“Freedom isn’t free!”–so we are reminded by the ubiquitous yellow ribbon stickers on gas-guzzling SUVs. An online poll asks if the war in Iraq has been worth the loss of American lives, and the only options for response are: 1) A future of freedom and peace is worth fighting for; 2) It’s too high of a price to pay; and 3) Yes, but it’s time for the troops to come home. A newspaper story reports a mother’s consolation in another sad story about a soldier’s death in Iraq –“at least he died for freedom.” The sacrifice of our troops, we are told again and again, is simply the price of freedom.
We are told this and yet it is more and more obvious that the Bush Administration, rather than doing everything in their power to avoid war and find a peaceful solution, did in fact everything in their power to avoid a peaceful solution and manufacture a reason for war.
The United States went to war with Iraq as a result of the constant drumbeat from Bush Administration officials about the danger the nation faced from the evil Saddam Hussein. Though the regime of Saddam Hussein was easily toppled, the occupation of Iraq has bogged down in an intractable quagmire which has so far cost the country the lives of over 2000 soldiers, another 15,000 or so wounded, and over 200 billion dollars. The worst of it all is that, despite the turnover of the government to Iraqis, the elections, and attempts to draft a constitution, it appears that there is no end in sight. We are told that there is no exit, that Iraq will only slide further into the chaos of civil war if we pull out. The President says we must stay the course, though the course may take ten years or more, and may yet lead beyond Iraq, into Syria or Iran.
All of this and one undeniable fact is that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. There weren’t really any mobile biological weapons labs, the aluminum tubes we were told about were not really for nuclear weapons production, and those sixteen words about Saddam’s attempts to procure nuclear material from Niger turned out to be based on forged documents. It also turned out, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, that there was no “operational” link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, as Middle East experts had long asserted, and that there really was no credible evidence that Iraq cooperated in any way in the terrorist attacks against the United States.
It should be clear by now that it was not at all a matter of faulty intelligence that led the Bush Administration to be so wrong about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The Downing Street Memos revealed that the Bush Administration was intent on “fixing the facts” in order to make the case for war; and now the Fitzgerald investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame has drawn attention to the White House Iraq Group, a secret cabal within the White House, whose mission was to fix the facts in order to make the way for war with Iraq.
Despite all this some still think that the sacrifice of our troops is the price of freedom. What they don’t understand is that, first of all, the war was never about freedom in the first place; and second, that the real price of freedom is not something that only a few must pay, but something that is required of all of us.
Bloody Purple Fingers
Is the war in Iraq really about freedom? Before addressing this question, it first of all must be noted that there is considerable confusion about what is really meant when it is claimed that the war is justified in the cause of freedom. Is it really about our freedom or their freedom? Of course, before the war the Bush Administration’s case for war was built on persuading the American people that it was our freedom that was threatened by Saddam Hussein and his stockpile and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. After the war was launched and Saddam was deposed and no weapons of mass destruction were found, the Bush Administration began to put forth the idea that the war was really about their freedom –about liberating the Iraqi people from a despotic dictator. All the steps forward in the attempt to “democratize” Iraq –the turnover of the government, the elections, the attempts to draft a Constitution –are presented as evidence justifying the war. On our campus the College Republicans wave purple fingers (the mark indicating a vote in the Iraqi elections) in the air taunting those who opposed the war –“see those purple fingers are proof positive the war is about freedom, if you don’t support the war then you must be against freedom and democracy.”
This notion is so preposterous that it wouldn’t even merit being taken seriously except for the fact that so many Americans have fallen for it. To begin with, its ludicrous to imagine President Bush, the one who had ridiculed Al Gore’s attempts at “nation-building,”delivering a State of the Union address in January of 2003 in which he made no mention of the weapons of mass destruction, the attempts to procure nuclear weapons material, the ties to Al Qaeda and so on, and said instead that the American people must sacrifice a few thousand of their sons and daughters and spend a few hundred billion dollars in order to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq.
Bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq was clearly not the intention motivating the war against Iraq, and it certainly would not have persuaded the American people to make such a sacrifice. If the American people had not been subjected to a constant message of fear, warnings that they were in the “gravest danger” from catastrophic attacks from Saddam Hussein, there is simply no way American troops would be dying in Iraq today. The idea that the war is justified in the cause of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq is nothing more than a pathetic after the fact justification when the original case for war proved to be so completely baseless.
Even if the liberation of the Iraqi people was not the reason for the war, could it serve as something of an ex post facto justification of the war? A case might sometimes be made for the use of force in a humanitarian intervention when a state turns against its own people, but can this really be said to be the case with Iraq in 2003? Although there were atrocities in the past, and sometimes with the full support of the government of the United States, the Iraqi people were not facing anything in March of 2003 that would justify the barbarity that has been inflicted upon them as a result of this war.
According to the Lancet report in November of 2004, as many as 100,000 civilians, most of whom were women and children, died as a result of coalition air strikes since the 2003 invasion.1 A case might have been made for armed humanitarian intervention in Uganda in the 1970s, or Rwanda in 1994, or even today in Sudan/Darfur; but Iraq in 2003 was not like any of those places. Peaceful means of dealing with the threat posed by Saddam to his own people were still available. Rather than being a legitimate response to a humanitarian crisis, the invasion of Iraq has only precipitated a humanitarian crisis. Now a year after the Lancet report and still no end in sight to the death and misery inflicted upon the Iraqi people, the idea that the war might be justified as a humanitarian intervention is nothing but a sick, a very sick joke.
What does it really come down to in waving those purple fingers and claiming that the war is justified in bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq? If there really was no case for war as a response to aggression or the imminent threat of aggression, and no case for armed humanitarian intervention –if the war was not truly a last resort –then the war was not really necessary, and an unnecessary war is a war of aggression. To wave those purple fingers is thus an attempt to justify a war of aggression, and a war of aggression was condemned as the supreme crime at the Nuremberg Tribunal. The attempt to justify such a crime in the name of freedom and democracy is absurd on its face and does nothing but discredit the very ideals of freedom and democracy.
The cruel irony of course is that the elections in Iraq are only going to lead to something close to an Islamic theocracy and are likely to lead only to further bloodshed for the Iraqi people. As Riverbend, the Iraqi woman blogger recently put it,” American and British sons and daughters and husbands and wives are dying so that this coming December, Iraqis can go out and vote for Iran influenced clerics to knock us back a good four hundred years.”2 The war in Iraq is simply not about their freedom, and the atrocity of this war is certainly not justified in enabling the Iraqis to hold elections –their bloody purple fingers justify nothing.
Beware The War on Terrorism
Can the war in Iraq really be about defending our freedom? Obviously if there never was any real imminent threat from Iraq, the war cannot be seen as defensive. Since Iraq had no weapons to pose a threat, the only way the war can be about our freedom is if it is in some way tied to the broader War on Terrorism. Even though there was never any connection established between Iraq and 9/11, and even though numerous authorities on the Middle-East as well as Intelligence analysts had long pointed out the deep antipathy between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, in statement after carefully crafted statement in the run-up to the war, the Bush Administration strove to conjure up in the minds of the American people a link that wasn’t there between Iraq and al Qaeda.
Despite the fact that the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11, the Bush Administration still persists in maintaining that the war in Iraq is a part of the War on Terrorism –that somehow bringing freedom to Iraq would stop terrorism. The revelations, however, by Bush’s former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, that the administration was intent on attacking Iraq long before 9/11, before there was a War on Terrorism, in fact from the very first meeting of the National Security Council when the administration first took office, expose this notion to be simply another blatant deception.3
There are also the revelations by Richard Clarke, the former Chair of the Counter-terrorism Security Group, that the Bush Administration ignored warnings throughout the summer of 2001 about potential terrorist attacks from al Qaeda and then diverted attention away from the real problem of terrorism in order to focus upon the invasion of Iraq.4
It is certainly beyond question, as Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address makes clear, that the march to war was a well-orchestrated campaign to play on the fears generated by the terrorists attacks of 9/11. Whereas the Bush Administration contends that the war in Iraq was necessary in the broader War on Terrorism, the revelations of O’Neill and Clarke together suggest that it was really the other way around, and that the War on Terrorism was necessary in order to have war with Iraq. One might indeed draw some quite sinister implications from this.
