Conversation With a Few Good Men (and Women)

I teach at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., meaning that I instruct young military officers who are generally smart, hardworking, and curious. Another important piece of background is that two weeks into a typical teaching quarter, I’ve come to love my students.

On March 29, I had one of those days that I, as a teacher, dream about. While it was happening, though, I wasn’t sure whether it was what I’d dreamed about or what I’d had nightmares about. The reason I’m sharing it with you is that it gave me a little more hope that we can have heated yet thoughtful, non-shrill discussions about our views on war and foreign policy.

I’m teaching three sections of a course titled, "Cost/Benefit Analysis." In the particular section in which the conversation occurred, all but two of the students had taken my economics class the previous quarter. I use a public finance textbook written by Harvey Rosen, the noted Princeton economist who recently was a member of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. In the first chapter, Rosen looks at some of the big-picture issues, one of which is people’s various views of society and government. The first view he presented was the "organic" view of society, the idea that society is a living organism and that each of us is only a tiny piece of that organism. The chief expositors of this view in the 20th century, writes Rosen, were Lenin, Mao, and Hitler. Then I read them a quote from a famous 20th century socialist politician, a quote with which I begin Chapter 4 of my book The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey, and asked them to identify the speaker. Here’s the quote:

"There will be no license, no free space, in which the individual belongs to himself. This is Socialism – not such trifles as the private possession of the means of production. Of what importance is that if I range men firmly within a discipline they cannot escape? Let them own land and factories as much as they please. The decisive factor is that the State, through the party, is supreme over them regardless whether they are owners or workers. All that, you see, is unessential. Our Socialism goes far deeper. … Why need we trouble to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings."

In other words, I explained, I don’t need to own the bank; if you own the bank and I own you, then effectively I own the bank. Various students suggested that it was Mao, Lenin, Stalin. I pointed out that none of those would make sense because the speaker was explaining why he didn’t need the government to own banks and factories. Then one student got the right answer: Adolf Hitler. I explained that the word "Nazi" is derived from "National Socialism." Then I stated that the organic view of society is not the dominant view in the United States. But, I noted, the organic view often creeps into our language. I stated:

"Note, for example, how people often talk about a particular government official’s action as if it had been done by ‘us.’ Take the statement, ‘We invaded Iraq.’ I didn’t. A very powerful man in Washington made a decision to invade Iraq and some of you might have invaded Iraq, but I didn’t. Or take the standard way Americans talk about Pearl Harbor. They say, ‘The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.’ I never say that. It’s not true. What’s true is that a few hundred Japanese pilots, ordered by an admiral, who was ordered by an emperor, bombed Pearl Harbor. Most Japanese people didn’t even know it was going on and were just going about their day peacefully."

Many of the students looked upset, and a number of hands flew into the air. One person said, "But you live in this country, and you participate in its politics. Given that the president is democratically elected, you’re partly responsible." I replied that I hadn’t voted for Bush, and so it was very difficult, even by this person’s reasoning, to argue that I was responsible for Bush’s actions. I admitted that in the choice between Bush and Gore, I had wanted Bush to win, but, I pointed out, one of the main reasons was that Bush had said he wanted the United States, by which he meant the U.S. government, to be more humble in the world. I thought the irony of this would cause at least a little laugh, but it didn’t: the passions were engaged and the discussion continued.

A student then said that I was claiming to be morally superior to them. "No, I’m not," I said. "I’m not claiming any moral superiority. What I’m saying has nothing to do with whether the invasion of Iraq was justified. I’m simply saying that we should use language clearly and insist that people are responsible for their own actions."

Then another interesting exchange occurred.

Student: Sir, what do you think happened on September 11?

DRH (me): I think 19 very bad men murdered about 3,000 people.

Student: Was it an act of war?

DRH: I think it could be seen as an act of war. Certainly it wasn’t just these 19 people. They represented a larger group that wanted to make war on the United States.

Student: Do you think they were a threat to you?

DRH: I think I see what you’re getting at. They didn’t threaten me at the time because they died, but I think it’s true that if they could have killed me too, they would have.

Student: So didn’t their attack mean that you’re more threatened than you were?

DRH: Yes.

Student: Was the attack an attack on our freedom?

DRH: No. I remember that President Bush said this on September 11, but I never saw it that way. And I had an incentive to see it that way. My book The Joy of Freedom was to be released two weeks later, and my publisher e-mailed me on September 12, noting what President Bush had said and suggesting that we somehow link his statement with the message of my book. I thought about it and was tempted – our sales probably would have been much greater if we had established that link – but I rejected the idea because I didn’t think it was true.

Student: So you don’t think you’re less free because of al-Qaeda?

