Liberty at the Point of a Sword

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

There’s a man who famously crowned himself emperor rather than submit to the otherworldly power of a pope. A new movie will soon be out on his “glories.” Napoleon Bonaparte, a military genius, embraced war and drove for total victory until his empire collapsed on him and the French people. Napoleon’s Waterloo came in 1815, a decade after perhaps his greatest victory at Austerlitz in 1805. Empires—they often seem to decline slowly before collapsing all at once, though the Napoleonic version flared so brightly that it burned out quickly.

I once studied the military glories of Napoleon, enthusiastically playing war-games like Waterloo and Empire in Arms, where this time maybe I could win a great victory for the emperor. More than a few books on my shelves cover the campaigns of Napoleon. But as my dad quipped to me, Napoleon wanted to give people liberty, equality, and fraternity at the point of his sword.  And that, my dad would say, is an intolerable price to pay for one’s freedom.

Win one for the Emperor

Endless war is, as often as not, the final nail in an empire’s coffin. Early in 1943, after defeat at Stalingrad, which came as a profound shock to a German public sold on the idea it possessed the finest fighting force in history (such rhetoric should sound familiar to Americans today), Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister, gave a fanatical speech calling for “total war” from the German people. Despite disaster at Stalingrad, despite visible and widening cracks in the alleged superiority of the Thousand Year Reich, the German people largely cheered or echoed the cry for more and more war. Two years later, they witnessed total defeat as Germany surrendered unconditionally in May 1945.

As led by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, Nazi Germany wasn’t interested in peace. These men knew only the feverish pursuit of total victory until it ended in their deaths and total disaster for Germany.  They were the original seekers of “full spectrum dominance” as they asserted Germany was the exceptional and essential nation.

We Americans were supposed to learn something from megalomaniacs like Napoleon and Hitler. Committed to democracy, we were supposed to reject war, to repudiate militarism and the warrior mystique, and to embrace instead diplomacy and the settlement of differences peacefully through international organizations like the United Nations.

America today, however, is busy beating plowshares into swords and sending them to global hotspots like Gaza and Ukraine. What gives?

Endless wars can exhaust even the richest and wisest of empires, and America isn’t as rich or wise as it used to be.  Interestingly, ordinary Americans haven’t been overcome with bloodthirst. Roughly two-thirds of Americans, for example, support a ceasefire in Gaza. But they are a silent majority compared to the loud minority flowing through the halls of power in DC lobbying for war and more war.

The U.S., which largely created the UN in the immediate aftermath of World War II, now does everything it can to block UN calls for ceasefires, whether in Ukraine or Gaza. The U.S., while allegedly manifesting its allegiance to Judeo-Christian values, embraces war and distributes weaponry like the devil while rejecting calls for peace by church leaders such as Pope Francis.

The U.S. is an empire in serious decline because it devotes so much money to wars and more wars.  Military budgets now approach $1 trillion yearly even as the Pentagon just announced it failed its sixth audit in a row.  These repetitive failures provoke a bizarre response from Congress and the President: yet more money for war and dominance.

Whether measured in blood or treasure or both, seeking to dominate the world through military hegemony is a surefire recipe for imperial collapse.  It’s a lesson taught by the fates of Napoleon and Hitler, one U.S. leaders have dismissed as they’ve been caught up in a belief one can be a superpower, a global hegemon, totally dominant, while remaining a beacon of freedom.

Like Napoleon, U.S. leaders sell the idea they’re giving people liberty at the point of a sword.  My dad taught me something about the fallacy and folly of this.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.