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Jedediah Purdy Headshot

Anti-War Patriotism

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Ron Paul's anti-war stance makes me angry, but not at Ron Paul. What's frustrating is that, after four years under a Democratic president who campaigned against "dumb" foreign intervention, there is exactly one presidential candidate who speaks to anti-war voters. This, of course, is Paul, whose objection to getting entangled in foreign wars is pretty much of a piece with his refusal to get entangled in the modern world.

If you hate the foolish and destructive wars that have defined a decade of foreign policy, Paul is the only candidate who will tell you that those wars are mistaken and un-American. This is so even though 51% of post-9/11 veterans told the Pew Center last fall that US military adventures abroad were creating "hatred" that "leads to more terrorism." Only a third of veterans, and a little more than a quarter of the general public, said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were worth fighting. 59% of those veterans and 58% of the public told Pew the country should be less engaged abroad and concentrate on problems at home.

The country deserves politicians who can believe this sort of thing without joining Ron Paul in embracing the gold standard and declaring the 1964 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional. We used to have them. For all our history of violence, the United States used to harbor serious public reservations about war-making. When Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson urged the Allied tribunal at Nuremberg to condemn Nazi leaders, at the end of America's heroic "good war," one of his most important arguments was the need to build a system of international law that would guarantee peace. "The American dream of a peace-and-plenty economy," he urged, could never come true unless the world community outlawed aggressive war. Then the country could pursue its real greatness: to live well in peace. Otherwise we would continue to spend each generation's wealth on weapons and its courage in combat. That would not be glorious, but tragic.

Jackson, a Roosevelt Democrat -- a member, that is, of the interventionist party, and a loyalist to his late president -- wasn't just indulging the lawyer's habit of making every possible argument. The day after Pearl Harbor, when he reported feeling that the Japanese "have invited the fate of Carthage" -- total destruction -- he nonetheless urged to his son, who was of military age, to resist war fever: "The only use of war is to re-establish equilibriums which permit people to live in peace." He continued, "A people is as stupid as a man to lose its soul in gaining a world."

Jackson was speaking for a long tradition that regarded the United States as essentially a civilian nation, and war as a thing to be prevented aggressively and entered reluctantly. Most of the country's founding generation saw war-making as a vice of vainglorious kings and believed that republics like theirs would build a world of peace. It was because of their opposition to standing armies that they inserted the "right of the people to keep and bear arms" into the Constitution, as a guarantee that civilian militias would always be available. Indeed, the country did not have a meaningful peacetime army until after World War Two. The permanent military mobilization that followed prompted Dwight Eisenhower, a conservative old soldier, to warn the country against the rise of a "military-industrial complex" that threatened democracy.

Now this time-honored skepticism about war and militarism is a target for demagoguery. Whoever criticizes war must be disloyal to the troops, even if the troops want peace. Skeptics about war are irresponsible, unmanly, naïve. It's hard to think far beyond the world one knows, so it's hard to imagine that much of the military expenditure, destruction, and loss of life over the last few decades might have been unnecessary, a tragic mistake. But maybe it was.

Maybe Barack Obama thinks this too, in his midnight reveries. The political tradition he seemed to identify with before the presidency, of people's movements and community organizing, is about as non-martial as they come. His campaign was about remaking the big community at home. He never favored war in Iraq, and he must have come to doubts about Afghanistan. But, determined to give no ammunition to enemies who will call him weak and unpatriotic whatever he does, he has judged he cannot lead against war. His massively respectful attitude toward establishments works against him, too: the military has become a big, powerful American establishment, as it was not when Justice Jackson told his son that the quality of peace was the most important thing. From the moneyed defense industries and their lobbyists to national forgetfulness that things were ever any different, inertia is on the side of permanent mobilization. For the time being, doubts will not come from the White House.

This is not a call for pacifism, although that, too, is an honorable and neglected American tradition. I don't mean to disrespect the pride or the hardship of service members and their families, or downplay the prominence of war in the country's history. But we Americans need to be reminded that sometimes the greatest threat to freedom comes from leaders who would throw it away for a margin of (possibly false) security and that a harder challenge than sustaining faraway wars is building a decent life in an increasingly unequal and divided country.

War may be the hardest thing an individual endures, but for politicians, whether high-minded or hot-blooded, war is an easy path to seriousness that can obscure more serious challenges. It has been a long time since we have acted like a country that hates war and sees its most important work in peace. Since no responsible leader is telling us to stop studying war and rebuild an American dream of peace and freedom in a just society, citizens had better start demanding it.

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