DRH: No. [In fact, I think I’m less free because of the laws Bush and Congress passed, but I bit my tongue because I didn’t want to lose them with what was, in that context, a side issue.]

One of the students saw the distinction but asked why I thought it was so important. I told the students to read my "Who Is ‘We’?" column if they wanted to know.

After the class, I ran into a student in the men’s room who sits at the back of the class and doesn’t normally speak up. "Good class today, Dr. Henderson," he said. Until then, I hadn’t known what any of the students thought about how good or bad a class it had been. I was torn between the dream and nightmare mentioned above. I answered laughingly, "Pretty stormy though, huh?" He replied, "You could have cut the tension with a knife."

That wasn’t the end. I got three follow-up e-mails from students, two from people who disagreed with what I was saying and one from someone who agreed. The first disagreer titled his e-mail "Dr. Henderson’s $10,000 Contribution to Bush’s War Chest" and wrote:


"At some point you decided it would be better to pay US income tax than to live elsewhere. (Cost/Benefit Analysis) Thus you contributed to Bush’s War Chest, among other things. You continue to pay income tax, monthly affirming your support of the Federal Government. What could be a better indication of a person’s support than their pocketbook? I suspect that your contributions to the war effort each month outweigh the yearly income of most Iraqis. You Sir, support the war effort more than most of your students. That is the reason Al Queda [sic] targets you and me.

"Very respectfully,

[I’m leaving out his name for obvious reasons]


I replied to him that he made a good point, one that my libertarian friend Lawrence Samuels has made – namely, that just by paying taxes, rather than, say, emigrating, going to jail for nonpayment, or living on a subsistence, I am supporting the war. I told him I would have to think about it. But, I said, I think the reason we are targeted by al-Qaeda is that our government intervenes in politics in the Middle East.

The next day I received an e-mail from one student in my class. In it he apologized for some of his fellow students’ lack of professionalism. They had obviously gotten quite upset, and he was concerned that they had missed the point.

I wrote back:

"Thank you so much for your letter. … But I just want you to know and, if you talk to the other students, I want them to know, that I didn’t think anyone was unprofessional.

"One of my favorite lines from the movie Jerry McGuire is the one where he and Rod Tisdale (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) are in the football locker room having an intense argument. Jerry yells at Rod and then storms off. Rod yells after him, ‘You think we’re fighting; I think we’re finally talking.’ What happened Wednesday might have looked like a fight; what it was was that we were finally talking – with all sides putting their cards on the table."

That evening I think I got a better understanding from an e-mail sent by one of the students who had argued with me. Because of privacy considerations, I won’t quote this student directly. What I can say, though, is that this student argued that because they are in the military, they are trained to think of "we" and, in some cases, need to think of "we." He suggested that the "we" is important to rationalize military morality, or, for that matter, immorality.

When I read this student’s letter, the real "aha" moment came. I had stirred them up, some of them, at least, because I was insisting that people are responsible for their actions, even in war. In other words, I was stripping off the cloak of "we," and, for some of them, this thought that they were doing certain actions in the name of "we" made certain actions easier for them to carry out.

But shouldn’t actions that are morally questionable be hard to carry out, not easy? Years earlier I had asked a class if they, as U.S. military officers, are legally allowed to disobey an illegal order. Immediately a bunch of hands had shot up in the air, and a couple of students said, almost in unison, "Sir, we are required to disobey an illegal order." It strikes me that this is something very good about the U.S. military, actually training them to the point where they can say in unison that they are required not to break the law. Of course, some things that are legal are immoral, but simply making the distinction between orders and legality is a step toward individual responsibility, toward the "I" rather than the "we."

And I’m not some wild-eyed civilian professor who has no understanding of the military and the pressures they’re under. In fact, it was no less a military officer than Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who made clear, right in front of his civilian boss, the obligation that U.S. military officers are under to stop inhumane treatment. Here’s the transcript from a Nov. 29, 2005, press conference:

Question: Sir, taking on his question a bit – and I can give you actual examples from coalition forces who talked to me when I was over there about excesses of the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Defense; and that is in dealing with prisoners or in arresting people and how they’re treated after they’re arrested – what are the obligations and what are the rights of U.S. military over there in dealing with that?

Rumsfeld: … Obviously, the United States does not have a responsibility when a sovereign country engages in something that they disapprove of. However, we do have a responsibility to say so and to make sure that the training is proper and to work with the sovereign officials so that they understand the damage that can be done to them in the event some of these allegations prove to be true.

Question: And, General Pace, what guidance do you have for your military commanders over there as to what to do if – like when General Horst found this Interior Ministry jail?

Pace: It is absolutely [the] responsibility of every U.S. service member if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it…

Rumsfeld: I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it, it’s to report it.

Pace: If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it.

Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at