Fooled by the War-Makers
by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
of Freedom Foundation
by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: My
Challenge to Max Keiser
ago, as I was completing my freshman year in college, I was a full-blown
neoconservative. Except I didnt know it. Having concluded
that I was not a leftist, I simply decided by process of elimination
that I must be a Rush Limbaughian.
people, I was unaware that any alternative to those two choices
existed, or that in some ways they were two sides of a common statist
coin. In particular, I embraced a neoconservative foreign policy
with gusto. The way to show you werent a commie was by supporting
the U.S. military as it doled out summary justice to bad guys all
over the world. And frankly, it was exciting to watch it all unfold
I never gave
the human cost of war a second thought and became impatient with
anyone who did. War was like a video game I could enjoy from the
comfort of my home. Devastation and human suffering were quite beside
the point: the righteous U.S. government was dispensing justice
to the wicked, and that was that. What are you, a liberal?
Gulf War of 1991 was the first U.S. conflict of my college career.
During the months-long U.S. military buildup in the Gulf known as
Operation Desert Shield I eagerly promoted the mission to anyone
foolish enough to listen.
When war came,
it was swift and decisive. Very few American casualties were suffered,
while the Iraqi forces were destroyed. Some 100,000 were burned
alive by a chemical agent or buried alive in the desert while making
or not, that actually bothered me, in spite of how voracious a consumer
of war propaganda I was. No one defended Saddam Husseins invasion
of Kuwait, which he launched in response to that countrys
slant oil drilling, but was the outcome of the Persian Gulf War
not a terrible tragedy for the Iraqi people virtually none
of whom had had anything to do with Saddam Husseins fateful
decision all the same? A far poorer country than ours suddenly
had a lot more widows and orphans, not to mention a great many civilian
deaths to grieve over and much destruction to repair.
fathers were crying themselves to exhaustion over children they
had lost, or who, worse still, were dying agonizing deaths before
their very eyes. There is no worse anguish for parents than to watch
their children suffer and to be helpless to do anything about it.
Was it really
right that we Americans should meanwhile be celebrating with a Bob
Hope special, and on cue flattered by the ceaseless
reminders that ours was the awesomest country ever?
It later transpired
that the Kuwaiti government had hired a public-relations firm in
the United States to sell the idea of military invasion to the American
people. We later learned that the major atrocity story that
Iraqi troops had removed Kuwaiti babies from incubators and thrown
them onto hospital floors had been a fraud: the emotional
young woman who testified to that effect in Washington turned out
to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States.
had strongly favored military action by the U.S. government from
the start, in the wake of George H.W. Bushs declaration of
victory I could not stop thinking about the lopsided casualty counts,
the waves of killing rained down on a ramshackle army facing the
greatest military machine in the world. Now these were soldiers,
not civilians, so by the logic of war I was supposed to hate them
or at least not care about them, their deaths being cause for celebration
rather than regret.
I was having
trouble doing that.
I went to see
my European history professor, Charles Maier, to discuss my misgivings
about the war. Maier, a liberal in the New Republic mold,
suggested I read a recent article in that magazine making the case
for the war. I did, and (believe it or not) that helped to suppress
any contrary thoughts for a while.
I was already
beginning to read libertarian literature by the early 1990s because
of my support for the market economy. My reading of the economic
works of Murray Rothbard led inevitably to his philosophical works.
The Rothbard essay War,
Peace, and the State leaves an impression on the mind
one can never quite shake.
observed that one could uncover the libertarian position on X by
imagining a gang of thugs carrying out the state action in question.
If thugs cant just grab your money, for instance, neither
can a well-dressed group of thugs calling itself the state.
Peace, and the State takes that analysis and applies it to
war. If you steal my TV, I can take it back from you. But I may
not walk down the street firing a gun every which way and harming
third parties in order to make you surrender my TV. Likewise, even
assuming a warmaking state to be absolutely in the right, it has
no greater moral entitlement to harm third parties in pursuit of
its ends than a private individual does.
some politician utters the word war, we have been conditioned
to believe it just and good that the rights of everyone within the
confines of an arbitrary border are abruptly cancelled. What would
in any other circumstance be murder and atrocity becomes an antiseptic
matter of public policy.
effects of war can inspire callousness even after the guns have
fallen silent. Many of us have seen the notorious clip from 60
Minutes in which Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to
the United Nations and soon-to-be U.S. secretary of State, declared
that the price of half a million dead children as a result of the
sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s had been worth it.