Philosopher David Luban suggests another disturbing aspect of the War on Terrorism. In conflating the rule of law with the rule of war, the whole War on Terrorism has undermined human rights.5 Some of the crucial differences between the model of law and the model of war, as Luban points out, are that in war, but not in law, it is permissible to use lethal force on enemy troops regardless of their degree of personal involvement, and that in war, but not in law, “collateral damage” is permissible. Another crucial difference is that the requirements of evidence and proof are drastically weaker in war than in law.
Luban argues that the Bush Administration has selectively combined elements of the war model and the law model in the War on Terrorism in order to maximize its ability to use lethal force against terrorists, with the result that most traditional rights of a military adversary are eliminated as well as the rights of innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. The War on Terrorism has thus suspended human rights for the duration of the war.
The War on Terrorism is not going to bring an end to the problem of terrorism. No amount of force is likely to deter people from becoming terrorists as long as we continue to give them reasons to become terrorists. As is written in the Tao Te Ching: “If men are not afraid to die, it is of no avail to threaten them with death.”6 The War on Terrorism threatens thus to be an endless war and effectively means the end of human rights.
The only way to bring an end to the problem of terrorism is to stop adding fuel to the fire of terrorism. This, of course, would involve actually coming to terms with the underlying causes of terrorism. The short answer to the problem of terrorism is, first, to treat acts of terrorism as criminal acts to be dealt with under the framework of law, and secondly, not to exacerbate the problem of terrorism by committing acts of terrorism ourselves. Once it really sinks in just how unnecessary and unjustified the Iraq war is, it is hard not to see the slaughter of up to 100,000 innocents civilians an act of terror that dwarfs the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Rather than bringing and end to the problem of terrorism, bringing democracy to Iraq through an act of terrorism will only further fan the flames of terrorism.
America’s Moment of Truth
Of course, most Americans like to think of their country as a just country, a shining beacon of the light of freedom to the world, signified by that grey lady of New York harbor. Though they would have to close their eyes to a good deal of the history of the United States, they would certainly like to think that their country, being a shining beacon of light, would never go to war without justification, and that when the nation does go to war it is in defense of that dearly cherished freedom. This, of course, is why the Bush Administration was forced to go to such lengths in exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and why it must insist to the end that our troops are dying for freedom.
The architects of the war within the Bush Administration, however, were never for a moment the least bit concerned with whether or not the war is justified. Their view might be summed up as the view that “wars are not properly classified as just or unjust, they are only won or lost, won with overwhelming force, and lost with timidity.” This is the view known as “war realism,” a favorite of political scientists, scholars and practitioners within the field of international relations, the military establishment, and, of course, the neo-con puppet masters in the White House.
War realism is part of the legacy of 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a figure who was deeply influential in developing the whole concept of government by social contract. For Hobbes, the state of nature, which is merely a hypothetical construct about human society without government, is a state of war. The state of nature is a state of war because there is no law to govern it, everyone is free to get away with whatever they can get away with; it is a state of never ending fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man in the state of nature, as Hobbes famously puts it, is thus “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”7 Hobbes is quite explicit that in this state of nature the question of justice and injustice cannot even arise: “To this war of every man against every man, this is also consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where there is no law, no injustice.”8
It is to escape this state of war, according to Hobbes, that men enter into a social contract, lay down their unbounded right to everything, and agree to be governed by laws. War realism proceeds from the notion that, while there are laws that govern individuals within a nation-state, nation-states are in a Hobbesian state of nature with respect to one another. Wars are thus not properly classified as just or unjust because the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have no place in the international arena.
