Any of the World Wars? Was there ever a war that politicians didn’t like?

It’s the way in which supposedly opposition parties speak in one voice about wars, foes and the military that tipped Paine off to the amount of filthy lucre to be spent and made.

When money is to be obtained, the mass of variety apparently dissolves, and a profusion of [bipartisan] praises passes between the parts. Each admires with astonishment, the wisdom, the liberality, the disinterestedness of the other: and all of them breathe a pitying sigh at the burdens of the [people].

Sure, Republicans and Democrats might disagree vehemently about the implications of gonads, in part for the attention it generates. But when it comes to war, there is no dissent in Congress. Or just enough so they can point at some.

In Paine’s view, it’s not democracy per se that liberates people from continuous warfare but liberty itself. When an individual is free to choose whether to participate in a war, then the onus is on government to persuade a person of its necessity.

The government must make clear and valid arguments in order to get each citizen’s approval and involvement. The debate over the causes, objectives and interests at stake (not just the methods) must be perpetual until the crisis has passed.

When representatives don’t argue against war, then there is no debate, so there is no choice, meaning there is no liberty. If a government can order anyone to war, anyone to pay and punish any refusal, then it’s of little consequence whether an elected president issues the order or a hereditary monarch.

You can object to war but you can do nothing to opt out, let alone stop it. You’re sort of free, which to Paine is as oppressive as not having any.

The portion of liberty enjoyed…is just enough to enslave a country more productively than by despotism, and as the real object of all despotism is revenue, a government obtains more than it could do either by direct despotism, or in a full state of freedom, and is, therefore on the ground of interest, opposed to both.

But surely not everything written in 1791 applies today. If the government is seeking enemies and waging wars to serve special interests while expanding its power, the news media would be screaming to high heaven about it. We’d be bombarded by stories 24/7 anywhere we turned. Paine couldn’t have imagined today’s media. Right?

Paine didn’t have to imagine it. He knew the media intimately. He was one of its biggest stars. His stuff – The Rights of Man, Common Sense, The American Crisis – outsold anything else being put out at the time except the Bible, which was hardly new.

What he discovered as a media titan was the same old story, just about everywhere. But he also learned that fewer and fewer people buy it the longer it’s being pushed.

It is necessary (to) know that most…newspapers are directly in the pay of government, or other ways, however indirectly, so connected with it that they are always obedient to its orders; and that those papers constantly disfigure, misrepresent and attack…for the sole purpose of deceiving the nation. But as it is impossible long to impede the operations of truth, the falsehoods which those daily papers contain no longer produce their desired effect.

And you thought media collusion and corruption are a recent phenomenon.

Still, something about war and its causes must have changed in 225 years. If anything, Paine could not have predicted the rise of worldwide terrorist networks. There was no way he could imagine Osama bin Laden, right?

If Paine couldn’t envision 9/11, that’s only because it was impossible to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings in his day. No method could kill more than 3,000 people simultaneously in 1791, but there were plenty of people around willing to do it by hand.

In Paine’s time, all sorts were banding together to terrorize their targets. Pirates terrorized peaceful commerce on the high seas. Highwaymen were terrorizing innocent travelers on the roads. To find non-state actors using violence for political ends, Paine didn’t need to search any further than the American rebellion.

If you were to tell Thomas Paine that a single fanatic working with a handful of co-conspirators could coerce a mighty nation into war for 15 years and counting, he’d be disgusted to repeat himself.

Scarcely anything presents a more degrading character of national greatness, than its being thrown into confusion, by anything happening to or acted by any individual; and the ridiculousness of the scene is often increased by the natural insignificance of the person by whom it is occasioned.

Get it? 9/11 was just a crime, but as Paine knew, if it bleeds, it leads. Like other gangsters, terrorists are tickled when they see their names in the paper.

In November, Americans go to the polls to choose a new president. Perhaps there’s something in Hillary Clinton’s experience or in Donald Trump’s pronouncements that offers the prospect of an era of peace following the election.

Paine wouldn’t count on it. Though he didn’t witness the “hope” and “change” President Obama wrought, nor President Bush’s “humble” foreign policy, nor President Clinton’s focus on the economy, stupid, in former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Haiti and elsewhere, Paine didn’t need to see them to understand them.

All this seems to show that the change of [presidents] amounts to nothing. One goes out, another comes in, and still the same measures, vices, and extravagance are pursued. It signifies not who is [president]. The defect lies in the system.

Though confident that representative government could break the endless cycle of wars and their enormous cost in blood and treasure, Paine recognized that it was merely a means to that end. Democracy isn’t a panacea; it’s just a type of procedure.

Ultimately, Paine pinned his hopes for lasting peace and prosperity on people’s self interest. Just as Paine’s sweeping works would have made no impact if people didn’t read them, peace will never be achieved until people talk about it, demand it and fight for it.

For Paine, it just isn’t common sense to expect peace from a president or anyone else by merely believing him or her.

In the representative system, the reason for everything must publicly appear. Every man is a proprietor in government, and considers it a necessary part of his business to understand. It concerns his interest, because it affects his property. He examines the cost, and compares it with the advantages; and above all, he does not adopt the slavish custom of following what are called LEADERS.” (Paine’s emphasis, not mine.)

If everybody wants it but nobody delivers it, then there’s only one way to get it. Paine experienced not one, but two world-shattering revolutions – indeed, he was a hero to both. He would have endured as many as needed to finally have peace.

It’s depressing that Paine’s observations about war and the machinations of government in 1791 are valid today. It’s a cause of pessimism.

But why are Paine’s centuries-old insights still so relevant?

Paine lived during an era unlike all previous ones. It was an age when concepts like science and technological innovation; markets free of monopolies and “lords” of the land; representative government and the liberty and equality of all people; were taking form and being incorporated into society: traits that define the modern world.

So Paine wasn’t a revolutionary way ahead of his time, but rather a simple man born into a time that hasn’t changed much since.

As long as Paine’s words are still available, it’s a reason for optimism.

Of course, don’t expect Clinton or Trump or Obama or any other politician to agree with Paine’s analysis of war. They’d argue interminably that today’s circumstances are unique.

But if Paine were alive, he’d win that argument.

Or to paraphrase the quip attributed to Lincoln: you can fool the present; you might even fool the future, but you can’t fool the past.

Steven Mihailovich is a journalist, reporting for newspapers in the US, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Asia for the past 20 years. He currently resides in San Diego and can be reached at