Note that she did not dispute the figure. She looked the interviewer
in the eye and said that the deaths of half a million kids were
worth it in pursuit of one man she and her colleagues didnt
the Soviet Union, during the height of the Cold War, had killed
half a million children in the course of a sanctions policy. We
would never have heard the end of it.
One of the
great triumphs of the government propaganda machine in self-described
democracies is the we are the government line. It makes
the subject population somewhat more compliant than it might be
if a particular family passed down the power to govern from one
generation to another, with no chance (short of outright revolution)
that anyone else will ever hold the reins of power. More important,
criticisms of their governments foreign policy now come to
be seen as personal affronts. We are the government, after all,
so how dare you criticize our foreign policy!
For that reason,
opponents of American foreign policy should, when speaking on this
topic, eliminate the pronoun we from their vocabulary.
We did not kill those Iraqi kids. In 2002 and 2003 we
did not repeat transparent untruths about the alleged threat posed
by a devastated Iraq. We did not lay waste to an already-suffering
country, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing four million
They did this.
The American political class. We did not.
What some Americans
did do, though, was to make sorry excuses for their political overlords.
Some Americans defended a series of policies which, if pursued by
the Soviet Union 30 years ago, they themselves would have condemned
as grotesque violations of basic standards of morality. But with
the U.S. government as the perpetrator, everything was different.
They were as gullible on foreign policy as left-liberals are on
domestic policy. They dutifully searched for evidence to corroborate
their leaders claims, even when their leaders had long since
abandoned those claims. They accepted the most transparent propaganda
without batting an eye.
I had done pretty much the same thing. But following the Persian
Gulf War I began to have doubts. Within a few years I had come to
regret my laziness, and the readiness with which I accepted foreign-policy
propaganda from the very people I knew I couldnt trust when
it came to the economy, the Constitution, or pretty much anything
writer Elihu Burritt noted the great sympathy the human race extended
to those who have been the victims of misfortunes: famine, shipwreck,
railway accidents, whatever. He then invited his readers to compare
the feeling with which the community hears of the loss or peril
of a few human lives by these accidents with which the news of the
death or mutilation of thousands of men, equally precious, on the
field of battle is received.
is the valuation! how different in universal sympathy! War seems
to reverse our best and boasted civilization, to carry back human
society to the dark ages of barbarism, to cheapen the public appreciation
of human life almost to the standard of brute beasts.... And this
demoralization of sentiment is not confined to the two or three
nations engaged in war; it extends to the most distant and neutral
nations, and they read of thousands slain or mangled in a single
battle with but a little more humane sensibility than they would
read of the loss of so many pawns by a move on a chessboard. With
what deep sympathy the American nation, even to the very slaves,
heard of the suffering in Ireland by the potato famine! What shiploads
of corn and provisions they sent over to relieve that suffering!
But how little of that benevolent sympathy and of that generous
aid would they have given to the same amount of suffering inflicted
by war upon the people of a foreign country! This ... is one of
the very worst works of war. It is not only the demoralization,
but almost the transformation, of human nature. We can generally
ascertain how many lives have been lost in a war. The tax-gatherer
lets us know how much money it costs. But no registry kept on
earth can tell us how much is lost to the world by this insensibility
to human suffering which a war produces in the whole family circle
I was once
blind to the effects of war on my own moral compass and to how callous
I had become toward entire countries and the fellow human beings
who inhabited them. When I collaborated with Murray Polner on We
Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to
Now (Basic Books, 2008), it was in a spirit of contrition
and reparation for having once cheered on what I now know to be
getting more and more convinced that the war-peace question is the
key to the whole libertarian business, Rothbard noted privately
in 1956. I am equally convinced. If we cant get this right,
who cares about the Department of Education or the minimum wage?
E. Woods, Jr. [send him
mail; visit his
website], a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute,
is the creator of Tom
Woods’s Liberty Classroom, a libertarian educational
resource. He is the author of eleven books, including the New
York Times bestsellers Meltdown
(on the financial crisis; read Ron Paul’s foreword)
Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, and most
© 2012 Future of Freedom Foundation.
Reprinted by permission.
Best of Thomas Woods