War realists think it is simply naive to talk about the justice and injustice of war. All that matters in global politics is cunning and strength in securing the vital interests of the state. In a gross caricature of Nietzsche, war realists, like the architects of war in the Bush Administration, view the international arena as an anarchic state of nature where only a ruthless will to power should rule. Their view is well outlined in The Project for the New American Century, a document which advocates that the United States should take full advantage of its status as the lone superpower in the wake of the end of the cold war and boldly pursue its strategic interests.9 The Iraq War is a demonstration of the war realist doctrine in The Project for the New American Century put into practice.
A recent analysis of the Iraq War by George Friedman of the Stratfor intelligence agency also reveals this war realist point of view.10 In Friedman’s analysis the three reasons for the war trotted out by the Bush Administration –that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that Iraq was complicit with al Qaeda, and that a democratic Iraq would help stop terrorism –were untenable on their face. The underlying reason for the war was simply the “need to demonstrate to the world in general and the Muslim world in particular that the United States not only has the stomach for war, but also can be decisively victorious.” More specifically, Friedman lists the following three reasons:
1. To bring pressure on the Saudi government, which was allowing Saudis to funnel money to al Qaeda, to halt this enablement and to cooperate with U.S. intelligence. The presence of U.S. troops to the north of Saudi Arabia was intended to drive home the seriousness of the situation.
2. To take control of the most strategic country in the Middle East –Iraq borders seven critical countries –and to use it as a base of operations against other countries that were cooperating with al Qaeda.
3. To demonstrate in the Muslim world that the American reputation for weakness and indecisiveness –well-earned in the two decades prior to the Sept. 11 attacks –was no longer valid. The United States was aware that the invasion of Iraq would enrage the Muslim world, but banked on it also frightening them.
So there we have it, according to this analysis the war had nothing to do with responding to an act of aggression or any threat of aggression from Saddam Hussein. There is nothing Hussein could have done in terms of compliance with UN resolutions. No matter how completely he would disarm, Iraq was going to be invaded and occupied simply because it served strategic interests. Of course the war was all along a war of aggression, but Bush could not admit to this, and he was counting on the swell of patriotic fervor in the afterglow of victory to silence any dissent. As Freidman puts it “[t]he key to understanding the situation was that Bush wanted to blackmail the Saudis, use Iraq as a military base and terrify Muslims. He wanted to do this, but he did not want to admit this was what he was doing. He therefore provided implausible justifications, operating under the theory that a rapid victory brushes aside troubling questions.”
There is no doubt that if there had been a quick and decisive victory, and the occupation of Iraq had not bogged down in the intractable quagmire that it is today, they would have completely gotten away with it. Cindy Sheehan and any other voices of dissent would have been drowned out by the din of patriotic celebration. Whether Fitzgerald’s investigation produced any indictments or not, no one in the mainstream media would be paying any attention to the question of whether or not the Bush Administration lied to the American people in order to lead the nation to war. From the realist standpoint the mistake was not in going to war, and not even in lying to the people in order to go to war, but in not preparing properly for the occupation and thus securing a decisive victory.
Sometimes, as Nietzsche had noted with regard to Germany’s victory in the Franco-Prussian war, victory in war can be more dangerous than defeat.11 As the prospects for victory in Iraq become more and more remote, and troubling questions about the war begin at last to surface in the mainstream consciousness, the American people face a decisive moment of truth. The curtain is finally being pulled back from behind the puppet masters. As a result of the Fitzgerald investigation, the Downing Street Memos, the Dalfour Report, and the sad state of affairs in Iraq, the American people finally have the chance to see how they were deceived and manipulated by their government in order to send their sons and daughters to die in an unnecessary war.
Those moments are extremely rare when a people are forced to confront the disparity between their ideals and a painful truth about themselves. Such a moment occurred at Gettysburg when Lincoln forced the nation to face up to the disparity between the ideal of a nation founded on the proposition that all men are created equal and the truth about slavery. America today faces such a moment of truth when we as a nation are going to have to decide whether or not this nation is going to live up to its ideal of being a just nation.
