Have you ever stopped to consider the changes in your life? I guess this is something one does when one has had enough of a life to do it. And I am there, baby! 50 is only a few years away.
When looking back at my more youthful thoughts and ideas, I'm amazed, if not downright shocked, at some of the political views I held. By contrast, the non-political thoughts have been steady in their progression because, I guess, such views deal with self-interest: faith, family, friends, music, nature, poetry, etc. In those areas I have broadened myself and found that I have more love for more things than I ever thought possible; with a generous supply in reserve for the years ahead.
Politics is different, however. You have an entity of force, the government, that approaches you from a very young age (around kindergarten) and presents you with issues, problems like the environment, and asks you for solutions. How nice of them to include me! As I grew, the list became ever more extensive: the poor, the economy - even the condition of other countries. And I was asked (told maybe? it's all very fuzzy…) how I would go about fixing it all. My answer would come in the form of a vote for those worthy of it. They would be an extension of my best ideas. Solutions by proxy.
At some point in my very late twenties, I decided to look a little deeper, which led to conclusions that, if I'm being honest with myself, revealed my naivety. And so a long road of truth-seeking began which has had a radicalizing effect. My thirty-year-old self would have nothing to do with me now.
Over that time, I have read a small mountain of books and articles and have come to admire many great authors. One who has had a steadily growing influence on my thoughts has been Leonard E. Read, an American economist and the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, which was the first modern free market think tank in the United States. Lately, his writings seem more pertinent than ever. He has a way of getting to the crux of some frustrating difficulties known to face libertarians throughout history.
One looming problem, ongoing for over a decade now, is the almost instinctual reaction by the masses to the subject of war. It is unfathomable how so many people can so easily dismiss the legitimate questions surrounding war by simply holding up the soldier as an unassailable relic. To question their actions one must have been, at the least, a soldier himself. To do is to understand, after all. Even then, a respectful "thank-you-for-your-service" would be followed by all the reasons why war is justified, and why the troops need our support in their sacrificial freedom-fighting endeavors. One's patriotism, a perceived currency of value, is always questioned as well.
Enter Leonard Read, soldier of WWI, in which he experienced some personal hardship:
In February of 1918 some 2,500 of us were aboard the troopship Tuscania when it was sunk by a German submarine. Many young Americans lost their lives in that disaster. As a 19-year old kid, I did not indulge in any deep philosophical thought about war while that ship was sinking, or during the seemingly hopeless hours spent in a collapsible contraption on a very cold and angry Irish Sea. My thoughts were mostly about how to keep from freezing and how to remain alive.
In a piece entitled 'Conscience On The Battlefield', Mr. Read decides to create a battle within a battle, one in which the soldier debates himself within a very uncomfortable setting:
Therefore, why not imagine a dialogue with myself? One character would be my young 19-year old, warlike self; the other my present peace-loving self, but a self elevated to a higher level by embodying those occasional intimations of Conscience and Understanding which a man experiences.
As suggested, I am well qualified for one part of the characterization: the above-mentioned experience during World War I, ancestors in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, two sons in World War II, plus many weaknesses of the flesh which account for wars.
Why should I not also try to capture the loftier side of characterization? True, I haven’t lived the loftier side too well, therefore, don’t know it too well. But lurking in my mental background, in a nebulous sort of way, are thoughts and a set of ideas in conflict with what I and many others have done. Why not by concentration and some imagination draw on the resources that lie hidden in the deeper recesses of one’s mind? Why not draw on the better thought of others too? Why should it be necessary to wait until the last moment of consciousness to find, as best one can, how one ought to have lived?
… The following dialogue is imagined to have taken place as I lay dying on a battlefield near the 38th Parallel in Korea. And let us also imagine that the thoughts were inspired by a passage I had read from the chaplain’s Bible a few days before: "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword."
The talk is not hurried. Time, bordering on eternity, has lost all meaning.
What ensues is a compelling debate between a soldier and his conscience, each trying to justify their guess as to his well-nigh fate:
Soldier: Fame? Always I was wooing her. Now I see her shallowness. Concern about Immortal Judgment takes her place, a concern I have not known before. How, dear Conscience, will I be judged?
Conscience: … While in many respects you were an excellent person, the record shows that you killed men – both Korean and Chinese, and were also responsible for the death of many women and children during this military campaign.
Soldier: That is correct, and I regret that it was necessary. But we were at war, a good and a just war. We had to stop Communist aggression and the enslavement of people by dictators. That war was in accord with United States foreign policy.
Here we see an indication toward another of Read's works, entitled 'On That Day Began Lies', in which he expands upon Tolstoy's warning regarding the plural, a place wherein tend to hide the individual actions we regard as less-than-salutary. "WE" were at war. "WE" deemed it good and just. "WE" had to. It's a closet full of the darkest of skeletons.
We see that Conscience is having none of it:
Conscience: The judgment which now concerns you must be rendered on you as an individual – not on parties or mobs or armies or policies or processes or governments. … What collective can have any validity for you from now on? In the Temple of Judgment which you are about to enter, Principles only are likely to be observed. It is almost certain that you will find there no distinction between nationalities or between races. A woman is a woman. A child is a child, with as much a right to an opportunity for Self-realization as you. To take a human life – at whatever age, or of any color – is to take a human life.
Mr. Read offers to us his personal debate; one which has existed throughout history. When is it justified to kill? The arguments vary from the most ardent pacifist to the most "efficient" of government representatives. And it is no coincidence that the individual would come down closer to pacifism while those within, and part of, a government apparatus (or enriched by it) would tend to argue the broadest justifications (think Holocaust, Great Leap Forward, Harvest of Sorrows, etc.).
But let's return to my initial conundrum: the impenetrable facade of the soldier. Mr. Read points out the issue directly:
Conscience: You imply that you feel no personal responsibility for having killed these people. Why, then, did you personally accept the "honors"? According to your notions, no one person is responsible for the deaths of these people. Yet, they were destroyed. Seemingly, you expect collective arrangements such as "the army" or "the government" to bear your guilt. Yet you expect in Everlasting Life the bestowal of personal honors for virtues. Are you not struck with the absurdity of it all?
I appreciate a paradigm-shifting argument… and this is a good one. I read that line several times, and I thanked a gentleman long since passed from this world for writing it. How many times has the comment been made thus: "It's because of men like me that you can say what you want…"?
The honor is bestowed by government, accepted by the soldier, and eventually demanded by him as well. It then becomes ingrained within society. The parents get involved: "It's because of men like my son…" and the children "It's because of men like my father…" and, thanks to an enlightened age, it can be "because of women like my sister."
One can not speak ill of war without offending someone who’s somehow connected to the actions of the exalted soldier. It's like a twisted game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon - only lost in the mix are the tragedies, without and within, which cannot be stopped – will not be stopped - for the sake of honor. You can't question the premise of war without assaulting the honors bound to it by the state. If such action becomes dishonorable, the whole thing is lost, from the perspective of those interested in perpetuating war.
Here is where I begrudgingly tip my hat to the government. What a formidable concoction! There seems no assailable position one can take where one will not receive the full umbrage of the supportive masses, coiled and waiting, ready to pour forth disdain upon anyone questioning the individual actions of a collective force.
So, what is left for pacifists like me? Faith, really; the belief that words, like those written by Leonard E. Read, will find individual eyes, and epiphanies will happen within others until we reach a critical tipping point. Hopefully then the crowd, always the sentimental follower, will move in a different direction; and if the mantle of a soldier's honor needs to be sacrificed, so be it. I'd rather that than for the soldier to kill an innocent person, commit suicide, lose his mind, or lose body parts.
In short, may Conscience prevail.