Somewhere in the middle of the broad political landscape which favors laissez-faire economics is a Great Plains of pro-militarism. Countless so-called libertarians praise the idea of limited government, but also proudly concede the absolute necessity of having at least some government. Like the Mississippi River upon the North American landscape, a prominent question flows through the American political landscape. It’s the ultimate question, defining the heart of American political thinking.
“But, what about national defense?”
I was reading David Friedman’s Machinery Of Freedom, and noticed him conceding that the question of how to provide for national defense was a tough one for libertarians to answer. I suppose, given that the book was originally written in the paradigm of almost a half-century passed, I should give him credit for living along the frontier of thought which conceded that this was not an impossible question to answer. WWII was the “good war” and the founding myth of the modern American nation. In 1970, most WWII vets would still have been in the workforce, and their attitudes would have dominated the national mindset. Nevertheless, taking into account that it has been nearly 50 years since 1970, and that 1970 was only 25 years after 1945, I can acknowledge that certain ideas might have been completely appropriate for 1970, and that in 2017 we are reaching a point where we can seriously question them.
Why is “doing something about national defense” so important in the national political dialogue in America? It’s not because, literally, we have to ensure that our children won’t end up speaking German, Russian or Arabic. Instead, it’s because the the mythological defeat of Germany-as-evil-incarnate is the subconscious justification for the whole American system of global “liberal” hegemony, as well as for our fiscal and financial regime at home
We needed a big military to defeat Hitler. Hitler needed to be defeated because: Hitlers need to be defeated. It’s a tautological sentiment that draws on archetypes and masks them as real-world entities. When you argue against the national security state in America, you’re forced to argue against some ideal, not the actual entity which exists in the real world. Achieving the psychology of this political sleight-of-hand is the existential purpose of public education, Court History, and the official media. Good citizens know that Hitlers need to be defeated, and they won’t be unless there’s a big red, white, and blue military always on alert to do the job.
In my opinion, war with Germany was never necessary to protect the existential integrity – the sovereignty – of the American Republic. No one was going to be speaking German. Never mind that the victors’ history ignores completely the arrogance and aggressive posturing by the West in the final lead up to war (neither appeasement nor non-appeasement prevented war, so that’s a false line of argumentation). Did FDR threaten Poland with losing Allied support if they negotiated with Hitler? Why isn’t Stalin equally guilty of invading Poland (from our bird’s eye view)? Regardless, the German Army, even after its stunning European victories, even before it’s brutal campaign against the USSR, could not nor even seriously attempted to cross the English Channel to invade England from the sea. How the hell would they have come to North America? Likewise, Japan’s official classified war plans specifically rejected any serious invasion of North America. Their goal was always to keep American military forces out of East Asia so they could consolidate their anti-European hegemony there, and resist the advance of communism into the East.
Both the Nazi and Japanese Militarist regimes were awful. Yet, both regimes had to govern real countries with real people. The Nazis weren’t pod people. The German Empire suffered violent upheavals and brief, but successful, socialist revolts in a few states following the tragedy and mass starvation of WWI. The economy floundered in the late 20s, and the real threat of Soviet invasion loomed over everything. The questions of tradition, race, and nationalism which brewed in the first decade of the 20th century had never fully been answered during a proper period of peace and calm. The Nazis very successfully emerged from this environment. Before long, even while facing numerous road bumps, they plunged headfirst into war. I am very doubtful that this regime and its brutal excesses would have long endured during a period of sustained stability.
Likewise, Japanese war efforts in China can be compared strategically to the American war in Vietnam. Both conflicts didn’t have clear end points. How long until, relieved of the threat of war with America and the West, Japan would have sought some sort of “Vietnamization” of the war and political efforts in China? How long until the free economies, non-interventionism, and free trade of the West greatly outpaced Japan and its backwards technological abilities? Japan was no North Korea. Despite its flirtation with militarism, it was a civilized nation with the ability to see some reason, and to change if necessary for its benefit.
Germany and Japan killed a lot of people in the 20th century. But, maybe not as many as Stalin and Mao. America killed a lot of people too (its civilian death “notch” count numbers in multiple millions of dead, not including as many more over foreign combatants killed by American wars of selection). As for WWII, some countries, such as Poland, benefited nothing from having a prepared military. In many senses their fate was worse than that of Czechoslovakia which surrendered peacefully. And the salvation of the Poles from Germany came in the form of many decades of repressive communism. In the case of countries like Brazil or Argentina, it’s hard to tell whether the war’s outcome would have mattered very much to them one way or another (unless Hitler really was Satan and built a Death Star laser ray and took over the world using the Dark Side of the Force).
I believe that an extraterrestrial visiting the Earth would take issue with the idea that the vigilance of the American Superman (the comic book character) is all that stands between the Earth and the dominion of evil. They might even be puzzled by the idea, or find it laughable.
ET would read David Friedman, or attend a libertarian debate, and find amusement with the obsession of British and American libertarians with the question, “what about national defense”? They might remark, “Your obsession with that question is a product of your immersion in your particular cultural milieu, and it’s hard to give it much credence from a strictly factual perspective”.
ET would find the American holiday of Memorial Day very interesting. We’re remembering the lost. Are we sad they’re dead, or happy? Jesus died, to save humanity from sin, and it’s something to celebrate. This was the cultural paradigm of America until 1942. From 1945, the new paradigm became: Soldiers died, to save America and the World from evil, and it’s something to celebrate.
Americans don’t cry over the white headstones in dozens of rows at military cemeteries. Not at least the majority, who hardly even closely know anyone who has served in the armed forces. Memorial day is the celebration of American Super-Jesus: red, white and blue with a golden S-shaped halo, flying in front of some B-52s, amidst clouds of smoke from fireworks and barbecue grills. And below this formation, in the celestial stadium seating untold millions are the victims of America’s bombs, waving pennants and swinging number 1 foam fingers, thanking America for redeeming their souls from their evil governments.
The Americans who died in war suffered an unspeakable horror. More so, those who live maimed permanently by war. Most Americans, particularly those in the Armed Forces, possess a deeply sincere belief in the necessity and goodness of America’s military causes. Reality doesn’t taint their intent in the slightest, and a due measure of respect and reverence is appropriate for Memorial Day. However, the moral reality of war and history impose upon America a duty to make painful cultural changes.
How much of Memorial Day’s spirit is an expression of the real need to sacrifice for what’s most important, and how much of Memorial Day is just idolatrous ritual, serving the civic religion of government worship?
How much of the discussion within American Libertarianism is a genuine attempt to confront real problems with “statesman like” sobriety and wisdom, and how much of the discussion is no more than playful banter within the walled confines of the garden of American culture?
As a former member of the uniformed services, and as a libertarian, I will spend Memorial Day trying to think about how the meaning and importance of the issues of war and peace, and the memory of those lost, soar above the petty cultural self-satisfaction endemic to post-war American society.