If we as a nation accept the view that wars are not properly classified as just or unjust, but only won or lost, then we have forsaken justice and will have placed ourselves amongst the most despicable nations in history. This is exactly how the Nazis thought. They were so convinced of their superiority and the rightness of their cause that they had no hesitation in launching wars of aggression.
The international arena does not have to be conceived in terms of a Hobbesian state of nature. Hobbes thought the state of nature to be so dangerous and insecure that men would be impelled to abandon it and enter into the social contract. Kant draws out the implications of this view for the relations between nations:
Each nation, for the sake of its own security, can and ought to demand of the others that they should enter along with it into a constitution, similar to the civil one, within which the rights of each could be secured. This would mean establishing a federation of peoples.12
Kant argued that any nation that refused to enter into this federation and chose to remain in a state of nature was deserving of profound contempt. Such a federation of peoples would seek to end all wars and, Kant reasoned, was the only hope for real peace in the world. Kant’s idea eventually manifested in the 20th century, first in the League of Nations, and then finally in the United Nations.
The UN Charter, to which the United States is a signatory, authorizes the use of force only in response to aggression or otherwise only when authorized by the UN Security Council. Any other use of force is a war of aggression explicitly condemned as a crime against peace at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, had this to say about the crimes of war: “If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”13
The neo-con architects of the war in Iraq choose to regard the international arena as a Hobbesian state of nature. The Bush Administration thus looks upon the United Nations with utter disdain. The recently appointed ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has contemptuously said the UN shouldn’t even exist. To the puppet masters in the White House, the United Nations and international law shouldn’t exist –they are merely obstacles to work around or set aside in achieving what they conceive to be the nation’s vital interests.
John Locke, to whom we owe the proposition that all men are created equal, found Hobbes’ social contract to be just another form of tyranny. The principle difference between their conceptions of government arises from a different conception of the state of nature. For Locke, the state of nature, though inconvenient, is not a state of war. It is not a state of war because “[t]he state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”14
From a Lockean position, the notions of justice and injustice do have a place in the relations between states because the international arena is not a lawless state of nature. Locke’s conception of the state of nature is grounded in an older conception of natural law, a view that can be traced back to Aquinas, which holds that nature is governed by a divine moral law that reason can discover. We are skeptical of this notion today in our post-Enlightenment, post-modern world –skeptical of our ability to discover what the moral law is, or skeptical of the view that there is a moral law at all to nature. War realism is grounded in this moral skepticism.
There are good reasons for this skepticism. However, perhaps morality simply comes down to the choices that we make; and it is through those choices that we define ourselves. A nation, too, perhaps defines itself by its moral choices. Now with the curtain pulled back on the war in Iraq, the American people have a choice. We can continue to be blinded by the Bush Administration’s campaign of deception and manipulation of our fear, and thus allow the neo-con power play to turn the United States into a rogue nation and the world into a lawless Hobbesian state of nature. If we do, however, the future promises to be plagued by constant wars and a never ending problem of terrorism –and the life of mankind will be nasty, brutish, and short. We can, on the other hand, rededicate ourselves to striving to become a just nation, a responsible member of a federation of nations truly committed to peace and respect for human rights. When we have truly renounced wars of aggression perhaps one day we may once again by a light to all nations.
In a perhaps surprising passage, Nietzsche perhaps gives us an even higher ideal to think about. He finds it questionable whether a commitment to using force only in self-defense will really lead to peace. Underlying the need for a military force even in self-defense is a distrust and ill-will toward the neighbor that is founded upon the presupposition of one’s own morality and the neighbor’s immorality. This good versus evil mentality is as bad as war and worse for it is the cause of wars. The only means to real peace is to abandon the justification of war in self-defense just as completely as the thirst for conquest. Of course, this notion will seem completely far-fetched and unrealistic to most –it presupposes an entirely higher order of will to power than is evident in humankind today:
And perhaps there will come a great day on which a nation distinguished for wars and victories and for the highest development of military discipline and thinking, and accustomed to making the heaviest sacrifices on behalf of these things, will cry of its own free will: ‘we shall shatter the sword’ –and demolish its entire military machine down to its last foundations. To disarm while being the best armed, out of an elevation of sensibility –that is the means to real peace, which must always rest on a disposition for peace: whereas the so-called armed peace such as now parades about in every country is a disposition to fractiousness which trusts neither itself nor its neighbor and fails to lay down its arms half out of hatred, half out of fear. Better to perish than to hate and fear, and twofold better to perish than to make oneself hated and feared –this must one day become the supreme maxim of every individual state!15
The Real Price of Freedom
A frightening BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares directed by Adam Curtis, which Peter Bergen referred to in The Nation as “arguably the most important film about the ‘war on terrorism’ since the events of September 11,” presents the provocative thesis that the entire problem of terrorism is exaggerated and that al Qaeda is “largely a phantom of the imagination of the US national security apparatus.”16 Against Curtis, Bergen argues that there really is a serious problem of terrorism, but that Curtis’ documentary is still valuable in raising questions about the political manipulation of fear.
From his prison cell during the time of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, Herman Goering left us much to consider about the political power of the manipulation of fear in this infamous exchange with an intelligence official:
“Of course the people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.”
“There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”
“Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”17
Bergen is surely right that the problem of terrorism is real; nevertheless, The Power of Nightmares is on to something, and unfortunately Goering would have the last laugh today at the way our democracy has been undone through the slickest manipulation of the fear resulting from terrorism. The Bush Administration has used the problem of terrorism in order to pursue its strategic interests, and it is indeed a dark, very dark, but legitimate question to consider what lengths they have gone to do so. Whose interests are really being served in the War on Terrorism and the war in Iraq? Certainly not that of the American people, for the war in Iraq and the whole War on Terrorism will only lead to an ever increasing danger from terrorism and only promise a bleak future of endless wars.
Plato warned about the dangers of democracy in the Republic. He thought democracy would turn into tyranny, and freedom turn into its opposite, when the leader “is always stirring up some war so that the people may be in need of a leader.”18 Plato did not have much faith in democracy to begin with, of course, rooted as he was in the ancient world view which did not hold any expectation that the masses could be wise.
Our modern democracy is founded upon the Enlightenment optimism which holds that all of us have the natural light of reason and are capable of wisdom. Our founding fathers were aware, however, of the fundamental problem of democracy, the problem Plato pointed to, that the majority might not be wise, and thus that the freedom to vote, as is perhaps being demonstrated in Iraq as well as here in the United States, is no guarantee against tyranny.
James Madison addresses this problem of the tyranny of the majority in The Federalist Papers. The problem as he understood it arises with the development of factions, which he defines as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”19 There is no problem when a faction is in the minority as it will always be overruled by the majority. However, as Madison recognizes, “[w]hen a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.”20
It is this problem of the potential tyranny of the majority which led Madison to recommend that our form of democracy be a republic. In a pure democracy there would be nothing to check the danger that arises when the majority lack wisdom and endanger the public good and the rights of other citizens. Madison hoped that a system of elected representatives, and a separation of powers between different branches of government, could provide this check. For one thing, it would take longer, and thus allow more time for reflection and debate, for legislation to pass through the separate houses of representatives. Madison also thought that a republic would enable the growth of a larger nation, with respect to both territory and population, and with this wider sphere “you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”21
There is reason for considerable skepticism today whether this representative system is enough to check the danger of the tyranny of the majority. The power of a corporately controlled media in shaping popular opinion is certainly one of the greatest dangers facing our democracy. It has led to the near total domination of the political landscape in at least the last quarter century by a political party that almost from its inception has been more concerned with protecting corporate interests rather than the public good. The almost complete dissolution of any real difference between the political parties, and the success in the suppression of any real dissent, as demonstrated in the run-up to the Iraq war, are also signs of this danger.
Henry David Thoreau addressed the problem of democracy in the influential essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau recognized two dangers facing democracy. One is when the will of the majority is subverted by the influence of a few, as Thoreau thought was the case with “the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.”22 The other danger, the problem of the tyranny of the majority, was illustrated by the problem of slavery, as Thoreau was quite sure that the majority of the people in 1848 were not wise enough to vote for its abolishment. Thoreau offered the idea of non-violent civil disobedience as an instrument by which the few, who serve their country with their conscience, can perhaps awaken the majority from their ignorance. The Civil Rights Movement certainly proved that Thoreau’s theory can work, though it also proved just how difficult it is to put into practice.
Though perhaps sometimes the price of freedom may require the blood of patriots in defending a country from attack, Thoreau did not think that military service is the highest way that one can serve one’s country. As soldiers marched off to an unjust war of aggression against Mexico, Thoreau’s assessment of those who serve their country only with their bodies, as instruments of war, is rather harsh, and it is hard to imagine these words being heard today in America: “they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw of a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.”23
Perhaps this is indeed too harsh for maybe it’s too much to ask the young men and women we send to die in wars to be wise enough to understand what they are really being asked to do. This is why it must be the absolutely the very worst thing a President could ever do, to lie to the nation and send soldiers to die in an unjust war. In sending them to die in a war that was unnecessary and thus unjust, the President has treated these brave sons and daughters worse than horses and dogs. The fact that George W. Bush is even President at all is demonstration enough that the freedom to vote is no guarantee against tyranny. It is certainly about time to bring an end to the tyranny of George II.
Freedom isn’t free, but the real price of freedom is not something that only the few who serve in the military must pay, but is rather something that is required of every citizen in a democracy. The price of freedom is an examined life. This requires the courage to question, the effort to become informed, and capacity to critically think about the important issues of the day. Unfortunately, too few today seem to really understand the price of freedom. As Kierkegaard once quipped: “People rarely make use of the freedom they have, for example, freedom of thought, instead they demand freedom of speech as compensation.”24
America is only an experiment in democracy, and it must always remain thus. We can never take for granted that it has already been a mission accomplished. If the people do not have the capacity or the courage for the examined life, then there will always be the problem of the tyranny of the majority. Those who have taken our freedom for granted and have not dared to question authority and think for themselves, those who allowed this nation to be led blindly over the cliff and into the abyss of this unnecessary and unjust war, have not paid the price of freedom.
TIMOTHY J. FREEMAN teaches philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Les Roberts, et al, “Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Lancet 2004; 364: 1857-64. Published online Ocotber 29, 2004 ().
2. Baghdad Burning, November 6, 2005. ().
3. Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).
4. Richard Clarke, Against All Enemies : Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).
5. David Luban, “The War on Terrorism and the End of Human Rights,” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, Vol. 22, No.3 (Summer 2002).
6. Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, trans. Tao Te Ching (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), §74.
7. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York: Macmillan, 1946), ch. 13, p. 82.
8. Leviathan, ch. 13, p. 83.
9. Project for the New American Century ().
10. George Friedman, “Four Years On: Who is Winning the War, and How Can Anyone Tell?” Stratfor.com (September 13, 2005).
11. Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, David Strauss: the Confessor and the Writer, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), §1.
12. Immanuel Kant, “Toward Perpetual Peace,” in Steven M. Cahn, ed. Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 384.
13. Robert Jackson, International Conference on Military Trials : London, 1945, Minutes of Conference Session of July 23, 1945. ().
14. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, from Two Treatises of Government, 2nd ed, Peter Laslett, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), ch II, §6.
15. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Wanderer and His Shadow,” Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), §284.
16. Peter Bergen, “Beware the Holy War,” The Nation, 20 June 2005, 25.
17. G.M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947), pp. 278-279.
18. Plato, Republic in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 566e.
19. James Madison, “Federalist No. 10” in The Federalist, Jacob E. Cooke, ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 57.
20. “Federalist No. 10,” pp. 60-61.
21. “Federalist No. 10,” p. 64.
22. Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” in Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems (New York: Library of America, 2001), p. 203.
23. “Civil Disobedience,” p. 205.
24. Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals, trans. Clancy Martin, in Existentialism, 2nd. Ed., Robert C. Solomon, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 6.